Introduction to How Igloos Work

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Long before brick or wood houses with indoor heat became commonplace, people had to be creative when building homes to protect them from nature's elements. Wealthy Europeans embraced the concept of a nearly indestructible castle built from stone. Native Americans in warmer climates favored the tepee, or tipi, made entirely of animal hides or bark.

Unfortunately, for the inhabitants of Earth's more frigid regions, such as the Canadian tundra, neither of these were good options. Building materials were pretty much nonexistent, making it difficult to craft even the most rudimentary home. These people used the only abundant material to form a modest roof over their heads: snow. Thus, the igloo, the Inuit word for "snow house," was born. The Inuit, better known to many as Eskimos, invented the igloo centuries ago. The igloo was a means for hunters to survive brutal winters in a vast area spanning more than 3,500 miles, including eastern Siberia, Greenland, Alaska and parts of Canada.

igloo
Norbert Rosing/National Geographic/Getty Images
An igloo in the frigid wilderness is illuminated by a fire.

You might be wondering how a house made of snow could possibly shield Inuit hunters from frigid temperatures. After all, snow is pretty cold -- and aren't igloos meant to counteract the cold? You may also be wondering why the Inuit would subject themselves to these icy conditions in the first place. But there's a reason why they made their homes in these areas.

In this article, you'll learn how igloos are built and how the properties of snow helped the ingenious Inuit create a low-cost, low-effort shelter. We'll also discuss the truth about some common igloo-related myths, as well as the basics of how to build your own igloo.

Bundle up and brace yourself because igloos aren't just picturesque mounds of snow dotting the frozen landscape -- there's a whole lot to them. We'll start by learning about the Inuit, inventors of the igloo.

The Inuit

People often confuse the Inuit with the Eskimos, believing them to be separate aboriginal, or native, tribes. Actually, the two groups are the same. The word "Inuit" means "the people." "Eskimo" is believed to mean "eaters of raw meat" [source: University of Waterloo]. Eskimo is considered a derogatory term because the name was bestowed upon them by non-Inuits. Some linguists now believe that the word "Eskimo" means "to net snowshoes," although it's pretty much impossible to prove. So, even though many people use the terms interchangeably or think they are separate tribes, the group prefers to be referred to as Inuit.

Inuit Indians build an igloo
Norbert Rosing/National Geographic/
Getty Images
Two Inuit Indians in Nunavut Territory, Canada, build
an igloo.

The impressive geographical reach of the Inuit makes them the most widespread aboriginal group in the world. They are arguably also one of the toughest, having survived one of the most unpleasant climates in the world for millennia. Inuit adapted long ago to the harsh Arctic conditions. Throughout history, the Inuit relied much more heavily than the rest of the world on animals for nourishment, largely because plants just can't grow where they live. Because of their largely carnivorous diets, Inuit hunters traveled from their homes to the much colder areas near sea ice, where they could hunt seals. The hunters stayed in their igloos for as little as few days at a time to entire winters. Many people believe incorrectly that Inuit live only in igloos. This myth couldn't be farther from the truth -- Inuit use igloos almost exclusively as hunting camps. In fact, although most Inuit live in regular old houses now, igloos are still used for the occasional hunting trip.

Traditionally, Inuit do not operate in an organized society or government. And, they've never established a widespread tribal identity. They prefer to live without class divisions. Everyone in a given settlement is equally responsible for finding food and clothing. The family is the central focus of the community, and the senior male serves as the figurehead. Boys are raised to have an almost religious devotion to hunting, and girls have traditionally been taught to seek a talented hunter for a husband.

Inuit hunter
Chris Anderson/Aurora/Getty Images
Mikeli, an Inuit hunter, hunts for polar bears with his dogsled team in northern Greenland.

Today's Inuit primarily support themselves as artists, specifically as jewelers, stone carvers and painters. Inuit culture is very much alive and well. In fact, a study by the Multiculturalism and Human Rights Program at the Department of Canadian Heritage projects that there could be as many as 68,400 Inuit in Canada by 2017, an increase from 41,080 in 1996 [source: 1996 Census of Canada].

Forget Chalets -- Rent an Igloo
Following a long day on the ski slopes, most people like to head back to a toasty lodge, sip on some cocoa and get a good night's sleep under a down comforter. Others are willing to forego all of those niceties if it means they will get a head start on the slopes the next morning. Igloo villages are an unconventional option for these brave souls.

