Choosing a Portable Ice Shelter

Posted by  Wednesday, December 11 2013 6:00 am
expert

The bitter wind blew furiously, pelting me with unforgiving force, while sapping my warmth and enthusiasm. I struggled to clench my ultra light rod, my grip loosening as my glove raised a white flag to the invisible enemy we all call cold.  

Then, the snow started to fall. Not tranquil flakes Norman Rockwell might depict, but the ferocious, mean-spirited kind that only the Grinch could conjure up to spoil a deserving child's Christmas.

PortableIceShelter ClamCorp-BigFoot-XL6000
Ice shelters are made to accommodate one angler, all the way up to eight.

I was sitting on frozen Big Rideau Lake, near Ottawa Ontario, Canada, and beginning to hate ice fishing. My good friend "Big" Jim McLaughlin was parked a mere 20 feet away, cozy and content in his one-man portable shelter, oblivious to the elements outside. To make matters worse, I could hear regular splashing sounds coming from his shelter, as he tossed chunky crappie into a half-filled bucket of water. I, on the other hand, had one frozen crappie laying at my frostbitten feet, a snowbank of white stuff steadily covering my lack of fishing success.  

On that day I vowed never to hit the ice without a portable shelter in tow.  

The modern portable shelter is the greatest invention to be bestowed on the ice-fishing fraternity since the power auger. Gone are days of cold feet and hands, blowing and ice-covered line, and aborted outings due to unbearable weather.  

Choosing a portable can be tough task for the newbie but narrowing down the choices will lead you to the perfect home away from home.  

Why Choose a Portable?  

Modern portables are simple and practical. Gear can be stored and loaded effortlessly, allowing easy transportation to and from the ice, all in a package that can be pulled by hand or snowmachine. Windows, doors and seating structures offer most of the luxuries that a wooden shelter would have, without having to remain in one spot.  

Portables allow unparalleled mobility, with a quick "fold down and trudge on" mentality by the owners, which cannot be found with anglers in stationary varieties. And with prices coming down and portables becoming more affordable, and with a wider variety available each passing season, it's no wonder that more and more anglers are recognizing their benefits.  

A Material Matter  

Portable shelters are manufactured from a wide range of materials, but mainly nylon, canvas or poly-cotton. For the most part, the type of material is less of an issue than its strength and thickness, as these separate the good from the mediocre in terms of performance.  

Choose a shelter with the thickest, toughest material you can afford. A strong, tear resistant outer shell prolongs the life of a portable, while also keeping the warmth intact.  

Making sure the material is breathable also goes a long way towards ultimate comfort by cutting down on condensation buildup. A water-resistant material is also the way to go for obvious reasons, as is making sure it is fire retardant.  

PortableIceShelter EskimoQuickflip2
Portable ice shelters come in two styles: fold-over (pictured) or tent style.

Extra tip: Try to buy a dark material that will absorb the sun's warmth, cutting down on heating costs.

Sizing Up the Competition  

For solitary anglers, a one-man shelter is sufficient. They're small and light, easy to transport and heat up to hold warmth well. Many one-man shelters come a variety of sizes, so check around to see which one suits your needs, budget and body size.

If you carry a lot of gear or prefer more room to stretch out, a two-man portable would be better. It also gives you the option of offering a chair to a fishing buddy that might want to tag along. Moving up a size increases purchase cost, but the extra space is worth the investment.  

When dealing with extended families or numerous angling comrades, look at four- or six-man cabins or systems that can be used to connect two smaller shelters. With added size comes weight, though, and pulling a king-of-the-hill shelter requires a snow machine — and you'll likely need a truck, trailer or roof racks to transport it to the ice.  

Setting it Up  

There are two main types of shelters on the market — fold-over and tent style. A fold-over simply pulls over the top of you in one fluid motion. They're slick and the fastest style available.  

Folding tent styles are usually box shaped and incorporate aluminum or alloy poles that are hinged or snapped together to form the inner frame. They take longer to put up, but are still great buys, as long as the process isn't overly complicated or time-consuming.  

Test a few styles at the shop and pick the one you feel most comfortable with. Just remember, it will become your second home for a few months each year, so choose wisely.  

Take a Seat  

PortableIceShelter FrabillCommando
Many shelters, like the Frabill Commando Ice Fishing Shelter, have built-in seats.

