Look for simple, durable and functional gear as you master the sport so you can concentrate on learning how to work with dogs rather than fussing with equipment. SledsAs a beginning musher, you need to consider primarily two things to determine what type of sled you need: the sled must be the right size for your chosen mushing sport, and it must be obedient.Of the two, obedience is probably more important. A stable sled that tracks nicely and steers easily makes sledding more fun and helps avoid accidents. We’ve had sleds that “crabbed,” slid constantly off one side of the trail, or oscillated back and forth climbing the edges of the trail on both sides. Other sleds might be too cumbersome, too flexible, or too complicated for beginners to handle easily. The style and materials don’t matter as much as finding a sled that feels comfortable. If you’re tall or short, you may need a higher or lower handle bar to avoid straining your arms and back. Look for wide, grippy foot pads to keep your feet on the runners. If possible, take the sled on a trial run that includes hills, corners, and fast straight stretches. Does it cut across corners, or skid, or swing wide? Does it track perfectly behind the dogs, and steer easily? If you plan to carry a load or a passenger, find a sturdy, less-flexible sled. For races, look at sleds styled for your sport of choice, but choose a more stable one over the typical featherweight racing crafts. Staying upright does improve your competitive edge! Runners shod with ½” plastic weigh more but can hold up if the runner wood breaks.Insist on a good bar brake with points or bolts for superior grip, or wide fins if you mush in soft snow. Avoid the old-fashioned claw brakes, which don’t grab as well. You’ll probably also want a drag (such as a section of snow machine track that tows between the runners and behind the basket). These come in various sizes, with and without studs for extra traction. Although bulkier, the larger sizes offer more control. A drag helps slow and control the sled and team without tearing up the trail as a brake will, but you can’t run or pedal between the runners unless you can pick it up.Check out your potential purchase for soundness, especially if you’re looking at a used sled. Peeling finish, graying wood, rusty bolts, cracked or splinted pieces, separating laminations, frayed cable, and checked (cracked) plastic all point toward a poorly-maintained sled. Look for subtle signs of inferior workmanship, such as loose or badly-fitted joints, unevenly-bent runners, and unsymmetrical lines. Welded steel joints fail sooner than bolted ones, and twisted string frays or unravels faster than braided string. Run your hand or a flat edge down the bottom of the runners, checking for exposed bolts that add unwanted drag. RiggingBuy a standard gangline with tuglines and necklines for your sled. You might want the more expensive cable-core ganglines that won’t separate if a dog chews it. Cable is strong but unforgiving, so make sure you have a good shock link, and to prevent injury, hook any cable-core neckline to a break-away key ring or lightweight string attached to the collar.If you’re handy, you can splice or fid your own replacement sections by measuring the lengths of professionally-made lines. 3/8” to half-inch hollow polypropylene rope is popular for ganglines, with ¼” for necklines and tugs. (Thinner rope tangles easily and can coil dangerously around a dog’s leg or neck.)Place a shock link between the gangline and the sled harness (the rope or cable rigging on the sled that the gangline attaches to). Insert a safety link that bypasses the shock link, in case of failure. Add a snow hook rope, preferably behind the shock link, that’s just long enough to set the hook right beside the handlebar. (Run the snow hook rope from the gangline up through the bush bow so it doesn’t slide under the runners.) Don’t tie the snow hook line directly onto the sled; dogs transmit incredible forces capable of pulling a sled apart. For starters, use a standard-sized, double-pronged snow hook. In deep, loose snow you can substitute a Danforth boat anchor which grabs better in soft snow. Either way, be careful—all hooks are dangerous.A snub rope can be installed along with the snow hook rope to secure the team at hook-up or during longer stops. Wrap the rope twice around a tree or post and secure it with a quick-release knot, or use a quick-release device such as a sailing snap. Some mushers trail a 20 to 30 foot snub rope behind the sled to grab if they fall off. This technique can sometimes stop a runaway team, but is not especially safe and most races ban them. The shock link, snub rope, snow hook rope and gangline can all be fastened together with a large locking carabiner. (Dogs can bend or break lightweight or substandard hardware, so don’t scrimp here.)Always carry an extra tugline or two, and extra double necklines. These are handy for hasty repairs or to replace chewed lines, or to leash a dog or secure him in the sled if he’s removed from the team.HarnessesThe standard X-back harness is the easiest to fit and to use, making it popular among beginners. The padded neck opening should