Build Your Own Igloo with an ICEBOX® plastic Form.

We Love Winter Camping

Story by ERA Finland

Build your own igloo with a plastic form

Snow shelters have long been regarded as a piquant special delicacy of winter camping. If you happen to know or find a suitable snowbank for a snow cave, good solid snow for igloo building, or have enough energy to shovel up a big pile of snow for a quinzhee, you will be rewarded a warm, quiet, roomy shelter made of 100% recyclable material, where your breath will not condense on your clothes and equipment.

Unfortunately many winter trek destinations just do not have suitable drifts for snow caves, or hard-packed snow for sawing blocks for a real Inuit igloo. Many campers do not have the skill to build an igloo, and few are willing to toil for a quinzhee. Building a snow shelter is time-consuming hard work. Besides, one gets wet through sweating and of snow melting on knees, elbows, and neck. Thus a tent, being quick and easy to set up, is the standard shelter of a winter camper. Snow shelters are regarded merely as emergency solutions in case of storm or equipment failure.

Snow shelters have long been regarded as a piquant special delicacy of winter camping. If you happen to know or find a suitable snowbank for a snow cave, good solid snow for igloo building, or have enough energy to shovel up a big pile of snow for a quinzhee, you will be rewarded a warm, quiet, roomy shelter made of 100% recyclable material, where your breath will not condense on your clothes and equipment.

Unfortunately many winter trek destinations just do not have suitable drifts for snow caves, or hard-packed snow for sawing blocks for a real Inuit igloo. Many campers do not have the skill to build an igloo, and few are willing to toil for a quinzhee. Building a snow shelter is time-consuming hard work. Besides, one gets wet through sweating and of snow melting on knees, elbows, and neck. Thus a tent, being quick and easy to set up, is the standard shelter of a winter camper. Snow shelters are regarded merely as emergency solutions in case of storm or equipment failure.

If a snow wall iss constructed of cut snow blocks, it sinks very quickly, and the wall becomes loose. However, if the wall is constructed by packing loose snow the sinking process is much slower. Loose snow packed into small volume sinters were hard and durable. The same phenomenon can be observed when a snow-blower throws soft powder snow onto tree trunks and walls. Soft snow transforms into hard almost instantly.

The ICEBOX® is a must try

Several years ago Ed Huesers, an avid winter camper living in Colorado, began to develop his favourite camping site. He had slept under a cliff, and he started to experiment with different snow wall constructions. Ed had his own plastic shop, so he started to try different plastic forms to build the snow wall. Then he wanted to build a snow shelter in another place. That's when the idea of an igloo-shaped snow shelter was born. The development took several years, but a couple of years ago Ed Huesers was able to start marketing his ICEBOX® igloo form. The ICEBOX® website (www.grandshelters.com) promises a lot:

"Rewriting the books of winter camping! The tool is lightweight (2,2kg), it can be easily packed on top of a backpack as a box measuring 65x36x8 cm, igloos can be made in any snow conditions in 1,5 to 3 hours without sweat, wet clothes or fatigue. With the tool one can build every time a perfect, self-supporting vault-formed extremely stable and spacious igloo, if there only is 6 inches of snow on ground. The igloo will last through the winter season. The form costs less than a tent..."

After reading this far I knew that I must find out whether even half of the promises would hold true. So I ordered the gadget from Ed via Internet. Paid with credit card 149 US$ and some 49 Euros for Finnish customs, I received a box of plastic parts and aluminium tubes with holes, an English illustrated Manual of 20 pages and an instruction video cassette of European standard.

In the autumn evenings I read through the Manual, watched the video and assembled and disassembled the igloo form a couple of times. The plastic gave a rather flimsy appearance, but the Manual told it to endure a fall full of snow even in -34 degrees C temperatures. My greatest scepticism, however, was towards the claim that even in subzero temperatures the running soft snow packed into the mold would just by itself transform into durable wall material.

Terraced Maya pyramid?

Then at the end of November we finally got the first snow on the grassy football field next to my home, and I decided to give ICEBOX® a try in earnest.

We Love Winter Camping

Getting Started!

The Manual states that it would be easiest to build the igloo with one or two friends, but of course just at that moment, nobody had the time or was interested. So I just grabbed a snow shovel, igloo form, Instruction Manual and a flashlight, and marched into the darkness.

The ground was not frozen, so I could push the stake easily among the grass. Assembling the pole of three pieces of aluminium tubing went also without any major problems, with the help of the Manual. The socket pole snapped to one end, and the toggle system to the other. The assembled pole locked onto the stake, and pole length adjusted for 1st layer. Then it is time to get at the box itself. The end panel snapped easily onto the outer panel posts, and the inner panel just as easily onto the end panel. Then it was only to put the U-bar onto the "free" end of the box, and snap the box onto the toggle ball joint. So simple!

