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Reviews > Shelters > Shelter Accessories > Grand Shelters Icebox > Test Report by Mike Curry

GRAND SHELTERS ICEBOX IGLOO CONSTRUCTION
TEST SERIES BY MIKE CURRY
LONG-TERM REPORT
April 21, 2009

CLICK HERE TO SKIP TO THE FIELD REPORT
CLICK HERE TO SKIP TO THE LONG-TERM REPORT

TESTER INFORMATION

NAME: Mike Curry
EMAIL: thefishguyAThotmailDOTcom
AGE: 38
LOCATION: Aberdeen, Washington
GENDER: M
HEIGHT: 5' 11" (1.80 m)
WEIGHT: 225 lb (102.00 kg)

I've been backpacking, climbing, ski-packing, bushwhacking, and snowshoeing throughout the mountains of Oregon and Washington for the last 25 years. I'm an all-season, all-terrain, off-trail kind of guy, but these days (having small kids) most of my trips run on the shorter side of things, and tend to be in the temperate rainforest. While I've carried packs (with winter climbing gear) in excess of 70 pounds (32 kilos), the older I get the more minimalist I become.


INITIAL REPORT

PRODUCT INFORMATION & SPECIFICATIONS

IMAGE 5
As Packaged
Manufacturer: Grand Shelters Inc.
Year of Manufacture: 2008
Manufacturer's Website: www.grandshelters.com
MSRP: US $179.95
Listed Weights by Igloo Size Configuration:

7 ft (2.13 m) x 44 in (112 cm) Configuration - 4.8 lb (2.18 kg)
8 & 10 ft (2.44 & 3.05 m) x 61 in (155 cm) Configuration - 4.88 lb (2.21 kg)
9 & 11 ft (2.74 & 3.35 m) x 67 in (170 cm) Configuration - 4.92 lb (2.23 kg)

Measured Weights by Igloo Size Configuration:

7 ft (2.13 m) x 44 in (112 cm) Configuration - 4 lb 12 oz (2.15 kg)
8 & 10 ft (2.44 & 3.05 m) x 61 in (155 cm) Configuration - 4 lb 13.4 oz (2.19 kg)
9 & 11 ft (2.74 & 3.35 m) x 67 in (170 cm) Configuration - 4 lb 14.1 oz (2.21 kg)

Other details:

All weights are for the spike stake configuration. If using the flat "shallow snow" stake, subtract 1 oz (28.35 g) from the weights listed above, and add the weight of whatever base piece (plywood is suggested by the manufacturer) and attachment hardware are used to mount it.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS

The ICEBOX igloo construction tool is a slip-form device used to pack snow into blocks to construct an igloo shelter. The ICEBOX arrived in good conditon in retail packaging, which consisted of a cardboard box with a label on the front, including photos of igloos in various stages of completion, and product information printed on the back of the box.

IMAGE 4
Retainer Clip
Upon opening the box, my initial reaction was one of surprise that the yellow nylon straps which buckle around the inner and outer panels didn't wrap completely around the panels. These straps both keep the panels together, and are used for attaching the ICEBOX to a pack. Instead of surrounding the panels, the straps have slender tabs (called retainer clips) which slide through slots in each panel, effectively locking the panels together. The straps can then be threaded through attachment points on a pack, looped back over the ICEBOX, and clipped together with quick-release buckles. The straps can be adjusted in length to allow for different attachment needs.

IMAGE 2
All Components Stow Inside
After undoing the quick release buckles on the straps, and depressing a small tab on each of the four retainer clips which hold the inner and outer panels together, I was able to separate the inner and outer panels. Between the panels were the rest of the components of the ICEBOX, including the U-Bar, end panel, stakes (flat and spike), socket pole, toggle link and handle (assembled), and the poles. Also included inside were a DVD tutorial video, a 22 page instructional manual, and an informational flyer, all in a re-closeable glassine bag.

My initial impression of the materials used in construction was again surprise, specifically relating to the plastic components. The end panel, stakes, toggle components and socket pole are quite rigid plastic, but the inner and outer panels and the U-bar are rather flexible plastic. I suspect it has more to do with their size than composition, as they appear to be made of essentially the same plastic material. I guess I had expected all the pieces to be rather rigid, but the larger pieces are more flexible than I anticipated. The aluminum poles are a gold/yellow color, and the plastic components are black, red, and yellow, all allowing good visibility in the snow.