fit snugly around the dog’s neck, with the lower end directly below the notch where the dog’s throat emerges from the chest. It should not be so loose that it slides back over the shoulder blade, or so tight the dog coughs or wheezes when pulling. The body of the harness should lie flat against the dog, especially when he’s pulling, with the side straps coming together at the last rib and the rear of the harness ending right at the base of the tail. Once you find a harness that fits each dog, write his name or at least the harness size on each one. Harnesses that are color-coded for size don’t need labeling unless you have a weird-shaped dog with a custom-fitted harness. Some dogs require different-sized harnesses as they age, bulk up, or get leaner.Freighting and weight-pull harnesses come with a spreader bar that rides as close as possible to the hind legs, without hitting the legs when the dog is pulling. These and other harnesses, like the H-back or side-pull harnesses, are best used under the supervision of an experienced musher who can advise you on fit and usage. Some of these harnesses require specially-sized lines because they are longer or shorter than the X-back. The side-pull works well for skijoring or long-distance racing, but is not intended for heavy work.If one of your dogs doesn’t work well, try different harnesses to see if changing the fit or style makes him more comfortable. The freighting harness, for instance, often relieves hip, pelvic and lower-back pain that can interfere with pulling, while the side-pull may alleviate crabbing (pulling sideways).Once the dogs have fitted harnesses, hook them into the gangline, and if necessary lengthen or shorten the loops at the back of each harness where the tug attaches. Don’t stretch smaller dogs to make them fit between the necklines and tugs. The neckline should be loose enough to have a gentle dip without sagging halfway to the ground where the dog can tangle in it.Harnesses can be hand-made using a well-fitted commercial harness to measure from, but this requires hand-sewing or a heavy-duty sewing machine, and takes some practice to get consistent results.Other EquipmentWhile often helpful, some other equipment is more optional. A “sled bag” is a durable sled liner for holding your gear. A “dog bag” is a sack, often made of durable mesh for good ventilation that secures a dog safely in your sled. A handlebow bag can carry small items like snaps, snacks, and small first aid and repair kits. (Carry your cell phone on your person so you can call for help if you lose the team.) A snow-hook holder keeps this potentially-dangerous steel hook under control.Booties with Velcro fasteners protect the dogs’ feet on abrasive footing, or if a dog gets snowballs or has injuries. Use booties made especially for sled dogs, and make sure they are not too tight or too floppy. You should be able to pinch about ½” of loose fabric around the toes. Thin-furred dogs may need coats when run in cold, windy weather. Most coats have a fleece liner and weather-resistant shell. Dog booties and garments are easy to make if you know how to sew.Cable picket lines can secure a gang of dogs quickly and easily while you are camping out or hooking up the team at a distance from their yard. It’s also a fast way to drop the dogs around a truck. We like the nylon-coated aircraft cable ones. (For long-term picketing use individual or gang pickets made from chain because cable can wrap dangerously tight around a dog’s leg.)A few five-gallon buckets for food, water and poop will be useful; we save our 5-gallon fat-supplement buckets because they’ve never had motor oil or toxic chemicals in them. You can move buckets around in a small cart in the summer, or a little plastic sled in the winter. Aluminum dog-food bowls are popular, or you can buy used metal pans and bowls at a thrift shop. The big #10 tin can that you can buy full of beans, fruit, or other canned foods at bulk-food stores make great water cans; you might find them for free at restaurants. A huge spoon, a ½” x 3”x2’ board, or an old hoe helps mix in additives like melted fat blends.If you plan to work with the dogs at night, invest in a good headlamp with a bright, penetrating beam. Finally, a cell phone can be a lifesaver. If you have one that works on your trails, keep it charged and carry it with you always.MaintenanceProtect your sleds, lines and harnesses from sun and water by storing them in a garage or a shed, especially during the summer. Replace worn gear (including brake points, worn lines and stuck snaps) and repair broken sleds to prevent accidents. Spray snaps and other moveable metal parts with WD-40 or light oil. Wooden sleds last longer if coated with linseed oil, log oil or varnish every year or two. Scratched sled plastic can be planed down, flipped over or replaced. Launder harnesses yearly or as needed (check for shrinkage afterwards.) Don’t let gear become so worn that it might fail, causing an accident or a lost team.Caring for equipment takes time, but saves you money — giving you more time to spend on the dogs, of course!
Racing in the ACE Race with Tonya Helm On this episode of the Mushing podcast,