A Homemade Gear Sled (Pulk) for Backcountry Winter Travel

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by Ken Knight | 2002-04-15 03:00:00-06

Introduction

Winter backpacking is an entirely different experience from backpacking at any other time of the year. In the winter our needs for food, water, and warmth require significant changes in our hiking style. If you go winter backpacking you are entering a world that can present you with exquisite sights, sounds, and silences. That same world also provides short days and long nights. The cold opens options for food that you would never consider in the summer. The long nights tempt people to sit around a fire and chat with one another, stare into the sky hoping to see Northern Lights, and listen for the distant howl of a coyote or wolf.

FIGURE 1. The author hauling his sled. At this point in the trip the sled’s payload is less than 30 pounds.

When backpacking in the winter, you will have to take considerably more gear than you normally do. You carry warmer clothing; a much warmer sleeping bag; a more weatherproof tent; a more robust sleeping pad; more high-energy food; snowshoes or perhaps skis; a larger pot to melt snow for water; an efficient cold-weather stove with ample fuel; plus whatever else you normally carry to make your trip enjoyable. Even for an ultralight backpacker, the weight quickly mounts.

But is there a way to make carrying the heavier load more comfortable? Since this is the winter and the ground is covered with snow there is such a way: pulling a sled.

Not all winter backpacking trips are conducive to using a sled. I doubt that pulling a sled over steep, often rocky mountains would work. However, if your trip takes you over more rolling terrain, then using a sled has many advantages. You can put considerably more gear on a sled than you can comfortably put into your backpack and carry. A sled will help you distribute weight and so will make snowshoeing or skiing across the snow much more pleasant, since you won’t sink in as often. A sled also gives you the option of carrying in things you would never consider putting in a backpack, such as fire logs.

While you can purchase a sled and harness for hauling gear, the only model I am aware of is quite expensive. It turns out that building your own sled, also called a pulk, is fairly easy and inexpensive. All you need is a sled and a means to haul that sled comfortably with a modicum of control. The design I will describe meets these criteria very well: credit for the design goes to Joe “Jundog” Juno.

Parts You Need

  • Children’s long plastic flat-bottom sled. The sled must have a lip with a horizontal edge.
  • Two 7’ pieces of 0.5” PVC pipe. The length of the pipe can be shortened if you never plan to wear skis while hauling the sled.
  • 2” web belt with a quick-release buckle
  • Two D rings
  • About 4” of webbing material for the attachment points. Extra material from your hip belt will work well.
  • Two 2.5” eye bolts
  • two 2.125” lag bolts
  • Four nuts
  • Two wing nuts
  • Four washers for the lag bolts
  • Two mini-carabiners
  • One tarp that is large enough to wrap your gear in (e.g., 6’ x 8’)
  • Three or four bungee cords of various lengths

FIGURE 2. Top view of the front of the sled. Notice where the bolts are placed. Holes were drilled for the placement of each bolt.
The Hauling System

The PVC pipe creates a rigid hauling system that will prevent the sled from chasing you down hills. While you can haul a sled with just a tow rope attached to a harness, it is likely that a sled drawn this way will get out of control from time to time. The sled I am describing is designed to work well for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. The length of the PVC pipe listed above is more than enough for someone who is six feet tall and uses skis 210 centimeters long. Longer lengths of PVC tubing will make the sled a little harder to manage on turns and on steep declines. If you will never be skiing with the sled, then you can shorten the pipe considerably. It may take some study and experimentation, and even then you should plan for a little more wiggle room than the bare minimum, but I suspect shorter adults can manage with lengths of pipe as short as four and a half to five feet. You want to make the pipe long enough so that there is no chance of your sled becoming entangled with your skis or snowshoes. If the sled runs up your skis or snowshoes, the result can be disastrous. If the pipes are too short, the sled will tend to dig into the snow and pull your harness down. When I first used the sled I was on a snowshoe trip, and pipes six feet long worked well even though they were longer than necessary.

The PVC tubes are attached to the sled with the lag bolts. First drill holes through the sled, ones of an appropriate size for the bolts. The sled must have a lip with a horizontal edge. The holes should be placed on the left and right front edge of the sled. Drill the holes through the horizontal edge of the lip (see Figure 2).

FIGURE 3. The lag bolt and PVC pipe assembly at the sled end of the pipe.

Push bolts through the sled from the bottom, sitting them on washers. The washers will help distribute any tension that is placed on the plastic of the sled. Drill an aligned hole through each tube, two inches from the end, for the bolts to slide through. To attach the PVC pipe to the sled, simply slide the tubes onto the bolts you have attached to the sled. If you want to reduce tension further, you could place an additional pair of washers against the tubing before spinning the wing nuts on. See Figure 3.

