Knowledge from Storms: Wheel Book March 2024


Snow Shelters

We’d been traveling most of the day up a remote valley, buffeted by high winds and low visibility. Gaining the broad ridge where it bisected the steep rocky face positioned us well for the next day of travel. We’d planned on four days to traverse this section of mountains, and although the weather hadn’t cooperated, the tough conditions made it more of an adventure.

Big, frozen waves of snow covered large rocks and stuck to the sides of ravines. The meringue-like formations made for a surreal sight as we looked for a place to set up camp. Not having any great options for tent platforms that weren’t going to keep us exposed to the fury, we pulled out our shovels and started digging into the side of a big wall of snow. 

Two hours later, we were rewarded with a roomy, warm, and quiet space to relax and rest for the next day’s movement. To add ambience, a spare tarp wrapped around a pair of skis served as a makeshift door to our fortress and I remember it as a memorable night camped in the snow.

Digging into the snowpack for comfort and security is not intuitive when caught out in a blizzard and desperate for shelter, but that course of action could save your life. A properly built snow structure will block the wind and create a warmer climate as your body heat is captured inside. Snow shelters will also block the noise from howling winds, allowing you to get some rest.

Snow is an excellent insulator because it’s mostly air, which is the best insulator available. Similar to the insulation in a puffy jacket, the irregular shape of snow crystals creates a limitless amount of tiny voids within the snowpack and acts as an insulator capturing the warmth from the ground beneath. Snow also does not possess much water content, averaging around 10-12 percent, so it’s not as wet as you’d think to live in a snow shelter. 

Building a usable snow shelter requires an understanding of what type of shelter you require and can also construct based on the snow. It helps greatly to have a collapsible snow shovel and avalanche probe for this task. You can certainly build a snow shelter with a snowshoe, stick or your hands but a shovel and probe make the construction much more efficient.  

Slit Trench

The most basic snow shelter is a slit trench being no more than body width wide and slightly longer than your height. The depth depends on the snowpack and your enthusiasm, but often only needs to be 3′ deep, enabling you to crawl inside. Slit trenches can be quick efforts to seek shelter, even in shallow snowpacks, allowing you to ride out a storm.

I’ve also built more complex slit trenches that you could walk into as mentioned previously. From above, the trench has the shape of the letter T with the stem on the T serving as the entrance and hallway, and the shorter arms of the T the two sleeping platforms.

When you’re done digging, cover the top of the trench with whatever natural supplies and gear you have and won’t need for the remainder of your stay. Pine boughs laid out in a lattice and covered with snow work exceptionally well. A tarp, skis, snowshoes, and trekking poles are also good roof materials that, again, are covered with snow and any natural vegetation.

Tree Wells

Tree wells can be dangerous terrain traps when skiing or boarding, and you need to take caution when near them. These natural features are created as snow falls and filters through the branches of trees and bushes, creating a shallow snowpack around the base of the vegetation. The danger comes if these shallow areas collapse and bury you as you move past, suffocating the person and leaving little sign of their passage. People are unfortunately killed each year, both inbounds at ski areas and in the backcountry, from falling into tree wells.

But with safety in mind and a little planning, these locations are excellent areas to create a snow shelter. Tree wells save a ton of time and effort in their creation because there’s less snow to move at the center. I’ve seen tree-well shelters house eight men and all their equipment that were built in less than an hour.

Start a few feet outside the perimeter of the tree’s longest branches and dig a trench towards the trunk, going deeper as you get closer, aiming for about head high if the snow depth allows. Once at the trunk, begin to clear snow away in an ever-widening perimeter till you excavate 3-5 feet of snow from the base of the tree.

At this point, you have a simple shelter with walls and overhead cover provided by the branches. Depending on your ambition and the number of people, you can either hollow out the snow farther away from the tree for more room and overhead cover or simply dig a slot a few feet tall into the snow for your feet so you can lay down. A tree-well shelter can house quite a few people when their heads are positioned toward the tree and pinwheeled around the trunk like the spokes on a wheel.

Snow Caves

Snow caves are the ultimate snow shelter, being the warmest and most secure, but they require quite a bit of time and energy to construct. Snow caves are not a good shelter choice for a quick overnight stop unless it’s your only option. Snow caves also require a suitable snowpack in regard to both snow depth and snow density. 

Last winter, a friend and I tried to build a snow cave several times while on a ski tour, and although we could find marginal snow depth, the weak faceted snow provided no structure and simply collapsed onto itself like a mound of sugar.

Once established, though, snow caves provide a great experience, assuming you’re not claustrophobic. No matter the temp outside, a snow cave is always much warmer, usually hovering at or above freezing. This warmth is a combination of the snow insulating both the warm ground underneath and your body heat. The other thing about a snow cave is how quiet they are. It can be blowing 50 miles an hour with sideways snow, and you’ll not hear a peep inside. 

