Summer Sled Maintenance and Storage
By Cody Strathe of DogPaddle Designs, Fairbanks, AK
An article for Mushing Magazine.
It is mid-May here in Fairbanks, Alaska. The blanket of white that has given glide to our sleds for half of the year is leaving us once again and the runners of our dogsled armada are slowly being surrounded by the brown ooze of spring break-up mud. It sadly is time to put away the sleds for the summer and time to move on to money making activities to save up so we can do it all again next fall. With fun spring activities such as paddling, hiking and biking calling, I might be tempted throw a tarp over the sleds where they sit and call the season all wrapped up. However, the past 6 years of professionally repairing sleds for mushers tells me there is a little more to it than that. One might assume that most mushers know how take care of their sleds, but each year sleds come in to my shop with the same problems that are simple to avoid with proper summer maintenance and storage. In this business, I’ve learned several things about our strange species known as the “dog musher”. We spend the majority of time putting the dogs health, care, and training first; the way it should be. This often leaves the facility and equipment in need of some major TLC. We also tend to spend so much money feeding and caring for dogs, that we often are very tight when it comes to things such as equipment and repair. We tend to be so busy with our dogs that we only deal with equipment repairs when we suddenly absolutely need to use it.
Spring and summer are an excellent time to get ahead for the next season and with simple examination, one can find problems that need to be repaired before hooking up to a team of 16 unsatiated beasts on 2 inches of October snow. If you are not a DIY kind of person, it is also the perfect time to get your sled into your local sled repair shop to avoid that early winter first-snow rush, when those folks who aren’t thinking ahead try to get their sled fixed only to find out that their repair guy is out training dogs and cannot fix it until June! Maintenance is only half of the equation. The summer storage of your sled can have some major impacts on the life and performance of your sled. In this article, I will outline some simple maintenance of your favorite sled and proper storage of your investment.
Okay, so pull your sled out of the mud and put it up on some saw horses so you can take a good look at what is going on with it. You’ll be amazed at what you may have missed when you put it up in front of your face. You’ll probably wonder who has been driving your sled when you are not around and who hit all the trees. I’m sure it wasn’t you… must have been the handler.
The easiest thing, and quite important too, is to check all the fasteners of the sled – the bolts and lashings. A sled will not work properly if it is not being held together properly. A typical season at our kennel will break, shear, and loosen several bolts on our sleds. Check first to make sure that all fasteners are there. You may have lost a bolt, nut or an entire lashing this past winter and not have noticed. Check bolts for tightness and tighten those that are supposed to hold parts in a tight static position, such as stanchions to brackets on runners. Beware that certain bolts such as the one holding brakebars and other pivot points may need to be loose enough to allow the parts to move. PHOTO OF REAR PIVOTING BOLTS. Lashings should be checked to make sure that they are tight enough to hold the sled together properly while still allowing the desired flexibility of the sled. You do not want to be able to have major movement at lashing points, if you can almost pull your tenon out of the mortise… then you may need some tighter lashings.
Another easy thing to check is stanchions and runners for bends and cracks. Runners may have formed hairline cracks due to impact. Both wood and aluminum runners are very susceptible to cracking that may not initially affect performance… at least not until the next impact when they explode! Check runners around connection points especially any stiff connection areas. The point where the stiff bracket ends and the runner is allowed to flex is the weakest point on aluminum and wooden runners. Wooden runners that are mortised are very susceptible to cracking at the mortise points. Aluminum runners can also become quite bent due to impact. This weakens the aluminum at the bent area causing cracks and breakage during future impacts and on a more immediate front can also cause sled to be untrue and not track correctly. You will notice the sled pulling to one side or another and being difficult to steer. It is easier to rig and limp along with broken stanchions than runners, but why risk it. Check stanchions now for cracks and bends the same as runners. Connection points are the obvious problem areas. Wooden stanchions tend to split at bolting and lashing holes and at the ends where tenons meet the mortise. Aluminum stanchions bend due to impact and like the runners can lead to hairline cracks that weaken the integrity of the stanchion. Bent aluminum stanchions can often change the geometry of the sled, causing the sled to ride untrue and pull to one side of the trail or the other. If you have cracks or bends in your runners or stanchions and cannot afford to be without your sled during the winter, then now is the time to fix it. Rohn or Central checkpoints are not a great place to deal with something you saw in June. Your sled builder or repair person will be happy to help you now while there is plenty of time to get replacement parts ready. They may not be as helpful when they are trying to train their own team for an upcoming race.
