Grand Shelters Icebox Igloo making machine, a baby review.

I dislike the idea of reviewing new kit, as even some well-worn equipment I have still surprises me with newly noticed (good and bad) design details. For new gear I don't want to do a checklist of the specs and then a rough guess as to how it might work, I want to know it intimately. So any views on the Icebox should wait until I've played with it more, but sadly we don't live in a perfect utopian never-ending-winter world. Winter is finite, and I think everyone lucky enough to live in a beautiful magical snowy land (Nordic lands represent!) should take advantage of what remains of it, and go order an Icebox right now, so I will just write down a few reasons of why this box-onna-stick is so fun.
  • What the hell is an Icebox, and how the hell does it work?
The Icebox is an igloo building machine from Grand Shelters, made in the USA and costs 1200 SKr (1000 NKr, €140). You can read loads of fun testimonials here, and order it here. It arrives in a cardboard box covered in instructions and diagrams, inside are the parts, presented as a flat-packed collection of metal poles, plastic plates, toggles and bars. Also along for the ride are an instructional DVD and a (very durable) printed booklet of instructions.

It assembles into a big black box, that sticks onto a pole, a different combination of poles for each differently sized igloo (2.13, 2.44, 2.74, 3.05 and 3.35 m base diameter for a 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 man igloo respectively).

The yellow handle and the U-bar can be lifted to open the box a little.

To build an igloo a site is selected, and the snow is trampled down into a flat, solid base. The pole is stuck into the centre of the base with a spike.

The box on the outer end of the pole is filled with shovelfuls of snow, which are firmly patted down with around 30 N of force (roughly what you need to lift 3 kg, or crush a hen egg). When the box is full, the U-bar and toggle are opened and the sides of the box fall away a little, leaving a perfectly solid snow-block behind.

The box is pulled away from the block, following the course of a circle centred around where the pole is spiked into the base.

A second block is made bordering the first. The Icebox is open on the side facing the previous block, so the new snow is packed into the previous block, leaving no gaps between the blocks. This continues until the first row of blocks is made. Then the pole length is adjusted for the second row, and these blocks are built on top of the first row, which by now is rock solid. The rows continue on to the third and fourth and so on.

As the igloo nears completion the pole ends up pointing vertically up, the sides of the box are removed so it is more of a flat plate, and the roof is built upon it.

Two people are needed to use the Icebox properly, one works on the inside of the igloo, moving the Icebox along and packing the snow in, while the other stays on the outside, mixing and shovelling in the snow. The person on the inside is slowly entombed (groaning and begging, Cask of Amontillado style) in the igloo as the work goes on, so make sure you have something to piss in. The person on the outside has to reach high to finish the roof, and so needs to be tall, have a long shovel, or preferably both. Nobody has to work their ass off, so getting sweaty is not a problem. Only the gloves of the form handler have to get physical with the snow, so getting wet from the snow isn't a problem. And nobody is in any danger of getting buried in snow, as the roof is open until the last couple of blocks, and at that point the structure is as solid as it gets.

The Icebox weights around 2.2 kg, comparing well to a solid two person 5-season tent, the Hilleberg Tarra for example, which weights in at 4.1 kg. A shovel is also needed, but this is a normal piece of Winter gear to bring into snowy territory. I use an Ortovox Kodiak, which weights 770 g but has the longest reach of any compact shovel I could find (88 cm).

  • Why do you need a tool to make an igloo?
You don't need more than a shovel to make a snow cave or a quinzhee, so why bother with 2 kg more weight and 180 USD for the Icebox?

Firstly an igloo with a perfect self supporting catenary arch is made every time, making the structure stable, as can be seen throughout the building process. Blocks on the 5th, 6th and 7th rows hang at crazy angles in the air, defying gravity in the most obscene way. Newton would shit himself.

Secondly the quality of the snow is not as important a factor as when making an igloo without such a tool. In the instructional DVD the shelter is made with some incredibly dry 'sugar snow' in order to show how snow conditions aren't so important when using the Icebox. This was the type of snow we had to hand when making the 3.05 m igloo, and it wasn't a problem. Mixing up the snow before shovelling it into the form and patting it down in a firm, consistent way makes up for the shitty snow.

Thirdly, the snow is compressed heavily in the box, forming much more solid blocks than those cut from windblown snow, such as with a traditional Nanook igloo, and a more tough and resiliant structure than with the lightly compressed snow of a quinzhee. This higher density of the blocks confers great durability, on the second day of living in the 3.05 metre igloo, a whole days worth of 2 ºC rain fell while we sheltered inside. The landscape outside changed completely, all the snow on the trees melted away, the snow depth on the lake was cut in half, and everywhere it was soft slush underfoot. Inside the igloo however not much was affected, the hard-packed base and blocks became a little softer, but retained their shape and kept us sheltered. Rain that fell on the igloo just flowed down through the walls and there was no dripping inside.

