I’ve spent a lot of time in pop-up shelters. I’ve set up 6 X 6 shelters by myself in screaming 20 mph wind at -5 degrees out which really isn’t THAT cold, but setting up a pop-up in those conditions can be a challenge. One needs to plan every step and have a contingency plan ready to go in an instant. I like to attach 36″ bungee cords directly to the eyebolt in two opposite hubs. I stick the hook through the eye and squeeze it shut with pliers so they are always with my tent. When it’s windy, I either screw an anchor into the ice first or tie off the bungee to the back of my Skidoo. Then, I go about setting it up and quickly anchoring it down between gusts. The bigger the ice fishing shelter, the more planning you need in a wind. Not a lot of room for error as an ice fishing pop-up is a very large sail and if it gets away from you in a wind, peeling it off the birch trees five miles down the lake is what you’ll be doing.
But what does this all have with thermal vs. non-thermal in pop-up ice fishing shelters? Nothing other than proving that I’ve spent a lot of time with pop-ups in real ice situations. That being said, if you sit in an uninsulated, non-thermal ice shelter you’ll burn about 20% more propane to heat it with your Mr. Heater Portable Buddy. If it gets really cold out, you’ll have frost in the corners and along the walls that the sun does not heat. Your breath will contribute to the frost along with the propane exhaust that comes right out of your Mr. Buddy Heater . When, not if, the frost melts , it runs down whatever slanting piece of cloth that makes up the roof of your pop-up until it hits a seam. Then, it drips down the seam and goes down your neck. You finally get frustrated and find whatever cloth towel you can get to wipe down the ceiling. That helps for a while and then you do it again later.
In the thermal pop-up, first thing you need to note is that they weight almost twice as much with some tents. A non-insulated portable ice shelter can weigh, say 36 pounds for like a 6 x 8 size tent. In the insulated version, it will weigh about 53 pounds or more. That’s not that much different when you are hauling with a cargo sled or in the back of your truck, but if your are hauling on your back, then, it is significant.
Weight aside, the function, set-up, and take-down are identical. They also cost about 30-40% more because you are essentially sitting in two tents. BUT – sitting inside is noticeably more comfortable regarding temperature. The other thing you notice is NO dripping. No icy water droplets down your neck. Less frost build-up in the corners. That right there is worth a bunch. I like the tent warmer and not dripping. It’s also bulkier and a bit harder to put in the case so it takes more space in the cargo sled. Not all thermal pop-ups are black out tents either. Some allow light through the ultrasonic welds that make the quilted little pillows. The only really blacked-out thermal tent is the Polar Fire portable ice shelter. It’s a beautiful tent but they have less offerings in sizes, but if you want to spear northern pike or lake trout (kidding) in increased comfort, the Polar Fire TX4 thermal pop-up tent is a great ice fishing shelter.
So, if you can live with increases in bulk, weight and price – go thermal, no questions asked. If you need shelter with less weight and cost, go non-thermal. It is still immensely better than sitting on out the ice in the wind. I rarely fish without a pop-up and I almost always go with a thermal shelter. I’ve become spoiled in my old age.