If you have a sled with wooden parts, check the condition of the wood and the finish. Sleds are either coated with a thick varnish, epoxy or oil such as boiled linseed oil. Over time all finishes tend to be scratched and worn, leaving wood unprotected. This exposes the wood to the problems of mold, rot, and dry rot. In wetter climates sleds can exhibit mold growth if the finish is compromised and the sled is not stored correctly. Mold is pretty easy to spot on wooden parts as it creates a dark blotchy spots on the parts. PHOTO OF MOLDy RUNNER The mold can be killed and removed by wiping the wooden parts with a slight bleach solution. Be sure to wash the area well after removing the mold to remove excess bleach, as it can remain harmful to wood. Be warned that it may also change the color tone of the wood. When it comes to rotten parts, well, they gotta go! Replace rotten parts. After the wood has been cleaned of dirt and mold you are ready to recoat your wooden parts with your desired finish. I prefer a boiled linseed oil as it can be applied easily multiple times a year and is not a susceptible to the nasty scratches that occur on varnishes. I will dive deeper in the debate on proper sled finishes in later articles.
Check your UHMW plastic parts for cracks. Ultraviolet (UV) light is very unforgiving on UHMW, especially older formulas of the plastic. Cracks tend to form from exposure to UV at points where the plastic bends, such as on handle and brushbows. These light hairline crack lines are extreme weak points and may cause your brushbow to explode on impact with a tree creating even more damage to the sled. I remember using a borrowed sled while handling for a musher in Minnesota, when the dogs jerked to go, I was left standing with an old UHMW handlebar in my hand while my team of dogs went on down the trail. Luckily they were slower freight dogs and I was able to catch up. Lesson learned. Fix cracked plastic parts before they break!
Other simple things to check out are some of the most important for safety. Check your brakes and your bridals. Brake bars can be bent badly and brake claws can be jerked out of proper position causing them to catch on your dragmat. Meaning you may have no brakes when you really need them! Try adjusting the angle of the brake claws so that they will not interfere with the drag, or it may be time for a replacement brake bar. Also check those brake points. Some brakes use carbide tipped snowmobile studs and some use threaded bolt. Whichever type your sled uses, make sure they are not ground down to the point that they will not be able to be removed. PHOTO OF WORN POINTS. Change them before they get to this point, otherwise you will have to buy an expensive new set of brake claws instead of a cheap little point change. Bridals also wear over the course of a season and should be checked and replaced regularly. Check for wear along the entire length of bridal, especially at any point where it touches the sled. If there is any wear or even if you just haven’t replaced your bridal in few years, REPLACE IT! Having a team become disconnected from your sled can be catastrophic and not something you want on your conscience. I also recommend having at least one back up bridal attached to the sled in case of failure to the primary bridal. In my previous life before dogs, I was a rock climber, I never hung on a rope that didn’t have at least three anchors. Keep your dogs safe by checking your bridals and having back up bridals. Do not learn the hard way.
One last thing to check and fix now is your sled bag. Check for rips and tears in your bag and get them sewn up now. Check all of you attachment points to the sled to make sure they are intact, Loops, Velcro and plastic buckles tend to give out over the course of a long winter. Zippers give out and Velcro gets so full of crud that it won’t hold your sled bag shut anymore… you’ll want your sled bag to be attached to your sled properly and closed up tightly when you tip over on the way down the Eagle Summit and get drug to the bottom! You don’t want to hike back up to get your mandatory gear you lost on the way down.
As I mentioned earlier, how you store your sled for the summer can have some major impacts on the longevity and performance of your sled. By improperly storing your sled, you can be creating more damage to your favorite ride. These simple considerations can help you prolong the life of your important investment.
The easiest thing one can do is to remove the sled bag, wash it and store it inside. UV light, wind, dust/pollen and moisture can wreak havoc on your sled bag, bleaching it and making it break down prematurely. Moisture can build up in the fabric especially where it touches the sled, creating mold and weaknesses in the bag and the sled.
