Traditional winter camping is not ultralight camping. Carrying everything on your back for a cold camping trip is next to impossible on a deep snow trip on snowshoes, since you will wallow, and sweat and get soaked. For a hot tent trip it is of course impossible to carry all gear on your back. Add fishing gear with ice chisel or auger to the gear load, several days of food, a fold up grill, ski gear, camera equipment, change of clothes for contingency if you fall through the ice, and it all adds up. You will be wanting some type of sled to haul gear so that you float on the surface of the snow, and have some comforts to be able to use fire.
For super ultralight trips such as ski mountaineering trips above treeline, it is possible to be self contained with backpacks only, using snow caves or using tiny light tents, and melting snow for water. But at the end of the day you crawl inside your sleeping bag or snow cave and cook in the vestibule with a fire and fumes risk, and basically lay about in your sleeping bag. Personally I like to be out and about and upright outside or in a hot tent, luxuriating and cooking with fire. The traditional way to live and travel well in the northern bush within the treeline is hauling a sled.
Sleds used to be made of wood, but modern plastics have all but replaced them and most of this section will be referring to the newer plastic designs, but we will cover wood since many campers still use it, and there are many unique wood-plastic hybrids being designed. “Sled” is sort of a catch-all term, and we will break these out for discussion into toboggans, pulks, and ski sleds.
In North America, toboggans are the traditional sled, and still are the best choice for a packable load in many snow conditions. In the softer snow of the bush (as opposed to windpacked hard snow of the polar regions, big open lakes, and some alpine areas), loads must be kept low so that the sled does not tip over. A repeatedly tipping sled kills your trip. Toboggans excel at design for packing low because there is almost no limit to how long they can be made. The narrower the toboggan, the easier it pulls, but the longer it must be to resist tipping. But if it is too narrow, it will tip all day, ruining your trip. The wider the toboggan, the more stable it is to resist tipping, but the harder it is to pull. Too wide, and in deep snow it won’t fit down inside your packed snowshoe trail, called a “float”. If a sled rides up on the float edge it can tip.
Traditionally toboggans were made of hardwood planks, which in much of the north was white birch. In the old days I am not sure how they sealed up the wood and finished the surface for low friction sliding. In today’s wooden toboggans, we use the same technology as for wooden skis: seal the base with pine tar using a torch to impregnate it, wipe off the excess tar, allow to dry, and then iron on glide wax, scraping off excess each time and ironing and corking in new layers so that you have a waxed base of many thin layers. On your trip bring a block of wax to rub on touch ups where the snow is sticking.
For wooden toboggans, do not underestimate the base prep time needed before each and every trip. Without a thoroughly glide-waxed base of many layers, it will be agony to haul, and if the base ever gets wet in above freezing conditions, the sled will stop dead with caking snow. Take the time to prep the base thoroughly.
Although a well made wooden toboggan is a work of art, plastic toboggans have all but replaced them now, and plastic has many advantages and no disadvantages that I am aware of. Wooden toboggans need constant attention to the base wax layer. Wooden toboggans can crack and snap if hauling a heavy load over a log, or on a down hill if it gets away on you and smashes into a tree (crashes happen more often than I would like to admit). If you run out of snow and have to haul it over a melted trail with rock, it will gouge up the base or possibly crack the planks. Plastic toboggan material is very flexible in the cold and incredibly strong. In a reasonable thickness, it can be hauled over logs and rocks without worry of breaking. Sure it will gouge, but the gouge can be partially smoothed in the field with an axe or knife or something from your repair kit. And it remains slippery in both wet and cold-dry conditions.
The commonly used plastic sheet to make toboggans are made of either HDPE (high density polyethylene) or UHMWPE (ultra high molecular weight polyethylene). A thickness of ¼ inch will take a counter-sunk screw head well. UHMWPE in this thickness is easier to work with for bending, remains very flexible in deep cold (you can roll it up), and it has a lower friction coefficient, i.e. it slides slightly better than HDPE. HDPE is significantly less expensive but still makes a fine sled, and it is harder, so resists gouging and scoring of the base better than UHMWPE. It is quite stiff and in order to bend ¼ inch material you can apply a propane torch to it full blast with a flame spreader nozzle, and build a bending jig to assist the bending, and let it cool in the jig. For bending ¼ inch UHWWPE you can also apply the torch but it melts easier, so keep an eye on it. You should also use a jig for bending, but you could get by with bending over a round surface or 2×4 if you are creative, since it softens much better with a flame.
