There’s nothing more fun than bunking out in an igloo, and you can build one with any old carpenter’s saw. But in our experience, the job’s easier with a dedicated snow-cutting tool. These saws are made to shape blocks of well “sintered” snow—that’s powder that has been packed down and settled in windblown polar regions. In such areas, snow naturally settles into a stiff material that’s a little like foamboard insulation.
Not visiting the Arctic anytime soon? You can make sintered snow in your backyard or at a campsite. Start by shoveling it into a large rectangle in a flat spot. Pack it down with the flat of your shovel, and then wait a day. (The measurements and step-by-step process are outlined in the excellent book, How to Build an Igloo: And Other Snow Shelters, by Norbert E. Yankielun.)
When it comes to the actual building, it takes a few tries to form a structure that doesn’t look lopsided and require constant roof repairs. Blocks need to be shaped just right to support the whole, and good tools can make these small adjustments easier. Once you get the hang of it and fill in the dome, the reward is a shelter that’s a lot of fun to explore, and eerily quiet and peaceful inside.
The following are a few tools that will make the job easier. (And as a last step, don’t forget to use your saw to cut air holes into the walls.)
Brooks Range Igloo 35 Folding Snow Saw
This U.S.-made 7-ounce folding saw ($59) features big, aggressive teeth along its 14-inch blade for building igloos or snow pits in a hurry. It folds down from 19 inches to 10, and you can buy a left-handed or right-handed version.
Genuine Guide Gear’s 5.9-ounce, 19-inch saw ($60) has saved lives by cutting out users trapped in an avalanche. The 13.8-inch blade, which comes with sheath and straps, makes a great all-around choice for shelter making, avalanche safety, and even cutting branches for the fire. The design is best for righties.
BCA A-2 EXT With Saw
The A-2 ($90) is a 1.9-pound combination snow saw and shovel from Backcountry Access. The shovel blade is made from strong 6061 aluminum. Assembled, it measures 30.5 inches, but packs down to 17 inches.
It’s obviously useful to have a shovel on hand if your aim is to build a backcountry snow shelter, but we were a little disappointed in the A-2’s saw blade length—only 11.5 inches. In our experience, that’s a little short for cutting blocks for an igloo.
Black Diamond FlickLock Snow Saw
The 5.6-ounce FlickLock ($45) is made to attach to Black Diamond’s 11- and 14-millimeter ski poles for extended reach, but it can be used on its own as well. The tooth pattern on the 13.8-inch blade cuts snow as well as wood, and the included durable sheath protects the rest of your gear from the sharp blade during transit.