Finally, the shelter provided by the igloo really is dynamite. Inside it's calm, roomy, quiet, cozy and (relatively) warm. Outside, it could be anything. It doesn't seem to matter if it's raining, snowing or blowing a storm. This is revealed right from the first time you use the tool, as the shelter starts to be completed and snow for the roof is shovelled into place, noises from the outside become fainter and more distant. Even after a door is cut into place the weather has to be checked by poking your head outside, almost no noise, wind or precipitation make their way inside. All you have inside is a calm, relaxing, glacial blue glow, it's hard to describe how tranquil and serene the inside of an igloo can be.

The igloo blow tents and tarps away in terms of the quality of shelter they provide. No flapping flysheets keeping you awake for hours, no sagging walls from banks of snow building up, no noises from howling wind or pouring rain. No breezes cutting through every ventilation hole, no condensation dripping down onto your gear, no snow brought in by your shoes half-melting and then freezing again on your groundsheet, peeling off the PVC. No need to worry about bringing in snow on your boots, no need to even take your boots off. No need to spend your time inside stooped over or squatted/kneeling on the floor. No possibility of cutting a big gash in your shelter with the steel edge on your skis, and if you did somehow poke a hole, just pick up some snow and patch it in seconds. No need to keep extra layers on inside, or to have massive down sleeping bags, or to have your boots/clothes/water wrapped up with you in your bag. Water in the igloo remains liquid and boots remained comfortably unfrozen. No worries about lighting up candles, lanterns or stoves inside. The ventilation holes in the igloo can be many when cooking and are easily stopped up when cooking is over, they are almost 20 cm long, so no ingress of precipitation is risked. And finally, no rolling up an ice-caked, crackling, frozen-hard fly in to a bag that suddenly doesn't seem big enough.
The Icebox also forces you to study snow. Michi joked that we would become 'snow whisperers', and that isn't far from the truth. I know what's powdery and what's skare and what's kramsnö, but i've never intimately played with snow like this before. With the Icebox you start to realise how the force used to compact the snow determines how the blocks turn out. Then you start to see and feel how and when the snow starts to bind, depending on what quality the snow is, how much is packed together and how often or hard the force is applied. I've reread that paragraph and it sounds so incredibly nerdy, but remains true.
Snow is deep, man.
  • What are the disadvantages?
I thought there were plenty of problems with the tool when I started to use it. The plastic felt a little floppy, the straps felt too short and didn't seem very useful, the instructions felt convoluted and unclear. After a few uses though, these problems melted away. The Icebox is very tough, the softer plastic seems to absorb impacts and shocks very well. The buckle system is brilliant once it's set up correctly, it holds the Icebox to the back of a rucksack in a vice-grip, and also easily takes the required shovel as well.

The instructions become clearer and clearer as experience is built up. Every detail and sentence at some point "clicks", and its importance realised.
A fair amount of snow is required, and you need two people that know what to do, and there's not much work for more than 3 people, so many hands don't make light work. These are small issues, but there is one major disadvantage that has stubbornly persisted. Time. This takes a lot of time to use, the 3.05 m igloo took around 7 hours, and the smaller 2.13 m igloo took at least 4 hours of work. Admittedly this has been a learning experience, and I am relatively sure that after a few more builds the time taken will be down to a couple of hours. Just don't expect that you can buy the tool and instantly leave your tent at home, unless you've planned to spend every available daylight hour (and maybe some of the night) building an igloo.

  • So what's the bottom line?
The idea of buying the Icebox to replace your tent/tarp and directly going off for a week-long ski tour, and stopping and building a different igloo every night is not feasible. At least not until a lot of experience has been gained. In time I am sure two dudes with grit who know the tool well, and work hard and take no breaks, can put up an igloo in two hours or less. However you shouldn't buy the Icebox expecting to instantly be able to throw up an igloo in an hour.
On the other hand, fuck that warning. Buy this thing. It is the most fun I've had in winter camping, and winter camping is my number one favourite legal thing to do. If you've got a friend and a shovel, you will have a total blast with this. Putting up a tent is quick and easy, but it's boring. It's a bare minimum of shelter with no joy. To adapt the environment to suit our needs, to build a shelter from the detritus of Winter, and then sleep soundly within its solid walls, is absolutely primal. It's rewarding on a very basic human level. What kind of satisfaction can you get from putting up a tent or a tarp? To make it drum-tight and plop it down in a sheltered spot? It's a big plastic bag that you take ten minutes to prop up on some sticks. The igloos you make with the Icebox are sanctuaries, you can rush a small igloo out in a hurry and shelter in it in the worst kind of weather, or you could spend a relaxed day with friends carefully building a masterpiece to bookmark in your GPS and enjoy all Winter. I personally don't see my tent coming out in Winter anymore, at most I'll bring a light tarp as a roof for worst-case scenarios where the igloo doesn't get finished.

That's why I had to write this mini-review without having yet mastered the Icebox. I think it will take a long time to master it, but already I love it, it's fun. There's still a few months left of good winter weather left if we're lucky, and I cannot recommend enough that everyone rush to buy an Icebox. It is the most exciting toy I've had in decades, it brings back that Christmas morning excitement I used to get as a kid. Skip whatever new minutely improved sleeping bag/tent/rucksack you've been planning to add to your collection. Grab your best mate, grab an Icebox, grab some warm gloves and get iglooing.

