Build A Portable Ice Shelter

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This is a project that was created out of necessity years ago when times were financially lean and prices for manufactured portable icefishing shelters were out of the question. With these same financial times affecting a large majority of our outdoor enthusiasts, I thought it would be a great time to revise an old article with some in-depth steps for building your own portable icefishing shelter. This project can be finished for under $50 using 1/2″ plywood and a 10′ x 16′ blue utility tarp. This price estimate includes the need to buy hinges and 2×2’s. The project would acquire more cost with the optional paint and addition of a Plexiglas window. All in all the building process of this portable shelter can really make for a fun project for the kids to also get involved. And, although you can easily build this yourself, and extra set of hands, albeit small, really come in handy when taking final measurements for the support extensions.

Keep in mind that even though this shelter was created with the icefisherman in mind, with two small alterations, substituting the blue tarp for camo netting and the obvious need for a window, you can turn this shelter into a portable hunting blind. I should also note that the portable shelter we made used all of the options. We chose a black tarp and black paint for the walls to soak up as much sun as possible. Attached to one end of our shelter were a pair of old skis that allowed us to tow the shelter easily across the ice and snow while allowing for space to bungee strap our gear onto during the travel. We also included the optional Plexiglas window and, I must confess, this worked great. On our first fishing trip onto the ice we had several visitors stop by and ask for instructions to build their own. No instructions were really needed. You could take one look at the shelter we built and go home and make one from memory. It’s really that simple. It wasn’t long afterwards we began seeing similar shelters all over the ice.

First of all here’s a quick visual reference for the final project. Think in terms of a covered wagon. The cover for the wagon would be your tarp and the openings on each end would be your basic shape for your plywood walls.

Items Required To Build A Portable Ice Shelter
Raw Materials:
2 – 4′ x 8′ sheets of 1/2″ plywood
2 – 2″ x 2″ x 8′ boards. You can rip a 2 x 4 in half for this if desired.
1 – Utility tarp preferably 10′ x 16′ in size
2 – Hinges
1 – Door handle

Jig saw
Tape measure
Staple gun
Drill for optional ventilation holes

Other Options:
Paint to help protect the surface of plywood
Plexiglas to create windows
Skis to allow for easier transport

This project should take about 2 hours for the basic model with no additions.We rated the skill level as 3 stars simply because power tools are involved. If you were to include the optional doorway window and skis we would suggest adding another hour to the project. If you plan to paint your shelter also add another hour or more depending on drying time in between coats of paint.

Let’s Get Started!
Lay your first sheet of plywood across two sawhorses. We figured on a 6 foot tall center for our shelter so I will also use those measurements in this article.

The easiest way to make a nice arch for the top of the shelter is through the simple act of using a pencil on a string. Confused? No problem. First find the center of your plywood from the 4 foot end. Make a mark at two feet. Now move 6 feet higher on the sheet of plywood and make that same 2 foot center mark. This will be the very top of your arch measurement. Now, grab a pencil and tie a length of string to one end. The length of the string will determine the curve to your arch. A shorter string will create more of a curve and a longer string a less curve. This is your choice of preference but we recommend making the travel of the arch pronounced enough that snow will not be able to collect on the roof.

Hold the end of your string on center, your 2 foot mark on the plywood, and bring your pencil to the top of your arch measurement at the 6 foot level. Start here and work your pencil to the left and right of the plywood while holding the other end of the string firm. Optionally you can use a small screw to secure your string rather than holding it or, this is a great moment to get your kids involved and give them this little, but most important, job.

Now that you have the arch template shape marked it’s time to break out the jig saw and get cutting. Once you have the first wall cut out there’s no need to go through the same measurement process again. Simply lay the wall template you just cut onto the second sheet of plywood and trace your shape for cutting the second wall. See, I told you this was easy and that was actually the hard part.

Take notice as this is the optimal moment to paint your shelter if desired. Most people skipped this step as they would rather continue with the build, and I don’t blame them for that. I felt the same way. However, I got my daughter involved at this step and we painted both sides of the plywood a jet black at this time. She enjoyed the involvement in the project and the shelter itself lasted through 4 seasons of rough use while those that were unpainted lasted 2 seasons at best. Pay particular attention to painting the edges that will contact the ice as this is where the wood will begin to deteriorate first.

If you’re skipping the paint then onward we go!

Now you get to customize a little and make your own personal statement with the doors and windows. Again, if you’re going to pass on the window option take into consideration whether you will be using tipups set outside the shelter somewhere and also the fact of whether you will need a device for added light in the later evening hours when the walleyes begin to feed. A couple small Plexiglas windows solve both of these problems with very little work.

You’re going to need a door and this is another simple step but pay attention to the added notes.

