In 2004, my friends and I set out to conquer the winter wilderness. For years, we used a cabin deep in the woods as our three season destination. But never in the winter – we worried about the cold, but also, the logistics. How do you get 3 guys and their stuff miles into the woods in knee deep snow, assuming the worst terrain and weather?
While sitting around drinking beers in my friend’s basement, I remembered an image from an old Boy Scout Field Guide. It showed three Scouts pulling a wood toboggan through the woods. They looked like they were enjoying themselves and it looked easy enough.
What they failed to illustrate was anything greater than flat terrain, and how they got there in the first place.
Back in the day, I only had access to a car, not a truck. So everything we decided to bring went in cardboard boxes (burnable?) and our cheap Canadian Tire wood toboggan went from the trunk and into the back seat.
When we got to the trail, everything was dumped out of the car onto the cold snow. Almost immediately we were chilled and we stood around discussing optimal placement of the boxes and how we would lash everything together. We decided to pile the cardboard boxes onto a tarp on top of the toboggan and then lashed the whole contraption together with piss-poor knot tying. We used a long length of rope that I had on hand with caribeaners on either end, and a 1 1/2” belt harness that had 2 d-rings held between sliders. I brought a pair of ski poles – the Boy Scouts apparently through they were a good idea – and we set off out into the great Canadian wilderness.
As we walked the belt sagged under the weight, the D-rings slowly made their way to the back of the harness and slid back and forth as we turned removing all ability to navigate the sled without man-handling and constant corrections by the person behind. The sled tipped, it picked up a mountain of snow as it cut through the trail and it slammed into our heels every time we went down a hill.
The ski poles were the only part of the design that actually worked properly and allowed us to use both our lower and upper body to pull the sled.
When we eventually got to our destination, we were sweaty and cold and now we had to disassemble the whole thing, fighting the snow hardened knots. Finally, we had to get a fire going from scratch. And even though there was a wood stove, it was old and inefficient. We spend the whole weekend trying to heat up the dilapidated cabin, while cold air rushed around our calves.
In short, it was hell… but it was worth it.
Since its initial conception, our winter sled, also known as pulk, has gone through many iterations. Our latest design works well for our set of trail conditions, and anything better would probably involve us spending serious coin on an expedition sled.
Why Build A Sled?
To be honest, winter camping can get expensive really fast if you go out and buy all the equipment. A sled can cost anywhere around $300, along with $250.00+ snowshoes (wood are best for float) – not to mention hot tents, stoves and sleep systems.
And everything works together. The snowshoes create a float area (packed down snow) that the sled follows along in. The sled allows a single person to carry up to 250 lbs. of gear, including stoves and tents. And hot tents (those with an internal heating source) can dry all your gear out.
Without a hot tent or cabin, you end up cold tent camping – consuming vast amounts of calories and working all the time to keep yourself warm. Without the sled you have to lug all the gear you need on your back (sub 80 lbs. loads). Without snowshoes, you struggle through the deep snow, shortening the expedition distance covered.
The easiest path to get you out in the winter to start out with is a good sleeping bag – something over $150.00. This will allow you to get a good night sleep, provided you are elevated off the snow. With a $35.00 sled setup (roughly what this DIY project costs), will get your gear out there with you (assuming you are cold camping). As you get better and better at winter excursions, you can upgrade your gear with snowshoes, and then possibly with a bigger sled. Finally you can add a hot tent and the winter is your playground. Half of the journey is getting there.
Based on the type of terrain you are likely to encounter, you may decide on two styles of load carriers.
If you plan to travel mainly across lakes akin to a canoe route, with only brief “portages” through the woods, you would probably be happiest the following two toboggans. There is the well crafted and waxed wood trapping toboggan as seen in Paradise Below Zero by Calvin Rutstrum. Or you could go the route of a Connover style HDPE or UHMWPE plastic sled. These are narrow 9 foot plus coffin-shaped sleds that snake across the ground giving maximum flotation – plans can be found in the Snow Walker’s Companion. Traveling across lakes can be almost leisurely, but frozen lakes contain their own inherent dangers; the ice can be fickle and there is the very real danger of falling through, even by seasoned professionals.
