Top Tips For Successful Snow-Holing


“Any fool can be uncomfortable.”

This is undoubtedly true in a snow-hole. Winter in the Cairngorms can see temperatures of around -10ºC at 1100m, but in reality temperatures at this height are more like -5ºC and above. That’s still pretty chilly, but snow is a great insulator. It is so easy to have an uncomfortable damp night, but with a bit of organisation and care you can be safe and snug and really enjoy the adventure. Here are my top tips for successful snow-holing.

Chris (R) and brother Richard (L) snow-holing in Scotland

Chris (R) and brother Richard (L) snow-holing in Scotland

1. Take the right kit

Any job is easier if you have the right tools, and digging a snow-hole is no exception. You will need a probe, a metal shovel, and a snow saw (don’t underestimate how hard Scottish snow can become). To be comfortable once you’ve built your snow-hole, essentials include a good Thermarest, a sleeping bag with Pertex or Goretex cover, and extra gas or fuel for your stove – melting snow takes lots of energy.

2. Chose a good site

Use your probe to see how deep the snow is – this will save you wasting time and energy in digging to find that it is too shallow. A snow bank is best, around 2m deep, but make sure it is not avalanche-prone. Ask around for local knowledge about good safe sites.

3. Dress for the job

Digging is hard work, and it can take around four hours to dig a four-person snow hole. Take off extra layers of clothing, replace your waterproofs and zip them up to stop the snow from getting in. If you have wet gloves already, put them on because whatever you wear will get wet.

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4. Divide the labour

Dig in and then across to meet up in the middle, then you can fill in one of the holes with snow if you choose to.

5. Be intentional about the shape

Make the hole wide enough for two people to lie down, and with an arched roof. Smooth off the roof to reduce dripping. Avoid large areas of unsupported roof by keeping your snow hole narrow – aim for a depth of two body widths between the internal surfaces of the front and the back walls. If you’re making a bigger snow-hole, dig it across the slope rather than deeper into the bank.

6. Check your ventilation

If your exhaled breath drifts off to one side, you can be fairly confident that your ventilation is OK. Large communal snow holes with more than one entrance have better ventilation. Cooking with pressure stoves in any poorly ventilated space is potentially dangerous due to the formation of carbon monoxide. In a snow-hole with a single entrance and no through air movement, ventilation may well be inadequate. Extinguish candles before you go to sleep as they also produce small amounts of carbon monoxide.

Richard keeping snug in his sleeping bag with Pertex cover

Richard keeping snug in his sleeping bag with Pertex cover

7. Mark your hole

If you have to go out in the night for a pee, you need to be sure you can find your way back inside in the dark. Stick a walking pole in the snow near the outside of the entrance, with a rope attached that leads into the snow-hole. A flashing red bike light tied to a walking pole and fixed on the top of your snow-hole will make it less likely that anyone will walk on your roof.

8. Check your air supply

Set an alarm to wake you up regularly through the night to make sure the snow has not drifted in and sealed the doorway. Asphyxiation is a real threat. Keep your shovel handy so you can dig your way out if needed.

9. If you take it in, take it out

To reduce the effect of people staying overnight in snow-holes on the plateau, the Ranger Service at Cairngorm runs the Snow White facility (formerly the Poo Project) to encourage people to bring back all human waste and dispose of it in the disposal facilities at Cairngorm Mountain. Other places don’t have this facility, but that’s no excuse for leaving anything unpleasant behind, so make sure you have plastic bags to take your poo home.

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Any top tips to share?

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