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Reviews > Shelters > Shelter Accessories > Grand Shelters Icebox > Test Report by Andrew Henrichs
Grand Shelters ICEBOX Igloo Tool
Test Series by Andy Henrichs
April 26, 2009
Long Term Report - 4-26-09
The Grand Shelters ICEBOX Igloo Tool is a plastic form that allows the user to construct an igloo from snow. The tool can be adjusted to build igloos with diameters of 7 ft (2.13 m), 8 ft (2.44 m), 9 ft (2.74 m), 10 ft (3.05 m), or 11 ft (3.35 m). These igloos sleep 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 people, respectively. The tool allows the user to build an igloo with walls that follow a catenary curve. According to the Grand Shelters website, the catenary curve is the arc used in the flying buttresses found on cathedrals throughout Europe. This curve allows the snow to support its own weight and significantly reduces the chance of collapse. The ICEBOX Igloo Tool appears fairly complex initially. It comes with 14 parts, 4 straps and buckles, a 23 page instruction manual, and an instructional DVD. The parts include an outer panel, an inner panel, a U Bar, an end panel, 2 stakes (one for shallow snow, one for deep snow), a small diameter pole, 4 large diameter poles, a toggle handle, a toggle link, and a socket pole. I will briefly summarize the basic assembly here. Those seeking more detailed information should download the instruction manual from the Grand Shelters website.
After unpacking the ICEBOX, the form itself is constructed by snapping the end panel onto both the outer and inner panel. The U Bar is then slid into the appropriate slots. The pole assembly is slightly more complicated. Different poles will be needed depending on the size igloo the user will be building. This is the reason for the slight difference in the weight of the ICEBOX tool between igloo sizes. Regardless of the size igloo being built, a stake, socket pole, toggle handle, toggle link, and small diameter pole are mandatory. In addition to these mandatory parts, two additional poles are required. If building a 7 ft (2.13 m) igloo, the poles labeled "IGLOO SIZE 10 ft" and "7' IGLOO" are used. If building a 8 ft (2.44 m) or 10 ft (3.05 m) igloo, the poles labeled "IGLOO SIZE 10 ft" and "IGLOO SIZE 8 or 9 ft" are used. If building a 9 ft (2.74 m) or 11 ft (3.35 m) igloo, the poles labeled "IGLOO SIZE 8 or 9 ft" and "IGLOO SIZE 11 ft" are used. Each length of pole (except for the small diameter pole) has several other labeled holes. These labeled holes are used to adjust the pole to its required length, which varies depending on which row of the igloo is being constructed. The instruction manual can clarify this much better than I can. After the poles are assembled, one end is snapped into the socket pole, which in turn is snapped into the appropriate stake. The other end of the pole is inserted into the toggle handle. The handle is then lifted away from the pole and the toggle link is snapped into the appropriate holes.
According to the manufacturer, the ICEBOX Igloo Tool can be used to make an igloo in any type or consistency of snow. This tool is designed to be used with 2 or more people. One person serves as the shoveler and shovels snow into the form. The other person is the form handler. This person lightly packs the snow into the form and moves the form forward once a block is complete. With the tool completely assembled, a platform must first be packed down. For maximum durability, the manufacturers recommend packing the platform with boots only. This is significantly more work but supposedly results in an extremely strong foundation. In most cases, this platform will be packed while wearing skis or snowshoes. Once the ski or snowshoe-packed platform begins to harden, it can be packed further with boots. The platform should be solid enough that the form handler can move about the platform in boots without sinking in or disturbing the platform. The platform should be of a larger diameter than the igloo being built. This will provide a solid outer ledge that the shoveler can walk on during construction. Once the platform is packed, the stake should be inserted into the snow in the center of the platform. The first 3 blocks of the first row of the igloo form a ramp. The form should be filled 1/3 full against the end panel for the first block, 2/3 full for the second block, and to the top of the end panel for the third block. For all blocks of the first row, it's important to make sure that the form is aligned to the ground correctly. The end panel has 2 plumb lines. One is marked "8, 9 FT" and the other is marked "7, 10, 11 FT." Aligning the form correctly ensures that the proper catenary curve is kept throughout the igloo. After the first row is complete, it is no longer necessary to heed these plumb lines. The form is simply aligned with the previous row. After a block is completed, the form handler raises the U Bar, lifts the toggle handle and gently slides the form out of the way. Once clear of the completed block, the U Bar is dropped back into place and the toggle handle is snapped back down.