If you plan to stick to the woods and back country, then you would most likely be more interested in a sled with a ridged hull, which turns better in the bush and can be dragged easily over varying terrain. The sled discussed here is a back country semi-rigid model commonly referred to as a pulk or here as a winter sled, since this is the type of environment my friends and I travel in. Other people refer to the brief passages through the woods as a change of scenery and a moment of heavy exertion. For us it is the majority of our trip, and to us it “builds character”.
The Effects Of Dragging Gear
A disclaimer before going into our sled design: Dragging a sled through the woods is brutal. There is no way around it.
The friction caused by pack sleds across snow requires significantly more labour than carrying a pack on your back – it feels like you are in the training scene in Rocky IV. When you drag a sled, you immediately start to heat up from heavy exertion. And then you start to sweat, and sweating out in the wilderness during the winter can kill you if you don’t take precautions. Drying clothing out in the winter wilderness is quite a task and can be all but impossible if you are not prepared.
You have two choices. Either you have to travel at a low enough speed that you don’t sweat, or you bring a change of clothing to change into when you get to your destination – hopefully a hot tent or cabin like we have. Either way, you will need to dry out the clothing you used using an external heat source like a wood stove once you stop for the night.
The reason why you take a sled in the first time is two-fold. First, you can take way more gear that you normally would, but need. You will end up requiring a heavy winter sleeping bag, bulky winter clothing, full sized axes and saws and many pounds of calories to keep your metabolism running – not to mention shelters and stoves if you require them. Weight on the sled also means that you will float better if you are wearing cross country skis or snowshoes – if you don’t own either, you will likely struggle through the knee deep snow until you reach your destination.
If you are lucky, you will end up with super dry cold temperatures (our trips have hit the low of -50 Celsius / -58 Fahrenheit). At these temperatures, you will be blessed with light powder maybe even on a hard crust of ice. Your toboggan and you will glide across the ground. If it ends up being warmer out (wet cold) then you will end up trudging through thick packing snow – or worse, slush, which picks up on the bottom of your sled like you are rolling a snowman. We always plan our trips in the deepest winter possible to take advantage of possible ultra-cold conditions. Some years it has been jacketless weather – you never know.
Winter Sled / Pulk Design
This winter sled build has three main components:
- The sled
- The harness
- The totes
All materials are listed at the end of the article for convenience.
The base of our sled is a black 66″ long Mega Boggan made by H2O! coming in at around $20.00 to $30.00. It is a vac-formed flat bottomed HDPE plastic kid’s toboggan purchased from Home Hardware, but often available from Canadian Tire, Lowes, Walmart, etc. Just search online for the best deal. The Mega Boggan is the best we have tested for a reasonable price. It weighs in initially at 4.65 lbs. We prefer to buy it from Home Hardware since we can order as many as we need in and there is a store only a block away from my house, so pick up is a breeze.
Commonly available sleds also include the light Pelican MegaSnow Glider and the Pelican SnowTrek 60 . The Pelican MegaSnow Glider (for the same price point) is inferior to the Mega Boggan as it is less rigid (thinner plastic), with “speed lines” that decrease backward movement and has significant hand hold areas from cheap manufacturing, that dig into the snow increasing friction. On the opposite end is the Pelican SnowTrek which is build like a tank, weights like a tank, drives through the snow like a plow (if you actually fill it up) and is up at around $70.00.
You probally don’t want a sled any smaller than 6’ since the shorter they are, the lower the load has to be, before it starts to tip over or dive downward from uneven terrain. This can ruin your trip, trust me. Six feet is also a good size in case someone gets hurt and needs to be dragged out.
An advantage of vac-forming is that this style of sled stacks together quite well when you are storing a number of them or when you are traveling in a vehicle with limited space.
If you are worried about the sled fitting into your car, either you can drop the trunk / seat down and pass the sled through, or run in between the middle back seat and the radio consol in the front. The sleds literally weigh nothing, even after the build and they are quite compact when the drag bars are folded back onto the sled.
After purchasing the sled you will need to install the lashing loops for tying down loads, as well as the drag ropes for attaching the sled to your pack or harness. Conveniently, there are 10 barely visible depressions on the Mega Boggan in almost all of exact places we wanted tie downs and we drilled these 13 holes with a 3/8” drill bit (assuming the rope has a 1/2” diameter).