Portable-shelter seating options include providing your own or relaxing in a built-in version. Most flip-style shelters have a self-contained seat, while tent varieties are more prone to be without one. Built-in seats should be strong, durable and, most of all, comfortable. A padded topside comes in handy during long hours on the ice. Many styles offer built-in tackle trays and cup and rod holders — other useful additions.  

The drawback to using your own chair is having to lug it out on the ice. It can be strapped down to the shelter when towing, but this is less convenient than having a built-in one. That being said, bringing your own chair gives the freedom to place it in any position you desire, something that's not always possible with the built-in variety.  

Peering Out  

Windows are pretty much standard in today's portable shelters. Without them, watching tip-ups, checking on the weather, and seeing what's happening around you would be all but impossible. The larger the windows, the better. However, for shallow water sight fishing, you will want the option of darkening the shelter to let you see better in the water below. So, make sure windows have covers.  

Extra tip: Many first-time shelter buyers overlook that windows should be positioned at the appropriate height for them. Depending on your posture in the seat and on your body height, windows can be either too low or too high for viewing purposes. Try a potential shelter with the chair you intend to use it with. If you're not seeing eye to eye with the windows, then the model isn't right for you.

Heating Up the Inside  

In order to keep warm in your shelter, a portable propane heater is a necessity. There are several styles — with the new breed of catalytic heaters being the safest on the market, offering flame-free heat and approval for inside use. Run off small propane canisters, they can keep you toasty warm when the temperatures outside is frigid. For most portables, 3,000 BTUs is the bare minimum needed. Look for heaters offering up to 9,000 BTUs for larger portables. I've used a Mr. Heater "Portable Buddy" for many years now and find that the option to switch from 4,000 to 9,000 BTUs is optimum for both my one and two-man shelter.

A Towing We Will Go  

portableiceshelter 2
Choosing a portable ice shelter with a built-in sled will make it easier to haul across the snow and ice.

To haul your portable across the ice, the two main options are to use brute strength or pull it behind a snow machine. In either case, a built-in sled on the bottom of your shelter is needed.  

Most portables on the market fold down into compact sleds molded out of polyethylene. The sled can hold all essentials needed for a day on the ice — including bait buckets, rods, auger and sonar — and allows for easy transport over snow and ice. Make sure the sled you have is strong and durable to take any punishment you may give it.  

Hand-tow ropes should be thick and with enough length so that the sled isn't nipping at your heels. Make sure ropes are easy on the hands, as you'll be spending a significant amount of time pulling the shelter to and fro. Bottom runners should be large, with smooth edges, allowing for easy towing. A sled with a tapered front rides over snow more easily, something your muscles or snow machine will thank you for.  

Good luck on buying a portable shelter that's perfect for your needs. Getting set up with one can lead you on new and exciting adventures. Not only will your success rate increase, but also your comfort level. Enjoy the thrill of owning a home away from home — and make your own "Rideau" story a tale from the past, too.  

Options and accessories to consider:  

  • Ice Anchors — Great for securing your shelter to the ice when faced with windy conditions.
  • Reflective Tape — Built into the shelter, these strips can add a margin of safety during the night when snowmobiles are whizzing by.
  • Runners — Additional runners or wear strips can extend the life of your sled and help keep it on track during towing runs.
  • Storage Pockets — Ideal for storing mitts, tackle or anything else that comes to mind.
  • Travel Cover — This is essential for pull-over shelters, but is usually an option. Go for one. It will keep snow, rain, slush and mud out of the shelter when being towed.
  • Small Shovel — An inexpensive, lightweight plastic kid's shovel fits easily inside a folded portable shelter and is handy for leveling snow when setting up a shelter or for banking snow around it to keep out the cold air.
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Justin Hoffman
expert

Justin Hoffman is a freelance outdoor writer and photographer, with a fishing specialty, based in Ottawa Ontario, Canada. A graduate of the North American School of Outdoor Writing and currently a field editor with Ontario OUT OF DOORS magazine, outdoor pursuits with a journalistic approach keep him returning to the field week after week. A well-established freelance writer since 1999, Justin has publishing credits in many North American magazines and web sites. His photographic stock work also appears regularly. In addition to his writing and photography work, Justin is also a Pro Staffer for TUFF-Line and National Pro Staff. For more information visit www.JustinHoffmanOutdoors.com.

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