Once the igloo reaches a certain height, depending on the size being built, the U Bar and outer panel can be removed. This makes it easier for the shoveler to pour snow into the form. For the last block, the end panel is removed and the form handler positions the pole straight up so the inner panel is parallel to the ground. Snow is then gently poured onto the form and gently packed. The manufacturer stresses that the form should be removed as soon as the final block is in place. If it is not removed, settling snow can bend the pole.
The interior of the igloo is accessed by building a door. Ideally, the top of the door is at or below floor level. This helps to keep the igloo warmer by trapping in heat. The manufacturer recommends building a door slightly wider than shoulder width and tall enough so that one can walk through it when stooped over. They also recommend building a trough measuring 18 in (45.7 cm) deep part of the way across the igloo. This creates a more comfortable seating area for occupants and also allows most people to stand inside the igloo. One question that appears to have been asked repeatedly of the manufacturer concerns ventilation. The manufacturer recommends creating a 1 in (2.5 cm) diameter ventilation hole in the ceiling and states that carbon monoxide levels are well within the allowable standard as determined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), even while using a candle and stove inside the igloo.
For those interested in more details regarding assembly of the Grand Shelters ICEBOX Igloo Tool, I strongly recommend downloading the instruction manual from the Grand Shelters website. It's a great resource and covers the topic in much more detail than I've been able to provide here. In addition to assembly, it also provides great detail on snow gathering, igloo construction, and ventilation concerns. It also contains information on how one can construct a solo igloo.
I was fairly overwhelmed when I first opened the ICEBOX. There are a lot of pieces and while I could intuit how some of them would assemble upon first glance, the instruction manual is vital. I had spent a fair amount of time perusing the instruction manual online before the ICEBOX arrived, so I had some idea of what was to be expected. It was with great relief that I discovered that the instructions (particularly relating to pole assembly and adjustment) made much more sense once I actually had the ICEBOX in my hands. Still, I had to read sections of the instructions 2 or 3 times before I felt like I completely understood them. I was also relieved to discover that not all of the pieces are required for every igloo. I will get to leave the shallow snow stake and 2 large-diameter poles at home on every trip. After assembling and disassembling the ICEBOX several times, I feel quite confident in my ability to assemble it correctly in the field. Still, I plan on bringing the instruction manual along on my first couple of uses to ensure that nothing goes wrong.
I watched the instructional DVD last night and was pleased to find that it clarified construction even more than the instruction manual. While the manual is well written, some of the nuances are difficult to put on paper. It was quite beneficial to see the ICEBOX in action. The instructional DVD is available for free download on the Grand Shelters website, but my computer would only download the audio for some reason. The plumb lines and plumb line labels I mentioned previously are simply raised plastic. As the plastic is yellow, it can be difficult to see them clearly. According to the instructional DVD, the manufacturer has highlighted their plumb lines and labels with a black marker. I will probably do the same, as any misalignment of the first row results in an unstable igloo.
The yellow straps on the ICEBOX serve to secure the two halves together during transport and also serve as a way to attach the tool to a pack. I typically pack heavier items close to my back for stability, so I'm not thrilled with the idea of having it strapped on the outside of my pack while skiing. I'm anxious to see if this bothers me at all. Another concern I have is that of noise. One of my favorite things about traveling in the backcountry in winter is the silence. With all those parts stowed inside the ICEBOX, they seem to rattle a fair amount when it's moved. I'm wondering if I'll have to wrap any of the poles in cloth to keep them quiet.
One extremely useful feature found on the Grand Shelters website is the Forum. Most of the entries in the forum are from the inventor of the ICEBOX. He uses them to clarify certain aspects of igloo construction and also adds some useful tips. Again, I've found that the information found on the Forum page makes much more sense when I actually have the ICEBOX Tool in front of me. In addition to the entries by the inventor, several other individuals have added their thoughts, experiences, and questions to the board. As I begin to actually construct igloos, I believe I will refer to the Forum page fairly often.