The lashing loops consist of 34” of rope with a 2” loop and knot in it, pulled (both ends) through the top of the hole and knotted underneath followed by being cut down and burned for durability. The easiest way to create identical sets of loops is to measure off 34” using two pieces of painters or masking tape on a table as markers that can be removed after you are done. If that sounds like a lot of rope per loop, remember that a loop and overhand knot is 17” and another knot is 12” for a total of 27” plus extra to tighten.
There are two options for the drag ropes that connect you to the sled. The first is to use a simple length of rope, knotted underneath the sled and fitted on the other end with loops and carabiners, for easy connecting to your harness / pack. The other involves a length of conduit pipe pulled over the rope lengths to add rigidity and to allow better control of the sled while turning. Either way uses basically the same method except that the conduit pipe is installed before the rope is pulled through the sled.
When you travel downhill with your sled, you will wish that you went with the pipe method as a 60 lb. sled can be a constant pain as it slams into your ankles. That or you will have to lower them downhill using lines attached to the rear of the sled pulley-style. Plan for the worst and have extra rope with you.
Tie a 2” loop in the end of a 82” length of rope. Just below the knot, wrap both the end of the rope and the line in a strip of duck tape (I tear the duck tape down the middle lengthwise). The duck tape allows the pipe (if you decide to go with one) to slide up against the knot easily and prevents undue rubbing. If you have decided to add 58” rigid poles, slide them onto the rope right up to the knot. We use 1/2” inside diameter schedule 40 rigid PVC conduit pipe which comes in 10 foot lengths, which we cut the female end off and then cut again in half, resulting in a set of 58” pipe.
Slide the working end of rope through the top of the sled and tie a knot on the underside, making sure to trim and burn the end of the rope for durability. Don’t worry if there is a bit of play in the line, as this makes it easy to fold the poles backwards onto the sled for storage and transport.
We also add carabiners to the loop ends of the drag poles since you will end up fumbling with the sled in sub zero weather and rope tends to get gummed up with snow. Carabiners add a nice click-in feature. You don’t need fancy carabiners for any of this. Any non-locking solid gate carabiners will work as long as they can easily clip in and out of whatever setup you need.
Now with the drag rope / poles installed and the lashing loops, the sled is ready to go.
There are three main ways you can drag a winter sled by a person.
The first is to attach the drag ropes directly to your pack. This is the method I prefer most, since your pack is pre-fitted to your body and because the weigh of the sled is centered on your hips – the exact same way a pack should be carried. Dragging a sled on your shoulders sucks. Your shoulders ache, your back hurts and unless the sled is gliding along, you feel like you are dragging the Stone of Shame. I installed two carabiners through the PALS webbing slots in my Kifaru ZXR pack that mate with the carabiners on the drag poles – I never remove them since they are always a useful addition to my pack. Why use two sets of carabiners? Ease of clicking in and out, especially while wearing mitts.
If you don’t have PALs webbing, you might also find that you can find some purchase on the waist strap or shoulder straps that would allow easy click in with either a dedicated attachment point (O-rings or carabiners) or directly to a strap. It really depends on your pack layout.
The next option is to attach the two drag poles / lines together with a tumpline. A tumpline is just a soft band of material – either a piece of wide leather, nylon seatbelt webbing, cotton webbing, etc. The strap should be around 2” to 2.5” wide by 48” long, since it must go around your body and possibly anything else on you. With a tumpline, you can switch between dragging the sled with both shoulders or worn on either side bandoleer style.
As you walk with the tumpline, you can switch back and forth between the three different carry holds to give your shoulders a break. With the tumpline, you can also interlace your arms in the rope “Indiana Jones on the bridge” style.
The last simple option is to create a belt or harness to wear around your waist to attach to the drag ropes. If you want to go the harness route, the easiest option is to find a military surplus harness that you prefer and to jury-rig something together.
