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.
- 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
|2005 Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo Tool|
|Measured weight 5 lb 3 oz (2.35 kg), manufacturer specification 4 lb 14 oz (2.21 kg) excluding instruction manual and video|
|Sectional pivot pole is aluminum, all other components are ABS plastic|
|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|
|$176 US, optional door $40|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.