Iglu-Dorf is a chain of igloo villages in five locations across the Swiss Alps. Standard and "romantic" igloos are available for rental during the ski season, from the end of December to the beginning of April. Some amenities include access to group sauna and Jacuzzi, fondue dinner, nighttime snowshoe walk and subzero sleeping equipment. A few upgrades can get you a private bathroom and sheepskin rugs. In addition to standard overnight stays, Iglu-Dorf also hosts weddings, corporate events and parties. And if you're looking for an icy room that's really luxurious, you can always make a reservation at an ice hotel.

In the next section, we'll debunk some igloo myths and learn what they're really like.

Properties of Igloos

When most people think about igloos, they picture a small, dome-shaped structure built entirely out of blocks of ice. They might imagine a small tunnel leading into the igloo. Actually, this image is surprisingly accurate.

building an igloo
Norbert Rosing/National Geographic/
Getty Images
An igloo builder wedges the last block into the top
of his abode.

We share a pretty similar perception of igloos in large part due to the many television shows and cartoons that have featured them over the years. The classic 1950s cartoon "Chilly Willy," about a wily and adventurous Alaskan penguin, prominently features his igloo. Overlooking the fact that penguins live neither in igloos nor in Alaska, the classic "Chilly Willy" igloo does resemble the most basic igloos inhabited by Inuit hunters.

However, igloos can vary widely from the popular image. In fact, an igloo can range from as small as a one-person hunting shelter to large, ceremonial structures joined to smaller igloos. The innovative architect can also create igloo villages by building attaching corridors and walls. This effectively turns a single-family dwelling into a multiroom compound capable of housing 20 people.

Smaller igloos are typically used by Inuit for fishing and hunting trips, as we've discussed. The larger, more permanent structures were created to form villages for longer-term, although still temporary, needs. Some of the largest villages boasted halls for special occasions such as dances and feasts. Most igloos are self-sustaining due to the strength of ice. But when spring hits, the sun and warmer temperatures turn igloos to slush. It's best to steer clear of defrosting igloos to avoid being caught in a cave-in.

Snow: the Miracle Insulator
Snow is a relatively easy material to work with for the experienced igloo-maker. It is packed tightly by the freezing winds common to the areas inhabited by Inuit. Snow is easy to cut and surprisingly sturdy, and snow blocks are also pretty lightweight. Still, snow is pretty cold, so many people are skeptical of the igloo's ability to keep its occupants from freezing to death. The truth is, inhabitants might not be able to lounge around in their underwear, but they can exist comfortably inside an igloo, and a subzero sleeping bag can take the edge off.

The igloo has stood the test of time as a living establishment. Some experts say that a well-constructed igloo, coupled with a very small oil lamp and plain old body heat, can warm an igloo up to 40 degrees above the outside temperature. Hypothetically, if it is -40°C outside, the igloo has the potential to warm up to 0°C. It accomplishes this amazing feat thanks to several features:

  • The walls block the wind, which is often so bitter that it can make freezing temperatures feel many degrees colder.
  • Snow and ice work as insulators to trap body heat inside the igloo. Thus, the occupants of an igloo double as a furnace of sorts.
  • Insulation capabilities actually increase a few days after construction. Body heat and sun exposure cause the inside of the igloo to melt ever so slightly. When the igloo is unoccupied during hunting expeditions, the melted snow freezes over, turning into ice. Several days of gradual thawing and refreezing turns the entire structure to solid ice, making it not only superstrong, but also warmer than ever.
hard-packed snow
Kenneth Garrett/National Geographic/Getty Images
A good igloo requires plenty of hard-packed snow. This fresh blanketing of snow is ideal for igloo construction,
no reindeer required.

It should be noted that the right type of snow is necessary to build an igloo. The soft, powdery stuff that falls in most backyards is not hard or packed tightly enough to build a reliable igloo. But if you're lucky enough to find the right kind of snow, you can try your hand at making your own igloo. Learn how on the next page.

