Last year my Vasque boots finally gave in to the abuse I'd hurled at them over the years, and when winter suddenly arrived last week, bringing 10cm of snow, I quickly remembered it was time to buy a new pair for my daily hiking adventures.
Q: What do nerdy backpackers say when they get a little bit too excited about making their own gear?
I'd wanted a pulk (or ahkio, as they are called in Lapland) for some time, and while the professional Fjellpulken pulks really look the part, they are pretty heavy (over 7.5kg with poles and harness), and very expensive – from around €700 for an X-Country, to over €1700 for a Transport 401: a little bit outside my budget. A lot, in fact.
While there is a time and a place for a hardcore pulks, in the gently rolling landscape of Finland they are a little bit overkill for all but the most extreme trips or situations.
Luckily, there's a well-known alternative that you can make yourself using a Paris Expedition sled, and some ingenuity. It may not have all the bells and whistles of a Fjellpulken, but for the kind of "expeditions" I get up to at the moment, I was confident it would be more than enough.
Let me show you how to make one!
I should begin by saying that none of this is my idea. Ed Bouffard – an ex-NOLS instructor – wrote the book on MYOG pulks, and you can download it for free from SkiPulk.com, where you can also buy parts to make your own Paris Expedition more advanced pulk.
I like to keep things simple, so the pulk I made is the most basic, hassle-free version to be found in the booklet: a simple pipe pulk.
This is just about the easiest MYOG project you can imagine. It takes virtually no skill (high on my list of priorities) and is really cheap. If you live somewhere with a half-decent amount of snow, it's worth making just for the fun of it and the sense of achievement – not to mention the satisfaction at having saved €700.
Here's what you need:
(Note: I made two at the same time, so the image above shows additional materials)
1 x Paris Expedition pulk
About 10m of 8mm cord
2 x carabiners (or similar)
2 x lengths of 12-15mm (1/2 inch) conduit
A short 20cm length of guy cord
I got my Paris Expedition from
for €39.99. I read you can get them direct from the manufacturer,
in the US/Canada, though you might have to buy as a group. In Finland they are available also from
The cord cost around €5, the carabiners €4, and the conduit €4.80. So the total cost for the basic pulk was €53.79! Quite a considerable saving over a Fjellpulken.
There is a
, but I think it's better to stick with something that has a little rigidity to it.
The first thing to do is thread the cord around the pulk, using the holes that are already provided. The reason for this is that you will distribute the pulling force over the whole pulk, rather than just at the two front holes.
When you've threaded the rope all the way around, pull it through so you have about 2.5m (8.2ft) coming from each of the grommeted holes on the front – although the length of the poles will be shorter, you need some additional play for knots.
At this point it's a good idea to set fire to stuff. Or at least to burn the ends of the cut rope, to stop them from fraying.
The first knot you need to tie is right outside the grommet where the rope enters the pulk. This is to stop the cord slipping in and out of the hole. A double overhand will do the trick.
Next you need to measure and cur your poles. The purpose of the poles is to stop the pulk sliding into your back when stopping or going downhill. They need to be long enough so that the tail end of your skis don't slap the pulk as you go.
You can find out the approximate length by setting up your skis, and measuring from your hip to the tail of your ski, and then adding some extra to be on the safe side. It's good not to have the poles too long, so you have more control in confined areas.
The SkiPulk .pdf suggests 6 ft / 182cm to be a good length. I cut mine to 190cm.
The conduit is cut easily with a hacksaw.
Feet the cord through the conduit, and tie a loop (I used a figure eight on a bight), keeping it as close to the conduit exit as possible. This was the only trick part as it necessitates keeping the pole in place and tying the knot. You could ask someone to hold the pole, and you can always tighten or reposition the knot later if it has too much play.
When you use the pulk, the poles are crossed to provide more maneuverability. To keep them together, tie a small loop around them, about half way along their length. You can also duct tape this loop to
of the poles to keep it in position if you want. I didn't bother.
And voila! The finished pulk:
All you need now is to attach the loops to your harness. As I'm an inveterate cheapskate, I thought I'd have a look at my collection of backpacks to see if I could use any of the hipbelts. Lo and behold, my Granite Gear Vapor Trail (now known as the
) has an excellent removable hipbelt with stitched webbing perfect for attaching the carabiners. If you don't have a suitable belt, Globetrotter has a
on sale which will do the job nicely.
It was time for a test!
After a quick ski around the park, I grabbed the first person I could find and headed off to find a trail.
Although my passenger weighed a scant 12kg (26.5 lb), she seemed satisfied with the smoothness of the ride, until she got a bit fed up and decided she wanted to walk.
Until that point we had been skiing along a relatively clear trail, so I thought I'd head "off-piste".
At first, my
coped pretty well with the light, fluffy snow we get here.
But soon, I got that familiar sinking feeling, where one has to break some serious trail.
Until before long...