IMAGE 3
Components (Excluding Straps and Front and Back Panels)
The poles appear to be constructed of aluminum, and consist of a small diameter pole that is used between two large diameter poles. They remind me very much of the poles I used with my old cabin tent when I was a kid. Two large diameter poles are selected based on the combination needed to create the size igloo desired, and the small diameter pole is used to join them together. One of the panels has a chart molded into it showing which pole combination to use for each size of igloo. The large diameter poles are clearly labeled, making it easy to understand which hole to use for each layer of the igloo, however the marking system isn't entirely intuitive. It did make perfect sense after watching the tutorial video and reading the instructions, though.

The poles connect to each other and to the socket with spring loaded buttons on either end of the small diameter middle pole that pop into various holes on the large diameter outer poles. The springs seem particularly strong (stronger than those on my similar old cabin tent pole). The toggle handle attaches to two holes on the end of one of the large diameter pole being used closest to the box assembly, and the socket pole/stake assembly attaches with a spring loaded button in the large diameter pole at the other end. The length of the pole is adjusted by changing the hole the button is located in for each level of the igloo, allowing the igloo to form an inverted catenary (arch) in profile. A catenary curve is the theoretical shape of a hanging flexible cable, supported at its ends and acted upon by a uniform gravitational force (its own weight) and in equilibrium. This curve inverted as an arch forms the strongest self-supporting profile possible.

IMAGE 6
Toggle Closed and Released
The toggle handle attaches to the center of the inner panel by means of a push-together ball and socket connection, which is also used to connect the other end of the pole structure (the socket pole) to the stake. The toggle handle, when released, shortens the effective length of the pole slightly, allowing the form to be more easily released from the current block and advanced to the next position.

IMAGE 7
Box With U-Bar in Raised and Lowered Positions
The box itself is formed by snapping the connectors on the end panel to pins protruding on the end of the inner and outer panel, forming a three-sided box. The U-bar then slides down from above into openings in the inner and outer panels. The end panel has two lines on it which must be placed perpendicular to the ground for the first layer (which line is used is determined by the size of the igloo being made). At the top of these lines are holes allowing the user to create a plumb bob of some sort to ensure the box is held at the correct angle. Subsequent layers of the igloo do not require use of these lines, as the box is simply centered over the block it is placed upon.

The basic theory is to anchor the center stake, which then connects the pole with the three-sided box on the other end. Snow is then packed into the form (packing snow against snow, not snow against form), release it by pulling up the U-Bar, and advance it forward. The first three blocks are partially filled to form a ramp, and the pole length is adjusted on each layer at the middle of the ramp so that the profile of the resulting igloo is a catenary curve. For upper layers, the outer panel and U-Bar can be removed to make it easier to use the form.

READING THE INSTRUCTIONS

The instructions provided with the ICEBOX igloo construction tool include a brief tutorial video that demonstrates igloo construction in sugar snow, and a 22 page manual.

Learning to use the ICEBOX seemed rather daunting at first mostly because of all the holes and numbers in each large-diameter pole. However, after reading the instructions, I feel fairly confident in my ability to assemble and use the ICEBOX without undue aggravation.

I would not want to attempt to build an igloo using the ICEBOX without reading the instructions and watching the tutorial video several times. Also, additional advice, instructions, and photos are available at the manufacturer's website, and were helpful in my gaining a thorough understanding of how to assemble and use the ICEBOX.

The instructions include not only the essential information for using the tool, but helpful advice on dealing with different types of snow, how to divide labor among igloo builders, and how to manage building an igloo alone.

For those wanting a better understanding of how the tool works, I suggest visiting the manufacturer's website. As of the date of this report, the instruction manual is available as a PDF and HTML document. In addition, many video clips and photos are available that help illustrate the concepts of use.

TRYING IT OUT

Since there is no snow here yet, my first experiences with the ICEBOX consisted of reading and re-reading the instructions several times, watching the tutorial video several times, and assembling the tool in my living room.