How to Build an Igloo

Although some Inuit still use igloos for temporary shelter, they are far less common than they were just a few decades ago. However, many skiers and outdoor enthusiasts construct them to avoid the elements during camping and ski trips. The Inuit designed the igloo to be warm, sturdy and easy to construct. All it takes is a few simple tools, an abundance of snow and a little patience. The experienced igloo builder can put one together in as little as one hour. Novice igloo builders can expect it to take an average of three to six hours.

Constructing an igloo usually requires at least two people. Please note that this is a very basic description of how an igloo can be constructed and shouldn't take the place of instruction from an experienced builder. Don't head to the top of a mountain with nothing but a printout of these instructions!

Recommended tools:

  • Snow saw or large knife
  • Snow shovel or snow spade
  • A couple pairs of waterproof gloves
  1. Find an area with a lot of dry, hard-packed snow. Use the snow saw or knife to cut large blocks -- the harder the snow is, the more solid the snow blocks will be. Your snow blocks should be about 3 feet long, 15 inches high and 8 inches deep, according to "The Complete Wilderness Training Guide."

    cutting igloo blocks

  2. Smooth the edges of the blocks. Place them in a circle, working your way up. Blocks should decrease in size as you work upwards. Using your shovel or saw, cut a hole under the wall to create the igloo's entrance.

    building an igloo

  3. Overlap the blocks and shape them to lean inward, creating the dome. The blocks should support each other in order to prevent the dome from collapsing. If necessary, use a stick or other support in the interior to support the blocks at the top until the dome is finished.

    building an igloo

  4. Once all the blocks except the last one have been placed, find a block that is slightly too large for the last opening on top. Place it on top of the igloo and wiggle it into place, shaping as needed. It should be shaped to fit exactly in the opening.

    building an igloo

  5. Shovel loose snow onto the igloo. Pack it into all of the crevices. Smooth the inside of the igloo by hand and shovel out any extra snow.

    building an igloo

  6. Finish the entrance by digging a hole in the shape of the desired entrance (some igloo aficionados prefer L-shaped entrances because they keep the wind out better). Then cover the hole with snow blocks.

    building an igloo

  7. You must cut ventilation holes in the walls and roof to prevent suffocation. Air holes also prevent body heat from causing dangerous levels of carbon dioxide.

    building an igloo

If you want to upgrade your igloo, consider adding these amenities:

  • A small stove: Yes, you can cook inside an igloo. Excessive use of a stove can build up carbon monoxide to dangerous levels, but your air holes should guard against that.
  • Extra head room: Some igloo builders recommend digging the floor down a little to allow for more space.
  • A sleeping platform: You can loft your bed with some extra blocks of snow. Since warm air rises, you'll enjoy a little extra heat that way.

Today, the Inuit have more housing options than just the igloo. But if you want to learn more about this humble abode, follow the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

Sources

  • "Canada's Aboriginal Population in 2017." Statistics Canada. 28 June 2005.
    http://www.statcan.ca/Daily/English/050628/d050628d.htm
  • Cardinal, Florence. "Native Canadian Housing." Canadian History. 3 December 2006.
    http://www.canadianhistory.suite101.com/article/native_canadian_housing
  • "Seven Wonders of Canada: The Igloo." CBC.CA. 7 January 2008.
    http://www.cbc.ca/sevenwonders/wonder_igloo.html
  • Hata, Kimi. "Inuit/Eskimo Society." 7 January 2008.
    http://www.astronomy.pomona.edu/archeo/alaska/eskimo.html
  • Kaplan, Lawrence. "Inuit or Eskimo: Which Names to Use?" Alaska Native Language Center. 7 January 2008.
    http://www.uaf.edu/anlc/inuitoreskimo.html
  • Labiste, Susan. "How to Build an Igloo." Primitive Ways. 7 January 2008.
    http://www.primitiveways.com/igloo.html
  • McManners, Hugh. "The Complete Wilderness Training Guide."
    http://www.thefarm.org/charities/i4at/lib2/igloo.htm
  • Park, Robert W. "Archaeology in Arctic North America." University of Waterloo. 7 January 2008.
    http://anthropology.uwaterloo.ca/ArcticArchStuff/Inuit.html
  • Steel, Patrick. "Chilly Reception: Staying in an Igloo Village in the Swiss Alps." The Guardian. 2 April 2007.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2007/apr/02/skiing.hotels.switzerland