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All-terrain sledge Mk 2.5

Of the two wheeling positions shown, the 'unlikely' one with the drum nearly vertical, is the most used. The drum is balanced over the wheel so there is no load on the hands. If an unseen rock does stop the wheel, the hands fly forward without stressing the wrists. The more conventional stance is used for charging slopes or small snowdrifts. The barrow can also be comfortably pulled in this position.

I have built wheeled sledges of many varieties, starting with a modified twin-towbar fibreglass pulk, more than fifteen years ago. The sliding barrel Mk 1 finally displaced the pulk. Since then the design has steadily improved. The Mk 1 account is now in the record section, together with the trundler handcart, since all you do is remove a few winter-specific items from the all-terrain sledge, to use it as a camping wheelbarrow.

This section will give a description of the Mk 2.5, and look at how it is used. Constructional details are in the next section. I built in aluminium, since it resists wet snow and rain, but wood could be used. The 2.5 is likely to be the final design, as there seem to be no problems in use. Sorry for the lack of on-snow photography. I ski alone, and would need to take a skiing camera-crew. I will pose the Mk 2.5 on grass, where my wife can take the pictures.

Snags with the Mk 1

The thick aluminium runners were fine for tugging over rough sections, where the snow gave out, but at more than 2 kilograms per runner, they weighed a ton.

The famous 'stick' of metal runners to snow, whenever the sledge stops, means lunging at the tow-ropes to jerk the sledge free. Over a day of towing, the energy required for the lunge exhausts the towing skier relatively early.

A related problem, with the weight and the sticky runners, is tow-rope feedback, where a jerky motion transmits to the hips under certain snow conditions, as the sledge almost stops during each walking cycle. If this goes on for hours, the skier's back complains. Thicker, less elastic tow-ropes improved this.

A deep four-wheel drive rut in the snow can capture one runner, and tip the sledge onto its side.

The two-wheeled design, apart from the weight, was fine pulled along snowless tracks. Tracking across a snowless slope was less easy, the tilt angle stressing and destabilising the sledge.

Basic features of the Mk 2.5

The Mk 2.5 is a wheelbarrow, like my initial wheelbarrow pulk. The all-up weight of the Mk 1 was 17.5 Kg, and that of the Mk 2.5 including wheel assembly, towing skirt, and handles, is 12.5 Kg. The single lightweight wheel is moulded from high density polythene, and carries a low-pressure inflatable tyre. It is not a wheelbarrow wheel, but the type used on, and sold for, hand trolleys. These wheels have the bearing housings offset to one side, making them ideal for use on a stub axle. I lathe-turned a short one-sided axle to optimise the mounting of the existing cheap bearings, then bolted this to an aluminium stub, which in turn could be quickly bolted to the beefed-up base of the plastic drum. The result is an ideal wheel, firmly mounted clear of the end of the drum. The axle/wheel is skinny enough to smoothly roll along, inside a deep-snow 4WD tyre track, without catching the sides. You can stroll behind in the same track. When the sledge is sliding over the snow, the wheel does not contact the surface. The drum, minus both wheel and lid, drops into the luggage section of a 660 cc Daihatsu Mira, and few cars are smaller.

The drum forms the body of the wheelbarrow, so all you need is two handles in the right place. Locating these is difficult. I stiffened up the lid of the drum, and mounted two light straight aluminium tubes on the lid, of just the right length, and at just the right angle, and fitted them with handgrips. The result feels incredibly boring, just like a wheelbarrow. It can be either pushed as usual, or pulled up steep slopes, through short snowdrifts, or over fallen trees. Stability is excellent. The lid-mounted handle tubes are rigid, but removable in a few seconds, and short enough to push into the pack. The lid carries a rolled-up polythene towing skirt connected to two short nylon braid tow-ropes, and this can be quickly removed to sling in your pack, while you cover the miles of snowless road back to your car.

With any sort of barrow being pulled or pushed, with a big but lightly-loaded pack on your back, the real problem is where you carry the skis. Heroes strap them to the pack, so they stick a hundred feet into the air, and bring down low-flying 'planes. I began with elastic straps holding the ski bundle down sideways on two bars on the drum lid, but found if you had to face 'zebra' conditions with alternating snow and grass, loading and unloading the skis for each snowdrift took forever. I finally built small, light 'ski racks' on the lid bars, with captive Velcro closing straps. The skis and poles now drop on in seconds, and lock firmly. With the skis mounted broadside, normal 4WD tracks are no problem, and I can wriggle up through gaps in trees, on a snowless slope, by tilting, or slewing the barrow vertically, on the single wheel.

Once on the snow, the polythene skirt extends the effective length of the drum, so low density snow does not cause problems. The skirt steadily compresses the snow ahead of the main sliding surface, as well as stopping the front of the drum digging in.