I have tested the Grand Shelters ICEBOX Igloo Tool in central Colorado. Elevations on both of these trips have been approximately 10,400 ft (3200 m). My igloo site on both of these days were in clearings of pine trees. The temperatures during the first day was approximately 0° F (-18° C). The temperature during the second day was approximately 25° F (-4° C). During the first day there was a moderate wind and snow. The weather on the second day was beautiful, with blue skies and plenty of sun.
I have used the ICEBOX Igloo Tool on two occasions so far. Notice I didn't say I built two igloos. Both of my attempts took place fairly close to the car so I wouldn't be in trouble if the igloo construction didn't go well. That was good planning on my part. I attribute my failure to Mother Nature on my first attempt. A friend and I parked at a winter trailhead, skied about 100 ft (30 m) from the car, and began stomping out a platform. The mountains had recently received 15 in (38 cm) of new snow. Being Colorado, the snow was of an extremely low density. We started stomping out a large platform with our skis on. In addition to the fresh powder, there was approximately 24 in (61 cm) of depth hoar at our site. This made it rather difficult to stomp out a platform. We spent about 10 minutes stomping around with our skis on, took a 5 minute break, and spent an additional 10 minutes stomping the platform with only our boots on. After a final 10 minute wait, we tested the platform. It had sintered fairly well, but we still found spots where we would sink in if we walked on them. All of our stomping around had made us work up a sweat and we were quickly cooling down during the breaks. The fact that the temperature was 0° F (-18° C) simply accelerated that cooling. I had spent a fair amount of time reviewing the manual before I left and the assembly went very smoothly. We located our center point, inserted the stake, and began constructing a 9 ft (2.7 m) igloo.
The first few blocks seemed to go fairly well. We had some difficulty keeping the form in proper alignment at times, but eventually got the hang of it. Being our first time, the block construction was taking significantly longer than I expected. After 45 minutes of building, we only had half of the first layer completed. The combination of our slow speed, cold temperatures, and crawling around in the snow was beginning to take its toll on us. Both of us were getting uncomfortably cold. We decided to retreat to the car just before we finished the first row. Given our construction pace, we were looking at an unreasonable amount of time before we would finish the igloo.
My second attempt went better, but I still didn't complete an igloo. I wasn't able to find anyone else willing or able to help with my construction, so I set off to build a 7 ft (2.1 m) igloo all by myself. In doing so, I ignored the statement in the instruction manual that says "an inexperienced individual should not expect to be able to take the ICEBOX out into the backcountry and singlehandedly construct an adequate snow shelter." It turns out the instruction manual is correct. Like the first attempt, I parked at a winter trailhead, skied over a large snowbank and found a clearing not far from my car. I immediately started stomping out a platform on my skis. This site featured 6 in (15 cm) of new powder on top of a 9 in (23 cm) crust. Below the crust layer was 28 in (71 cm) of depth hoar. It took me approximately 45 minutes to stomp out this platform. Again, I was too impatient during this attempt and began construction before the platform was completely sintered. As a result, the center stake was able to shift slightly during construction. This caused significant problems later in the construction. Construction of this igloo started out on the wrong foot. My third block fractured as soon as I moved the form. I was able to brush it away and reset the form without too much of a hassle. I also discovered how difficult it is to position the form at the proper angle when building an igloo by myself. After finishing 1/3 of the first row, I had become much more comfortable with solo construction and the building was going well. The construction of the rest of the first layer through the third layer went very well. As I began the fourth layer, I began to see the results of my early mistakes. The shifting of the center stake combined with the improper form tilt during the first row resulted in some upper blocks being poorly supported. The form was sitting approximately 3 in (8 cm) too far towards the center of the igloo. This caused a ledge on the exterior of the igloo and a gap on the interior. This gap prevented me from forming a complete block. I would have to use chunks of snow (which is not recommended by the manufacturer) to fill the gap. When I attempted to move the form, the entire block would collapse, sloughing off a layer of the interior wall of the igloo in the process. This, in turn, left me with a larger gap to fill. These errors culminated at the third block of the fourth layer. I spent 45 minutes trying to complete this block. After a lot of yelling, swearing, and kicking snow, I gave up. All in all, I spent 3 hours during actual construction of this igloo.