(Caveat: Despite my enthusiasm, I don't work for Grandshelters and did pay for this thing :)

I go igloo.

Recently in beautiful Östa national park, I got to try a cold weather alternative to tents and tarps. It's the idiosyncratic Icebox, a device for making catenary curved igloos. 
Usually my Exped Vela I tent is what I turn to whenever I need substantial shelter, it's under a kilo, stable in high winds and usually easy to set up solo. The Icebox is a heavier alternative, coming in at around 2.2 kg, but this is still below what a real 5-season tent can weight, and an igloo does have many benefits over tents and tarps, such as far superior insulation. 
Exped Vela 1, a kilo of reliable shelter. 
This weekend Michi and I will experiment with the Icebox by using it as our only shelter for a back-country ski-tour. However for once I decided to follow the big warning in the manual and tried to build an igloo before relying on it as the only shelter. So here is a brief peek at the first successfully completed igloo from the Icebox. We went to Östa nature reserve to try and build our first igloo there. Östa is a stunningly beautiful area where my good friend and cross-country skiing instructor Sofie has a secluded stuga. Thanks to our recent wonderful wintery weather the snow depth is around 50 cm. 
Ermine tracks.
Here Michi and I tried, with the help of Sofie's stalwart cousin Lisa, to build a 2.75 m (4 person) igloo. Two people are needed to use the Icebox properly, one works on the inside of the igloo, moving the icebox along and packing the snow in, while the other stays on the outside, mixing and shovelling in the snow. With this first attempt every possible mistake that could be made was made, and we retired, drunk with defeat and whiskey, to Sofie's stuga.
The following day Liam (a fellow Irishman from the lovely village of Cork), his viking-blooded brother-from-another-mother Patrick and I tried again, this time with a little more experience, and enough humility to try building a smaller, cosier 2.13 m (1 person) igloo. On this second occasion all the little tricks recommended in the manual were followed to the letter, and the igloo rose triumphantly from the snow. 
Unfortunately no photos of the final rows were taken, which I think is a pity as the sight became quite bizarre at the fifth and sixth row. As the form was removed the blocks of snow seemed to defy gravity as they hung in the air at acute angles. This lack of documentation I will correct for when we build our 3.05 m igloo this weekend. 
Normally I use only an LED torch for light, but for the igloo I thought it would be interesting to try a gas lamp. The Grand Shelters website states that with two candles burning you can raise the internal temperature to just over 0 ˚C with an outside temperature of -26 ˚C. If you've slept at -26 ˚C you may know how much gear is needed to get a good nights rest at that temperature, while at 0 ˚C not much besides a good mat is required. Two candles would put out about 160 W of heat (and 26 lumens), while the Primus lantern puts out 70 W (and 235 lumens) at maximum power. The human body throws off around 100 W at rest, so with two people and the lantern we should be able to keep the igloo toasty. This is all not to mention that the lantern gives a much more pleasantly warm light than with LEDs, as shown below. 
The colour difference in light from the stars and the lantern was the most stark I have ever seen. The following picture is not colour adjusted in any way, the RAW file is as below. Outside was ice-cold blue starlight, inside was warm glowing orange gas-light. This difference in colour was reflected in temperatures, between -10 and -15 ˚C outside and just a little under 0 ˚C inside (which felt completely comfortable after a day working outside). The area we had built the igloo in had only around 40 cm of snow, so when cutting the door it was cut partially through the igloo wall rather than tunnelled down through the floor under the wall. This left a draughty hole, and will be a mistake not made again.  

I was pleasantly surprised when my normally comfort loving fiancé decided to join me in the igloo, she said it was a chance to try something new that she couldn't pass up. Unfortunately, I had only one good quality mat (an Exped downmat 7). She got to lie on that, and there was room also for some parts of my body (ass and feet), but the rest of me got to lie on a 2 cm CCF mat and was unpleasantly chilled. Good gear can make any conditions comfortable, and inappropriate gear can be a pain in the neck. This was something to keep in mind for the igloo, the only place that cold comes from as much as with a tent, is from below. 

In the morning the air holes had gotten these lovely feathered surface hoar frost linings from our moisture-laden breath. 
Immediately after being built, the snow blocks were as soft and yielding as could be expected. The following morning showed much change, as the blocks had now a tough, hard patina of ice on the inside where the block surface melted and then refrozen by the action of the heat from the lantern and our bodies. 

It was rewarding to get the second igloo completed, and to spend a night in it. Not only to see that yes, the Icebox can make a hell of an igloo, but also to learn the ins and outs of how this strange little tool works, and what we can expect this weekend. This trip will be a 4 day romp across the Norrköping archipelago by ski. It was a new moon on Tuesday, so it should be quite the darkest weekend of the season, and as such I hope to get some good long exposures done, so it will primarily be a trip for photography. I also hope to thoroughly document the use of the Icebox in order to make a more detailed review of it here.