Building a Quinzee in the Queen Elizabeth Wildlands

Author: Rebecca Joy Vandenberg (


Total Distance: 5km

Route Description: Ganaraska Trail, frozen lake crossing

Time: 23 hours

Highlights: Beautiful Scenery, rugged landscape, and free!


Into the wildlands we said.  Just an easy weekend in the bush we said....

This experience was both exhilarating and exhausting. It all started with our genuine curiosity about winter camping, and whether or not it was accessible.  Ryan and I have both been interested in trying to camp during the winter for some time.

We contemplated our shelter options, and decided to try and make a quinzee.

Our first step was to figure out how to make a quinzee properly, it had been 10 years since I had first made one back in highschool, and Ryan has never been winter camping. So before our departure, the research began. Website after website offered similar advice, and we were confident that the questionable snow quality would not hinder our decision.

Being a winter camping trip, I also knew cooking would be more difficult, so I opted to make a full batch of pulled pork and gnocchi before hand. Our other food supplies included; cliff bars, canned beans, bacon and eggs.

The week approaching our trip, Ryan started to become a little restless, unsure if the information I was giving him was true. That we could, in fact, sleep in a pile of snow and keep warm overnight. I didn’t blame him, it is quite the project to undertake, especially for the first time.

As our departure time approached, we decided on carrying most of our gear, and last minute we put together a sled. We didn’t want to buy a sled, so we borrowed one and strapped a hockey bag to the top. Little did we know, this would be a little bit of a disaster...

Fast forward 10 hours, and we arrived at the parking lot, which is one of the only winter accesses to QEW. The access is located on Devils Lake rd, and is made possible because of the Ganaraska trail, which runs through the width of the park.

Pulling up, we then realized we were definitely not the only ones winter camping that weekend.

Once loaded up, and after a nice chat with a local, we headed up the road towards the access to QEW, sled and dog in tow.

Our original plan was simple. We were to hike to Sheldon lake, only 2km from the trailhead, and camp on Sheldon L for a night or two.

Once in the park, we noticed that Sheldon Lake was a popular destination and we decided to keep an eye out for a side lake that was free of people.

As we wound around the Ganaraska, our sled came apart twice and although frustrated with the unpredictable sled, we continued on. I am not sure if the whole of the Ganaraska is this rugged, or if it is just the section in QEW, but it was quite the surprise. Up and down and up and down we we went. Having to climb cliffs and cross beaver dams, we eventually gave up the trail and followed some tracks over the lake. What a relief it was to break free of the trail!

As we meandered along the lakes and over more beaver dams, we finally came to a tiny lake that I believed to be 250 m short of Sheldon L. It was a nice spot, and I knew that we should start digging our shelter, so we hiked over the ridge to another small pond and picked a spot!

As we began digging, we were surprised and the quantity and quality of the snow. 2 feet in the shallows, and thigh deep everywhere else! How nice it was to drive 3 hrs north and be in such a paradise!

Now, this is when the work began

How to build a quinzee:

Step 1: Start digging

Make a pile of snow that is at least 7 ft tall and that is 4ft wider than that of its tallest inhabitant. It should take you an hour to two hours to complete the pile, depending on your shovel/s. We brought 3 shovels, just because we could, and to see which type of shovel was best for the project.

For this first step, we specifically brought a large snow clearing shovel and a small avalanche folding shovel for piling the snow.

We dug and dug and dug.

This is where the sweating truly begins, so layers must come off. It is not smart to sweat while winter camping. You are further dehydrating yourself and making all your clothes wet. So always keep mindful of this.

Once our pile was complete, we compacted the pile and let it sit. Our snow conditions were less than ideal, so we let the pile sit for 2 hours. 

And in the meantime we cooked some much needed lunch, dried out our socks and took in the scenery.

Step 2: Make your quinzee into a porcupine. 

Find sticks 1.5 to 2 ft long and stick them into your quinzee at least 1-1.5 ft. Make sure you have more than enough sticks to help you determine the thickness of your quinzee while your digging it out. It is easy to make your walls to thin if you are few and far between. I would say 30-40 sticks placed about 6 inches apart is ideal.

The goal of this step is  to make it easier for the person digging to ensure the quinzees’ outer layer to be a consistent thickness to prevent collapse, which I believe is a really important thing!

