Did you know? - How to Build an Igloo

Classic Design

In ancient times a brilliant innovator hit on the perfect design for an arctic winter house. Comfortable, practical, and beautiful, it could be built in a short time anywhere the materials were available. People loved it, the design caught on, and for centuries igloo villages dotted the Canadian Arctic in winter and early spring. A few decades ago Canadian Inuit began living in permanent houses - but they still build igloos.

Man building a two-domed igloo
A man wearing caribou skin clothing finishes building a two-domed igloo
(west coast of Hudson Bay, early 1950s)
photo: Richard Harrington Library and Archives Canada PA-114659

Build to suit

Igloos come in one basic shape but many sizes. Are you travelling by snowmobile or dogteam and need shelter for a night or two? Or are you hosting a gathering for a few hundred of your closest friends? Make sure your igloo is the right size!

Use the right tools

You'll need a snowknife or a handsaw. It's helpful to have a snow-probe, a thin straight tool you can poke down into the snow.

And quality material

Remember, your igloo is built of snow, not ice. Use snow from a single snowfall that strong winds have packed so hard that it squeaks when you walk on it. You can tell if it's right by poking your snowknife or snowprobe into it. The snow should be firm and your probe should go in smoothly. Snowhouse snow is called pukaangajuq. (pronounced poo-kong-aye-yuk).

An upward spiral

Mark a circle in the snow the size you want your igloo to be. Then cut your snowblocks from inside it. Arrange them in an upward spiral, leaning slightly inward. If you want a window, use a piece of lake ice -- it's transparent, unlike sea ice - and install it facing the sun to get the most light. To finish, lift the key block - that's the topmost block -- up through the hole at the top, trim it to fit perfectly, and drop it into place. Don't forget to make a ventilation hole. Then cut a doorway so you can get out. Now go outside and pack loose snow into the spaces between the blocks to keep out drafts. Got it?

Tips

Don't build your igloo where the ground slopes steeply down to a lake. A blizzard could pile up snow there and bury it.

If blocks break or the entire structure collapses while you are building it, the appropriate response - proven by generations of Inuit - is first to see the humour in the situation. Then, try to correct what you did wrong and keep at it.

 Ansgar Walk)
Using a snow knife to build an igloo, Kinngait (Cape Dorset) Nunavut
photo: Ansgar Walk

Oh, and one more thing: Build your igloo in the Arctic. It's hard to find the right kind of snow anywhere else. And there are plenty of experts around to show you how!

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