Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool REVIEW

The Icebox does the igloo engineering for you, but you still have a steep learning curve. Once you master the technique, you may discover a new and fun wintertime activity.

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by Will Rietveld and Janet Reichl | 2006-11-28 03:00:00-07

Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool REVIEW

Introduction

The Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool is an alternative approach to building an igloo. Instead of the traditional method of packing snow, cutting blocks, carrying them, shaping them, and assembling them, the Icebox’s slip form and pivot rod allow you to build blocks in place which is a lot faster and dryer. Although the Icebox takes care of the igloo engineering for you, there’s still a lot of technique to master, as explained in its 20-page instruction book and video. In this review we describe how the tool works, assess how easy it is to use, and reveal how snow conditions affect its ease of use.

What’s Good

  • Compact and easy to attach to a pack
  • Weighs only 5 pounds, about the same as a tent
  • Packable, especially for group trips
  • Faster (and dryer) than conventional igloo-building methods
  • Relatively easy to use with packable snow
  • Builds a perfect igloo that is very strong

What’s Not so Good

  • Requires skill development
  • Challenging to use with sugar snow
  • Pivot stake loosens and moves

Specifications

  Year/Manufacturer/Model

2005 Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Tool

  Weight

Measured weight 5 lb 3 oz (2.35 kg), manufacturer specification 4 lb 14 oz (2.21 kg) excluding instruction manual and video

  Materials

Sectional pivot pole is aluminum, all other components are ABS plastic

  What’s Included

Slip form (outer panel, inner panel, end panel, U bar), pivot pole (four sections for different size igloos, plus an inner sleeve, toggle link and handle, socket end), and two stakes (one for deep snow, one for shallow snow), retainer clips and straps, instruction manual and video

  MSRP

$176 US, optional door $40

Performance

Out of the box, the Icebox comes in a compact flat package measuring 24 inches x 14 inches x 3 inches. All of the components fit neatly inside the two halves of the block-molding form, and the unit is secured with two nylon straps. It’s concave on one side and easily attaches to the front of a backpack. With a packed weight of about 5 pounds (depending on which components you take), the Icebox is fairly lightweight (about the same weight as a 2-person tent) and very packable.

Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool REVIEW - 1
The Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool collapses to a compact 5 pound package (top left) that can easily be attached to a backpack. A long-handled shovel is essential to reach snow at the top of the igloo, and adds about 2 pounds to the carry weight. Inside (top right and bottom) are an assortment of parts that assemble to create the block-molding form and pivot rod shown in the next photos.
Photo: Janet Reichl

Compared to conventional igloo building methods - where you cut snow blocks, carry them to the igloo, and shape them to fit - the Icebox follows a completely different approach. It uses the basic concept of a cement form to construct the blocks in place. The main components are a center stake, a pivot rod, and a slip form at the end of the pivot rod which is packed with snow to create the snow blocks. The center stake and pivot rod serve to create a perfect dome-shaped igloo. With the slip form, the wall of the igloo is built by creating inclined blocks in place while advancing in a spiral. The result is a perfect igloo which is structurally a very strong shape. The cross-section is actually a catenary curve where the pressure pushing in is equalized by the pressure pushing down.

Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool REVIEW - 2
The Icebox block-making form is attached to a pivot rod that rotates around a center stake (left). The form is open on the right side (right) to allow it to overlap the previous block. Note: The igloo shown in the left photo is a poor example; it was our first one using scarce, poor quality snow. .
Photo: left - Will Rietveld, right - Janet Reichl

The igloo-building crew consists of a form handler inside the igloo and a shoveler on the outside. Because of these logistics, the minimum crew is two people; it's simply not practical for one person to do both jobs. If more than two people are available, the other people can work in by trading jobs, building a ramp around the igloo (to stand on when the top is closed in), or fetching snow.

Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool REVIEW - 3
Here are a few accessories that come in handy when using the Icebox Tool. A long-handled shovel is essential to reach snow to complete the top of the igloo; the other accessories are nice to have. The form handler needs something to stand on when the top is closed in; we picture a bucket, but a snow mound or log will work. We found that the pivot stake holds best if secured with four long nails (the hammer is optional). A kneeling pad is handy for the form handler, and a water bottle and some snacks keeps him/her happy when “trapped” inside for a few hours. Finally, don’t forget the instructions!
Photo: Janet Reichl

To get the spiral started, you need to build three partial blocks to create a ramp (see photo below). Also it’s critical that the first layer be set at the correct inward angle. With each successive layer, five to eight in all, the length of the pivot rod is adjusted to place the slip form in exactly the right place and inward angle. The walls curve sharply inward at the top of the igloo, so the process changes to the person inside using only one side of the slip form to support the advancing wall being packed by a person on the outside.

Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool REVIEW - 4
Stages of igloo building. The first steps are to pack a platform and precisely angle the first course so it’s at the correct angle (left top). The first three blocks create a ramp, and the igloo is built as a succession of courses in a spiral (top right and middle left). The final courses are built against one side of the slip form (middle right). After the igloo is closed in, an entrance hole is dug to let the (panicked) form handler out (bottom left). Grand Shelters offers an optional fabric door to seal the entrance (bottom right).
Photo: top left - Kristen Nielsen, top right - La Donna Ward, middle two - Travis Ward, bottom left - La Donna Ward, bottom right - Janet Reichl

If you are following us so far, you are probably thinking “Hey, this is a piece of cake, let’s get one and have some fun building igloos with family, scout troop, or friends.” Well, there’s more that you need to know. The bottom line is this: the Icebox Tool takes care of the engineering part of igloo building, but there’s still a lot of technique involved that you need to master.

Here are a few technique factoids to illustrate the point:

  • You need to pack a solid platform for the igloo and let it set up
  • The center stake must be solidly planted so it doesn’t come loose
  • You need to learn the pivot rod settings to build the size igloo you want
  • You must set the first layer at the correct angle
  • Packing snow in the slip form requires skill and finesse (you need to pack snow to snow and expand the form a bit so it stays in place)
  • Releasing and moving the slip form requires skill so you don’t fracture the block you just completed
  • Transitioning from one layer to the next requires some finesse with adjusting the pivot rod length
  • Closing in the top requires a long reach and packing skills

We could go on in great length about all the nuances involved in mastering the technique, but we will spare you the details in this review. Fortunately, Grand Shelters is very straightforward about the steep learning curve, and provides lots of information on their website (including the user manual) to help you decide whether or not you want to purchase the tool. When you receive the Icebox Tool, it comes with a 20-page instruction manual plus a video to walk you through the learning process. We recommend reading the manual and watching the video several times, then building a smaller first igloo near home, then reading the manual and watching the video again, then advancing to building a larger igloo in the backcountry.

Last, and definitely not least, the type of snow makes a big difference with how easy it is to build an igloo using the Icebox tool. After building six igloos under different conditions we found the Icebox relatively easy to use with any snow that will form a snowball (new, wet or older snow), moderately easy to use with fresh powder snow, and challenging to use for sugar snow and depth hoar. The secret to using the latter types is pounding it repeatedly with your shovel before you load it into the slip form. Basically you are doing the same thing that an avalanche does with it - “warming” it up so it sets up well after it is packed in the form. Once you master that technique you will find that the Icebox tool will make an igloo with any type of snow. With sugar snow and depth hoar, it just takes more time and energy to do it.

Assessment

The Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool makes igloo building more do-able and fun for the average person. It handles the engineering aspects for you (which some people would argue is part of the challenge and fun), but leaves plenty of technique for you to master. Bottom line, it takes some determination and effort to master the technique, but once you become skilled, igloo building is a wonderful winter activity in snow country. Using the tool with any type of packable snow is relatively easy, however sugar snow is challenging but do-able.

One issue you are probably wondering about is whether the Icebox Igloo Building Tool can be relied upon as the only option for backcountry shelter. The short answer is that it depends on your expertise and travel plans. On the one hand it would be very risky to embark on a winter camping trip and depend on the Icebox to build an igloo shelter each night. But on the other hand you can build your own backcountry "hut" in advance and later camp in it, and it is entirely conceivable that you could build your own hut system. Other users may build an igloo in their backyard as a family activity, build one in the backcountry for a warming hut, or engage in recreational igloo building with friends.

The Icebox tool is made of high impact ABS plastic and aluminum tubing. It is the same plastic used for car parts and luggage, which means it’s extremely durable but not unbreakable. It is certainly possible to bend the pivot rod or break one of the plastic attachments, but with proper use the Icebox should last a lifetime.

What’s Unique

With the Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool you use a slip form and pivot rod to build snow blocks sequentially in place, which is a lot easier and dryer compared to the conventional method of cutting blocks with a snow saw, carrying them, and fitting them.

Recommendations for Improvement

The Icebox is well designed and constructed. In many ways it’s a specialty tool that needs to be accepted on its own terms. However, a few tweaks here and there would help make it more user-friendly:

  • Re-write sections of the user manual to provide clearer instructions. The current narrative requires several reads to understand the process.
  • Provide a sturdier center stake that is less likely to loosen
  • Revise the design of the slip form at the U-bar end so it doesn’t slip down (with the present design, the form handler has to hold the form so it doesn’t slip down)
  • Provide a card summarizing the pivot rod settings that can be taken to the field, and/or improve the list imprinted on the slip form so it’s more easily understood
  • Simplify the strap system that secures the collapsed Icebox tool - possibly by putting arrows on the form to indicate the direction the straps are inserted.


