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How to Build an Igloo

Jan 5th 2011 at 1:22 PM

The native peoples of the North have dozens of words to describe snow and one of the most important is the type of snow suitable for building an igloo. The word igloo is derived from the Inuit word "igdlu," meaning "house." Igloos aren't as prevalent as they once were, having been replaced by wood and metals introduced by Western interlopers. But in the cold expanse of the Far North, knowing how to build one could save your life if bad weather strikes.

Building an igloo is easy and fun. It will take between 3 and 6 hours, depending on your previous experience and level of ambition.

Tools

All you need to build an igloo are a snow spade and a saw. A special snow saw is recommended, but a carpenter's saw will do. A machete or small axe is handy for molding the snow blocks, but not necessary (you can use a ski instead - less to carry).

Finding a Suitable Spot

The ideal site for building an igloo is a field of hard snow from which you can cut solid blocks. Even if the top layer of snow is soft, hard snow can usually be found underneath.

Mark off a circle between 10 and 15 feet in diameter, for the base of the dome (this will be sufficient for an igloo to house 2-3 people). The snow depth should be at least 3 ft where the igloo is placed.

Building the Igloo

Begin by scraping and clearing your circle.

Using your saw, cut large blocks for the base, about 2 feet x 4 feet. The blocks should be solid enough that they can be carried without breaking. Large blocks are used at the base of the dome, smaller ones at the top. A thickness of 15-30cm is good. The blocks can be made extra strong by setting them up to harden in the wind.

Place these large blocks around the perimeter of the cleared circle. The edges of each snow block should be smoothed and angled correctly to make a strong bond to the adjacent blocks. A ski with its tip placed in the centre of the igloo is a perfect tool for this. There will always be some (or maybe a lot of) cracks between blocks, but you can fix those later. It is very important that the bottom row of snow blocks angle into the center.

A full circle of snow blocks has been built. Ideally, the blocks should be placed in a spiral. This will make the building easier.

Start building your entrance by placing two vertical blocks pointing outwards with a solid block on top to make a small roof over the entrance. At this stage you might want to lower the floor inside the igloo, to give you extra headroom. Alternatively, you can build the igloo as a solid structure around yourself and create an entrance by digging a tunnel under the igloo walls.

Progressively smaller snow blocks are added to the walls. The weight of the blocks support one another and contribute to the stability of the structure. Keep removing the snow that is piling up inside. It is a lot easier to throw it out of an open dome than to shovel it out the entrance afterwards.

The last few blocks are moved into the igloo through the entrance and lifted up. There might be need of two persons inside at this stage.

Finishing the Igloo

Stuff the cracks between the blocks with snow. The smaller cracks between the blocks can be smoothed over but two or three cracks should be left unfilled to provide adequate ventilation.

Now the inside of the igloo must be smoothed. This is done by hand so an extra pair of gloves or mitts is important. If the inside of the dome is one, smooth surface, there will be no dripping of water at all.

When you have finished smoothing the inside, and all the snow has been shoveled out, it is time to finish the entrance. An L-shaped entrance is a good way to keep snow from blowing into your new home. First dig an L with an depth of 3 feet or more, then cover it with a square 'roof' made of snow blocks.

Then light a fire or lamp to start melting the interior of the snow blocks. The water quickly congeals into ice in the cold air. This will strengthen and stabilize the inside of the walls. A full-grown man can stand on a properly-built igloo without collapsing it, and it can withstand hurricane force winds.

Things to Remember

When using a stove in the igloo, make sure the ventilation is adequate! During cooking small holes will melt in the roof, letting fresh air in. A small ventilation hole in the roof is recommended. Always keep the entrance open.

The floor should be covered with camping mattresses or furs. Candles can be used as light source, cut a small niche for the candle, with sufficient space above it to avoid too much melting.

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