Around this time of year, I always used to hope for a huge snowfall. Not just because it would mean school would be cancelled, but because I needed a lot of snow for my favourite winter activity: building snow tunnels.
Of course, at the time, I didn’t call them snow tunnels – I called them igloos. This is a misnomer, because real igloos are constructed using blocks of ice (or packed snow), whereas what I made involved tunnelling out a mound of snow. Since we Canadians live in igloos year-round, it’s an important distinction to make. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll periodically call them igloos for simplicity’s sake.
Anyway, the first time I made an igloo, it was a big family project. My parents, brother and I all worked really hard on it. To this day, I couldn’t say for certain how big that igloo was, because I was rather small at the time – in my memory, it was at least five-feet tall with a diameter of ten feet. Big enough for my entire family comfortably fit in, at least according to me. In reality, it was probably significantly smaller.
After that initial construction, my brother and I got creative. We built a second, much smaller, igloo and attached the two with a tunnel. My poor mother nearly got stuck in that tunnel – it turns out adults are bigger than kids, but we were so proud of our accomplishment that we wouldn’t let her alone until she’d crawled through it.
In future years, my brother and I became experts at tunnelling through the snow. This was, in part, for safety reasons. Around this time, there was a great deal of concern about kids getting injured in collapsing snow tunnels. One of my friends (you know who you are, and I know you’re reading this) was only allowed to play in our tunnels with us as long as she kept her head outside. My brother and I felt this was unnecessary because none of our igloos ever collapsed (unless we jumped on them or they melted) – we believe that the any that did were poorly constructed.
Here are the guidelines we used for making our tunnels:
- First, only use snow that packs decently. Light, fluffy snow won’t hold together well enough to form a solid structure. It is a good idea, once your pile of snow is ready to be tunnelled, to ensure it s sufficiently packed. To do this, carefully (so as not to leave footprints) climb to the top of the pile and roll down the hill. If the pile isn’t too high, it is also possible to jump lengthwise onto the top before rolling down. Repeat this until the hill is sufficiently packed on all sides and feel free to continue for as long as it’s fun.
- Second, when tunnelling, make sure the walls are the correct thickness. If they are too thick, they could collapse from the weight. If they are too thin, they won’t be strong enough to hold up the structure. The ideal thickness is right before the point when you can see sunlight through the walls. The best way to achieve this is to tunnel until you can see a bit of light – then pack some snow over top of that and use that location as a guide for the continued tunnelling process. It is especially important to focus on getting the roof the right thickness, since that is the most likely part to cave in if there is a structural problem. In that event, a thinner roof is less dangerous.
- Third, the don’ts. Don’t freeze your igloo – the process of freezing it will make the structure weaker and, in the event of a collapse, more dangerous. Don’t fill the walls with windows and doors – one entrance is enough, maybe one or two tunnels if you have a complex structure. And whatever you do, don’t jump on top of it – especially if there is another person inside.
Using these guidelines, my brother and I crafted many interesting snow tunnels. From a triplex of interconnected igloos to an igloo fort with a tunnelled outer wall, we had a great time every year we got enough snow (right up into out twenties). It helped that we had a large driveway – big enough to hold 6-8 card or 3 (friendly) dogsled teams. The snow needed to be shovelled anyway, so why not put it all in one place?
So, if you’re stretched for things to do this winter, and you happen to get a lot of snow, try tunnelling. It’s a great deal of fun – just make sure you stay safe.
Disclaimer: To the best of my knowledge, that driveway has never had a dogsled team parked in it – and no, all Canadians don’t actually live in igloos.
Click here to find the charity anthology containing a couple of my short stories.