Citation

"Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool REVIEW," by Will Rietveld and Janet Reichl. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/grand_shelters_icebox_igloo_building_tool_review.html, 2006-11-28 03:00:00-07.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool REVIEW


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Carol Crooker
(cmcrooker) - MLife

Locale: Desert Southwest, USA
Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool REVIEW on 11/29/2006 06:25:35 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool REVIEW

Michael Martin
(MikeMartin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: North Idaho
Re: Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool REVIEW on 11/29/2006 06:52:34 MST Print View

Hi Will and Janet-

Nice article! I've often wondered if those things worked in the real world.

A few questions:

1) On average, how long does it take to build an Igloo?

2) What's the diameter of the finished shelter?

3) How many people will it fit?

Cheers,

-Mike

Patrick Dotterweich
(pdotterw) - F

Locale: Northern California
Grand Shelters on 11/29/2006 07:59:50 MST Print View

Very Cool (no pun intended) - great review. I want to echo same questions - especially length of time for 2 adults to constuct shelter.

ROBERT TANGEN
(RobertM2S) - M

Locale: Lake Tahoe
Half an igloo? on 12/01/2006 10:12:25 MST Print View

I wonder how well this machine would build half an igloo, no dome, with an UL tarp strung a foot above the top of the "snow fort"? A bit like the cook tents often used on Denali. This would breathe better than an igloo, with less weight looming above. I'm thinking of buying the machine, going out on a route I usually do more than once a season, and pre-building a hut system of one or more of these forts, to allow snow camping with only a tarp.

Will Rietveld
(WilliWabbit) - MLife

Locale: Southwest Colorado
Igloo Building on 12/01/2006 13:04:26 MST Print View

Hi everyone,
Janet and I will be coming out with an article in January on "Igloo Building for Fun and Shelter" that article will answer all your questions. Sorry to keep you in suspense, but BPL's policy is not to release any of the content until the article is published.

The idea of building a half-height igloo sounds intriguing. It would certainly be easier to build, and be better vented, but not as warm as a regular igloo. Also, it would not support very much snow.

Happy holidays!! Will

David Bonn
(david_bonn) - F

Locale: North Cascades
Re: Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool REVIEW on 12/01/2006 16:18:31 MST Print View

I've a couple of thoughts about this product. I haven't used this product myself, and only made igloos a couple of times (which I suspect is more often than many people here on this list).

One thought is that the "classic" igloo construction procedure I learned worked like so:

(1) Pack a bunch of snow down.
(2) Wait and let it set up.
(3) Cut blocks.
(4) Assemble the igloo from the blocks.

With this tool, it looks like you pack and set one block at a time. Do you need to wait to let each block set up? This might be a big problem depending on the snow conditions. To me, igloos really shine in those cold, dry snow conditions. Those are also the times when you need the most wait time to get the snow properly set up.

It really does seem like a two-person device. Without one of these gadgets it is easier to put three or four people to work building the igloo.

Honestly, for the weight I've got to wonder if this product has an acceptable utility-to-weight ration. It is pretty cool. It also would be very useful for learning how to build an igloo.

ROBERT TANGEN
(RobertM2S) - M

Locale: Lake Tahoe
Igloo on 12/01/2006 17:53:02 MST Print View

Re Will's: "Also, it would not support very much snow." Very true for a flat tarp. On Denali they use pyramid tarps for better snow shedding. However, they don't really trust them, since they sleep in VE-25s and MH geodesic dome tents. The only time I tried to build an igloo, I ended up with a single course of blooks in a circle 15 feet in diameter, a veritable football stadium.

Will Rietveld
(WilliWabbit) - MLife

Locale: Southwest Colorado
Icebox Igloo Building Tool on 12/02/2006 06:16:19 MST Print View

The Icebox is indeed a 2-person operation, one person inside the igloo to handle the slip-form and one person outside to shovel snow. Extra people can help to collect snow or swap in. But, you are right, it mainly occupies 2 people, while a conventional igloo can utilize several people.

One important difference is that blocks are made in place from loose snow, so you don't have to pack an area of snow, let it set up, cut blocks, carry them to the igloo, and shape them to fit. Its like casting concrete to build a structue.

One alternative I would like to try sometime is to build a log lean-to in the late fall and cover it with a tarp. The snow would cover it, and viola - you get a snow shelter. You would have to peek in the first time you use it to make sure a bear hasn't taken residence!

A good construction method would be to tie a ridgepole between 2 trees, and lay side purlins against that, keeping the ridge as smooth as possible so the tarp can be laid over it without puncturing. And of course, you need to go back in the spring and take it down and pack out your tarp so you don't leave a mess.

