The third day of this year’s Outdoor Academy of Scandinavia in Vålådalen it was time for the invited retailers and a few journalists to dig their own “snöka”.
The word “snöka” is an abbreviation for snow cave, used in the Swedish military. A snöka can save your life in a storm, but it’s important to build it right.
In groups of four we hacked and shoveled snow from the mountainside and dug into the snow wall just south of Skaftet, around 10 kilometers from Vålådalen mountain station.
Altogether we were building a dozen caves. The ones facing northwest were really hard to dig, with coarse, hard snow. In my cave group we noticed that the snow was softer and easier to break into.
We were soon a meter into the snow and started expanding to our left and right. Someone got the bright idea that we should dig were it was soft and stop hacking away at the harder snow in the far end of our expanding cave. So we did. And we moved fast. After a few hours we were almost done, while most of the other groups gritted their teeth and fought the hard snow wall.
It was about then I noticed the first dripping. It was in a corner on the outer wall. Just a few drops first, then a more frequent dripping. I turned around. Something wet hit me on the shoulder. Another wet spot.
“Make sure you make the walls even and smooth, and that you get a dome formed ceiling, to avoid that dripping,” the instructors said.
We dug and smoothed, smoothed and dug, but soon realized that the sun and the soft outer wall had to be avoided at all cost, so we dug inwards. A few hours and plenty of snow later we had enough room for four persons – and an regular little waterfall in a corner of the cave.
I took one for the team that night: wrapped in my bivy bag I more or less floated around on my snow bed. The next day I woke up only to find that one of the runlets in the cave had found it’s way down one of my boots…
Lars Fält laughs when he hears the story. For 35 years he instructed at the Swedish Army’s Ranger School in Kiruna, Lapland and the Parachute Training School, Karlsborg. He has also trained with UK and US Special Forces, and in 1980 he established the Swedish Army’s Survival School and is also the author of 8 books on Survival and outdoor skills.
He built his first snöka in the beginning of the 60′s and have built one a year since.
“The art of digging a snöka takes year’s to fully master, but learning the basics is essential if you’re traveling in cold regions,” he says.
“It’s not a thing you dig at every camp, but if you know that bad weather is on the rise and you might be very exposed it’s a healthy security measure.”
A twenty centimeter layer of snow gives you good protection from wind and coldness. If you manage to keep the snow cave dry you’ll have a great escape from foul weather.
Here’s some advice from Lars Fält’s if you’re going to dig deep into the snow:
1. Build the snöka at the top of a snowdrift. It makes it easier to escape the cave if the entrance gets blocked by falling snow. It also makes it easier to get rid of the snow you dig.
2. Probe the snow depth. It should be at least 4 meters inwards. Make sure the distance between the entrances of the snökas also are 4 meters.
3. Dig 70-80 centimeters right into the snow. The opening should be so high that you can stand. That protects you from getting wet during the digging.
4. Continue in the same way 3-3,5 meters deep. Extend on the sides subsequently. Dig in a reversed V-shape. Walls and roof should be at least 20 centimeters thick.
5. Dig benches on both sides of the ditch. They should have at width of 1 meters and be 2,5 meters long, so you can store your gear at one end and be able to keep away from the snow when you sleep. The benches shouldn’t be higher than you can sit on them and still reach down to the floor with your feet.
6. Make snow blocks to block the entrance.
7. Refine walls, ceiling and floor to avoid drip edges. The floor should tilt downwards towards the entrance, to drain the snöka from cold air.
8. Make two ventilation holes on both sides of the entrance with ski poles. The holes should be 10 centimeters in diameter. Use a lit candle to check the ventilation and the level of carbon dioxide (if the candle stops burning it’s a warning).
9. Take turns at digging. Work slow and systematically. Make sure you have plenty of hot drink available. Dress for the occasion: working with snow can make you very wet.
10. Store the shovel inside the snöka with one end of a rope tied to it and the other end tied to a ski or tree on the outside. That way you know in which direction to dig if the cave collapses or gets covered with snow.
11. Have a good nights sleep!
Want to know more about how to build a snöka? Read “Uteliv på vintern” by Lars Fält (Vildmarksbiblioteket, 2011). Only in Swedish, though.