My first attempt at assembly was after a very cursory review of the instructions, and resulted in my accidentally reversing the direction the toggle link was attached to the toggle handle, and subsequently attaching the whole toggle assembly incorrectly to a pole. The toggle assembly came pre-assembled, and I was initially convinced it was connected incorrectly and reversed its direction. I corrected this after reading the instructions and coming to the realization it was correct in the first place.

In fact, during my initial attempt at putting it together I discovered several things I had done wrong (such as reversing the direction the pole assembly was mounted), but all were easily corrected.

The instructions themselves are very thorough and easy to understand but, as I learned through my attempt at assembling it after a cursory glance, they only help if I read them. Combined with the tutorial video, the manual makes me feel very comfortable attempting building an igloo now. Reviewing the information at their website further bolstered my faith in my ability to build an igloo with the ICEBOX. While not entirely intuitive, after reading the instruction manual and watching the tutorial video, it does not seem exceptionally complex.

The only concern I have relates to the flexibility of the panels. In the tutorial video, when advancing the ICEBOX from a completed block to the next position, the U-Bar is pulled up and appears to support the panel assemblies quite well. When I tried this in my living room, the assembly sagged quite a bit toward me when supported by the U-bar and the end panel, due to the flex in the panels. This may not be a problem, but I worry about my ability to advance the assembly without disturbing the block. I will report back on this after field testing.

During this initial test assembly, all parts appear to function as designed.

SUMMARY

The ICEBOX igloo construction tool appears to be a very well thought out and designed product. While rather complex and not entirely intuitive, it comes with excellent instructions and a tutorial video that leave me with little doubt I can use the tool. The product seems very well made, and I am anxious to test it under field conditions.


FIELD REPORT

FIELD LOCATIONS AND CONDITIONS

I have used the ICEBOX Igloo Construction Tool to attempt three igloos to date. Temperatures have ranged from 20 F (-7 C) to 38 F (3 C). Snow conditions have included fresh powder, soggy snow (powder that was melting due to rainfall), and powder mixed with layers of ice.

Construction occurred during generally sunny weather, light snowfall, and on one occasion during mixed snow and freezing rain. All igloos were constructed in shallow depth snow (12 in (30 cm) or less), with one being a failed attempt at a solo build. All igloos were built on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.

DESCRIPTION OF IGLOO ATTEMPTS

First off, I want to say there is almost nothing I can think of more fun than building an igloo, especially when there are other people around. I've had more fun with this device than almost any piece of gear I've ever owned.

IMAGE 2
My First Successful Igloo
My first attempt at building an igloo, and my only unsuccessful attempt, was in my back yard after an unexpected snowfall. I decided to take advantage of this unusual snow event to try the ICEBOX out and see if I understood the instructions. In a driving mix of freezing rain and snow, I struggled for three hours to complete three layers of blocks on a 7 ft (2.13 m) igloo. Soaked from head to toe, I realized I had not adjusted the pole correctly after the first layer, and the angle was thrown off significantly. I tried to correct for this on the third layer, but it created a profile that didn't look like it could support another layer. Since I was wet and miserable at this point, I decided to call it quits. My kids thought it was the coolest snowball fight fort they'd ever seen, as it was about neck-high for them. Amazingly, this half-igloo stood for over a week of above-freezing temperatures before melting away. It didn't collapse, but rather melted away uniformly. It was still able to support my body weight after 4 days of above freezing temperatures.

My second attempt was about a week later when, with the assistance of my dad (as snow shoveler), we constructed a 7 ft (2.13 m) igloo in just 11 in (28 cm) of fresh powder snow. On this attempt, I was able to successfully follow the instructions, and we had a great deal of fun. Due to the shallow snow depth, we were unable to tunnel under the wall to create a door, but instead built up an arched entrance tunnel from an arched cut made in the wall of the completed igloo. This igloo stood for almost two weeks, but finally sagged down to the ground after 5 days of above-freezing temperatures.