While I haven't been able to complete an igloo, I have learned valuable lessons. I've learned how vital it is to let the platform fully sinter before one begins construction. That is truly an exercise in patience given the low density of Colorado snow. According to the Grand Shelters forums, the inventor of the ICEBOX identifies a prime platform site early in the season and stomps out a platform every time he passes through the area. Given my work schedule, this isn't a realistic approach for me. I need to stomp out a platform, go for a short ski tour, return to the site, and continue construction. I have also learned how important it is to be meticulous during the first layer. While I was able to make up for my mistakes early on, they caught up with my in the end. One thing that surprised me was how little I had to work during construction. I expected to be working much harder, sweating more, and staying warmer. From now on, I'm going to ensure that I wear much warmer clothes while using the ICEBOX in order to stay warm.
I'm excited for my next igloo attempt. I'm still having a difficult time trying to find others to help me, but I feel that I will have better success with a solo attempt next time. I have picked up many useful solo building tips from the Grand Shelters forum and intend to consult it again before my next trip.
My three ICEBOX Igloo Tool uses during the Long Term Report phase took place in central Colorado. Two of these attempts took place in essentially the same location; an easily accessible trailhead near Hoosier Pass, Colorado. The elevation at this trailhead is approximately 10,500 ft (3,200 m). The first of these two attempts was after a long dry spell. As a result, I encountered no powder snow but lots of sugar snow. Temperatures hovered around 20° F (-7° C) during this attempt. My site was a clearing in an area heavily treed with pines, so I rarely felt the sun when it managed to pop through the trees. The second of the two attempts at this location had slightly more favorable conditions. After another week without snow, the mountains received approximately 6 in (15 cm) of snow the day before my attempt. Temperatures rose to 35° F (2° C) quickly and skies were almost completely cloudless. The powder snow sat on top of a thin crust which, in turn, covered a significant amount of sugar snow. My third and final attempt took place in a clearing near Monarch Pass, Colorado at an elevation of 11,100 ft (3,400 m). The week preceding this attempt was quite warm. In many mountainous locations, the snowpack below 11,000 ft (3,400 m) was not even freezing at night! This location featured up to 4 in (10 cm) of sugary/slushy snow atop nearly 3 ft (0.9 m) of very heavy, compacted, wet snow.
I have only completed one of the five igloos I have attempted to build during the entire testing session. All three of the igloos attempted during the Long Term Report phase were 7 ft (2.1 m) igloos and I attempted to build all three by myself. After feeling that I had learned several lessons during my two Field Report attempts, I struck out on my next attempt quite optimistic. I realized that one of the most time-consuming parts of construction (at least in the typical Colorado snowpack) was stomping out a platform and waiting for it to sinter. To give myself an edge, I parked at the trailhead an hour before sunset, found a suitable location not far from the car, and began stomping with my skis on. After 20 minutes, I was satisfied with the platform size I had created. I headed back towards the car, set up a tent, read for a while, and went to bed. The next morning I returned to my platform and was very pleased to find that I could walk on it in my boots without sinking at all. I quickly assembled the ICEBOX Igloo Tool, staked it out, and began shoveling. I was able to complete the first layer with only moderate troubles. Once I began the second layer, I discovered how difficult it is to construct an igloo with sugar snow. The snow poured through any open spaces between the form and previous layer. I tried plugging these spaces with chunks of snow as advised in the instruction manual, but I found that these blocks made the wall unstable. I had countless blocks fail on me at the border of the snow plugs and loose sugar snow. After spending three hours completing only the first two layers, I quit in disgust. The blocks were fracturing more and more often and I was getting more and more angry.
The second Long Term Report phase test didn't go much better. As I mentioned in my "Field Conditions" section, I had more powder snow, but it was also quite warm. Given the success of my "show up a day early and stomp out a platform" idea, I did the same before this attempt. Like before, I awoke to find a perfect and solid platform. I began shoveling snow into the form and also began sweating quickly. By 9 am, it was 35° F (2°C). Approximately one quarter of my site was shaded and three quarters were in the sun. Initially, construction went well. While I had a couple of first layer blocks fracture, I was able to quickly and easily replace them. I realized that the platform I stomped out this time was too large and forced me to take a couple of steps to gather a shovelful of snow. This may seem minor, but it added up quickly. I was forced to do a lot more kneeling, standing, walking, and scooping than I had done in previous igloo attempts and it slowed me down noticeably. Shortly after beginning the second layer, I realized that I was too lax in setting the first layer alignment. Many blocks did not line up well and the sugar snow I was using would again slide through the opening between the form and first layer. I made a conscious effort to use powder snow to fill these gaps and that seemed to work fairly well. As the temperature climbed, I noticed more and more warm snow sticking to the form. This led to several blocks fracturing. I also found that the warmer snow did not bond well with the sugar snow. This proved to be most problematic when I was building a block that was partially in the shade and partially in the sun. This problem grew as the temperature warmed. By the time I had finished two and a half layers, I could no longer complete a block. No matter how many precautions I took, it would fracture. After spending nearly one hour on a single block, I quit my attempt.