Then I started the building for real, one or two shovels of snow a time into the form, packing it down carefully in between. The snow was new and a couple of degrees below freezing. It assumed the shape of the box form very easily, and in no time I was marvelling at the neat blocks. The beginning was easy. Blocks, 20 cm thick, 50 cm long and 30cm tall, were born easily as sand cakes on beach. When one block is ready, the U-bar is lifted up, and this lets the side panels separate a little. The pole is shortened with the help of the toggle a couple of cm, and the box can be easily slid off the block. The pole made sure that the blocks were left in a beautiful circle.

The first three blocks I left - just as the Manual said - lower, to form a ramp for the form to climb up onto the second layer after completion of the first round. Then I ran into a minor problem. In spite of all my reading and rehearsing, I had not realised that the first layer blocks must not stand straight on the ground, but to lean inwards in about 20o angle. This was necessary for the second layer to sit correctly on the first.

Now the bottom part of the second layer had to "reach" too far out, meaning that the block was built into too much of a leaning position. This again resulted that the third layer became too straight! My great igloo began to resemble ancient Maya terraced pyramids! Luckily it was dark and nobody was watching. Well, I got the wall up anyway, almost to the shoulder level. Then I stopped for the night. Next morning I worked for another hour to get to the sixth layer of blocks. That is when the problems of a beginner and solo builder began.

The outer panel of the form needed to be taken away, to be able to put snow into it. This made the form very unsteady; it did not lean nicely on the previous wall block, but tended to swing aside and dump the snow on the floor. Slowly I scraped the snow from the floor with one hand and held the form stable with another, and very carefully proceeded into packing the snow against the previous block. Anyhow, I was amazed how well even these blocks stayed up and little by little the wall arched into ceiling, and I could close the last hole and finish the igloo.

Boy, was I proud! First-timer, single-handedly and partly in dark I had built a convincing-looking igloo in less than five hours.

Next morning saw the weather change into rain, and my "minor" problem in the beginning grew into a major one: the wall was really not a smooth catenary vault structure, but instead it did have these regular bends in and out. My igloo could not take the weight added by the rain, and after only two days it collapsed to the ground.

We Love Winter Camping

Learning curve goes up

The next igloo was built of dry powder snow in 10 C degrees below freezing. This cold snow needed much gentler packing into the form, to avoid causing fractures in the blocks. Especially as the walls were bending inside in the higher levels, any block packed carelessly or too roughly, just fell on the form handler's toes. Being careful in packing and sometimes letting the block to set for about ten seconds helped a lot.

This second igloo took also about five hours to build, this time with four people working on it. We built a real entrance tunnel below the floor level, so this igloo could have been used for sleeping. Igloo did stand the weather changes well. Being next to a skating rink, it was subjected to curious children digging the roof open, so after a week I decided to take it down to prevent accidents.

The first igloo for overnight stay we built near Himos skiing resort in February. It was size two, 270 cm in diameter. We could build it on a slope and thus again get a decent doorway below the floor level. It was easy to settle inside the roomy igloo. In the centre the height was 165 cm, enough for easy rolling out one's mattress and to dress. At the entrance tunnel one could stand up. For the night we pulled a plastic rubbish bag filled with snow into the doorway, and left a candle burning by the door. The outside temperature went down to 12 C degrees below freezing, but inside it was just below 0 Centigrade (freezing point).I was quite warm in a four-season sleeping bag, but had taken only two thin camping mattresses, so felt the cold snow below.

In the morning we tested Arctic Trangia cooker inside the igloo. The temperature rose quickly to a couple of degrees above 0o C in just a few minutes. The fuel smell produced when lighting the cooker vanished quickly through the ceiling vent hole. The water vapour of exhaled air condenses and freezes onto the igloo walls, and stays there, unlike the situation in a tent, where you may quite easily get this snow falling into your sleeping bag. In freezing conditions the igloo hardens overnight into a very strong structure, and will last through the winter. The wall is only 20 cm thick, which makes it easy to spot any bulges of a wall about to fall down in the spring sunshine.

Such a self-supporting snow vault usually does not collapse suddenly, but slowly sets down over days and weeks into a pile of snow. This is stated by the form manufacturer, and we could observe it happen, too. This makes it unnecessary to destroy an igloo built in backcountry when abandoning the campsite; instead one can safely leave it there, maybe to be used by next campers.

We Love Winter Camping

My igloo is my castle!

After six igloos built in Southern Finland I ventured into taking the ICEBOX® along to our backcountry snowboarding trip to far North of Finland. The wilderness hut at TermisjŠrvi is well equipped, but if there are seven snowboarders' soaked clothes hanging to dry, the stove roaring hot and the windows need to be kept ajar to get some cool air, and everybody snoring, the peace and quiet of an own cool igloo is rather attractive.

It took us about four hours to build the "size 2" igloo, even though the snow conditions were not very easy. The wind-scoured drift was hard enough to build a real Eskimo igloo. So for building, the snow had to be stomped into smooth powder before putting into the mold. This time I left the doorway (below the floor level again) open, and I did not even have a candle burning. I did have enough bedding: a space blanket, a reindeer skin, a reflecting foam mattress and an ordinary camping mattress under my four-season sleeping bag. And I was not cold; on the contrary, I had to get up after two hours to take off one layer of clothing. The second night two others of our company joined me in the nicely cool and quiet igloo.