The third attempt was shortly after the second, where my dad again assisted, and we constructed a 9 ft (2.74 m) igloo over the course of two days (a late start required we complete the shelter the following day). The snow was 3 in (8 cm) of fresh powder on top of a 0.25 in (6 mm) layer of ice, with old powder beneath. Total snow depth was about 1 ft (30 cm). This igloo took fully 5.5 hours to build, due in part to having to either chop up the ice or scrape the thin layer off the top. With better snow conditions, I think we could have built it in 4.5 hours. This larger igloo lasted only three days, but was built with the temperature just above freezing, and the broken-up ice in the blocks seemed to make for a less structurally sound wall.

PERFORMANCE IN THE FIELD

IMAGE 1
My Second Success -- Dubbed the "Bigloo"
The ICEBOX igloo construction tool worked exactly as described in the instruction manual for all three igloos. The problems I encountered on igloo number 1 were entirely operator error. Once I was using it, the instructions made much more sense, though I did read through them at least three times before attempting the first igloo.

All functions of the tool worked well. After building igloo number 2, I understood that the blocks aren't always going to line up in a perfect fashion, especially near the top. In some cases, I found it easier to adjust the pole length to better align two blocks, in others I found removing part of the previous block made it easier to put the form in place. In one case I adjusted the pole to the next length and it was too long to line up with the previous block, so I simply released the toggle to shorten it some and kept going. Most of all what I learned was it takes a flexible approach to using the tool to turn out an igloo. Once I realized things didn't have to line up perfectly for things to work, everything went much smoother. Understanding the limitations of the tool helped me use it more effectively.

I have no complaints whatsoever regarding the materials, construction, or design of the ICEBOX. The only problem I found was that with very heavy slush snow, the box will sometimes spread too wide at the bottom due to the weight of the snow (making me fear it might break a component). If the box were more rigid this might be less of an issue, but at the same time, I suspect it then wouldn't work as well for drier snow, where the pressure exerted by the walls spreading slightly seems to help set the block. A couple of times, while moving the box to form the next block the box assembly came off the toggle assembly. This didn't pose any problems, as I could snap it right back on, but it was a little annoying.

Quality of snow impacted both the ease of igloo construction and the quality of igloo tremendously. The second igloo had fresh powder snow. It was a joy to pack, and the igloo was fun to build. The third igloo, we had to fight a layer of ice. We tended to scrape the fresh snow off the top of the ice when beginning or finishing a block, and broke up the ice for filling the main body of the block. While this worked, it was far more time consuming, and resulted in an igloo that failed sooner than the one built several days earlier from fresh powder.

It is also worth noting that building an igloo is a fair amount of work. While not quite as demanding as a large snow cave (in my opinion) the effort necessitated removing all my upper layers except my t-shirt to prevent overheating during construction on the sunny day.

Overall, the ICEBOX performed admirably, and created two fantastically fun igloos.

LIFE IN AN IGLOO

IMAGE 3
Igloo Ambiance
A brief summary of what the resulting igloos are like seems in order. First, the igloos look really, really neat. People flocked to see them (they were relatively close to the road, as I wanted to make sure I could do this successfully a few times before trying one deep in the backcountry). Second, while much like a snow cave in that it eliminates air motion and provides insulation, I find it far more comfortable and easier to build than a snow cave. Third, when it comes to ambiance, an igloo simply can't be beat. Inside the igloos I basked in the glacial blue glow and silence that I simply couldn't get enough of. Finally, while I didn't use a thermometer, I am comfortable saying it remains substantially warmer inside the igloo than outside, and the elimination air movement (not limitation of movement like most tents provide) makes a tremendous difference.

Finally, I would add that the 7 ft (2.13 m) igloo, constructed without an under-wall door, will sleep two, although somewhat crowded. Piling gear in front of the door will cut drafts and keep it warmer when constructed in this way.

SUMMARY

The ICEBOX Igloo Construction tool works well and produced a very high-quality igloo shelter. While it requires some flexibility in technique to use, with powder snow a good quality shelter can be produced in less time than a comparably sized snow cave. The resulting shelter is not only solid, but incredibly comfortable and cool to be in.