Given my previous four experiences, I was not excited about my fifth attempt. This was compounded by the fact that temperatures had been very warm and no snow had fallen. I was again planning to arrive the night before the attempt, stomp out a platform, and build the igloo the next day. When I arrived at the trailhead at 6:30 pm, it was 40° F (4° C), which discouraged me even more. I skinned up the trail about 0.25 mi (0.4 km), ducked into the trees and found a perfect opening on top of a ridge. I dropped my pack and started stomping out a platform with my skis on. The snowpack in this location was quite solid and I took my skis off to test it. To my surprise, I hardly sank at all. I still had about 1.5 hours before sunset, so I impulsively assembled the ICEBOX Igloo Tool and started building. The surface snow consisted of dense and cold slush. It built a wonderful igloo block! Before knew it, I had completed the first layer. Glancing at the horizon, I realized I still had a fair amount of time before sunset, so I resolved to complete the igloo that night. The slush I was working with was incredibly forgiving. In my haste, I made all sorts of mistakes: Form misalignments, accidental bumps, jarring shovelfuls of snow. None of these caused a block fracture. If I left a small gap or thin spot in the igloo wall, I could easily plug it with a handful of slush. Once I began the fourth layer, I removed the U-bar and outer panel. This helped to accelerate construction speed even more, although I had to carefully hold the inner panel in place when I poured snow onto it. The heavy snow would spin, pivot, and twist the inner panel if I didn't attend to it well. I began the fifth layer just after sunset and I finished the top of the igloo before the last light left the sky. I was amazed!
Quite proud of myself, I began to create a more suitable entryway. I patched any thin spots on the inside of the igloo, leveled the floor, and unpacked my backpack. I realized that the 7 ft (2.1 m) igloos are a little too small for me. I couldn't stretch out without both my head and feet pressing into the walls. As such, I had to sleep curled up. While reading in the igloo, I had several small pieces of snow fall onto me. These were small angular corners that melted off the ceiling once I added my body heat to the interior of the igloo. Shortly before I fell asleep, it started to snow outside. I realized that my door extended too far above the floor when I was pelted in the face by occasional snowflakes that were blown inside. My door extended 15 in (38 cm) above the floor. I should have dug a deeper trench to compensate for a lower door. As an experiment, I placed one water bottle next to me on the floor of the igloo and placed another on the floor of the entryway trench. In the morning, the water in the trench had frozen while the water next to me was cold but unfrozen. The ceiling of the igloo had iced over during the night. Once I was packed up, I went outside and crawled onto the top of the igloo to test its strength. Much to my surprise, it held. I didn't feel the snow shift under me at all.
The ICEBOX Igloo Tool was one of the most frustrating pieces of gear that I've ever used. It requires a lot of practice, patience, and a thorough understanding of the tool. That said, I almost exclusively used it by myself as none of my friends were interested in building an igloo. The instruction manual states that a novice should not expect to go out alone and build an igloo successfully. I completely agree with that. The fact that my friends aren't interested in building an igloo makes me less likely to use it in the future. Given my experiences with the tool, I don't see myself relying on it in the backcountry. I would rather haul in the extra weight of a 4-season tent than risk that the snow will not be conducive to igloo construction. If I do convince a friend to build an igloo with me, I feel it would be necessary to show that friend how it works and practice in a safe environment before venturing further into the backcountry. Unfortunately, this uses up another day of my free time.
I have to admit that I was thrilled to actually complete an igloo and had a lot of fun sleeping inside of it. It was a very unique experience and did offer some great benefits, additional warmth being not the least of these. While I will probably use the ICEBOX Igloo Tool in the future, it will be as a novelty, not as a reliable backcountry shelter.
Thank you to Grand Shelters and BackpackGearTest.org for giving me the opportunity to test this tool.
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