Building a pulk sled

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I have big dreams. Dreams of multi-day alpine tours, and snowshoe trips through Strathcona and other places on Vancouver Island. I also want to head out with my family on great winter adventures. Both of these scenarios are aided by the use of a sled.

mommy and Hemingway, arriving at Lake Helen Mackenzie

I used these resources to build my sled:

I sourced my material locally from a variety of retailers, and fashioned my first sled in about two hours of measuring, drilling, and outfitting. Excited to give it a try, I set the intention to use it on my attempt on Mount Alexandra, scheduled for December 26 and 27, 2015. Though the trip would ultimately fail, the sled was a moderate success.

Matthew Lettington Pulk Sled
pulk sled version 1.0

This first version of the sled featured PVC poles attached to the sled by rotating casters. I hauled it by attaching the other ends of the poles to my Black Diamond mountaineering harness. At its base it worked well, but there is a lot of room for improvement. The hollow PVC arms flexed more than they should; as I pulled the sled through our deep snowshoe steps, it pitched and yawed and eventually flipped over.

Phil and I left Nanaimo late, 8:00 am on the morning of December 26th. We drove north through rain, snow, and wind, detouring in Courtenay. I stopped at Ski Takk Hut to use up some store credit on a snow probe and shovel. This didn’t take long, and we were soon on our way. The road along Highway 28 was slush-covered to the Buttle Narrows Bridge, and after the bridge we drove the section of unplowed road to the Buttle Bluffs route; the snow was only an inch deep.

Mount Alexandra is approached from two different logging roads, the Oyster Main and the Buttle Bluffs Route. We chose to use the Buttle Bluffs route, which starts on Highway 28. This hike would be a great – and intense – test for the sled.

Phil prepping for adventure!

There was a few inches of fresh snow at the gate where we parked, accumulated earlier that morning. From the gate, we followed the steep incline of the old logging road toward our goal. We hoped to achieve 1200 metres by the end of the day, and make camp for the night. The first several hundred metres of elevation were nearly ideal! A firm crust allowed us to walk easily, and the sled hauled smoothly along behind me. However, as we proceeded the snow depth increased; after a few hours, the snow and incline created a daunting combination. At 750 metres, our large snowshoes sank deep in the snow. At first it was only four inches, then more and more. Eventually, as the soft snow compressed more than ten inches with each step, we hauled the snow along with our snowshoes. It was exhausting hauling/packing our winter gear up the steep hill in the snow.

Buttle Bluff’s Gate

The sled also became problematic. In the lower elevation where the ground was firm, or where the snow wasn’t too deep, it performed well. It was a workout for my hip flexors, a different workout from carrying a pack. However, in the deeper snow, the sled struggled. It fell into each snowshoe track and accumulated snow on top of itself. In a few instances it even started to flip because of the uneven terrain, and because of the side-to-side movement created as my hips moved. Eventually, we stopped and I loaded my gear into my backpack, abandoning the sled on the side of the route. We had little fear that anyone else would be crazy enough to come up the road at this time of year.

We only hiked another half hour, then evaluated the conditions and our progress and decided to turn back. It was obvious we wouldn’t made the 1200 metre mark before nightfall. Further, recalling our trip up Crest Mountain only a week earlier, we anticipated significant levels of powder beyond 1200 metres.

That all too familiar moment, deciding to turn around, Matthew Lettington Pulk Sled

Descending was quick. I reloaded the sled, and on the descent it worked well. At one point, Phil loaned me a gear tie to bind the crossing point of the poles, an attempt to stop the sled from tipping; it seemed to help.

Once back at the car, we drove to Campbell River to eat and make a plan for the next day. We decided on a peak near Bamfield. On our drive south, the light snow turned to a deluge of rain. As we passed the Port Alberni turnoff, the rain intensified. We abandoned the trip and went home, a much more civilized option given the weather conditions.

At home, Kim and I planned a family snowshoe trip through Strathcona Park’s Paradise Meadows to Lake Helen Mackenzie. Before the trip, I spent some time making changes to the sled design. One of my biggest concerns was the flex in the PVC arms. I changed the style of attachment to both my harness and the sled, and in doing so I shortened the poles by four inches, making them six foot six inches. While the poles were open, I reinforced the PVC with lengths of wooden dowel that nested snug inside the PVC. Though the dowel added weight, it significantly reduced the flex of the poles. This also solved two other minor issues that I was having with the connection points on the sled, and how the sled tracked with me. There is still more work to be done!

Examining my experiences with the homemade pulk-sled, I have made a few observations. The rotating casters that I used for the pivot points on the sled worked really well and took no machining, but similar results would be achieved by a simple bolt and nut combination, which may cut costs by more than $20. Both of these design modifications give the sled the ability to track well with my hips, further improved by crossing the poles.

Some images from my family snowshoe, done two days after our Alexander trip on Monday, December 28th. .

View full album of images…

Family Photo

Hemingway stretching his tiny legs at Lake Helen Mackenzie
Hemingway ready for the ride home!

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