Since the beginning of January a friend and I have been participating in an outdoor survival course. Wednesday nights we learn different important components of survival (i.e. different types of shelter, what material is best to wear, how to do different types of knots, etc.) and there were 3 outings on Sunday mornings were we practiced navigation with map and compass, snowshoeing, fire making, quinzhee building, etc. The culmination of all this was a weekend in the bush.
Saturday morning we got to our camping area around 9 am. We started off with a little talk about safety then went to find our location to build a quinzhee. My friend and I paired up with two guys next to us to have a communal fire and cut down on some of the work.
The first step to building a quinzhee is to make a giant snow pile. As you pile the snow it’s important to pack it down a little so it is able to be stronger. The next step is to let it sit for a few hours and give it time to harden.
We skipped a pretty essential step. The very first thing before making your snow pile is to dig out a circle where your quinzhee will be. The reason it’s important to do that is because you don’t know what is on the ground under the snow. In our case, there were 2 fallen tree trunks that went right through our quinzhee. Thankfully though it didn’t cause us too much grief. We were able to place pine bowes on top to make our beds.
While the quinzhee is setting it’s a good idea to start working on your fire. We teamed up with the guys building next to us which ended up being a great partnership. The guys would go and cut the trees (my friend and I each cut 1 small-ish tree) while my friend and I would saw the trunks for firewood and put the bowes aside for bedding for both groups.
This is called an A Frame. It’s used so you can hang something over it to cook it on the fire. We boiled water (one of the requirements for the weekend) and we also had a dry line above that to dry out our damp or wet gear. Sadly our fire wasn’t that strong since a lot of the wood we were using was green (still pretty alive and damp) instead of dead & dry. We had a few hotdogs for dinner and went back to working. The next step: digging out the quinzhee.
As I continued to saw firewood, my partner in crime started to dig out our quinzhee. She said it felt kind of claustrophobic and like you are digging out your own grave. We switched tasks part way through. When I got in you could basically sit upright so it wasn’t the same feeling for me. There were 3 freaky moments in there as I was digging. I heard the snow shift and make a cracking sound. You may not be able to tell from the picture but there are a bunch of twigs or small branches stuck in the quinzhee. They are placed there so you know how far to dig. When you are on the inside and you hit one of those twigs you know not to dig any further.
Once it is dug out, you light a candle to crystalize the inside of the shelter. You also put bowes down (aprox 8 inches worth) which acts as an insulating agent. In addition to the bowes, we also each had a small mat to use. Sadly that wasn’t enough for us. After about 45 mins of trying to sleep in our quinzhee we couldn’t get warm and decided to go home. I am still proud of us though. We were out there from 9 am to 12:15ish at night. We went the following morning to pack up all our gear.
Our gear included 3 different sizes of saws, 1 hatchet, toilet paper (there was an outhouse thankfully!), spare clothing (mittens, sweaters, scarves, pants, socks, etc.), glow sticks, matches, candles, first aid kit, food, water and power drinks (they froze so I would put one in my coat with me and as I worked my body heat would melt the drink). I think that may also be part of the reason I felt cold throughout the day because my body heat was going to melt water instead of heating up inside my coat. I also had a few technical difficulties with my snowpants. They were a little too big and would fall low on me making the crotch at a really low level. I moved and a hole ripped in the crotch area. Then throughout the day more and more it ripped. I am sure that didn’t help with my inability to get warm ahha. We had to wrap all our gear in a tarp to make sure that it would stay dry until we could get it in the quinzhee.
They also taught us how to make a smoke signal, how to use a flare and bear banger.
A final activity that was done before bed was a night navigation. With your snowshoes and compass you had to navigate in the bush. Before leaving, each person was given a different bearing to set their compass to. You had to walk straight and make sure the north arrow always stayed between these two lines (it’s called a house). I was feeling nervous about doing it but told myself I could do it anyways. When it was my turn my boots weren’t staying in my snowshoes properly which was causing me to fall. I had to try to support myself with trees so sometimes I was going the opposite way of where I needed to go to make sure that I could support myself. I fell twice. The first fall I was able to get back up, the second I couldn’t and I started to panic. Pete, one of the instructors came out and helped me. He thought it was a better idea for me to go back the way I had come in instead of continuing with the night navigation because of my snowshoes. I don’t know if he was just being nice but honestly I felt extra shitty, like the fat girl that couldn’t do it. Pete told me that they do a night navigation in summer as well so if I wanted to join the unit that I could do the summer night navigation and that would be okay. I think I will do it that way. I will help with summer searches but from my experiences in the outdoor classes I think I will be less than useless in the winter. Oh well, practice makes progress right?