Around this point I seriously started to wonder whether I should get some
, which sound a lot more suitable for backcountry skiing in fluff:
"The 2013 Madshus Annum backcountry skis (formerly Karhu XCD Guide) are the result of many requests from serious backcountry skiers for a waxless, full-metal edge backcountry touring ski that is ultra-fat to absolutely float on super deep soft snow and/or fresh powder when breaking trail and ripping telemark turns on the downhills."
I'd previously thought the Annum's would be overkill, but that description (apart form the bit about ripping telemark turns) seems to accurately describe what I encounter regularly up here. I'd be interested if any Annum users out there can comment.
Anyway, it was fun, and I decided to make an additional modification to the sled.
When testing in the park, I used my toolbox as a load. It fell out on more than one occasion when turning in deep snow. When you're attached to poles and on skis, having to faff around putting things back in a pulk is not particularly enjoyable, so I returned to tke SkiPulk .pdf for advice on adding a load retention system.
I decided to go for the simple shock cord solution, which is very simple, but has a clever modification that enables you to easily load the pulk without having to take off your gloves to tie knots.
First, drill sets of two holes near the existing holes in the pulk, then use the hacksaw to cut entry points so you can slip the cord in easily.
Drill two single holes at the front of the pulk. Feed one end of the shock cord into one of these holes and tie a knot under the rim to stop it coming out.
Then feed the rope in a criss-cross pattern around the pulk, thus:
You don't have to pull everything really tight - just enough to make sure it's not loose. When you load the pulk, you can quickly remove the sections of cord that you need to.
The SkiPulk book suggests wrapping your gear burrito-style in a tarp, which can later be used in camp. Ultralight afficionados should of course be aware that this advice does not apply to the lightweight materials used in UL tarps and shelters, which could easily rip. In
, they recommend packing gear in a duffel bag, but you could also easily use a UL backpack – and if you position it with the shoulder straps upwards, with clever packing you can also carry the pulk, attached to your backpack, on your back should you need to cross any more difficult terrrain.
Lastly, you may be wondering why I didn't make an
– of the kind that
made using a Paris Expedition? I decided to make this version this year and see how I get on with it, and adapt it into a rulk next winter.
Now... to test it for real!
I've been waiting for some decent snow to arrive in Minneapolis so I can get out and do a spot of winter camping. We had a few inches at the beginning of December, but yesterday my wishes were answered - with snowmageddon.
During 8 years in Lapland, I never experienced the kind snowfall we had yesterday in a single day. Over 17 inches (43 cm) fell - and most impressively it was 17 inches of powder rather than the big fluffy stuff which easily builds up. The streets were impassable in the kind of way I've never seen.
So with all that snow, today I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to break out the snow shoes!
I wanted snow shoes for many years, but they tend to be very expensive for something which appears to be quite simple. From a purchasing point of view, it's best to wait until spring time for the post-winter sales. Fortunately, when I live, post-winter sales take place while there is still plenty of snow on the ground, so last year I took advantage of an REI sale and picked up a pair of
I opted for the MSRs as they received many good reviews, were solidly-constructed, lightweight for their size, and had plenty of floatation. Floatation, for snow shoe newbies, is what keeps you from sinking into deep snow. The bigger and heavier you are, the more floatation you need. Different types of snow also require more floatation than others. As I'm tall, and planned to backpack in them (increasing my weight even more) I went for the long version. You can't have enough floatation in my opinion.
Unlike many cheaper snow shoes, these mean business. The outer rim is solid aluminium, with teeth cut into them for additional grip on icy sections. Sturdy, crampon-like teeth also protrude from under the pivoting footbed, and the heel-raising televator bar can be flipped up to make ascents less strenuous on your legs . I find these make a big difference on hills more than about 40 degrees.
The bindings are a little over-comlicated, but very secure, and once you've adjusted the fitting for your boots, it's fairly fast to slip in and out of them. Some people have complained that they come loose, but I've not experienced that yet.
MSRs new version of the Ascent, the Axis, have simplified bindings, and an 'axis gait' adjustment, which compensates for flat-footedness. As I waddle like a duck myself, I'd like to try them.
The Ministry of Silly Walks approved this review
Even the best floatation can't help with super-soft powder though. Yesterday's snow hasn't had a chance to settle yet, so I was struggling calf-deep through untouched snow until I found a trail which someone else had made. After that, it was much easier going.
There's not a lot more to say about the snow shoes. They are the kind of equipment that either works, or fails. These work well. There are lighter show shoes out there. MSR has a range of light plastic snow shoes which might be more suited to those using them only occasionally.
also make an interesting new model with a removable crampon/footbed.
My MSR Lightning Ascent 30s weigh 972g each - slightly less than spec weights. Not exactly lightweight, but certainly worth their weight. If you are in the market for snow shoes, you could also check out some of
, such as the lighter Lightning Flash models, which can be extended using flotation tails. My advice, unless you simply must have them now, is wait until the spring sales.
However, with snow shoes, I tend to think that the less there is to go wrong, the better. The last thing you want miles from anywhere is a broken grommet or other inconvenience. The Lightning Ascents are strong, sturdy, simple, and reliable.
They also make a good footpath for four-legged friends to follow. (Just look at that alliteration!)
I don't always look that angry.