Last April, I walked across Jackson Lake to spend three days exploring some of the quieter zones on the north side of Grand Teton National Park. Though excited at the chance to camp out in the Tetons for a few nights, I was wary of all the gear we’d need to haul across the lake. A bright orange sled from Walmart seemed to be the best technical solution.
Skinning into the backcountry while towing a sled behind you can be a gamble. I’d been on plenty of hut trips in Colorado where someone announced they would drag a sled full of beer and other luxuries, and it had always ended in frustration when the sled refused to cooperate and we spent hours trying to keep it upright. But most skiers I know opted to tow a sled across Jackson Lake, and I was curious to see if it would actually be easier than packing a heavy pack in this scenario.
We discovered that the six-mile trek across the frozen lake, while admittedly demoralizing, is about as good as you can get in terms of easy travel, a primo sled-towing approach. Flat and fast, our Walmart sleds allowed us to toss all our gear into a duffel bag (without skimping on things like extra camp clothes, sharp cheddar cheese, and canned rosé) and walk in with daypacks on our backs with the sled cruising along in our wake.
Professional skier Sophia Schwartz has towed a sled on snow more than anyone I know, honing her gear-hauling skills on a 13-day traverse of Wyoming’s Wind River Range in 2020 and an expedition to Denali last spring. For Schwartz, the decision to pull a sled or not is situational dependent. “It can be pretty nuanced; at times it’s helpful but at times it’s horrible,” she says.
Benefits of towing gear on a sled
Benefits include the ability to get weight off your back, and divide up group gear. On Schwartz’s Wind River traverse, her three-person crew had two sleds between them, so one person could move freely to route-find, and the group could take turns hauling communal gear. Sleds also made it easy to unpack and set up camp quickly, since the tent and kitchen was easy to locate in the sled instead of buried in an overstuffed pack.
When to use a gear sled
Deciding whether or not you’ll want to tow a sled all depends on the terrain. Uncomplicated terrain that’s relatively flat and open is ideal for a sled—anything from a frozen lake to a low-angle, snow-covered access road. Treed terrain that undulates and has steep sections, however, makes maneuvering a sled much more challenging. And forget about sidehilling with a sled behind you. “If you can go straight up something with a sled, that’s going to be much easier than kick turns,” Schwartz says.
Schwartz explains that conditions also make a big difference. If you have very little snow, it can feel pretty effortless to haul a sled. On the other hand, breaking trail through fresh snow or spring slush can drag you down (literally) and add major time to your day. Wallowing in isothermic snow in the Wind River Range, Schwartz recalls one day where it took them eight hours to travel three miles. “Even if it’s easy traveling, know that a sled is going to slow you down,” she says.
Schwartz adds that a sled is probably the most useful in a basecamp setting, where you’re hauling gear in on the approach and then leaving gear at camp while you ski. On a ski traverse where you move camp every night, a sled could be more trouble than it’s worth.
However you decide to haul your gear, chat with your group to make sure everyone is on the same page. “Know that the sled is a team adventure,” Schwartz adds. If one person wants to tow a sled but the rest of the group doesn’t, it could seriously alter the group pace. But if everyone’s on board to help manage the sled or drag their own, it can be a great tool to save energy on an overnight adventure.
Tips for rigging a gear sled
- Don’t break the bank; a $10 plastic sled will do with some easy modifications.
- Rig some 6mm cord (you’ll need about 10-12 feet) to cinch everything down once you load up the sled. If your sled doesn’t have handles, punch a few holes on the sides to loop the cord through.
- Wear a climbing harness and to tow the sled instead of strapping it to your pack. This will help distribute the weight better for efficient towing.
- Attach two carabiners to the ends of the 6mm cord to easily clip and unclip the tow straps from your climbing harness.
- You’ll want the sled to be about three feet behind you to avoid it butting up against your skis as you skin.
- Try to pack everything in waterproof or water-resistant bags. If you have a lot of loose items, wrap everything in a tarp before cinching down your gear.