Igloo Building

Taught by Christof Hagen of Survival Outdoor Schüle, Switzerland, in concert with Earth Skills

We've been intrigued by what people can manage to do with little or no tools. We've also enjoyed the time we've been able to spend in the wilder parts of the country. So it was predictable that we'd jump at the chance, when Jim Lowry called and asked if my wife and I would want to take a class on how to build an igloo (my wife had to drop out due to frequent gallstone attacks she was having at the time.)

The class was to be five days, Wednesday to Sunday, with a preparatory meeting--checking equipment and answering last-minute questions--the weekend before. Jim sent out a list of equipment that we'd all need, and a list of the food we'd be expected to bring. The equipment list seemed pretty straightforward, and the only problem I had was that my hiking boots were not really warm enough for five days in the snow. The food list was interesting, and had a lot of things I'd not really thought of as camping food: half a pound of margarine, a packet of yeast, precooked hamburger patties, corn meal, flour, and so on. There were also things I don't really like, like Cream of Wheat and freeze-dried vegetables, but it was a group meal situation, so we all assembled the listed stuff. We had a bit more latitude with the hot drinks and trail food, so I substituted hot chocolate for the coffee.

We had the preparatory meeting on Sunday, January 18, at the home of one of the participants who was centrally located. Around 1:00 PM, we sat down and chatted a bit, and then Christof got into what we could expect. We had a short introduction, introducing the students (Nancy, Bill, Kurt, Glenn, Eldon, and myself), the organizers (Jim and Mary), and the teacher (Christof). None of the students had built an igloo before, though some had camped in the snow. We saw a few slides to illustrate a brief lecture that Christof gave, covering the priorities for survival-- shelter, water, food--and some other parts of primitive living, such as camouflage. Then Christof covered some of the details of why the equipment was important (such as how insulation works, and why cotton is worse than nothing), how the body generates and loses heat, what the basic plan for the class was, igloo-building theory, and so on. Then came the equipment inspection.

We started with boots. As I pretty much expected, my boots weren't acceptable: uninsulated leather uppers with room for only one pair of heavy wool socks. What was more surprising was that none of the students had really good boots! (One student had two pairs that, taken together, were acceptable). We're all genuine southern Californians, I guess. The only boots that were good (except for Christof's) were my wife's Sorel Glaciers, which Nancy ended up borrowing. Christof had a really neat system: a pair of hiking boots big enough for two pairs of thick socks, then a thinsulate bootie over the boots, a synthetic-fill bootie over that, all covered by a Cordura outer shell. It was the first time I'd seen a layering system for the feet.

Our sleeping bags were mostly good enough, though a down bag was rejected (too likely to get wet in the igloo). The clothing was mostly good enough, too. I ended up bringing two outer shell pants, as I had one waterproof one for those times kneeling in the snow, and one windproof one for walking; people with Goretex or a similar product could get away with having just one.

We made arrangements for carpooling (Bill volunteered to drive most of us, as he had a large car and would pass close by many of us on his drive). The plan was for us to meet around 1:00 PM at the Bishop ranger station, and go from there. Jim and Christof would check out Mt. Pinos, which was much closer and more convenient; if the snow there was deep enough, we'd go there instead. (As it turned out, Mt. Pinos had good enough snow.)

The next day, I went off to a local REI to get better boots. I tried out several pairs, but they were out of the ones I wanted in the size I wanted. Disappointed, I went to check out the bargain area for a few other minor things, and found the boots I wanted-- someone had returned them for being "too large". Walking back past the shoe area, I saw Bill trying on some boots. We'd all been impressed with Christof's shoe requirements...

On Wednesday, Bill picked up Glenn and me, and we drove up to Jim and Mary's house in Frazier Park, where we'd spend the first night. Kurt couldn't get out of a previous commitment, so he arrived later; the rest of us got a lesson and some practice in the use of avalanche transcievers. They were pretty fun, and we all found them easy to use. After a lecture on what we'd use instead of toilet paper (snow), Christof divided us into three-person groups, Nancy, Bill, and Kurt in one, Glenn, Eldon, and myself in another, and Jim, Mary, and Christof in the third. We divided up the group gear; stove, pots and utensils, an emergency tent fly, the dinner bag, the breakfast bag, the hot drinks bag, and so on. I ended up with pots, the fly, the drinks bag, and a spare sled. Mary had cooked us a (quite nice) dinner, and we spent the evening consolidating the group food into one bag per food type, and dividing it into dinner, breakfast, and drinks. We bedded down for the night in various rooms.

In the morning, after a hearty breakfast, we piled our gear into the cars and drove up to the Mt. Pinos parking lot. We put on our snowshoes (Bill had skis), strapped on the packs, and started off on the snow-covered road. After a short walk, we left the road and went up a draw for a short while, where Christof announced we'd build our igloos. I was surprised we'd had such a short walk; somehow I'd expected to go much longer (not that I was complaining--the sled had required me to change walking style). We dropped our packs, and Christof helped us lay out the igloo locations and sizes, pointing out to us where we should get our blocks from. We tramped down the area where the blocks would be cut, first in snowshoes and then in boots, and waited a few minutes. Christof demonstrated how to cut blocks, and then how to place them, and we set off to our respective igloo sites to build.

As we cut blocks and started to build, Christof ran between the three igloos and taught us what we'd missed (or forgotten) from the lectures. Once an igloo had a complete ring of blocks, Christof showed us where to cut the spiral, and then we continued to place blocks. After the second row was substantially complete, one person ended up trapped inside each growing igloo (I was inside ours), and the outside people dug most of the entrance tunnel and handed blocks over the wall to the inside person, who kept placing them. I found it frustrating, because I'd forgotten one of the "important points" and was having trouble placing a block--it would keep falling out after I'd given it the final whack. I finally figured out that the block was contacting the wall underneath it in the center of the block. Oh, well. That's the way to learn, I guess. Once the entrance tunnel was usable, I switched places with Eldon, and worked off some of the frustration caulking the gaps between the blocks, and shoveling snow. When the igloo was finished, we put a few lit candles inside, and after a while were able to caulk the gaps from the inside as well as the outside.

We got our igloo finished, and Eldon cooked up a nice dinner for us (rice, vegetables, and a hamburger patty each). While I'd been caulking, Eldon had put together a nice kitchen next to Christof's, cutting out a few blocks for a windbreak and shelf, leaving a nice lowered floor for the cook, with a cooking surface at the snow level. Each group made their own kitchen, and as the days went along, they got more and more elaborate, with cabinets cut under the surface for storage, snow-block doors for the cabinets so that the mice and squirrels wouldn't get at the food in them, utensil holders. One of the kitchens even had a central bench, so the cook had a nice place to sit while cooking.

We set our sleeping bags out in the igloo, on top of the foam pads we'd all brought; and we even got a free demonstration of why the candles should be put out before bringing foam pads into the igloo: One of Eldon's pads ended up with some interesting holes in it. Pretty cheap as lessons go; it could have been a sleeping bag. I was tired after dinner, so I stuck my clean underwear and socks in a bag, and climbed into my sleeping bag. The igloo was definitely warmer than the outside air, and I found that I had to keep an arm partway outside the sleeping bag to avoid overheating.

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Copyright © 1998 Leif Bennett. All rights reserved.