Most of my earlier and more serious winter outings took place in Scandinavia. Using pulk sleds to transport our outfit, we crossed the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland on two occasions, and traveled across a section of the beautiful and desolate Hardangervidda plateau in Norway. Those were expedition style trips with high quality and lightweight gear, including Fjellpulken sleds, Hilleberg tents, MSR snowshoes, Rab sleeping bags and their revered down jackets and pants. All proved to be excellent long term investments for cold weather outings of this style.
Hardangervidda mountain plateau, Norway.
After some research on winter camping here in Canada I became really intrigued by the more traditional approach to the subject, and the idea of sleeping in a canvas tent heated by a woodstove was very appealing to say the least. Such a set-up could provide a level of comfort previously not experienced. The only time we were truly warm on those Scandinavian expeditions, was when we were either in our sleeping bags or going through challenging terrain in deep snow. Because we had limited resources to dry out our kit if it became really damp or wet, most of the cooking had to done outside the tents, or with open vestibule, to prevent as much as possible, the build-up of condensation. For emergency purposes we did bring along extra cooking gas canisters to heat up the tent if necessary, or to dry out wet clothing as best as we could. We knew from our preparation phase that this would consume a lot of time and resources, with very limited effects. In case our clothing did get wet we would immediately change into spares and once warmed up, move into the treeline to start a campfire.
Well thought out plans and quality kit makes a difference.
Being there and done that, it was now time for a bit more luxury. Using traditionally styled equipment like canvas heated tents, toboggans and wooden snowshoes, represented a different kind of winter travel into a different kind of environment and thus a new and exciting way of exploring the winter wonderlands. It’s also much more in tune with the spirit of bushcraft, a passion ignited within many, including myself by that time.
Those among us who spend time outside in every one of the four seasons know how important dependable equipment really is. This is especially so in regards to your winter kit. It does not necessarily need to be from this or that brand, or be this or that much money, but it does need to be practical, sturdy and up for the challenge. If it looks good while doing this, well then that’s a bonus and this is exactly the case with these toboggans, if you ask me.
A winter camp in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada.
The SnowWalker toboggan with canvas talk and Conover pack.
I first caught a glimpse of such a type of sled while watching an episode of the Northern Wilderness documentary series by Ray Mears. A lengthy search finally led me to the Black River Sleds website and its owner at that time, Chris Evavold, who is still manufacturing these beautiful toboggans in his northern Wisconsin shop today. I looked at other designs back then but somehow the Snow Walker, with its classic look and well-balanced mixture of more traditional materials like wood, canvas, cotton, and the modern ultra-durable and slick white HDPE sheet somehow did it for me. I found them to be lightweight, practical and beautiful, all in one. Long story short, two 7 foot Snow Walker toboggans with canvas tanks and duffel bags arrived at the post office. Today, almost 4 years later, I still think of them in the same way.
Although the sleds came fully equipped and ready to hit the trail, we opted for a little modification to the pulling system because of the uneven terrain we would be facing on trips. This modification would allow each of us to be more independent while crossing obstacles or travelling downhill. Two tent poles with inner channel, which would normally accommodate an elastic cord, were slid over the black running line. Using 2 simple overhand knots, the poles were kept in place just in front of the characteristic curl of the toboggan. After tying the remaining ends of the running line to the cotton tump strap, we were now able to grab both poles at the ends, cross them at the hips, and push back against the load while going downhill.
This simple and lightweight adjustment provided better control over the forward motion of the fully loaded sleds on downhill slopes, and prevented the toboggans from hitting the back of the legs or even passing by, pulling us sideways. Leaving a 2 inch piece of running line free between the curl and the poles had two advantages. We were still able to turn the poles 180 degrees, so the toboggans were still easy to transport in the bed of a truck, and secondly, when pushing back on a downhill slope, the poles would not directly push against the HDPE curl. Each one of us could manage his own toboggan perfectly without the need for assistance while moving through the winter terrain. On particularly steep sections we would rig up a controlled descent system, using the running line loop at the rear end to guide the toboggans down safely.
During the first part of their maiden journey we followed a fairly even winter recreational trail and although we knew would be travelling across more challenging terrain later on, it was ultimately the amount of snow and the conditions prior to our trip that proved the biggest challenge. A mid-January thaw had reduced the amount of snow dramatically a few days before we started, and although a bit fresh snow fell overnight, it was nowhere deep enough to keep the super slick toboggans on track. They were fine on level ground but once we started following the trail atop an embankment, the toboggans would break out behind you. The lack of snow prevented the forming of a bit of a channel as one pulls the toboggan through the snow, which consequently would keep it going fairly straight.
The trail on top of the embankment had several ridge like sections and as a result the toboggans would continuously slip sideways and pull the whole thing of the trail, sometimes requiring the other person to stop and give assistance. This particular section did not work out favorably. The bottom of those HDPE sheets is super slick, and without runners like one would find on a pulk sled. This is absolutely no problem in adequate snow depth as we experienced a few days later on our return journey over the same trail. The toboggans stayed within their own tracks and did not once go sideways, but that day in those conditions, the going was tough.