We Love Winter Camping

Our Building Tips

The manufacturer of ICEBOX® recommends that one should practice in safe conditions at least once before setting out to a backcountry trip with the mold. I would recommend at least a couple of practice igloos in different snow conditions before such a trip. At the first sight the Manual seems very short, only 20 small pages. However, it contains a wealth of important tips and suggestions, and it is very wise to have it at hand when building the first igloos.

The first igloos may take several hours to complete, especially in difficult snow conditions such as cold granular sugar snow, or hard drifts. I would suggest that if possible, the first-timer would build of newly fallen powder snow in temperatures around freezing. This snow is easy to handle, and one can concentrate on the technical details of the form. Even when building my seventh igloo I experiences flashes of enlightment on some of the Manual sentences or video scenes. -Maybe I am only slow to learn...

I am still surprised at the ease of building the igloo in temperatures +3 to -20 degrees Centigrade. The colder it gets, however, the more important it is to work the snow before shovelling into the form. One should scrape or sweep the snow and, if necessary stomp to crush the clumps. This working melts the snow crystals just microscopically, and when packed into the form, they freeze again to form a solid block.

The shovel is also important. A blade slightly bigger than a kids' shovel, 25 x 25 cm, seemed to work well. By time and experience the building process gets faster. In easy snow conditions and brisk work we have been able to build the smallest 240 cm igloo in two hours (three men working). We have not (yet?) reached the 1.5 hours advertised by the ICEBOX® manufacturer.

The bigger the igloo you wish to build, the more blocks you need, and the longer the building will take. Sizes 300 cm or the biggest, 330 cm we have not even attempted. Building the largest igloo would need stairs for the shoveler and the form handler. The largest 330 cm igloo is over 190 cm tall, with inside standing height 172 cm, as the form is conical, not hemispheric.

Every time we have been building some blocks fall inside the igloo floor. They should be cleared away, to keep the floor level and smooth. The form handler needs to have a shovel with short shaft with him inside the igloo walls. If the floor is slanting, the sleepers may slide to one side or into the entrance tunnel! If you plan to cook inside the igloo, the inner walls should be smoothed, too. This can be done with the inner panel. This will keep the water from dripping from wall irregularities, and it will run down and freeze in the lower part of the wall.

The ceiling must have a vent hole of about two centimetres. The door may be shut with a plastic rubbish bag filled with snow. The manufacturer recommends a piece of tarp or blanket folded in two, to be hung outside the door as a curtain. Into the pocket formed you can put some snow to add weight, to prevent the door flapping in wind. On the other hand, if you can build the doorway at least 20 cm below the floor level, you may not need anything to close the door, at least if the weather is not extremely cold. Carbon monoxide levels produced by lantern and cooker have been measured inside the igloo with 2,5 cm vent hole and 7,5 cm gap below the doorway tarp. Using either Coleman fuel of isobutene the carbon monoxide levels remained well below those recommended by health authorities.

We recommend that for anyone trekking in wintry backcountry this American igloo form is a noteworthy alternative to a tent. With the form one can build a warm, quiet, light and roomy snow dwelling anywhere there is a foot of snow on the ground, and clearly with less effort than the traditional snow shelters. The form can be easily carried on the backpack, fastened with its own straps, and is lightweight to carry than most tents. Additional weight is spared in bedding: inside the warm igloo one does not need the heaviest sleeping-bag.

I also asked opinions of others who had tried the ICEBOX®. Mainly the experiences were positive. Only one group had failed to build the igloo. They had started with the traditional Finnish engineer attitude: only if nothing works and kicking does not help, you can have a look at the instruction manual. "Some other critical comments were offered:

"Getting the first igloo up may take more than a whole day.

"The English manual is very detailed, and you need to have good command of English to understand it. And understanding the manual is essential for successful igloo building. The American English of the instruction video may also present a problem if one does not understand English well.

"The small parts may get lost in powder snow.

"Assembling the pole was complicated (if one did not read the instructions), and the socket pole tended to pop off the stake (also some hints to prevent this given in the manual). Some teams had problems with the stake staying in place during building.

"I acquired the igloo form for reserve accommodation, if wilderness huts would be crowded. In practice, even on the first trip the igloo proved to be the luxury bedroom, even if there was free bed space in the hut.

"I suppose that an igloo would be a very functional base camp for a backcountry skier, boarder or climber, for a few days. If you need only a quick shelter for one night, igloo building takes too much time.

"Organisers of winter activities and adventure trips may find igloo building an exciting and fun part of the program, not to mention the unforgettable experience of sleeping overnight in an igloo you have built yourself.

"Even practising igloo building has been a lot of fun. We made igloos on playgrounds, by skating rink for a shelter, and as a program in a winter party of a children's hospital ward. Maybe also in the future there will be quest for this kind of city igloos."

We Love Winter Camping