Emergency Winter Shelters

It’s the fear our non-outdoorsy friends and families have when we adventure during winter: what happens if you get caught in a storm or stuck out overnight? Here are eight emergency winter shelters to protect you from the elements:


lean-to emergency winter shelters
Photo Credit: Samantha Cristoforetti

If while stranded you have access to trees, brush, and debris, Paul Kirtley describes how to build a lean-to and what tools you’d need to have on you to complete it.

Emergency Quinzhees

Quinzhee emergency winter shelters
Photo Credit: Ssavoie

There are plenty of discussions online whether or not it is worth it to build a quinzhee in an emergency, so I’ll leave it at it depends on what your situation is. Chris Mills writes about how to build one here (video included).

Coffin Shelters

My least favorite name and yet probably one of the easiest shelters to build if you have enough snow to work with. Wildwood Survival writes out detailed instructions on how to build a snow coffin shelter here.

Trench Shelters

These are also called drift shelters. These emergency shelters are built when there isn’t enough snow for a coffin shelter or a quinzhee and not enough brush to build a lean-to. Find the biggest snow drift near you and dig into it until you have the approximation of a coffin shelter or a quinzhee.

Snow Caves

Snow cave emergency winter shelters
Photo Credit: Josh Lewis

If you’re in an area of deep snow and steep hills, a snow cave could be an easy shelter to build. Traditional Mountaineering describes how to build one here and also offers some advice should you find yourself stranded in the winter elements.

Tree Well Shelters

The tree wells of large evergreens with low boughs to protect you from snow fall can make a comfortable place to spend a night, if stuck for options. Find a tree with a well just big enough for you and the walls of snow around the tree trunk provide insulation. For more information, check out Down and Out here.

Backpack Bivy

If you lack natural supplies and your backpack is big enough, then you can turn it into a makeshift bivy sack to protect part of you from the elements. There are also a number of gear makers who have made bivy sacks that collapse into backpacks (or I suppose, backpacks that purposefully expand to bivy sacks). As an alternative, MEC has made an emergency bivy that is easy to pack in a daypack for a snowshoe adventure.

The Body Huddle

When all else fails, huddle down on the ground on top of something that will insulate you from the snow. Cover your head. Put on as many nonrestrictive layers as you have. Hug yourself. Huddle up as a group if you can.

There are many resources out there for winter survival. If you’re a book lover, check out Ben Shillington’s Winter Backpacking.

Intrigued? Join us on a trip!