In the winter discussion forums there is lots of debate over design, and that’s a great thing. Every design has pros and cons. To me the underlying goals of toboggan design are efficient hauling with low propensity to tip, and light weight but combined with significant strength since the stresses on sleds are in fact enormous. Obviously there is a trade off with strength and light weight. Therein lies the challenge.
My preferred toboggan width is 16 inches. That will fit well in a trail breaking sized snowshoe float, and is reasonably stable to resist tipping. 16 inches will also allow for 3 blanks to be cut from a 4 foot wide plastic sheet with no waste.
Sheets come in 8, 10 and 12 foot lengths, and I have toboggans made of 8 and 10 foot. The advantage to a longer 10 foot toboggan (9 foot packable space) over an 8 foot (7 foot packable space), is that the load can be packed lower. You have to resist the temptation to bring too much stuff however. The longer toboggan is also difficult to turn. The 8 foot toboggan (7 foot packable space) is lighter, easier to turn, but might have to be packed higher (this tippier), depending on your load. I have never used a 12 foot toboggan, but it would be my toboggan of choice for a very long expedition with the extra food and gear requirements on a relatively flat trip.
There are several methods to pack stuff on toboggans. Traditionally trekkers used a wrapping tank of canvas or hides. The tank is literally a 4 sided and bottomed fabric tank, open on the top, and you fold down the extra material to seal in your load with ropes or a bungee cord system. Advantages are that everything is contained and can be cinched down. The tank can be used as a floor liner in your shelter or hot tent. The disadvantage is that it must be disassembled into loose items to portage if you can’t haul it fully loaded up or down a steep hill. When arriving at a camp site sometimes you can’t get the toboggan into the site so you have several trips to haul up lose gear, and gear remains loose and there is the issue of losing small items in the snow
Other packing systems use duffel bags of various sizes. This is a modular approach and has some advantages in case of the aforementioned portage on steep slopes, or the portage of gear up into a campsite off the lake or off trail. The disadvantages are that there is loss of some useable space between the bags. Unlike backpacks or canoe packs where gear can be stuffed efficiently and compressed, duffle bags are tough to compress gear into and still be able to use the zippers. You also don’t have a nice floor liner with duffle bags, although empty bags under your sleeping pad add insulation. Duffle bags when fully stuffed tend to be round, so one secret to using roundish bags is to not pack them full, and they can be cinched down flatter for stacking. One company, Black River Sleds (http://www.blackriversleds.com/toboggans.html), is manufacturing an excellent line up of flat rectangular duffel packing systems made to stack on a toboggan with or without a tank, which they also make.
Space limits here do not allow the detailed discussion of the wide range of designs, materials and fastening systems that are continually being developed by innovative winter trekkers and winter gear companies. Follow the links to manufacturers and to our Discussion Forum as we expect toboggan design to be a hot topic there.
Pulks are rigid hulled sleds with sides. They twist slightly but don’t undulate like a snake over the terrain like a toboggan does. One advantage over toboggans is that they are very easy to turn on a dime in deep or shallow snow. Big toboggans are very difficult to turn – sort of like turning a battleship. Their edges catch and resist turning. If you have open trails and lake to travel, then its not an issue, but in thick bush when bushwhacking or punching up off the lake into the campsite, its nice to be able to haul a pulk around tight corners. The long toboggans often need a man on the back to haul its end around a tight turn. Also when hauling on snow over slush on lakes, when resting you have to be able to haul the sled up onto the unpacked snow out of the float (since the slush will seep up and freeze on the sled), and pulks are easy to handle quickly, whereas toboggans are tough to get up and over that snow ridge on the float.
The curved sides make the hull rigid, and so a pulk rides differently than a toboggan. The jury is our on what hauls more efficiently: a rigid pulk that loses some contact with the snow in some rough areas, or a flexible toboggan that snakes along over bumps and is mostly in contact with the snow at all times. With its snaky motion a toboggan may have the advantage for resisting tipping. We need a physicist to help us out with some experiments to settle the debate.
