Ever thought about the best sled for hauling your gear onto the ice? If you’re like most people, it’s not a strong consideration, at least until it’s spills over at the launch, runs into the back of your ATV, or weighs you down when pulling it through snow. It’s a gear category that most of us really take for granted, even after disaster strikes, as most of us tend to make due with whatever we have. Like many things, I’ve learned the hard way that not all sleds are created equal, and depending on how you’ll be using it, some features lend themselves to success better than others.
I’ve towed ice gear in everything from red plastic kids sleds to drywall mud mixing utility tubs. The chief upside is price and availability. Chances are, you’ve got one laying around, and if you’re pulling by hand over fairly even terrain and little snow, it may serve your purposes just fine. Downsides are plenty however, from the way they pull over deep snow (plowing through or floating unevenly across the top), to how well they secure your gear inside. No slopes, no high speeds or with machines, and no expensive gear should be some basic rules of the road with these sleds. They’re the first to disintegrate, quickest to frustrate, and fastest to end up back in the garage from my experience. If you ice fish or winter recreate even only a few times per season, you can probably do better.
The Hand Tow
In terms of price, you’re looking at a sled that’s mid-range. They tend to be large, but not overly so, as the poly rope that’s typically attached is meant to be hand-pulled in a variety of conditions. The sled is heavier duty, but again, not to the point of feeling overweight, as the main goal of these sleds is for foot traffic and transport. You want higher sides if possible, along with a good lip at the edge all around, such that you can use bungee straps or other means to secure a load over the rough stuff.
I’m in the camp that everyone should own at least one of these kinds of sleds, for a variety of reasons, including the off-season. These sleds are almost always under 100 bucks, and can haul over dry land and snow just the same. The angle of attack on the front of them allows for better towing in deep snow, and good grooves running the length of them help it to track straight behind you as well. They’ll float a deer across a small river, and haul landscaping plants around the yard.
You may wish to upgrade the rope to something that feels a bit better to bare hands, and also make it longer. Easier yet, a strap system that secures around your waist, paired with that longer lead makes pulling a breeze over longer distances. There’s a million uses, but these improvements apply pretty well to most applications.
The Machine Tow
If you haul gear around the ice by snowmobile or ATV, the sled you need is entirely different than the first two mentioned. Higher speeds, more torque and tension, along with the temptation to tow heavier items requires something made specifically for the job. For that reason, roto-molded is the only way to go. It’ll cost you more money, but the investment ensures even thickness of the sled throughout, especially in corners, angles, and pockets where it counts. Most other sleds are thinner and weaker in these locations. The manufacturing procedure adds some weight, but when behind a machine, you won’t notice it, yet have the durability advantage for your efforts.
Next you need to think about how you’ll be attaching the sled to your machine of choice. Again, my opinion is fairly strong in saying you need a rigid hitch system. Long ropes are great until you stop suddenly or are on glare ice, in which case your gear quickly becomes a projectile that slams into the back of your machine, or catches and edge and flips over. Rigid steel bar hitch systems completely prevent that and are the premium option for towing. Make sure you’re using an appropriately sized pin and key that adequately secures said hitch to the machine, as looking for pins in the snow is the worst.
Equally important is how the hitch system attaches to the sled. Bolt through options, though common, put too much pressure on small areas of the sled, often resulting in failure. A better design is the hitch-pocket system, molded into the sled, that utilizes a pin pushed through the sled, hitch, then sled again. Pressure is distributed evenly throughout the front of the sled, rather than at two individual points, making it far more durable and trustworthy.
From here, you can consider hyfax runners that wear out before the bottom of your sled will. If you go over gravel, concrete, or any rough patches with regularity, these pay for themselves in time. So too do travel covers that secure the load inside of the sled, keeping it relatively snow free and dry while you pull. If you’re not worried about it floating, I drill a single small hole in each of the small longitudinal wells in the sled at the back end. This allows any water that was trapped inside to escape in my garage by simply propping up the front of the sled slightly.
Choose a purpose-driven sled this winter, and enjoy the benefits no matter how you fish or recreate. Especially if you’ve purchased some nicer ice gear over the years, consider it an investment in the whole setup.