The upper hull is kept up, for camping, by length-adjustable poles in the rear corners; these sit in sockets fitted to the plywood floor. The sledhut has one door, a zippered portal on the end of the sled opposite the hinged end. (Click to enlarge).
Sledhut with picket bow anchor and improvided rooftop cargo straps (click).
Pulling the sledhut on easy terrain. (Click)

Repairing suspension system. (Click)
Sitting on the sledhut for a rest. (Click)
Sledhut door opened for camping on a nice, windless night. (Click)
"This is looking into the interior, where I'm loading storage compartments under the 'floor'" (click to enlarge). All images courtesy of Cameron McPherson Smith, Iceland expeditions photo gallery.

The Sarcophagus on Skis: A Polar Sledge for Solo Travelers

Posted: Nov 16, 2007 06:53 am EST
( Remember Cameron? "Just a note; I see that Julio Fiadi will be using a 'live-in sledge' in Antarctica. This immediately caught my attention as I used a similar sled in my expeditions to Iceland's Vatnajokull ice cap in 2001-2004."

Well, Julio is nowhere to be found at the moment but meanwhile - Cameron McPherson Smith has compiled a story about such sleds for us. Here goes!

The Sarcophagus on Skis: A Polar Sledge for Solo Travelers
© 2007 by Cameron McPherson Smith

My first attempt to cross Icelands Vatnajokull ice cap, alone, in Winter, lasted about 72 hours. On new Years Day, 2001, my tiny camp at the base of the Vatnajokull was being ravaged by masses of supercooled air avalanching off the ice cap at hurricane speeds. It felt like being overrun by a Panzer division, and as my tiny Garuda tent whipped and roared, I thought, There has got to be a better way.'

Back at base I talked over Vatnajokulls manic winds with my Icelandic friend, Halldor Kvaran of Reykjavik. The wind just blows away everything, he chuckled, Why do you think nobodys ever tried to cross the ice cap alone in winter? Its not the cold, its the wind. What you need is a portable cabin. Several drawings later, Halldor started construction in his basement, and when I returned in 2003 the sled-hut was ready. I buckled into the harness of a big, strange, fiberglass sled that looked like a sarcophagus. I was the guinea pig. Id find out if it worked, or was indeed just a coffin on skis.

It wasnt. In the 2003 and 2004 expeditions, I found the live-in-sledge to be a great shelter; lightweight, easy to set up and take down, and impervious even to the hurricane gusts (over 70mph / 30 meters/second) that swept the ice cap. Although I had plenty of problems (thankfully, otherwise I wouldnt have anything to say in my book!), wind wasnt one of them. Wind couldnt destroy the fiberglass hell, and setting up or taking down the sled-hut only took a few minutes. Life inside the sled-hut was warm and relatively comfortable once I sorted out some major problems.

The following are some notes on the performance of the sled-hut, as well as some general notes for future sled-hut designs.


The sled-hut is composed of three main components: a bathtub-like lower hull is connected, at one end, by hinges to an identical bathtub-like upper hull, though the upper is tipped over, open end down. Hinged at one of the narrow ends of the tubs, the upper tub raises above the lower. The lower tub is decked over with a floor at the tub rim level.

The plywood floor has six hatches opening to six separate storage compartments under the floor; this allows for convenient and organized stowage of supplies, e.g. stove fuel leaks can be confined to the fuel compartment. The hatches lie flush with the floor surface so the occupant can sleep comfortably. Connecting the upper- and lower-bathtub hulls are three walls of heavy ripstop tent fabric; these simply fold into the sledhut when the upper hull is lowered for pulling.

The upper hull is kept up, for camping, by length-adjustable poles in the rear corners; these sit in sockets fitted to the plywood floor. The sledhut has one door, a zippered portal on the end of the sled opposite the hinged end. Photos and the sketch should make all of this clear.


Many sled-hauling expeditions run into problems not while dragging the sled per se, but while setting up and striking camp. This is when hands get coldest, as we fiddle with delicate, too-difficult pieces of gear, when tents or tent parts fly away with the wind (always keep the tent tied to your sled with a line!) and camping gear can be lost, dropped accidentally in deep snow and left behind. Cold and exhausted at the end of a march, its also tempting to throw up the tent in any way that works, perhaps with inadequate storm anchorsespecially if the weather looks goodand crash inside to get the stove going. Only the most disciplined among us hasnt skipped a safety step here and there when were really sufferingand Im not the most disciplined among us.