Step 3: More digging. 

Once your sticks are placed, the next step is to pick a proper entrance way. There are various ways to make an entrance, we were a little lazy so rather than making a nice tunnel entrance (which would be piled during step 1), we just dug a hole in the side of the quinzee.

Regardless which way you decide to go, always make sure your entrance is at the lowest part of the pile, this way any cold air that is trapped inside the quinzee has an easy way to escape.

Once you have chosen your entrance location, its time to start to dig out the inside of the quinzee. Out of the 3 shovels we brought, my favorite shovel to begin the digging process was our small folding shovel that locks at a 90 degree angle. This allows for easier and more ergonomic digging.

There is a point in the initial digging process that requires you enter the quinzee and start digging up. The internet told me that this is the not nice part of building a quinzee, as you have to dig so close to your body, snow falls in your face and neck. So to improve moral we decided to bring some ski goggles. This was a great idea, and Ryan and I both used the goggles for our diggings shifts. 

As you dig out the quinzee keep and eye out for the ends of the sticks. Try not to dig too far past the end, as you want your new home to have a consistent roof thickness to again, avoid collapse.

Once you are done digging out the inside, it is paramount that there are some ventilation holes made in the roof as you want to avoid asphyxiation. Just take out a few of your sticks, and make sure there is a nice hole that continues all the way through your roof for carbon dioxide to escape.

Step 4: Congratulations! Now you have a quinzee, and from this stage on you can decide what modifications you want to make. 

We chose to improve the insulating qualities of the quinzee further. We accomplished this by first shaping the floor inside to include a raised portion to sleep, with a lower trench in the door area to direct cold air outside. The second modification was made by placing a healthy layer of pine bows on our bed area.

Now we were complete! Time to set up our gear.

In flew the thermarests, sleeping bags, liners and the rest of our gear. It was at this time we fully realized how small our quinzee was. We did not pile enough snow, but it was now 7pm and it would have to do!

It took a total of 6 hours to build our shelter, this included the 2 hour period in which we allowed our snow pile to settle. We were quite happy with the results, especially considering back home in Guelph there was not enough snow to make a shelter.

With our shelter built, and gear set up, we now attempted to boil some water for drinking overnight, as dehydration is a real threat while winter camping. Our first attempt to boil water failed, as the pot violently fell into the fire. Luckily the fire was large enough to sustain the attack, and we were back down to the hole in the ice for more water.

Second pot, just brought to a boil, again, fell into the fire. Finally, the third time, we balanced the pot right and yielded 1 L of stinky bog water for drinking. I hiked back to the quinzee and tucked this in the foot of my sleeping bag straight away.

As soon as we finished with the water, we inhaled some pulled pork we warmed up over the fire and started to get ready for the night. 

With everyone and all the gear delicately posited in the quinzee, we went about closing the hatch. To ensure the quinzee has as little heat loss as possible, we covered the entrance with our packs and some reflective blankets we had brought with us.

Once in our sleeping bags, the time read 8pm. A little earlier than we are used too, but we were so exhausted and it was now -12 outside. Luckily we found the temperature to be pretty good inside the quinzee, and my sleeping bag was so warm, thanks to the hot water at my feet!

The night was fine, especially considering how cramped we were inside, and 11 hours passed with little issue, but definitely not enough sleep. I was wrapped up in 2 sleeping bags, and Ryan had a bag and a fleece liner, which proved to be quite agreeable for both of us. I was so warm at one point, I had to remove my water bottle and take off my hat and gloves for some time to cool down.

Once awake, we were now extremely dehydrated and quite exhausted. Regardless there was only high spirits, the sun was rising, and we were alone in paradise!

Finally free of our confinement, I decided to take a quick walk out across the pond to warm up. Nico followed me out onto the ice, and we made for the other shore.

Once back at camp, Ryan and I decided we had our fill of the cold and we were ready to head home. We began packing up our camp, and puttered around as the sun rose over the hills. It was still a crisp -12, but the sun made the morning extra delightful.

Our 2km trek home was great, the morning was so stunning, and we took our sweet time.

Once back at the car, and thankful for heat, we headed back south.

Overall the trip was a great experience. We learned how to create a livable and safe shelter, learned the intricacies of winter camping, and were able to get away from the city for a night. Another successful trip in the books.

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