Backcountry travel in the winter can be challenging—especially when there’s a ton of snow.
But snow opens up the possibility of pulling your gear rather than carrying it on your back.
We’ve traveled in the winter with backpacks, sleds, and pulks, and we’ve found that each has its own benefits and drawbacks.
Here’s what you should be considering for your next winter camping trip.
Sleds vs. pulks: What’s the difference?
Sleds are simply pulled with a rope and can have a harness or not, while pulks use rigid poles and a harness.
The pros and cons of using a sled
On flat terrain, a sled pulled with a rope can be efficient and inexpensive.
But when it comes to hills, going downhill can be tricky.
You might need to turn the sled around and follow it down, occasionally encountering deep snow and getting stuck.
Another issue with ropes is navigating through winding forest trails with lots of twists and turns.
In such cases, you might need to shorten the rope to avoid obstacles, which can slow you down considerably.
Easier on flat terrain: On flat surfaces like frozen rivers or lakes, a sled pulled by ropes (12 to 24 feet in length) can be easier to move than using poles.
Inexpensive method: If you use ropes and a simple harness or wrap the ropes around your body, sleds can be an affordable solution.
Steering with ropes: By pulling on one side of the rope, you can steer the sled, giving you control during your trek.
Hills can be challenging: Pulling a sled up a hill is relatively easy, but going downhill can be tricky with a rope.
You may need to turn the sled around and follow it down.
Navigating through forests: When trekking through wooded areas with twists and turns, you may need to shorten the rope to navigate around obstacles, which can slow you down.
Using poles: A pulk, or sled with poles, can offer more control in some situations, but the shorter length can create an inefficient angle for pulling.
The pros and cons of using a pulk
Pulks offer better control and stability, especially when going downhill or navigating around obstacles.
However, the angle created by the poles can make it harder to pull compared to a rope-pulled sled.
Additionally, going downhill with a pulk requires caution, as the weight can push you forward.
Detaching the harness and lowering the sled down the hill while steering with the poles can help manage this.
Control: The poles between you and the sled allow you to control the pulk more comfortably than a rope.
Consistency: Poles keep the same distance between you and the sled regardless of the terrain.
Maneuverability: When crossing poles, you can turn the sled easily, making it excellent for navigating through forests.
Angle: The 6-foot length of the poles creates an angle that’s not ideal for pulling, but packing your sled strategically can help with this issue.
Downhill push: When going downhill, the weight of the sled connected to the poles might push you, so you need to be cautious.
Why backpacking can still be an option in winter
Just because it’s winter doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t get away with taking a backpack with you.
Pros of using a backpack in winter
- You maintain mobility on uneven terrain.
- Backpacks can offer better weight distribution.
- There’s no need for additional equipment like a sled or pulk.
Cons of using a backpack in winter
- Carrying capacity may be limited compared to sleds or pulks.
- Heavier loads can lead to fatigue and strain on your back.
- They may cause you to lose your balance in deep snow or on slick ice.
Pro tip: To make your winter backpacking experience more enjoyable, consider using a larger backpack to accommodate the extra gear and clothing, and opt for lightweight, compact equipment when possible.
Comparing sleds vs. pulks vs. backpacks
Sleds are the simplest and most traditional choice for hauling gear in the snow.
They’re often more affordable and can be as basic as a kid’s toy sled or as advanced as a backcountry-specific model.
Keep in mind, however, that sleds with thin material can be less durable and prone to cracking in cold temperatures, so opting for a thicker and tougher sled is essential for winter camping.
A pulk is an upgraded version of a sled designed to make hauling gear over snow-covered terrain more efficient.
Pulks feature a rigid harness system that allows you to evenly distribute the weight of your gear across your body.
Pulks may be more expensive than sleds, but their performance in deep snow conditions could make them worth the investment.
Unlike sleds and pulks, backpacks don’t require snow for optimal performance, making them the most versatile option.
Backpacks are ideal for snow-capped mountains and regions with a mix of snow and dry terrain.
Make sure to adjust the amount and type of gear you carry according to the conditions and your personal needs.
Besides, using a backpack could even be combined with a sled or pulk in certain scenarios, such as mentioned in a Backpacking Light discussion.
In summary, each option has its pros and cons:
- Sleds: Easy to find, affordable, adaptable to different uses.
