Making a plastic toboggan

The toboggan serves to transport all your equipment during winter months by sliding it over the snow and ice, doing away with the need to carry anything other than the clothing on your back. Where in the summer months a canoe might be used to move yourself and your equipment deep into the woods, once the lakes are frozen a pair of snow shoes and a toboggan make winter camping a luxury.

Every hill walker knows the feeling of a sweaty back after yomping up a slope and the chill when the sack is removed and the sweat wicked away on the breeze. This same effect at minus 20 degrees Celsius is  not something to be taken lightly. We will look in more detail at dressing effectively for extreme cold in upcoming blogs but for now an Inuit proverb will serve to highlight the very real danger ‘If you sweat you die’.

It seems like such common sense and so simple yet until you are in the frozen North dealing with one minute standing still at minus 20 in a cold wind, the next minute working hard pulling a fully laden toboggan you do not realise the iron discipline it takes to don and doff clothing BEFORE you get to cold or too hot. It can feel like such a faff to be constantly putting on and removing layers but this approach is far quicker than the alternative enforced stop, tent assembly, stove lighting, change into dry gear and re warm consequence to ignoring the dangers of sweating.

To avoid sweating you can either vent your excess body temperature to the environment through wearing less layers or regulate your level of exertion to avoid over heating in the first place. Not having a rucksack bouncing on your back and preventing sweat vapour from exiting the clothing in that area is a huge boost to regulating body temperature in extreme cold where all of your layers should be highly breathable – wools and cottons rating as very desirable.

So at first what appears to be a simple solution to pulling equipment along suddenly becomes an integral part of a system to avoid over heating, sweating, compromised clothing systems and potentially life threatening consequences that may follow if left un checked.

We chose to fabricate our toboggans from HDPE (high density poly ethylene) plastic which is available from many industrial retailers online. This plastic generally comes in white and in a range of thicknesses. We opted for 4mm plastic as we intended to counter sink screws into it to secure the ground line boards.

With a 60l dry bag plus day bags, food bag, tent and stove I calculated that a packing space of about 7′ would be enough with an extra foot of plastic to form the upturn at the front of the toboggan. HDPE is extremely hard wearing and abrasion resistant making it ideal for dragging over coarse surfaces often encountered on ice, on snow it has a very low friction serving to make pulling equipment easier.

It has a structure un affected by extreme minus temperatures which is crucial where other materials may become frozen and fragile. Lastly the flexibility of the material meant we could roll our toboggans into cylinders to transport out to Sweden on a domestic flight as sports luggage.


Two toboggans rolled around a wood burning stove for protection in transit to Sweden.

Originally we had intended to secure boards across the width of our toboggans under which the ground lines (rigging lines from which all equipment is lashed down) would run, however we quickly ran out of time in the final days leading up to our trip and so an alternative method of drilling holes for the ground lines was improvised.


Protecting nylon cord with duct tape where it will lie on the underside of the toboggan.

At around every 1.5 feet along the edges of the toboggan we drilled a pair of holes the diameter of the nylon cord. As seen in the photo the cord passes down from the top side of the toboggan and then back up again leaving about 1 inch of cordage prone on the underside of the toboggan. As most of our hauling would be over snow we deemed this to be worth a shot but took the extra precaution of taping that 1 inch section to prevent the ground lines snapping.

The edges of all holes were rounded as there is some serious pressure exerted on the ground lines not only in lashing equipment but also once tied down as the toboggan is freely flexible along its length it will follow every ground contour (making in very stable compared to a rigid toboggan) putting extra force on some sections of the lashing lines.

Once the ground lines were fixed we attached lengths of seat belt type material for the load lashing lines, there were four of these along the length of the toboggan.


Lashing line secured onto ground line between two pairs of holes.

The front upturn of the toboggan was very simply achieved by bending the plastic by hand until a reasonable curve was achieved and then anchored into position by tying it back down to the ground lines. Here a quick release rolling hitch was used so that the curve could be increased if very deep powdery snow was encountered.

Once the upturn and all lashing lines were installed the toboggans were ready for packing and remained like this for the duration of the expedition until they were rolled up for the flight home.


Completed toboggans with improvised ground line system.

The only additional feature we installed was a grab loop at both the front and rear of the toboggans which came in useful on a number of occasions when negotiating steeper ground and when towing through thick tree cover where being closer to the toboggan meant you could be more manoeuvrable.

It is worth spending a bit of time the night before departure in packing the toboggan and finding out the best split of equipment between the two toboggans. As far as possible like for like equipment is kept together to make camp set up slicker rather than splitting a tent over three bags for example. Think about the worst case scenario of collapsing through ice and the actions you would have to take immediately after. How long does that person have to get into dry gear and get out of the wind before they are seriously compromised?



Spare warm gloves, thick wool layer and axe all immediately accessible.

Have all your warm dry layers immediately to hand in a ‘ditch kit’ and have an axe ready to hand. It goes without saying that each person will carry ice needles around their neck which they have a chance at extricating themselves from the ice with but a throw line should also be carried – this line should be with the second person as most (not all) persons going through ice tend to be at the front and its no good if they take the throw line with them.


Test packing of equipment prior to early morning departure.

Food is likely to be heavy for a 9 day trip but none the less essential in redressing the balance of the huge amount of calories burnt operating in the cold and undertaking at times quite strenuous activity.


Increased drag with a fully laden toboggan encountering only a slight incline out of a car park.

Once out on the frozen lakes depending on the condition of both snow and ice underfoot you can expect to make reasonable progress using this method of transport. We were limited in the distances we could cover in a day as the lake ice was still forming and so we were forced to remain within 20m of any shore line as there were still open reaches of lake typically in the middle deep sections and occasionally in bays.

Consequently we had to follow every inlet and head land around the lakes we crossed adding a huge amount of distance to what would otherwise have been a straight shot down the middle of the lake given thick safe ice conditions.


Note open water to left of photo and compact float left by lead persons toboggan.

We soon adopted the routine of having one person break trail with the lighter toboggan and have the second person (carrying throw line) follow in their float which having compressed the snow made for much easier progress. We simply swapped toboggans every 500m – 1 km or whenever the lead person tired or felt they were over heating.

At first I was doubtful if our ground line system would put up with the abrasion of a full 8 days towing with heavy toboggan loads but as the majority of ground covered was over soft snow it held up perfectly. At the end of the trip we pulled the toboggans over around 5km of very compressed and gritted snow on a minor road and even here they did not fail.

These toboggans were perfectly suited to purpose and one of those pieces of equipment that just slotted in and was almost unnoticed during the trip as we did not have to give them a second thought – much like the kettle or the axe. It would have been fantastic to field test a toboggan made from traditional materials but given our limitations on weight and size of luggage the HDPE came out top for transportability.

Lastly they proved their worth in wood hauling for our fixed camps, standing dead trees near the lake shores were felled and then easily loaded onto the waiting toboggan which could then be pulled effortlessly along the shore to the camp site. In contrast those camps where standing dead had to be searched for by wading through snow inside the woods before felling and awkwardly carrying back through thick cover was much harder work.


Using the toboggan to haul dry spruce back to camp at the end of a days snow shoeing.

Adam Logan.












Related posts