LONG-TERM REPORT

LONG-TERM TEST LOCATIONS AND CONDITIONS

I have constructed two additional igloos with the ICEBOX Igloo Construction Tool during long-term testing, both in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State near White Pass. Weather conditions included sun, clouds, and snow, and temperatures ranged from 20 F (-7 C) to 30 F (-1 C). Igloo number 4 was an 8 ft (2.44 m) which served as our overnight shelter, and igloo number 5 was a 7 ft (2.13 m) that was built for fun rather than shelter. I was, unfortunately, unable to attempt one of the larger size igloos during testing. Snow conditions were varied, containing thin layers of powder, ice, and corn snow. I have carried the ICEBOX tool on a pulk that is somewhat narrower than the ICEBOX, but haven't had any difficulty securing it to my load.

PERFORMANCE IN THE FIELD

IMAGE 1


IMAGE 2
Evolution of an Igloo


Igloos 4 and 5 demonstrated to me that I am able to build an 8 ft (2.44 m) igloo in about the same amount of time (~2 hours) as a 7 ft (2.13 m) igloo if someone is shoveling snow like crazy for me and I'm not being too fussy about getting things perfect. I now have full confidence that I could build an igloo (with another person) in under 3 hours in any conditions I am likely to encounter in my usual areas. I am unlikely to build another 7 ft (2.13 m) igloo, as the time difference between a 7 ft (2.13 m) and an 8 ft (2.44 m) appears negligible and the 8 ft (2.44 m) is far more spacious.

That said, the 9 ft (2.74 m) I built was far more spacious than the 8 ft (2.44 m). I can only imagine how roomy the larger sizes would feel.

No major new observations were made regarding the use of the tool. As I have become more comfortable with the process, I have found myself being less and less finicky about how things are done, and haven't noticed a significant difference in the resultant shelter. In short, I've learned that "close enough" is all I really need to build a first-class igloo. I have found all the components to hold up very well. I don't feel like I have to baby the parts, though I do try to be careful with the plastic components. Nothing has broken, and everything looks pretty much the same as when I received it.

I have made a number of observations surrounding using the igloos I have made as shelters that I believe are relevant to this test. First, although a 7 ft (2.13 m) igloo could probably serve as an emergency shelter for two, the 8 ft (2.44 m) is the minimum I would recommend. While it is far more spacious in feel than most two-person winter tents I've used, I found myself wishing I'd taken the extra hour to build a larger igloo. In short, I've decided that from now on, unless I am pressed for time, exhausted, or have some other extenuating circumstances, the 9 ft (2.74 m) is the smallest I will build for two people. When I put that much work into a shelter, I feel it is worth the modest additional effort to build a larger size. The difference even one foot (0.3 m) in diameter makes is substantial.

Another thing I learned about igloos is why it is important to make sure the vent hole in the top doesn't close up with snow. I woke up one morning to find that a foot (0.3 m) of snow had fallen overnight and plugged my ventilation hole. Temperature outside was approximately 20 F (-7 C). The temperature inside the igloo, with two people as its sole source of heat, was 40 F (4 C). Needless to say, the walls were melting rapidly.

I also was afforded the opportunity to have pit entrances (under the igloo wall) for these two igloos, and discovered that digging down 4 ft (1.22 m) in crusty layers of Cascade snowpack can be a real drag, at least for the guy on the outside of the igloo. In terms of effort, this was definitely more difficult than the construction of the igloo itself.

The final note I would make about igloo life is that I discovered it is very important to keep a shovel inside the igloo with me at night. After my first night at White Pass snow drifts filled our entrance, and we had to dig ourselves out. Without shovels, we likely would have had to dig out through the igloo wall rather than re-establish our existing entrance.

SUMMARY

The ICEBOX Igloo Construction Tool is a well-made, well-designed, very fun piece of equipment for this winter camping enthusiast to have in his arsenal. I have found it relatively easy to use, very reliable, and a tremendous amount of fun. While building an igloo takes a fair amount of time and effort, the resultant shelter almost defines description. Igloo camping has rekindled my waning interest in winter camping, and has me back in the snow like never before.

CONTINUED USE

I can honestly say I will be building an igloo any time I can, and it will be my first choice for shelter in the snow. The ICEBOX is how I will make them. I think it is an incredibly well thought out tool that is more fun than any other piece of outdoor equipment I own.

I would like to thank Grand Shelters Inc. and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test the ICEBOX Igloo Construction Tool. This concludes my report.

This report was created with the BackpackGearTest.org Report Writer Version 1. Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.

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