Choosing the correct tool for the job. Which sled should you get?
As a sled builder, one of the main questions I get from beginners in the sport is, “what kind of sled should I get?” This question is not a straight forward, easy thing to answer and I usually fire back with a big list of questions to help them decide which sled is best for their purposes. Think of your dogsled as a tool to get a job done. Each job has many different tools you could use, but there is usually one specific tool that works best for the job. For instance, I need to tighten a ¼” diameter bolt on my dogsled. I can tighten the bolt with my leatherman and it gets the job done, but the 7/16” socket works much better and is the preferred tool. Now I need to tighten a Phillips head screw on my sled. The leatherman does that fine too, however, the 7/16” socket is useless. Just like tools, there are sleds that can work okay for a variety of purposes but may not do any of them perfectly. There are sleds that work best for one purpose and are useless for others. As a musher you must decide whether you want a sled that specializes for one purpose or one that is multi-purpose. The decision may be based on finances or just the inexperience of not knowing where mushing is going to take you. Here are the questions I use when people ask me what type of sled to buy.
What is your level of experience?
Your level of experience is important in choosing a sled and will likely dictate what you get. Have you ever been on a sled before? If so, what kind and how did it work for you? Starting out, most mushers use whatever is easily available to them and make do. If you have run dogs for a long period of time you already have a sense of what you like and don’t like in a dogsled. If you have only used one sled forever and it seems to work, you may not know what other options there are or how they affect the ride. If you are not a very experienced musher, you will need to consider all of the following questions to make the best decision. If you have been doing this for years and ridden many sled types you probably know what you want already and the following question might help clarify.
How many dogs will you be running?
Will you be running a large team of 14-16 race dogs, the average sized recreational team of 6-8 dogs, or do you just want to hook up 1-3 pets and see how it works? I ask this first, because many folks in my area of Alaska have skijoured with their dog/dogs and want to start trying out a sled. For very small teams 1-4 dogs you will want a very light sled with very little resistance. I usually recommend smaller lightly built sleds with shorter runners. Many sled builders offer a cheaper beginner version which is usually a simple basket sled. For one or 2 dogs that are not very powerful, I recommend using a Norwegian style kicksled or spark with wider runner plastic attached. There are several commercial brands available online. This allows the musher to kick along and help the dog/dogs. These kicksleds don’t usually have brakes, so good voice control or weak dogs is a must. One of the sleds I build and recommend for small teams of 2-4 dogs and works great in most conditions is a sled I call the kickboggan. It has 6 foot long runners and a 3 foot toboggan bed and weighs about 25 lbs. It glides easily in any conditions. It has very small dragmat that only touches snow when stepped on and a small brake. The shorter runners on these small sleds do affect tracking and steering, with small teams there isn’t enough power for this to be of major concern. As you add dogs to the team and your power increases, sled size or at least runner length is something to consider. While I’ve heard of 12 dogs hooked to this kickboggan sled by a certain musher in the neighborhood, I DO NOT RECOMMEND IT! Small light sleds are built for small teams! Medium sized teams over 4 dogs should have runners of at least 7 -8 feet length. You will find that the sled tracks better and is easier to maneuver with larger teams. Most race style sleds for distance and sprint racing have runners of at least 8 feet in length.
What Type of activity will it be used for?
This is one of the most important questions. Will you be using the sled for racing? If so, sprint or distance? Will this be a sled for cruising the neighborhood trails after work? Used for weekend cabin trips? Or will it be used for month long expedition across the arctic? Each activity has sleds that work better. For distance racing you will want a sled that is light and maneuverable while remaining strong enough to carry large payloads, especially if you are considering running the Yukon Quest. For mid-distance racing, sleds can be lighter and smaller as you typically don’t need to carry as much gear. Sprint sleds are built extremely light and maneuverable and are made to hold a dog if needed, but nothing else. The heavier built basket sleds and plastic toboggan sleds are made for carrying a good load.
What character of trails will you be running on?
By character of trail, I am referring to the technical nature of the trail. Will you be running dogs on wide flat trails such as groomed snowmobile trails and open lakes and rivers? Are the trails tight, narrow and wooded with lots of need for maneuverability? If you are running on the later, you may want a sled that allows you to steer easier. Flexibility in sleds adds a lot of maneuverability so look for a sled that will allow you to steer around trees and obstacle easily. Sprint sleds and raised bed sleds are best for this. Sleds created for freight, like stiff toboggan sleds, are difficult to steer without throwing your body weight around and can be very difficult to maneuver for lighter riders. However, they will make you strong and a good sled driver!
What are the snow conditions you plan to use it on?
Will the trails always be groomed or packed? Or will you be breaking your own trail each time you go somewhere new or when it snows again? If you always plan to go on groomed and packed trails then a flexible basket sled or raised-bed sled is a great way to go. They tend to be more maneuverable than a toboggan sled and since the trails are solid, the narrow runners will not sink in to the snow much. These sleds, however, create difficult runs for you and your team when snow conditions are deep and you are forced to break trail. Raised bed sleds which have a plastic bed tend to do better than basket sleds with wooden slats in these conditions, but if you are planning to be breaking trail in deeper snow a lot of the time you will want to stay away from the basket sleds and raised beds and go with the toboggan sleds. The bed on these sleds is attached to the tops of the runners, so the sled rides up towards the surface of the snow and the runners don’t get bogged down in the deep stuff. If you want to use a basket style sled in these deep snow conditions then you will want a sled with very wide runners like the old style freight sleds.