The Webbing Belt
For a webbing belt, you need a waist strap of some sort, stainless steel D-Rings (a failure point) to attach to the carabiners on the drag poles, a buckle to link the belt together and sliders to lock the D-Rings in place. We use nylon webbing as it is easily available, and won’t fold over when you start pulling the sled. To start, cut a strap of 1 1/2” nylon webbing 60” / 5 ft. long. Remember that you will have a substantial waist once you are out on the trail with the layers of heavy clothing along with whatever you are carrying in terms of pack. You will also want to be able to pull the whole belt as tight as possible and extra webbing on either side of the side-release buckle will allow you to work the harness tight.
Decide where you want the D-rings to sit to attach to the drag rope carabiners on your hips – I found that 12″ from either side of the middle of the belt works great. Thread one side of a slider through the webbing to the left side of the webbing strap and before you pull the webbing through the other side, slip in a metal D-ring between the holes, creating a D-ring backed to a slider. At this point you can move the sliders along until you are happy with the fit of the belt.
Once both D-ring / sliders are connected to the strap, slip on the side release buckle male and female ends and slip the left over strapping through the sliders securing the buckle to the belt.
When the belt is fitted how you want it, wrap duck tape a couple of times around both sides of the D-ring sliders so that the slider cannot travel back and forth. Do the same thing on the other side. Belt complete.
If you are unsure of how you want to drag the sled, try creating a tumpline and a belt and test both in the field. Both are quite light and can be easily substituted while on the march.
You will find that while wearing the webbing belt, that it tends to pull low on your body. If it is too loose, the belt will end up dragging the back of your pants down slightly. It pays to get everything hooked up properly before you set out otherwise you may end up looking like a plummer lost in the woods. Some of my friends also like to drag the sled tumpline style with the webbing belts. It easily works by leaving some extra webbing on the belt to loosen up.
In our initial outings, we tended to throw all our stuff in banana boxes that we got at the grocery store, where we picked up our food. Then we covered the whole operation in a tarp and lashed the whole shebang down – this was how it looked to be done according to the Scout manual image. In theory, this works. But in practice, it is a pain in the ass. Especially when you start out the trip as you are going to be cold.
My one friend got really into winter explorers after the first trip (as is to be expected) and we watched a bunch of documentaries on Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen. Scott and Amundsen had two totally different methods when they raced to the South Pole. Scott, headstrong and in a rush to make it to the Pole, started his trip out with horses (of all things) and newly designed motorized vehicles, which were quickly abandoned, and then dragged the sleds by hand. When they reached their rest location, the whole sled had to be torn apart to get the tent up, etc.
Amundsen on the other hand, planned meticulously. He tried everything out, before he put into practice. Oh he tried horses, but he also tried dogs. And he custom built the sleds and practiced what would happen when they arrived on location. The sleds were built to have the first thing out on top, etc.
Robert Falcon Scott and his crew died 11 miles from his supply depot, after enduring frost bite and hardship. Roald Amundsen found the tip smooth and almost uneventful. In Amundsen’s own words:
“I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”
—The South Pole, by Roald Amundsen
Lessons learned. We regrouped and thought out our plans. What we needed was better organization – enter the totes. The totes we decided on are cheap, light bins available at Walmart or any hardware store. These are not Rubbermade Totes, which are quite bombproof, but far too heavy. Rather, we use something like the Steralite 52 Litre / 18 Gallon coming in around $7. All that matters is that the base of the tote does not exceed a 13” width (which matches up with the sled bottom).
It is important that they are light. Since we don’t smash them around, stack them with heavy stuff or sit on them, they can be cheaper. We have used both the folding top lids and the simple lids, and the simple ones win out since they are failure proof. The totes are pre-loaded before we set out on the road with the heavy items at the bottom and the crushable stuff on top.
The totes are great for packing larger lighter items like bread and chips, as these tend to get crushed when you apply the lashing overtop the whole load. The totes stack into each other to save space at home and when you reach your destination, and they open up in seconds. The can also be used to haul our your garbage / recycling, which won’t leak on to any of your other stuff.
Other options that people use include specially designed bags for their sled that look vaguely hockey bag like called tanks or pulk bags. These are really useful if you plan to pack a lot of oversized equipment like hot tents. I would probably just buy a hockey bag if that worked, since a canvas tank can be upwards of $250.00.
