A basic snow fort or snowball fight bunker is easy enough to slap together. Snow can be rolled, scooped or shoveled and packed together into sprawling ramparts that provide some protection from your opponent's merciless volleys of icy white death. But as fun and simple as these types of snow forts are for kids young and old to construct, their utility is pretty much limited to warfare. Enclosed structures, on the other hand, are the domain of the master craftsman. And a well-designed snow house, or "igloo," has practical real-world applications.
Whenever you've got big piles of the white stuff at your disposal, the mind screams "snow construction." Just such a command rattled through the collective gray matter of a local construction team during the winter 1992-93, the last time Spokane got dumped on big time.
"It was nature that provided the raw materials for the construction of the great snow city, Snowtropolis, a gleaming white citadel honed out of the towering icy mounds that had built up through a combined action of daily snowfall and ritual walkway shoveling.
"At its peak, Snowtropolis was comprised of three lodges linked by a system of tunnels and protected by a series of long icy quills. Unfortunately, like mighty Atlantis, Snowtropolis was, in the end, lost to history -- succumbing finally to the very natural forces that once allowed for its existence -- and it faded into legend. All that remains of this once-mighty civilization center is a few snapshots and bleary remembrances locked away in a handful of human memory banks."
Now that my reverie has passed, I can tell you that snow fort building is a useful wintertime survival skill -- one that could literally mean the difference between life and death. While a shelter made out of snow and ice might not seem terribly cozy, as anyone who has relied on one can tell you, it's far better than no shelter at all, especially in windy conditions. Using body heat or (if you're lucky enough to have one) a small stove, the temperature inside a well-constructed igloo can be moderated even as temperatures outside plummet.
For successful igloo construction, you'll require the proper tools, the right kind of snow and favorable weather conditions in which to work. First of all, you need a lot of snow, ideally at least three feet. And the fluffy stuff won't cut it. You need a hard field of dry snow, hard enough so that the blocks you cut out of it with your trusty snow saw (or regular carpenter's wood saw) can be carried horizontally without crumbling under their own weight. Some sort of shovel is also mandatory.
Scout a spot for your igloo and figure out where you want the door (ideally, it should be positioned facing away from the direction of the prevailing winds). Mark off your circular foundation with sticks, skis, your feet, what-have-you.
Now it's time to cut your blocks with your saw or a large knife. Each block should be approximately three feet long by 15 inches in height and eight inches in depth. (Cut your blocks from inside your foundation line to give your igloo additional headroom.)
Foundation blocks should be arranged around the circle leaning slightly inwards towards the center and in a spiral with the height of the blocks gradually diminishing from the first block (the tallest) to the last block (the shortest). The spiral layout makes for easy dome construction. Build up the walls with the blocks you have cut shaping them as you go and making sure that they lean inward (you're not building a tower here). Your blocks will get progressively smaller as you go. Remove snow from the inside as you go. It's much easier to do this before you complete the dome than after. After all the blocks are in place, fill in the cracks between them with snow and then make a few ventilation holes. Adequate ventilation is vital if you are planning to spend any amount of time in your igloo as a build-up inside of carbon dioxide (from your breathing) and carbon monoxide (from a camp stove) could easily kill you.
Your door can be as simple as a hole in the foundation wall or you can get fancy and create an entrance with a working cold sink that not only protects you from wind and blowing snow but actually drains cold air out. A cold sink is nothing more than a trench you dig underneath your foundation wall that leads up (in sort of an L-shape) into your igloo. Once you are inside, heat from your body and/or a camp stove collects in the upper portion of the igloo while the cold air sinks and literally drains out through the trench.
Once your fabulous igloo palace is complete, you will want to season the inside by igniting up a heat source (a lamp, stove or candle). The heat from the source melts the interior surfaces slightly before they quickly re-freeze into ice in the frigid air. This freezing from the inside out will eventually transform your snow dome into an ice dome of amazing stability and strength. Eventually, you'll even be able to stand on it.