With its curved sides, a pulk also has an advantage for packing gear as the curved sides keep the load in, and the hull slides against the float edge or trail obstructions, rather than a tank or duffel bag which might scrape against the edges of the trail.
Commercially available pulks are almost all designed for flat wind packed snow conditions, and they make them quite wide – too wide to fit down inside a snowshoe float in deep soft snow. You see polar expeditions hauling big wide pulks. The extra width is needed to stop them from tipping over as they go over irregular ice ridges. They also have integral runners which raise them up off the bare ice or hard wind packed snow, and so they essentially ride on skis in those polar terrain conditions. They would plow like a barge however in soft snow.
Alpine travellers also use wider pulks which they haul on skis using climbing skins for traction on their skis. Their pulks need the extra width to prevent the sled tipping along a slope. Some pulks also have steel or aluminum fins along the back runners to track the pulk laterally along slopes. They trade off width for length, so most of these pulks are not suitable for early to mid winter snow conditions in the trees where the snow is deep and soft. Later in the season if you were travelling on big windswept lakes with hardpack snow, they might be a good choice. Most pulks are built far too heavy for my preference however.
However there are two brands of pulk I own and use regulary which are designed narrow enough for a snowshoe float: (1) The Buggaboo Buggy expedition model http://buggaboobuggy.com/ and (2) The Siglin Pulk from Northern Sled Works http://www.northernsledworks.com/Pulkwebpg.html.
The Buggaboo Buggy is a nice little pulk that comes with a pole mounted hip harness which allows one to ski haul the sled without being run over by it. Typically you will see all alpine style pulks with a pole harness set up for skiing. Poles harnesses are really good for skiing, until you have to reach around and pull the pulk around some obstruction, or have to switch to snowshoes, when a rope harness is necessary. This pulk is quite short by northern winter camper standards, and I find I can only use it for ultralight 2-3 day trips and I still need a small backpack as well. I often use it with a rope harness instead of the poles. I removed the aluminum fins since they tend to dig in and drag. If Buggaboo Buggy could design an 8 foot version of their pulk, it would be an awesome sled that potentially could serve all the needs of the winter camper for a wide range of trips.
My Siglin Pulk is a custom made 8 footer with about 7 feet packable space. To my knowledge it is the lightest sled of its size on the market since it uses only 1/8 inch thick UHMWPE. Due to its unique pleated bolt-through design on the ends, there is no need to countersink screw heads in thicker material. The newer model also haves molded runners which on hard surfaces will reduce friction. My older Siglin did not have the molded base, and it tends to be rounder, and it does have tipping problems in deep snow sometimes if I am not careful. The newer design is improved. I ski haul with it using ropes without the optional pole assembly, and with its rounded hull it will sometimes take off up and over the float and tip in the soft snow. My buddies with their floppy toboggans tend to stay inside the float more often because I think the toboggan bounces off the float edge back into the float instead of riding up and over.
There are so many variable trail conditions, and so many differences between ski and snowshoe hauling, that there are inevitable long lists of pros and cons that will keep us all busy for years debating them on the Discussion Forums, but that’s something to look forward to!
Another class of sled is a rigid platform which rides on skis or runners. Some pulks are close to this design with their raised runners, often shoed with a ski of UHMWPE. But the true ski sled is raised up several inches and rides on two skis without its belly touching the trail.
Traditionally there were lightweight ski sleds made with hardwood pole uprights to support the hand hewn wooden skis, which saved weight over solid wood runners. The skis were coated with special mud (clay) and then iced. They needed maintenance constantly but worked well in the deep cold. These were used later in the season with the spring hard packed snow conditions, or all winter on well used and packed trails. You can see an excellent example and superb historical photograph of this hand hauled design on the cover of the book Provencher – Last of the Coureurs de Bois. (by Paul Provencher and Gilbert LaRocque, 1976, published by Burns and MacEachern, Don Mills, ON).
Narrow modified komatiks are popular in the late season on hard packed snow on open lakes after the slush is gone, or as the trailing heavy duty cargo sleds at the rear of a snowshoeing team. In the back of the line of several snowshoers hauling toboggans, the float becomes hard and flat enough to support narrow komatiks. The runners are shoed with skis of 3-4 inches thick UHMWPE which over 8 feet provide good floatation on a packed float. Komatiks made of wood runners and decking are quite heavy, and I think there is the potential to design with plastics to reduce weight.