At the other end of the PVC tubing, repeat the procedure. Drill aligned holes two inches from the end and thread eye bolts through these holes with the eyes on top, securing them with the two remaining nuts. Again you can reduce tension by placing washers on the bolts before screwing the nuts into place. See Figure 4.

FIGURE 4. The “eye” bolt and PVC pipe assembly at the far end.

The Harness

FIGURE 5. The designer of the sled. Notice how his PVC tubes are crossed to increase control of the sled on descents. At this point in the trip he is hauling about 70 pounds of gear and wood.

To make the harness, simply attach a D ring on each side of the hip belt with web material looped over the ring’s straight edge. There will almost certainly be extra material on your 2” web belt that you can cut off and use to make your attachment points. By stitching each loop closed next to the D ring and then sewing it into place on the belt, you create an attachment point. Two inches of material per attachment point should be more than enough to create an appropriately sized loop. Sew the D ring in a vertical orientation against the belt. The D ring should be positioned on the belt as you would position a regular belt loop. The loops you sew on the belt should be just large enough to allow the D rings to rotate easily. Since you will be using the extra belt material to sew your loops just align the loop material to the belt and stitch them together. If you are attaching the loops to a belt that is wider than the width of the material you should center your loops with respect to the belt itself. The easiest way to complete this process is to slide the D ring onto the piece of material you are going to sew onto the belt then sew one end of the material on the leading edge of the belt and then sew the other end onto the trailing edge of the belt.

It is best to sew the D rings on the sides near the front of the belt. You want to transfer the weight of the sled onto your hips, and the best way to do this is by putting the attachment points on the sides and slightly in front of your hips. This also places the PVC tubes in a position where you can easily grab them if you need to guide the sled with more care. The mini-carabiners will connect the harness to the eye bolts.

If you do not feel comfortable sewing you can still make the harness. You can use a light hip belt, like a belt from a fanny pack, and simply slide the D rings on to the belt. Once you snap the belt closed position the D rings slightly in front of your left and right hips and then cinch the belt tight. The pressure from the belt will hold the D rings in place.

The mini-carabiners are used to connect the hip belt harness to the PVC tubes. Open a carabiner and slide it onto the harness and then slide it onto the eye bolt of whichever PVC tube you wish to connect to.

Final Thoughts

You have completed the sled. This basic design should be quite comfortable under most conditions. However, there are a few things you should keep in mind when hauling your gear. First, it is much easier to maneuver the sled if you position heavier items in the rear of the sled. This will help keep the sled from nosing down into the snow. Second, if you are going to navigate many hills, you may want to cross the tubes before attaching them to your harness. Attaching the right tube to the left side of your harness and the left tube to the right side of the harness will greatly reduce the chances that the sled will run away and outflank you on a descent. The penalty for crossing the tubes is reduced maneuverability.

Make sure your tarp is large enough to cover all your gear. The tarp, secured with bungee cords, will not only help keep your gear dry but also prevent the gear from spilling out of the sled should it tip over. When packing your gear you may choose to pack it simply in stuff sacks inside the tarp, but I still prefer to place the stuff sacks in some additional protection. Since you are not actually carrying the gear, there is no need to use a backpack. A large duffel bag works quite well.

There are things that can be done to improve this design. For example, next year I plan to drill a few small holes around the edge of the sled. These holes will be just large enough to allow me to string strong string around the edge of the sled. Such a cord, working much like deck lashing on a boat, should provide me with more ways to secure gear on the sled effectively.

It is important to remember that this design is not the only one out there. Some people haul sleds simply by attaching heavy rope to their hip belts and to attachment points near the front of the sled. Others use considerably shorter pieces of PVC tubing in their hauling system but thread rope through the PVC tubing to increase the overall length of the haul line. In this design a person might run 6 or 7 feet of rope through each piece of tubing. However, the tubes themselves might only be 3 feet long. The PVC tubes would then “float” along the haul ropes and add some rigidity to the design. Other designs build extra stability into the hauling system by adding cross-bracing, made by threading strong string between the main tubing near the sled.

Conclusion

I, like others who use sleds, have found that the use of a sled to haul gear has enhanced my winter backpacking trips. The ability to move lots of gear efficiently is a tremendous asset in the winter. On a recent trip to Hoist Lakes in Michigan, three companions and I hauled in on sleds all sorts of special items, including nearly 75 pounds of wood, fresh food, some very fine schnapps, and gear we wanted to try out under real-world conditions. We could have enjoyed the trip without the extra items – just not as much. A sled gives you options that may expand the range of types of trips you may be willing to take. For example, with a sled I could return to Hoist Lakes next winter for a multi-day base camp trip involving both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. It would take several long round trips with backpack alone to haul in the supplies for such a trip: what a pleasure it would be to do it one single time with a sled.


Citation

"A Homemade Gear Sled (Pulk) for Backcountry Winter Travel," by Ken Knight. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/00181.html, 2002-04-15 03:00:00-06.

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