I don’t have the space to dive into all the nuances of snow caves in this article, but sight selection is crucial to safety and success. 1)You need to find a snow pack that’s at least 5’ to 6′ deep. You can often find this on the leeward sides of gullies and creeks. 2) You need to ensure you’re not in, on, or around avalanche terrain or in the runout zone below an avalanche slope. As a general rule, if you’re surrounded by mellow terrain less than 25 degrees, you’re ok. 3) You need to probe the area you’re going to dig to determine your snow depth before construction and to ensure there are no large boulders, downed trees, or a running water source in the area of your cave. 4) Finally, you need to dig a test pit and see if the structure of the snow is conducive to a shelter. If you can dig a hole in the slope and excavate chunks of snow, then the snow is good to go.

The key to achieving the maximum warmth from a snow cave is creating an elevated sleeping platform inside. Like the thermals on a mountain, this construction takes advantage of cold air sinking and hot air rising. The elevated platform traps body heat, creating an atmosphere at or above freezing.

The inside roof of a snow cave is an important detail to not overlook. It should be domed inside for strength, not flat, and smooth. The roof’s domed shape allows water that begins to form as the inside temperature rises above freezing to effortlessly run down the ceiling to the floor and not drip on you and your gear, making everything damp inside.

Here are several safety measures to keep in mind when living in a snow cave.

  • Place several holes in the roof of the cave with your probe or a stick for good air exchange, keeping oxygen levels up and carbon dioxide levels in check
  • Never run a stove inside a snow cave as dangerous carbon monoxide gas, created as a by-product of the flame, will render you unconscious and kill you via suffocation from carbon monoxide poisoning
  • At least one shovel should be inside the cave to assist in digging out of the cave if the entrance becomes drifted over with snow during the night
  • I like to bring a small survival candle into the cave to increase the internal temperature and to act as a Canary in the Coal Mine. If the flame starts to flicker and dull or go out for no obvious reason, then you know the oxygen level has dropped inside to a dangerous level, and you need to check your roof vents to ensure they’re still open

Even a hastily built snow cave can be a sanctuary from severe weather. But it’s amazing how warm, dry, and cozy a properly built snow cave can be with enough time to construct.

The ability to construct a snow shelter is a vital skill to possess for those going out into the winter backcountry. Take advantage of your frigid training environment and plan a trip or two with a snow shelter as your primary residence. The confidence gained from the experience could inform future decisions where you have no other shelter options. Plus, digging and sleeping in snow shelters is fun and makes for a good adventure.

Gear Locker

The Backcountry Snow Shovel

Digging with the tails of my snowshoes, the pick of my self-arrest trekking pole, and my gloved hands provided slow and frustrating progress. The Mountain goat I’d arrowed several hours ago and 400′ higher was now buried in a five-foot pile of frozen avalanche debris. This winter hunt wasn’t the first time I’d left behind critical gear, but leaving behind my avalanche shovel on this hunt proved painful.

After several hours of digging, I was able to extract the billy from his frozen grave. I’ll never know for certain what occurred, but my best guess is that as he fled downhill from the arrow impact, he lost strength and stumbled, falling in the middle of a steep, snow-covered chute, causing an avalanche that swept him over cliffs to the bottom of the drainage.

Traveling in moderate to steep snow-covered terrain carries risk and requires special equipment and training to be safe. This warning doesn’t just apply to backcountry skiers and folks riding sleds but anyone who travels into the winter arena including hunters.

Avalanches can occur naturally but are often triggered by you or other groups nearby. You don’t need to be in steep terrain but merely traveling below or camped in a runout zone to be affected. Awareness of your surroundings and some basic knowledge are required to stay safe when heading out into snowy terrain.

One critical piece of equipment for the winter traveler is a lightweight and compact  avalanche shovel. The shovel should have a collapsible handle for storage and a sturdy aluminum blade for chopping frozen snow and ice. This versatile tool can create snow shelters and sleeping platforms, tunnel down to running water sources, and extract a two or four-legged avalanche victim. In winter, a collapsible snow shovel can also be used as a snow anchor for a tent or tarp, a place to set your stove for melting water, and for tunneling out of a snow cave after a blustery night.

Venturing into the winter backcountry carries additional risk, and it’s prudent to be aware and prepared. Taking an avalanche course and training with your partners is a good investment in your future and evolution as an outdoorsman. The increased difficulty of the winter training environment also helps prepare you for the easier living in the fall season. If you travel into the mountains in winter a backcountry snow shovel should be in your equipment loadout.