Smaller home made ski sleds are also prominent on the discussion forms. Innovative campers will salvage an old pair of downhill skis and mount them on runners. Since skis are short, you can make two shorter sleds and join them with a hitch that articulates in 3 dimensions to accommodate all the twisting and turning motions. Dave Hadfield, long time master winter camper has posted his design concepts for hitched ski sleds on his website: http://www.hadfield.ca/Gear/tobaggan.html I think that ski sleds with the wood decking and runners are rather heavy, but I have never used one, and Dave swears that in hauling tests the reduced friction surface area of skis more than makes up for the extra weight and that they haul more efficiently overall. Our Discussion Forums will no doubt get into this interesting topic.
One other issue I am concerned about with ski sleds in the early season when hauling on lakes is the potential to punch through the float into the slush, which would stop the sled dead in its tracks. A toboggan spreads the weight out over a larger surface area and so has better floatation, but again, I have never trekked with a ski sled so I can’t compare with direct experience. I have however fought off slush while hauling toboggans and know first hand how important floatation can be in the peak of the slush season.
I am not aware of any commercially available skis sleds or narrow lightweight komatiks. One design we are all waiting for is the lightweight narrow 16-17 inch wide ski sled (maybe 18 inches wide tops for the rear sled in the group). If a company could come up with a lightweight design for a 7-9 foot ski sled then I think a market could develop. More to discuss on the Forums for sure.
There are two basic types: rope, and pole.
Rope Harnesses: The rope hauling harness is the favourite for snowshoers and skiers hauling on flat terrain like lakes, and on windy bush trails. The design is very simple: two ropes and a tump (flat belt) of about 3 feet made of seat belt webbing or leather. The tump is used across your chest and the ropes are wrapped around your arms in various configurations. I find it very comfortable to haul all day with trailing arms wrapped in the ropes, leaning into the haul. Each arm works independently like a shock absorber and you can pull differentially on each rope to turn the sled this way and that. When hauling up hill, using the arm wrap method provides a very strong position. Craig MacDonalds publication “Instructions for Odawban Sledding Equipment (1989) provides the best description and drawings on sled hauling technique that I have seen in the literature.
When skiing you are using ski poles, and positioning the tump over one shoulder and under the opposite arm, the harness will stay put and you can haul hands-free using your ski poles. When you get to a hill, stash the poles under your sleds bungees and you can switch to the arm wrap technique.
Another technique is to sew up a more elaborate shoulder and hip belt harness that you clip the ropes into using biners. Elaborate designs are out there, such as cross chest patterns of seat belt webbing. Clip in sites for the haul ropes depend on your preference: hips to back of shoulders.
A buddy had a mesh cruising vest customized and reinforced to include webbing and D-ring sites to clip in ropes for hands free hauling which he prefers. The customized cruising vest distributes the pull across shoulders, chest and hips, and since its mesh allows for venting steam.
The disadvantage to rope harnesses is when ski hauling – the sled will tend to run you over. A plastic sled of UHMWPE will usually glide faster than you will on skis. On undulating terrain it becomes a real hassle to keep the sled under control and not run you over. There are techniques like sitting on the sled, or letting it run up between your skis and you hold on to control it. On a big downhill, watch out!
Pole Harnesses: The advantage of pole harnesses is for ski haulers on open trails. There are elaborate hip and shoulder harnesses that the pulk manufacturers sell. I have not used the heavy duty pole harness systems on a heavy sled, but have used the hip harness on my little Buggaboo Buggy pulk, and its great for skiing up and down old logging roads. The sled will push you on the downhills and there is no way to quick-release, so I often wonder what would happen in a bad wipe out? I don’t want to find out! Use at your own risk and use caution on downhill sections.
When hauling I often switch between back country skis and snowshoes during the same trip, so a pole-only system won’t work for me. Going across winding portage trails or punching up into a campsite from the lake, I need to be able to reach behind with a rope system to guide the sled around and over obstacles. I have experimented with hybrid pole and rope systems so far to no avail. Yet another equipment challenge to tackle. In winter camping there is no end to thinking about how to optimize equipment, modify or design new equipment, and this is one the reasons I find it very rewarding and fun.