The braided tow cords are very short. I used to wrap them several times round the padded waistband of my pack, but have now sewn proper pull points onto the waistband, which are much more comfortable, and faster to engage. This photo shows the pack (base upwards) with a fastening slowly sewn by hand on to the padded hip belt. The fastening terminates in a loop, through which is threaded a cord loop holding a screw-up ring. The tow cord loop drops through this ring in seconds.

To insert a minor update, I was able to eliminate the screw-up rings by using a round knot on the end of each of the towing cords, which pushed into a nylon braid loop coming from each side of the pack. As well as saving a few grams, and getting rid of two very hard metal lumps, the system actually worked faster and more reliably. If you do read the site this closely and want details, e-mail me. I'll photograph how it goes and put up a full description.

You can tow with the wheelbarrow handles still mounted, but once they are removed, nothing sticks out from the neat little blue drum, and if you ski into bushy country, anything you can push through, the drum will follow. The riding surface is one of the almost-flat drum sides, and with a rub-over of wax paste on the high density polythene of the drum, there is no 'runner stick' at all. The drum has no cutting runners, so on an icy cross-slope, it slips down below you at an angle, but you can still tow it from there. Once in a while, a really steep bump or angle flips the drum over, but a quick tug on the tow-ropes puts it back. All my towing is done with 'snakeskins' fitted to a pair of light edgeless Skilom XC skis, now about twenty years old.

Special tricks

Slowly climbing a mountain, and working your way up through the snowline, from all grass to all snow, involves a never-ending series of challenges, when towing an all-terrain sledge. You can get your breath back, with the occasional change from grass to snow and back, but when the changes have to be made every ninety seconds, progress becomes maddeningly slow.

If you are wheeling along, and are presented with an old snowdrift too thick to charge through, an obvious trick is shown in the photo. Leave your skis strapped to the drum, knot the tow-rope ends together to form a loop which is held in one hand, and walk over the drift, hand-pulling the sledge behind. Gaiters on your XC boots are a must!. Once the drift is crossed, you can be wheeling again in ten seconds.

Crossing fallen trees, you slide the belly of the sledge up over the trunk, and pull with the barrow handles from the far side. The wheel climbs up onto the trunk, rolls all the way over the top of it, as the rest of the sledge comes free, then rolls smoothly down the side of the trunk, before falling the last foot onto the ground. The wheel lands first, the soft tyre absorbing most of the impact.

Descending moderate slopes with the sledge in tow, it behaves most sociably, and is reluctant to thump you from behind, although removing the handles is wise. If it wants to overtake, just ski to one side and wave it through - it won't get far since it is connected to your waist. I walk steep icy downhill sections, carrying the skis, with the tow-ropes looped through the other hand. I place the sledge ahead of me, with the wheel facing downhill. A gentle push from a boot starts the sledge sliding away from me, and it continues until the tow-ropes are taut in my hand, when I gently brake it to a stop. Another push and off we go again. This procedure is risk-free, and about the same effort as walking downhill with no sledge.

Crossing wide streams still requires bare feet, but the vertical drum can roll through a foot of water without getting wet. If the drum reinforcing at the base has been sealed with Silastic, polysulphide, or similar, you can keep the drum contents dry through any water that does not sweep you away. The lid joint and handle mountings are not pressure-tight, so avoid trying to float the drum across, unless you really are in trouble.

Look - no hands!

This trick took me three snow trips to perfect. The most maddening situation of all when you are on skis is when 'the snow runs out' for ten metres or so, and then continues on into the distance. What I can do is remove my skis, and hold them in my hands on the top of the drum, and tuck the handles under my arms. Note I have not detached the tow-ropes either. I can then wheel the sledge forwards (or backwards on rocky ground) until I am back on the snow, and then carry on sledge towing as soon as I have put my skis back on. This trick makes crossing of an impossible mix of snow and no-snow very easy.

Just as in car-towing, try and share the load equally between your pack and the sledge. If conditions are easy, with smooth surfaces and gentle slopes, more can be packed in the sledge. I normally carry two heavy synthetic sleeping-bags, plus the snow-shovel and needed clothes, water, and food, in my pack, which just fills it nicely without extending the top.

Using the sledge outside winter involves the five-minute removal of the towing-skirt mount and the ski racks. We can get a foot of early-summer snow without warning, high in the mountains, and in these conditions I can plod out through the snow, sliding the sledge on its running surface by pulling at a rope loop tied to the handle mounts.

Conclusions

All this adds up to a doubling of the daily distance I could cover with the Mk 1. Effort is cut, and speed has risen. I used to reckon my ski holiday started when I made it into camp, at the end of a day walking and skiing in from the car. Now the days in and back are so much easier, they are part of the holiday. There may never be an upgrade to the Mk 2.5