Now that you have that bag off, don’t be tempted to throw other mushing gear on the sled. Make sure you store your sled empty. Having weight in your sled for a long period of time can create problems. The constant pressure of extra weight over the course of storage can create bent runners and stanchions and in effect create untrue, poorly tracking sleds. This is especially true of sleds with cambered runners. If runners have camber, you will want that pressure released for them to rest stress free. Along these same lines you will want to store your sled on flat level surface. Provide adequate flat support for your runners. You want the flat portion of you runners supported. Beware of sawhorses on thinner racing runners both wood and aluminum as it puts all the pressure on just 2 points of the runners. Instead, you can make a cradle (photo) or multiple cross supports to support the sled during storage. If you have adjustable angled cross support straps on a race sled, make sure to tighten them so that sled is in proper “square” position (photo) Due to space constraints you may be tempted to hang that sled from the rafters. Be careful to support the sled so that the runners are not stressed improperly.
Being a distance musher, I don’t have to worry a great deal about the intricacies of wax on my runners. Mushing Magazine Editor and sprint musher, Greg Sellentin, tells me that most waxing technicians recommend a base coat of cheap, soft wax so that the P-Tex doesn’t oxidize. This wax is ironed on, and left on without scraping. Waxing depends on being able to get into the micro-pores of the surface, and these can be clogged and the surface can be rough and “white” looking if left with no wax for extended periods. The other option would be to have the runners stone ground at the start of each season, which refreshes the surface, then you have to start from scratch again building layers of wax to get back to that best glide state. If you intend to stone grind your runners, then it isn’t necessary to put a summer wax on, but if they aren’t really beat up, and you have that magicly fast set of runners that have a certain voodoo and you don’t want to change anything on them, then you may definitely want to put a summer wax on them.
I mentioned that UV light causes a multitude of problems with sleds. UHMW plastics have come a long ways in the past 30 years. The original plastics used in dogsleds could not handle UV rays and would break down quickly, creating weakening cracks. (photo of cracked plastic). Handle bars, brushbows and toboggan beds would get weakened and crack due to UV exposure and then would later break on the trail. Newer plastic formulas have been created to survive exposure to UV light, but likely only for a bit longer than the old stuff. It is still a good idea to store your sled out of the intense sun. Especially in the northern latitudes where we get intense sun for long hours during summer. UV not only effects the plastics, but also the wood and finishes of wooden sleds. Varnishes that do not have proper UV protection can darken/yellow over time and may also crack. Wood can be bleached by extreme exposure. Sleds that I have built that have spent the summer on glaciers for tours have become completely bleached out by the extreme exposure to UV. The easiest way to combat the issues associated with UV is to avoid UV light altogether. If at all possible, store the sled inside or at least in a shaded and roofed area. PHOTO OF MY SLED STORAGE RACK.
We also spoke earlier about how moisture affects the sled parts. Although you are not truly Alaskan unless you have blue tarps covering random objects in your yard.. Avoid tarping your sled tightly. This creates a greenhouse effect with warm moisture building up and creates perfect environment for mold growth and rot. Babiche lashing are very susceptible to weakening and rot if exposed to moisture, especially if the finish has worn off or is cracked. Babiche is just rawhide, (like those slimy dog chews) and it will get soft and gooey if it gets to wet again. If stored improperly it could become a wet rotting mess that you may not notice until the next winter when the runner becomes disconnected from the stanchion on your first run. Store out of the weather with adequate ventilation – Avoid moisture! PHOTO OF MY SLED STORAGE RACK.
If you take the time to look over your sled and maintain it yourself you will become more familiar with your sled and aware of its parts the rest of the season. Besides saving you money, it will also save you a great deal of headache when the snow flies again.
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Mushing Tech is a new column in Mushing magazine written by Cody Strathe. The column will cover anything to do with sled technology. Cody is a musher, distance racer, and sled builder from Fairbanks, Alaska. He has been building and repairing sleds through his business DogPaddle Designs since 2007 and has been a woodworker/tinkerer since the age of 8. If you have questions about sleds or ideas for future columns, please contact Cody through his website at www.dogpaddledesigns.com