Exploring Ontario’s winter wonder lands.
Although we tried to be as careful as possible, the toboggans encountered rocks, tree trunks and sharp spruce branches when they slid off the embankment and tipped over. Sometimes you were able to pull it back onto the trail by yourself but mostly one of us had to undue snowshoes and crawl down behind it while the other one would braise himself and fight against the backward pulling action, until helping hands pushed and shoved it upwards and back onto the trail. Keeping in mind what those types of toboggans are designed for and what they were actually experiencing because of the circumstances, I must admit that the fear of seriously damaging or breaking them crossed both our minds. Sometimes we had to pick up a fully loaded toboggan by the pull-cord on top of the curve, and by the loop at the tail end to carry them a relative short distance, up and over, pushing, pulling and shoving them to get past obstacles like protruding rocks and dead fall, or across only partially frozen creeks or small streams. Deciding not to push our luck any longer, we made camp and waited for more snow. Soon after the snow started to fall and then temperatures dropped significantly.
Minus 27.5 degrees Celsius after a good snowfall; we’re back in business.
By that time we were on the move again and the toboggans performed absolutely flawless, no issues whatsoever in the deeper snow and pulling them was nearly an effortless exercise. Unintentionally but certainly, we tested the sheer toughness of these toboggans. It was never meant to be that grueling of an experience but it happened anyway. At times the pulling system which attaches through the HDPE sheet at the curve, the pull cord on top and the tail loop must have had to deal with tremendous amounts of force and yet, after thorough inspection, no damage was done. Apart from a couple of good scratches on the bottom and some dirt and branches marks on the white canvas tanks, they came out as they were pulled in.
It is fair to say we were really impressed by the craftsmanship used in the manufacturing of these toboggans. I have used them on a couple short outings since that trip and they really didn’t disappoint. I like the fusion of modern and traditional materials and the classic design, making them very though and yet ecstatically appealing. They are very capable of withstanding the more demanding aspects of winter travel.
On the trail with my favorite winter clothing combo; wool and G1000.
As for specifications, the two 7 foot Snow Walker’s we used have a very durable, low maintenance white colored HDPE bottom with wooden crosspieces made out Michigan White Ash. The cross pieces are coated with exterior oil and each piece is fastened with 5 stainless steel screws. The sled measures 15 inches wide at the curl and gradually tapers down to 13 inches at the tail end. I haven’t put these ones on the scale but a 9 foot sled weighs in at about 19 pounds. The two black running lines are ¼ inch kernmantle cord and attach to the tump strap, originally putting you 9 feet in front of the sled. The tump strap itself is a 2 inch wide, white colored cotton band with 2 nylon loops sewn at each end for attachment to the running lines. A white canvas tank has being attached to the sled and holds the base load. It is basically a rectangular box with thin cords that you attach to the toboggan’s running lines, which pass through the wooden crosspieces from front to rear.
The canvas tank has flaps that run its entire length and width and are used for draping over the load before lashing, effectively keeping out any snow from your main compartment. The lashing system, made out of 1 inch wide black nylon straps with stainless steel buckles and brass rings, is used to anchor the canvas tank and your base load securely in place. I ordered 2 toboggan duffel bags to keep my winter camping gear organized in the tank and this also makes it easier to haul stuff in and out of our tents or vehicles, also adding some extra protection and speeding up the process of making and breaking camp.
Organisation and efficiency is key during winter camping trips.
The duffel bags are made from 500 Denier Cordura with heavy duty zippers and have two convenient grab handles sewn at each end. The so called ‘Conover’ pack fits on top of the canvas tank and is made out of the same material as the 2 duffel bags. It features 4 heavy duty zippers for easy access, either on the left or right side when the pack is fastened to the toboggan with the 6 black straps which attach through the brass loops on either side of the toboggan. The Conover pack is especially handy to store the tent and all relevant equipment for shelter while the other Conover pack on a 2 man team can hold the big insulating jackets, thermoses with hot beverages, food and first aid kit, all easily accessible. When I picked the toboggans up at the post office back then, they came curled up in a cardboard box. The flexible nature of the HDPE sheets makes it very easy to transport them in a vehicle or to store them once spring is around the corner.
I am still very pleased with these toboggans today, they are absolutely great to transport your kit while out exploring the frozen wilderness. Not long after I bought mine, similar versions of these toboggans were made available here in Canada by individuals, outfitters and outdoor retailers, as winter camping started to grow in popularity. Fraser is in full preparation mode for his upcoming winter camping trip into Algonquin, sometime this February. Besides using a Canadian made version of this toboggan, his partner will be pulling one of these as a second sled. They are aiming to cross country ski from one side to the other, which should make for an awesome winter adventure experience. Very much looking forward to hearing all about their trip across the interior of this beautiful park and we wish them a safe and satisfying journey.