Sleeping on a bed made of snow and ice may not be everybody’s cup of tea, especially when a nice snug chalet with a roaring log fire and big fluffy duvet beckons after your day on the slopes. But since the Ice Hotel opened in northern Sweden, the concept has proved ever more popular and caught on around the world, particularly in ski resorts.
You can now sleep in an igloo high on the mountain above some of Europe’s most famous resorts, camp in a hi-tech tent designed with NASA technology or simply dig a hole in the snow (under expert supervision of course) and bed down in there.
What’s it like?
OnTheSnow has heroically tested out all the different on-snow sleeping options (short of the digging yourself a snow hole to sleep in) and can report the pros and cons of each first hand.
Most people find bedrooms made of snow or ice fairly magical places and, although the temperatures are low, they are in reality not as low as you might think. If it drops to -30C outside in the Arctic for example, the temperature within will only be around freezing or just below, not uncomfortable for most people to sleep (and generally more comfortable than a room that's too warm).
You will usually sleep in a high quality sleeping bag with animal skins or a mattress separating you from the snow/ice.
As with camping, there are no doors on your rooms in igloos or ice hotels, usually just a loose curtain hanging across the entrance. But the thick ice walls deaden the sound so you don't usually hear people in neighbouring rooms, however loudly they snore.
Some igloos or snow accommodations have separate washing and toilet facilities in heated wooden buildings.
Kakslauttanen Igloo Village, Lapland
Why is it so popular?
Besides novelty value, there are other factors that can make the experience of sleeping in an igloo or ice hotel very special.
Firstly, most of the structures are located in remote, beautiful natural environments. In the case of the Ice Hotel there’s a great chance to see the northern lights away from light pollution and with the igloo villages in the Alps and Pyrenees, you’re far above the resort with a fantastic location for star gazing and watching the sunset/sunrise.
“Most people are amazed by the beautiful art and the size of the igloo village. They did not expect it to be so big. Otherwise they are stunned by the nature. When you can see the sun rise in the morning with nobody on the piste, this is just amazing,” says Géraldine Pucken of Iglu-Dorf, the award-winning company behind six igloo villages.
That location at the top of the slopes has the added bonus that, while the first skiers of the day staying in the resort below may be riding up on the first chairlift of the morning, you’re already up and ready to make first tracks down after a fresh snowfall.
And the art – specifically ice and snow sculptures – which Géraldine says are all around you in the public areas and suites of the hotels and villages, making them still more magical places.
Bar at Iglu Dorf Gstaad
Copyright: Iglu Dorf GMBH
Do you just go there to sleep?
Most ice hotels and igloo villages are tourist attractions and works of art in their own right, operating daytime visitor options such as guided tours, a bar or restaurant service and sometimes themed activities.
The Ice Hotel in Sweden organises many additional activities and has an ice chapel where people can get married (about 140 weddings and 20 baptisms each year) and has in the past recreated Shakespeare's globe theatre in snow and ice to stage performances of the bard's plays in Lappish and created musical ice instruments for concerts.
The Ice Hotel offers warm conventional accommodation next to the hotel where you can stay instead of (or for extra nights) sleeping in their snow accommodation. The igloo villages at Zermatt and Engelberg also offer so called 'hot-igloos' that feature warming wood stoves, a cosy double bed and comfortable armchairs to lounge in. They're increasingly popular says Geraldine.
Where to Stay
The Ice Hotel
The Ice Hotel in the Swedish Arctic Circle is the biggest success in on-snow sleeping and located close to the town of Kiruna (which is itself famous for having to be moved a few miles to the left due to subsidence from its copper mining and as a major European space base). The Ice Hotel has gotten bigger and better every year for more than two decades. Today the hotel has 65 rooms including the deluxe suite and the art suites designed by ice carving artists from around the world each autumn.
It is rebuilt from around 30,000 cubic metres of ‘snice’ (snow and ice) and about 2,000 tonnes of ice from the local pure Torne River each year and all (including many thousands of ice glasses used in the bar) melts back into the river each spring. Up to 60,000 guests now visit each winter.
There's no skiing onsite but there is a small local ski hill in nearby Kiruna (10 minutes away) and larger international resorts nearby at Björkliden and Riksgränsen, both famed for their heliskiing.
Blue Marine at Ice Hotel, Sweden
Copyright: Paulina Holmgren/William Blomstrand/Andrew Winch/Ice Hotel
Switzerland, Andorra or Germany
After the success of the Ice Hotel proved that sleeping on snow could in fact be popular, the option to stay in igloos in ski resorts began to take off. There were several that came and went in Alpine resorts, but one company has made a big success of the concept over the past decade or so. Iglu-Dorf ('dorf' meaning village) will happily give you a bed for the night high above the Swiss resorts of Davos, Engelberg, Gstaad and Zermatt, on the Zugspitz above Garmisch Partenkirchen in Germany, or in Andorra's Grandvalira region in the Pyrenees.
In terms of your stay, there are some similarities to the ice hotel: you'll find bedrooms filled with beautiful carvings and a bar and restaurant in the public area. However Igloo Villages have gone further by putting hot tubs in some luxury suites.
But there are key differences – firstly the construction of snow, rather than ice, makes the Igloo Villages a slightly warmer place to stay, with temperatures around freezing inside and secondly the location of the villages high above the resorts means you're located in the perfect spot not only for star gazing but also right on the slopes to start your day.
Jacuzzi at Iglu Dorf Gstaad
Copyright: Iglu Dorf GMBH
Les Cerniers, Switzerland
If you like your camping a little more futuristic, Whitepod describe themselves as an eco-luxury camp and offers accommodation in NASA-tested hi-tech tents, or 'pods' which provide cosy accommodation (each has its own wood-burning stove), backed by luxurious catering in the neighbouring mountain chalet. Apart from comfort and quality, the onus is on eco-friendliness with natural and locally sourced products used throughout the operation wherever possible.
Whitepod started life above the resort of Villars but moved to a location at Les Cerniers where it operates Switzerland's only private ski slope, with over 700m of vertical 7km of pistes, so you have it all to yourself!
Whitepod exterior, Les Cerniers
Kakslauttanen Igloo Village
This Arctic igloo village, 10km from the ski slopes of Saariselka, offers every type of accommodation – hotel, log cabins and a snow igloo along with ice bar and chapel. What's different is the hotel also has a village of igloo shaped buildings with glass roofs where you can lie and look up at the night sky – hopefully starry –and if you're lucky filled with the northern lights too.
If the thought of a prepared ice hotel or igloo room seems just too easy for you, then you could consider digging your own snow hole and sleeping in that. Mountain and Sea Guides (+44 (0)1520 744 394) offer three-day guided excursion on the Cairngorm Plateau above Aviemore in Scotland during winter months where you do just that.
Your guide will take you on a traverse of the Cairngorm Plateau, the highest, wildest, sub-arctic plateau in Britain. You’ll be shown how to construct your own snow hole where you’ll be able to keep warm at night in your sleeping bag and see by candlelight.
“It doesn't matter whether or not you are new to the winter mountain environment, as everyone is able to learn new skills and two nights are spent in a snow hole which we dig out into a luxurious palace,” says Mike Arkley of Mountain & Sea Guides
The informal course also includes learning winter day and night navigation skills on the mountain, avalanche awareness, ice axe and crampon training as well as basic rope work and using snow anchors to improve personal security on steep ground.
Preparing our bed for the night - Snow holes in Cairngorm
Copyright: Mountain and Sea Guides