- Pulks: Designed for winter camping, efficient weight distribution, great for deep snow conditions.
- Backpacks: Versatile, suitable for mixed terrains, can be combined with sleds or pulks.
Consider your personal preferences and planned activities before settling on the best option for your winter camping adventure.
How to choose the right option for you
The main factors that will influence your choice include what gear you plan on bringing, the terrain conditions you expect, and how far you plan to travel.
Think about the type and amount of gear you’ll be carrying.
If you have a lot of heavy gear, using a pulk can make your trip much more manageable.
On the other hand, if you’re packing light, a backpack might be all you need.
Winter terrain conditions
Evaluate the terrain you’ll be traversing.
Will you encounter steep slopes, narrow trails, or icy patches?
For such cases, using a backpack may offer more stability and control.
Yet, on flat or gently rolling terrain with snow, a sled or pulk can be an efficient way to transport your gear.
Consider how far you’ll be traveling.
For long distances, the reduced foot weight from using a pulk or sled can help conserve energy.
For short trips, a backpack might be a more convenient option, since it can easily be carried and maneuvered on your back.
Narrowing it down to carrying vs. pulling…
The easiest thing you can do is first decide whether you want to carry your gear on your back or pull it behind you.
That narrows it down to either a backpack, or a sled/pulk.
When choosing between a sled and a pulk, you might consider how each works in various situations.
Sleds with ropes are great for flat terrain, like frozen rivers and lakes, because the long ropes can provide an optimal angle between you and your loaded gear.
However, deep snow or hills might cause issues, requiring you to make adjustments, like attaching or reattaching ropes, which can take time.
Navigating tight turns and obstacles in wooded trails might be challenging due to the rope length.
With a pulk, you can maintain consistent distance and control over your sled, which is particularly useful when going downhill or traversing through forest trails.
The shorter poles might not create the best pulling angle, but certain packing techniques can help mitigate this issue.
Going downhill with a pulk might require extra caution, as the weight behind you can push you forward.
We prefer pulks
Pulks are our number one choice for our camping trips, as they are extremely convenient in most situations.
We find that the negatives are easily outweighed by the positives, especially for multi-day excursions.
Did you know that you can make your own pulk out of a sled?
Here are the basic steps:
- Choose a sled: Find a sturdy, durable sled that can handle the weight of your gear.
- Select a harness: You’ll need a comfortable harness that distributes the weight evenly across your body.
- Determine the pulling mechanism: Decide whether you’d like to use ropes or poles to pull your sled. Ropes are better suited for flat terrains, while poles offer more control, especially during downhill treks.
- Measure your rope/pole length: If using ropes, 12 feet (3.5 meters) length provides an optimal angle for pulling. For poles, a length of 6 feet (2 meters) is ideal.
- Cross the ropes/poles for better control: Crossing the ropes or poles helps improve maneuverability when navigating around obstacles.
- Adaptable design: Consider designing your pulk to easily switch between ropes and poles, should the need arise.
- Packing strategy: Pack your sled in such a way that it creates an optimal angle for pulling, ensuring a smooth trek.
More about winter campping:
- How to go winter camping with dogs
- How to keep yourself warm while winter camping
- How to pack for winter camping
Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
What features should I look for in a quality pulk sled?
A durable, thick material is essential to prevent cracking in cold conditions, and a reliable harness system will make it easier to pull.
Do I need a special backpack for winter camping trips?
Yes, a backpack with insulated compartments, durable fabric, and additional space is ideal for carrying extra gear in cold environments.
What’s the best option for ultralight winter camping?
A backpack is typically the preferred option for ultralight camping, as it allows you to carry only the necessary items and move quickly on trails.
Can I use a pulk or sled for travel in deep snow?
Yes, but it’s important to select one with high sides and a good suspension system to prevent it from getting stuck or tipping over in deep snow.
It may also be necessary to use snowshoes or skis for better control and maneuverability.
Other important factors to consider when choosing a sled or pulk are weight, size, and ease of assembly and disassembly.
Remember to also check the load capacity to ensure it can handle the weight of your gear without breaking.
Some models may also come with additional features such as a pull handle or storage pockets for added convenience.
Which option(s) work best for snowshoeing or cross country skiing?
If you’re able to fit your equipment in a backpack, it might be more comfortable; however, utilizing a quality pulk sled can make it easier to carry heavier loads over snowy terrain.
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).