We created a door that was 2 feet wide and 4 feet high. It’s a small door but it helps hold the structure’s integrity together. You start making the doorway by measuring to the center of your plywood once again to find the two foot mark. Take note to leave about 4 inches of space from the bottom of the sheet of plywood to the bottom of your door. This will also help preserve the structure through the rigorous usage of fishing and traveling. Measure your doorway of 2 feet wide by four feet high and cut out with the jig saw. If you plan to have one of those windows in the doorway now is the time to cut that while you have your door on the saw horses or bench. We made 1 foot square windows in our door and on the opposite wall. Also add some ventilation holes near the top of the shelter if you plan to use portable propane heaters. A basic 1 inch auger bit or hole saw will make short work of some quick ventilation near the top of the shelter.

Your hardware comes next. Mount your hinges to the door and also your door handle. Your door handle doesn’t need to be anything fancy and really only needs the handle on the outside as the door will push open from the inside quite easily. With your hinges and door handle secured, now you can mount the door back on the wall and secure the hinges. Things are really take shape at this point!

The extension brackets are actually going to be the supports for your 2×2’s which will extend the walls of your shelter and stretch the tarp once it’s complete. We made ours from some leftover 2×2 lumber and they worked quite well. They can also be made from leftover plywood but pay particular attention to making them thick enough so your 2×2’s won’t keep falling out of the brackets. This is in part why we chose to use the 2 x 2 scraps for the brackets. In time your tarp will stretch, especially when the sun is hitting it even though it’s sub-zero outside. Also wind is quite predominant out on a large body of frozen water. With these being your only facet keeping the walls together, and standing, you want to make sure they are reliable.

The basic shape noted in the graphic to the right is a “U” shape. The space inside this “U” shape needs to be adequate for the 2 x 2. We chose this simple shape because it was easy and it proved very reliable as we fished in the windiest of whether where we thought the entire shelter might fly away like a tent at any moment but never once did we lose a support. Or the shelter for that matter.

You should situate these support brackets near the bottom of your arch for optimal placement. I decided a second set of brackets would further enhance the structure if placed near the floor. This required a second set of 2 x 2’s. In hindsight, this did accomplish the intention but added two extra elements to handle and, most shelters I saw that were built afterward only used on set of supports and faired just as well. Hey, it’s a personal choice and you build it the way you want. That’s part of the fun.

A quick note to the fishermen reading this. The 2 x 2 that lays across the extension brackets makes a great place to hang gloves, a radio, or gaff hook. A couple simple eye hooks provide plenty of ideas and options.

For those who haven’t purchased a tarp yet the measurement process of how big of a tarp you will need is quite easy. A seamstress or cloth tape will work just fine. For those who have neither, a long piece of string that you can measure afterwards will work.

Run your string or cloth tape measure along the edges of your walls from a bottom corner along the perimeter back down to the opposite bottom corner. Now, with that measurement in hand, add 2 feet to the total length. Why add two feet? This will leave extra tarp that will lay on the ice which can then be banked up with snow or slush to keep the wind from traveling underneath the tarp. Don’t skimp in this area or you might find your fishing holes constantly freezing over.

Attaching your tarp to the walls is nothing more than finding the center of your tarp and holding it to the center of your arch at the top. Allow about 4 inches of tarp to overlap the wall. Begin stapling from the top down following the travel of the wall template as you go. Repeat the process for both walls and you now should have the basic structure complete. For those who aren’t in a hurry and like the extras, you might consider a length of garden hose, split in half, stapled along the edges of your plywood walls before stapling your tarp down. This will keep the tarp from rubbing against the rough edges of the plywood and consequently last much longer. For future reference, in the event of needed tarp repairs, you can buy tarp repair tape that will create an instant fix for small problems like tearing or fraying.

Now that you have everything in place it’s time to set this shelter up and have a look at your work.

The easiest method is to stand the entire project on end with the door facing you. Grab a 2 x 2 and enter the shelter using the 2 x 2 the push against the opposite wall. Once the shelter has reached the limit of the tarp you can get a measurement for the length you will need to cut your 2 x 2. I don’t recommend cutting the 2 x 2 ahead of this stage as the tarp is not going to be a perfect fit on both sides so a custom measurement will be required. Good time to get the kids involved again! Measure the distance between the walls for both sides of the shelter and cut your 2 x 2’s accordingly. Simply set them inside the brackets you made and you’re golden. The shelter will stand on it’s own and is ready for the ice. Congrats!

Keep in mind this project probably seems very complicated in writing but you’ll quickly see how easily this shelter moves along. In fact, in the time it took to write this article and create the graphics, I could have easily built two of these shelters. And again, it’s a great project for those days when you’re stuck at home and I guarantee the kids will enjoy lending a hand. In fact my daughter and I built a second smaller portable shelter just for her to mess around with in the yard.

author bio

About James L. Bruner

James grew up in an outdoor family and recalls some of his first memories outdoors with his father. “I remember being very young and my dad carrying me on his shoulders out to the duck blind where a cold day of watching decoys dipping on the waves was complimented by the time spent together.” In the years that followed, moments like those were played time and again in a number of outdoor activities that included rabbit hunting, fishing, deer hunting, grouse hunting, and of course more waterfowling. View Entire Bio