Sleds used in the Iditarod come in many designs, shapes, and sizes and are made from various natural and synthetic materials. Traditionally, and for the first Iditarod in 1973, sleds were made entirely of wood, typically birch. A few of today’s indigenous mushers still make their own sleds the way their ancestors have for centuries. However, most mushers today purchase commercial dog sleds. Such sleds have become pretty hi-tech over the years, utilizing toboggan-style designs, stanchions reinforced with carbon fiber or fiberglass, and even pull-down seats or collapsing handle bars. They can cost thousands of dollars. However, the basic parts of a professional dog sled remain pretty much the same. Above is a diagram showing the different parts of a sled. Here are some brief descriptions of the parts:
Brush Bow: An arched piece of heavy plastic or wood at the front of the sled that acts as a bumper. In a collision with a tree, snow bank, or other sled, the brush bow receives the shock of the impact and keeps the rest of the sled from being damaged.
Stanchions: Vertical pieces of wood between the runners and top rails, forming the framework upon which the rest of the sled is built.
Top Rail: Curved pieces of wood along the top of the sled that hold the stanchions in place and form the top of the cargo basket.
Cargo Basket: As the name suggests, this is where a musher stores his or her supplies while on the trail. A heavy-duty nylon sled bag fits over the basket to protect supplies. The basket is large enough for a musher to sleep in, using the sled bag as a tent to protect from bad weather. Also, if a dog gets sick or injured on the trail, a musher can carry the dog in the basket to the next checkpoint. You’ll often hear the expression “dog in basket” or “dog in bag.”
Runners: Two long strips at the bottom of the sled that slide along the snow, ice, or dirt (yes, dirt!). The runners extend beyond the back of the sled for the musher to stand on. Runners are made of wood or metal and topped by strips of plastic to protect them and help them slide more easily over the snow. The strips of plastic can be removed and replaced when they become worn or damaged.
Foot Boards: Strips of rubber or plastic that fit on the back of the runners for mushers to stand on. They give the musher traction so he or she won’t slip off.
Handle Bar: Arched piece of wood or metal at the back of the sled extending from the runners and forming the highest point of the sled. Used by the musher to hold onto the sled and steer. Tired mushers on the trail have been known to tie themselves to the handle bar so they won’t slide off the sled if they fall asleep.
Claw Brake: A spring-action steel claw that attaches to the rear of the sled brace running from front to back. It is positioned between the musher’s feet. When the musher steps on the brake, the claw digs into the snow, causing the sled to slow down (but not come to a full stop).
Snow Hook (not shown): A large steel or aluminum hook that attaches to the sled with a rope or other line and is used to anchor the sled when stopped. It looks something like a big two-pronged fish hook. Snow hooks are designed to dig into the snow when pulled to keep the dogs from running away with the sled. A horizontal piece between the two prongs allows the musher to dig the hook into the snow with a heel or pull it out with a hand. Snow hooks can also be anchored to a tree to keep the dog team and sled in place. Some mushers have snow hook holders attached to their sleds to keep the hook in place when not in use.
Next up: Who are these crazy mushers who dare to tackle the Iditarod, anyway?