Transfer LT Shovel

Dozer 1T-UL Avalanche Shovel

Spade Shovel



Backcountry Mission Planning

Backcountry Mission Planning has 16 chapters and draws on my 30+ years of experience hunting the wilderness. It focuses on preparing you for the upcoming big game seasons and all other backcountry travel, making you a more knowledgeable Student of the Game. Use code BARKLOW to get 20% off an annual Outdoor Class membership and unlock all the knowledge on the platform.

The Closet

Sleeping Bags

A sleeping bag is an extension of your clothing system, and like your clothing, the sleeping bag must efficiently manage moisture during repeated nights in the field.

A key point to remember is that a sleeping bag does not generate heat but merely insulates what’s inside the bag. Your body heat is the sleeping bag’s primary heat source, and this point is crucial to sleeping warm. If you get inside a sleeping bag cold, it will not create heat to warm you. 

There are far too many variables, including ground pads, nutrition, hydration, personal physiology, and the fit of the bag, to take the temperature rating of a sleeping bag as any more than a suggestion. But with that said, the best sleeping bags on the market are tested to an international standard (EN13537) so the consumer can compare apples to apples as best as possible. Without this testing and rating, a manufacturer is merely guessing at a bag’s warmth.

After decades of winter camping here are some techniques I use to get the most warmth from a backcountry sleep system:

  • Always wear a beanie when sleeping, as body heat will quickly radiate from your exposed head unless you “cap the chimney”
  • Don’t wear waterproof or windproof layers in the sleeping bag as they don’t allow moisture to move through as your metabolism slows while sleeping; you’ll often wake up damp in the morning if you wear clothing with a laminate to bed
  • Remove damp socks and dry your feet before getting into your sleeping bag, then put on dry socks before going to sleep. Place your damp socks in the internal pockets of your puffy jacket or at the bottom of the sleeping bag to dry overnight
  • In addition to dry socks, If you’re prone to cold feet, wear a pair of puffy socks over your dry socks for extra warmth
  • Place a Nalgene bottle filled with hot water into the sleeping bag when body heat alone isn’t enough. This outside heat source will help warm the dead air inside the sleeping bag, helping to keep you warm. Throw a bottle at the bottom of the bag to warm your feet or cradle it near your stomach or kidneys if you sleep on your side. If you sleep on your back, place the bottle between your legs. You can do the same with water bladders, but I haven’t had as good of a result
  • Proper hydration is imperative to staying warm in colder weather and continued performance in the mountains. Be sure and catch up on hydration  in camp before going to sleep
  • Eating a well-balanced, high-calorie meal with plenty of protein and fat before going to sleep will stoke your metabolism for the night creating more warmth inside the bag
  • Candy is King to take the chill off and get back to sleep for a couple more hours. It’s the equivalent of stoking the fireplace in the middle of the night by throwing on a quick-burning pine log. Put a Snickers bar or similar candy in the pocket of your puffy jacket or somewhere easily reached. Eating this “midnight snack” will warm you up and help you get back to sleep for a few more hours
  • Urinating in an empty food bag or Zip-Loc keeps you in the tent during inclement weather and prevents randomly pissing outside on your buddy’s boots. In the morning, dump the urine in a designated latrine area, keeping a clean camp. Warning: marking a Nalgene bottle with a skull and crossbones is a flawed method, and seeing your buddy gag after taking a drink from the wrong bottle in the dark will confirm this
  • Boots that are damp from sweat are often cold or frozen in the morning during frigid weather. Laying boots on their sides and using them as the foundation of a pillow will help prevent this from occurring. Place the hood of the sleeping bag, extra gear, or clothing on top for cushioning
  • In the morning, place a hot Nalgene bottle in each boot for ten minutes while boiling water for coffee and breakfast to thaw them out before lacing them back up

Remember, don’t focus solely on the sleeping bag for all your warmth. It’s merely one component of a more extensive sleeping system. Your sleeping bag, ground pad, clothing, and nutrition all work together to provide you warmth and comfort in the cold.

Sleeping Bags:

Sitka Gear, Kelvin Aerolite 30 Sleeping Bag

Feathered Friends, Hummingbird UL 20 or 30 Sleeping Bag

The Word 

Big Projects

This will be the last Knowledge from Storms newsletter for a while. I’m suspending the monthly publication to focus on a few big projects that require my full time and attention. These projects will deliver an immense volume of information and knowledge to you once released and will continue this platform’s commitment to outdoor education born from decades of experience.

All previous issues of the KFS newsletters will continue to be available at for reference. There, you’ll find 28 issues and over 100 articles focusing on outdoor training, mindset, gear selections, deep dives into clothing systems, and my approach to backcountry living and hunting.

I’ll be announcing the details of these exciting projects in the next few months and will be asking for your engagement to ensure I deliver relevant and hard-earned information for our continued evolution as outdoorsmen.