Food for thought. I think the lean-to + tarp would be a lot easier than digging a snow cave or building an igloo, but would be a lot less aesthetic. Digging a snow cave or building an igloo by the conventional method is also a very wet process.

ROBERT TANGEN
(RobertM2S) - M

Locale: Lake Tahoe
Log lean-to on 12/02/2006 08:43:49 MST Print View

If you did without the tarp, and made the lean-to very stealthy and hidden away, perhaps you could build a permanent private hut system. I often channel the spirit of "Lucy," the Australopithicus afarensis from Hadar, Ethiopia, and her suggestion is to cover the lean-to with brush and dead branches, making it look like a natural wind-blown brush pile.

Brian James
(bjamesd) - F

Locale: South Coast of BC
lean-to on 12/05/2006 14:57:16 MST Print View

The thing about a lean-to is that it's not a catenary structure, so it would have a limited ability to bear snow load. Also, if you don't pack the snow it offers no strength -- only weight on your tarp.

In BC we walk on 10-20 feet of snow by the end of winter; you would have to dig down a long way to find your lean-to! Also when you don't build your structure "above" ground level, you create a cold air well effect so that the coldest air sinks down to where you're sleeping.

The Ice Box seems like it could be used to build a hut system as well... it would take a few weekends but eventually you could have enough huts for a 4+ night out-and-back or loop trail; now that sounds like fun! Just bring a GPS so you can set your hut back into the trees a bit and still find it again. :)

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Icebox Igloo Building Tool on 12/10/2006 14:24:21 MST Print View

It's nice to see a review of this tool. Having looked at this product on the company Web site a few years ago I found it to be at least a nifty tool that would allow for the building of nearly perfectly engineered structures.

In response to the slightly off topic notion of building log lean-tos that fill in with snow. I built something of this nature at my local ski resort a few years ago that filled in with snow nicely and was relatively warm in the winters.Back Door to Evan's Heaven Shack, The Big Mountain, Whitefish, MT

Edited by sharalds on 12/10/2006 14:28:11 MST.

ROBERT TANGEN
(RobertM2S) - M

Locale: Lake Tahoe
Re: Igloos and lean-tos on 12/10/2006 16:40:19 MST Print View

Re: "In BC we walk on 10-20 feet of snow by the end of winter; you would have to dig down a long way to find your lean-to!" For areas of the world that get a super amount of snow, you could take a dozen chain-saw handlers with saws, and build a watch tower 12' wide, by 12' deep, and 30' high. When the snow is 10' deep, use the exterior door that leads into the 2nd floor, when it is 20' deep use the door to the 3ed floor. When the snow is really deep, dig down to the trap door on the roof. Then rent it out to owners of a meth lab to defray expenses. (Get all rent in advance.)

Kevin Denlinger
(ktdenlinger) - F

Locale: Great Lakes Region
Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool on 01/05/2007 18:44:16 MST Print View

My hiking buddy and I have been using (or at least attempting to use) this tool for at least 5 years. Only once, we have completed and ingloo in the field. We do this annually ( not including at home). Generally, it is a nice concept, but this bulky and clumsy item is no longer on our packing list for winter trips. We have spent several quality hours on numerous occasions slaving to build an igloo ( good guy time ), but we generally give up about 2/3 of the way. Finally, he has aggreed not to bring it on this years trip.

James Pitts
(jjpitts) - F

Locale: Midwest US
re: Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Building Tool on 01/05/2007 18:58:48 MST Print View

I have one of these... let me tell you. If you want to be the A-#1 most popular dad on the block wait for a big snowstorm and then go build an igloo in the backyard of all kids in the neighborhood. This year no snow = no igloos. That said, I enjoy the heck out of this thing. I can't make blocks from "sugar snow", probably a lack of patience on my part, but we don't get a lot of that good stuff here in the midwest. My advice, try one out before you sink the cash but it can be a LOT of fun.

Michael McMillan
(mikegrok)
build one early in the year, then use it the rest of the year on 06/10/2012 13:33:52 MDT Print View

I looked these up on youtube. The general consensus is that it takes 4 hours for a pair of in shape adults to build a small igloo, and 8 hours for a pair of adults (don't know if they were in shape) to build a large igloo.

Because of the shape, it is quite strong. It is not a hemisphere, it is taller, and quite strong.

One of the reviewers on youtube Said that they go out every year in the fall once there was enough snow down, and spend all day building one at each of their favorite snow camping sites, then use them the rest of the year.

It will make igloos of a diameters of 7, 8, or 11 feet.

Edited by mikegrok on 06/10/2012 13:35:52 MDT.