What type of cargo and how much weight will you be hauling? This is another huge consideration. A sled needs to be strong enough to carry the load you plan to carry in the conditions you plan to carry them. A sprint sled is built to carry a dog if needed and otherwise is not made to carry weight. The cheaper, lighter beginner sleds we spoke of earlier are great for cruising the neighborhood, but may not handle well or bust the first time you try to go to a cabin with a load for your skiing friends. Even my distance racing sleds are built different for the Yukon Quest versus Iditarod because of the larger amount of gear one must carry between checkpoints on the rough conditions of the Yukon Quest. Sled size and weight is directly correlated with the cargo size and weight. The heavier and larger the load you plan to carry, the heavier and larger sled you will need. Toboggan sleds work well for camping trips. They are stable with a large load and are usually stiffer. The stiffness allows you to handle the load easier than a more flexible sled. The toboggans also float better in the snow with a heavier load. Large freighting sleds need to be very strong and either be a toboggan style or have very wide and long runners. Some of the old basket freight sleds have runners 4 inches wide and 14 feet long. Other arctic freighting sleds that work well for large loads are the Inuit style Komatiq sled. If you are hauling large loads on technical trails you may want a freight sled with lots rocker built into the runners. Rocker refers to a slight upturn in the rear of the runners. Usually around the back of the payload basket area, creating a rocking chair look to the runner. This rocker allows the large over loaded sled to be more maneuverable. My freight sleds have about an inch of rise over the last 3 feet of a 12 foot runner and it works great for whipping a large load around.
What is your body size and weight?
The mushers themselves are just another type of cargo. Your weight plays into the performance of the sled you are riding. A while back, I asked retired sled builder extraordinaire, Ed Salter, for some of the secrets of proper sled sizing. One of the main points he shared was that you want the majority of the weight to be positioned in the center of the runners. We have to think of our weight in this equation and not just the weight in the basket of the sled. If you are heavier you may want longer runners to help distribute the weight, much like fitting a cross country ski. I would not recommend a small rec sled with six foot runners for someone weighing over 200 lbs, it will not float well in the snow and will be more work for the dogs as the majority of the weight would be on the footboards on the rear, not in the center of the runners. You also need to consider your weight in the thickness and strength of your runners. Thin, wooden runners can crack easily if you are heavy and inexperienced at riding a sled. Another consideration is your height and the height of the handlebar or driving bow. You do not want a sled that is too short for you. It will cause you to be all hunched up while driving, you may not notice that much on a 2 mile fun run, but when you sign up for the Iditarod, you’ll notice your back, neck, and shoulders are always sore. I usually size a handlebar’s highest point to be the distance from your feet to a point centered between your beltline and your belly button.. give a or take an inch. Some sled builders will do custom heights; some are just a stock height of 36”. I have been building sleds with adjustable handlebars to give a little bit of change to my stock sleds.
How techno crazy do you want to get?
I am referring to the level of technological advancement that a sled has in its material and design. In many cases a sled with lots of bells and whistles can be more of a complication than a benefit. Often times the simple answer is better. Especially, when you are a beginner or are out on the trail for a long expedition or race such as the Yukon Quest. There may be sled repairers in your area or they may be hundreds to thousands of miles away. Think about what skills you have for fixing the sled. Especially on the trail. Do you have the ability to fix the sled you are about to buy? Everything breaks at some point and things tend to break more when you are a beginner. Make sure that whatever you buy either has someone close by that can fix it or you are confident that you can do it yourself. Look at the type of hardware a sled uses. Is it lashed or bolted? Lashing is not difficult if you want to learn, but are you ready to take on the challenge? Are there rivets? They also are not difficult to deal with if you want a project (see Sled Tech article in July/August issue). If the sled is bolted, are they normal bolts you can get at your local hardware store? I love the more technologically sophisticated sleds and like tinkering with my sleds; however I also have a spot in my heart for simple traditional style sleds. I believe that my own sleds are never done evolving. My sleds constantly get fixed and recycled into other sleds. Many people want the simplest solution that they don’t have to bother with.… one that they can hook up a team to and be confident that everything is ready to roll.
So what sled do I get?
I know, I know, I didn’t answer the question at all. If mushing is your passion and will be part of your life for years and years to come, then the answer is that you should buy one of each kind! For most people, the answer is probably the sled that can do the broadest range of activities that you will do. A toboggan sled can do everything. It tends to be cumbersome and can beat you up riding everyday as they are not as easy to maneuver and stiff which tends to slap the snow on bumpy trails like a boat on choppy seas. However, it will take a harsh beating and always be there for you in any condition. Some of the heavier built raised bed sleds, such as my Assassinator sled, that are for use on the Yukon Quest are good all-around options for most conditions besides breaking entirely new trail in deep snow. You have to weigh all your options and hopefully this set of questions will help you consider all the options in choosing your sled.