Your other option is using a tarp, which is dual utility. We just prefer the totes as they make the whole setup water resistant and quick to strap together. We also don’t need to bring along a large hot tent structure. Maybe these other options will be a worthwhile investment for us when the time comes, although I would prefer something at least water resistant like treated nylon.
Any bulky odd shaped items that are weather proof, can be strapped directly to the top or side of the sled (provided they don’t drag) including ice fishing drills, guns (in cases) and shovels. If you have an oversized sleeping bag that just won’t fit in your pack, you can wrap the whole setup in a garbage bag (or using this method) and then tie it directly to the top of the sled.
Using the Winter Sled / Pulk
Using the pulk is a pretty straight forward operation. When we drive to our destination, we pre-pack the totes and often lash them directly onto the sleds before we depart – depending on the number of sleds we take, 5 is usually the max that can be pre-loaded into the truck cargo area with our packs on top.
The totes are lashed down using a variation of the diamond hitch. We even add a carabiner on the end of the lashing line to aid in attaching and detaching the load.
We dress light. Although you may be cold when you first start out, in 5 minutes you will have created enough metabolic heat to keep you warm. When you are going to stop for more than 5 minutes, you can detach from the sleds and put on something warmer.
This sled design is designed to run across snow and ice. Mud and rocks will tear the plastic bottom apart and ruin the smooth gliding action of the sled.
It is your choice on whether or not you want to cross the drag poles or leave them straight. Some people say that crossing the lines makes is easier for turning in tight spots. Since we rarely need to turn on a dime, we just leave them straight. If you end up using a smaller diameter conduit pipe and rope, you may need to cross the poles for increased rigidity.
If you want to pack your group tools on the sled, you can add a simple pouch out of reflective insulation. This is a good way to keep everything in one place, and when you stop, you can use the pouch as a seat. In a future DIY article, I will show you how to create a simple pouch for tools for winter use.
When pulling the pulk if you have more guys than sleds, the man at the front can blaze the trail while the others pull up the rear. Another option is to give the lightest sled to the trail blazer. If you don’t have that option, expect a lot of breaks.
There you have it. An inexpensive winter sled to haul your gear out into the wilderness.
- 3/8” drill bit
- 1 x 66” H20 Mega Boggan
- 11 x tie-down loops – 34” long x 1/2” thick rope
- 2 x drag rope – of 82” long x 1/2” thick rope
- 2 x drag poles – 10’ of 1/2” schedule 40 rigid PVC conduit pipe – cut down
- 2 x large stainless steel carabiners (3 if you attach one to the lashing rope, 5 if you attach via PALS webbing)
- 1 x 1 1/2” wide nylon webbing, 60” long
- 1 x 1 1/2” acetyl side release buckle
- 2 x 1 1/2” stainless steel D-rings
- 4 x 1 1/2” acetyl sliders
- Duck or Gorillia tape
- 2 x cheap light totes (base not exceeding 13” width)
Paradise Below Zero – Calvin Rutstrum
Probably the book that influenced most modern winter trekkers. Dated by today’s standards, but still contains a lot of useful gems.
A Snow Walker’s Companion – Garret and Alexandra Conover
An exceptional book on winter travel especially if you plan to pull freight HDPE toboggans. This book contains a wealth of information on equipment, clothing, food, and dealing with frozen lakes. Also of note are all the plans for building your own tents, anoraks, sleds, etc.
Bushcraft – Mors Kochanski
This book is especially useful for cold weather survival in the Boreal Forest. The Youtube channel Karamat Wilderness Ways also contains a large amount of useful information for cold weather adventuring.
A great place to find general info on winter travel and camping.
Sub-Arctic Winter Bivouacking
A 1955 video by the US Department Of Defense on winter operations using cross country skis, hot tents and pulks. Their sleds look overly heavy, but then again, it probably ended up building loads of character.
Les Stroud – Stranded Winter
Les Stroud strands himself in the Canadian wilderness with only his sled and camera equipment. It shows what happens if you cannot move far from your initial location. As he says “you sweat, you die”.
Polar Manual AD634266 – 1965
An interesting military manual on polar expeditions and what to expect.