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How to build an igloo: a step-by-step guide

Get out in the wild, and build yourself a really cool place to stay.

By Alf Alderson
Published 2 Jan 2021, 08:00 GMT
You'll need a patch of snow that’s at least 1m deep in a spot not prone ...

You'll need a patch of snow that’s at least 1m deep in a spot not prone to avalanches to build your own igloo.

Photograph by Getty Images

On a snow-covered hilltop somewhere above Vancouver, I’m surrounded only by trees, peaks and a few apprehensive-looking individuals. The apprehension comes from the knowledge that we’ll be spending the night up here — and in order to do that, we’ll be building our own accommodation: igloos.

Fortunately, we have expert instruction in the form of Michael Harding of Westcoast Adventures, who has decades of experience building these surprisingly strong, relatively warm and potentially life-saving structures. He provides us with the two essential pieces of kit that any self-respecting igloo architect carries as a matter of course: snow shovels and snow saws.

The word ‘igloo’ derives from the Inuit word for ‘home’ and small one-person igloos are still used on Inuit hunting trips for a night or two living in the wild. In traditional villages, large igloos had up to five rooms, housing as many as 20 people.

In exceptionally cold conditions, temperatures inside an igloo can be as much as 50C warmer than the outside air temperature, and may reach as high as 16C when warmed by the occupant’s body heat alone. I can’t say the construction I eventually cobble together feels quite so snug, but it was certainly a hell of a lot warmer than sleeping in the snow.  

A step-by-step guide

1. Choose a patch of snow that’s at least 1m deep, in a spot not prone to avalanches. An igloo big enough for two or three people should have a radius of 1.3 metres. Stamp on the snow to ensure it’s firm enough to cut into blocks.

2. Use your shovel and saw to dig two trenches in the packed snow, smoothing off the sides. Cut blocks from these trenches — they should be the width of the saw handle, the depth of the blade and the length of the entire saw. Save any broken blocks for filling in gaps later.

3. When laying the blocks, hold them in place until they’re self-supporting and arrange them so they lean inwards at quite a steep angle. Each row should lean inwards at a steeper angle than that of the previous row. While the initial blocks were excavated from inside what will be your igloo, additional blocks can be cut from outside. 

4. Dig down into the floor of the igloo to add more head room. At the same time, make the door by digging downwards to create a tunnel that emerges outdoors. Cold air will sink down and be trapped in this space.

5. Cap the domed roof with your final snow blocks — ideally a partner can help with this.

6. Craft sleeping shelves high up, using snow dug from the floor. This ensures you’ll be sleeping above the colder air in the lower points of the igloo. Smooth the walls to avoid any melting snow dripping off protrusions.

7. Then: bed down. Igloos offer great shelter from the elements, but you’ll still need a very good sleeping bag and mat to stay warm.

Published in the Winter Sports guide, distributed with the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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