Snow in Science, Culture, and Climate


Athabascan family dressed in furs standing near a sled containing furs, snowshoes, and a child
Annie and Jimmy Koyukuk’s family poses by a very large, basket-style sled loaded with cargo including furs, snowshoes, and a passenger, circa 1920-1950. Photo courtesy of Alaska State Library Historical Collections, Amelia Hill Photograph Collection ASL-P247-256

Pulling a heavy sled is much easier than carrying the same amount of weight. Travel on snow, therefore, can actually make life easier rather than harder. In Alaska, sleds were historically pulled by dog teams or reindeer (domesticated caribou), and later non-Native people used horses. Animals were not always available to pull sleds, however, and sometimes people on snowshoes pulled and pushed them instead. In communities in rural Alaska today, sleds are usually pulled by snowmobiles, but some people still use dog-powered sleds for travel and recreation.

Traditional sleds were made of wood or animal hide, and the bottom surface of the runners (the ski-like parts on which the sled slides) might be made of animal bone or antler to make them more durable and reduce friction. The width and materials from which sled runners were made varied from place to place, with narrower, sharper runners working well in icy conditions, and wider runners working better to distribute the weight in soft snow. Toboggan-style sleds slide directly on the ground rather than on runners, allowing them to carry a heavier load and “float” more easily in deep snow.

Models of a sampling of traditional sled types made by Alaska Native artisans are pictured below. Click on the photographs to link to detailed museum records for each item.

Model of long wooden sled curved up in the front and without runners (not raised above the snow surface)

xutl tl’otr’edr (“dragging sled, toboggan”) – Toboggan style sleds such as this Deg Xinag Dene (Athabascan) model from the lower Yukon River area are good for carrying large and heavy loads, because they slide directly on the surface of the snow and weight is spread out over a large surface area.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian 106932

Wooden sled without rails on runners that curve up at both ends

khwtl (“sled”) – This type of sled is similar on both ends, so it can be pulled or pushed by humans in the absence of dogs or other animals. This is an older style of sled that Tanana and some other Dene (Athabascan) peoples used for transporting meat (harvested animals) and cargo. This is an example of a sled that is elevated above the surface of the snow, sliding on ski-like runners.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History 49111

model of wooden toboggan with animal skin around the sides and a handlebar in back

chąąvał (“toboggan, old-style toboggan made with animal skin”) – Some of the earliest and most simple sleds were made of animal hides pulled by a dog team or pushed and pulled by people when dogs were not available. Sleds that slide directly on the snow are categorized as toboggans. This example of an old fashioned style animal skin and wood toboggan is from the Gwich’in Dene (Athabascan) upper Yukon River region.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian 161627

Model of a wooden sled with runners

situġautit (“sled”) – This model from the Norton Sound area of Alaska is based on a traditional Iñupiaq railed wooden sled, which could be up to 10 feet long and carry up to 800 pounds! Because of their large size, these sleds worked well in open areas such as frozen rivers and tundra. Note the railings that could help contain a large load of cargo and/or passengers.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History E260531

Person on a basket-style sled pulled by dogs over snow with hill in background, black and white photo

Basket sled – Basket sleds, which have been made by Alaska Natives for generations, come in a variety of sizes, and they remain popular for dog mushing today. The bed of the sled is a platform elevated above the ground on ski-like runners that extend behind the sled. The sled driver stands on the runners while holding a handlebar. Modern sleds are usually made at least partially from synthetic, commercially available materials but are otherwise similar to traditional basket sleds.

Photo by Antonin Pons Braley on Wikimedia Commons (Open Content License)

Learn more about the history of travel by sled here.