Snow in Science, Culture, and Climate

Travel by sled

If you live in a place where it snows enough, you have probably had the experience of sledding downhill, maybe in a plastic sled, an innertube from a giant tire, or even a wooden toboggan. Like snowshoeing and skiing, however, sleds were originally a practical tool for transporting things and people from place to place over snow.

Man in parka standing on small wooden sled hitched to one reindeer.
Reindeer were used to pull sleds in some parts of the North, including Cape Prince-of-Wales, Alaska, shown here in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Photo courtesy of Alaska State Library, W. W. Sale collection ASL-P384-117

For at least two thousand years, people who lived in snowy northern climates have been making and using sleds to carry out daily activities such as hunting, trapping, hauling firewood, and transporting people. Sometimes sleds were pushed and pulled by people, but eventually northern peoples used sleds pulled by teams of reindeer or dogs, who were hitched in front of the sled while a sled driver stood behind the sled or snowshoed in front of or behind it. Although horse-drawn sleds or sleighs were widely used well into the 20th century, dogs were common in much of Alaska.

In the late 1800s, dog sleds became an important mode of travel for gold miners, and they were used to deliver mail to remote locations. During the 1925 diptheria outbreak in Nome, Alaska, life-saving anti-toxin was rushed from Anchorage to Nome by dog sled. During the 20th century, airplanes and snowmobiles largely replaced dog sleds for practical purposes. Today, most people who use dog sleds do so for fun or competition. Traveling by dog sled is referred to as “mushing,” and the people who drive dog sleds are called “mushers.” These terms come from the French word “marche,” which means “walk.”

Ben Downing with 8 sled dogs and a sled full of mail on the frozen Yukon River
Shown here with his dog team in 1901, U.S. mail carrier Ben Downing covered 1200 miles during each round trip on the frozen Yukon River between Dawson, Yukon Territory (Canada) and the mouth of the Tanana River in Alaska. Photo courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections AWC8560.
Dog musher wearing a race big leaves the starting chute of the Yukon Quest dog sled race.
The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race spans 1,000 miles between Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada and Fairbanks, Alaska every February. Photo by Magnol on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)

Sleds remain important for transporting equipment, animals (when hunting and trapping), and other supplies in roadless areas of Alaska. Today, sleds are usually towed behind snowmobiles, which have largely replaced reindeer and dogs.