For all these reasons, the main advantage of the sledhut was that it was fast and easy to set up and take down, and even expeditions using tents try to reduce setup and strike time to the absolute minimum. Once I had a system down, it took about two minutes from unbuckling my harness to climbing inside, out of the wind (see video link below) - a far cry from the hour or so it might take me with a tent in high wind, winter darkness and brutal cold, dragging a tent from the sled, fiddling with poles, making the inevitable adjustments, and so on. The sledhut also contained nearly everything (though on some marches I wore a last-ditch backpack containing several days of supplies), so that losing gear was eliminated.

Another advantage was that the sledhut was secure against wind. I typically anchored the nose (the wedge-end, pointed into the prevailing wind) with an ice screw or picket, and the rear corners with either my skis (something I never really liked doing) or, better yet, pickets. In my 2004 expedition I spent over 70% of my time waiting out high winds, which often reached 70mph (30m / second). In these conditions, where I couldnt even stand outside, the sledhuts chiseled bow deflected the wind, and though the fabric walls shook, they didnt come apart. I simply hunkered down like a solo sailor waiting out a blow.

Also, because the sledhut was up off the snow, mounted on skis, drifting snow didnt pile up around the shelter; it simply blew under it and away. This prevented the typical need, in long, heavy-drift storms, to constantly go outside to dig out the shelter. While the sledhut and I were nearly buried alive once, this was because we were on the lee side of a large slope, and the snow was bombing down vertically, like a slow-motion avalanche. But this was the exception, and in normal storm conditions I never had to dig out.

The sledhut was also very warm. Since the floor was a platform at least a foot above the snow (or ice), there was no contact with the heat-sucking surface of the ice cap. For comfort, Halldor had padded the floor with a ½-inch (20mm) foam pad, and I never needed my insulation pad. The roof was also lined with this foam, making a great insulator. While Winter temperatures on the ice cap rarely dropped below -10F (-23C), and therefore it isnt as cold as many polar destinations, Im sure that even in the -40F (-40C) environment I explored on foot last winter (Alaskas north shore) the sled-hut would have been much warmer than any tent.

The sledhut was also essentially impossible to burn in the spectacular, instant WHUMP that has engulfed several explorers tents. Even the experienced Mike Horn burnt down a tent in the Arctic recently, when a leaking pressurized fuel bottle spewed fire like a miniature flamethrower inside his shelter. The sledhut floor and roof were solid fiberglass and/or plywood, covered with insulating foam, not the flammable tent fabric I was used to, and even the walls and door were a heavy flame-resistant fabric. I never really worried about anything less than a full-on fuel spill.

Finally, the sledhut, small as it was, was clutter-free and highly organized. With food, stove fuel, and all my gear stowed neatly in my six under-floor compartments, I always knew where everything was. You do the same in a tent, with marked bags and so on, but still, in the sledhut I didnt have to think about or look at a piece of gear unless I was actually using it; otherwise it was tucked out of sight, which, to me, is a real relief; a cluttered tent annoys me, which makes me less effective.


Like any prototype, the sledhut had its problems. First, because it was so warm, I had major condensation problems. I cooked inside (a vestibule would be useful, but was a little problematic), and the tight quarters and very warm interior resulted in dripping walls and water fairly streaming down the ceiling; it was raining inside my shelter! The sledhut had some vents, but for various reasons they werent too effective, and Id rework them if I were to use the sledhut again. Id also make them a little larger, to prevent poisoning the atmosphere with carbon monoxide during cooking."

"Since quarters were so tightthe sledhut was just wider than my shouldersit seemed that every time I turned, my shoulder or elbow or knee would bump the interior and absorb another little dollop of cold water.

Another problem was that the small space could be confining and frustrating to work in, but to tell you the truth, I got used to it. A person can get used to just about anything, and since this was my only shelter from the screaming winds and slurpee-like, blasting slush, I was happy inside, even if a little cramped.

For a soloist the sledhut was great, but in a team, each person would have to camp alone unless some way of joining the walls was possible; Halldor and I considered this possibility, of making camps with several sledhuts docked together, but since we had only one prototype for my crossing, we werent able to try this. When I imagine doing this, several problems immediately come to mind, and I think a sledhut is best-suited to solo expeditions.

The sledhut is also ideal for snow or glacier ice, but would be too bulky and vulnerable in rough sea ice conditions; though I love the concept, so far Ive reverted to hauling a sled, and using a tent, for my recent foray into sea ice. Some time ago I saw that Jim McNiell had posted a schematic for a live-in-sledge for his expeditions on sea ice, but I dont know if it was ever built. For the soloist in wide open, flattish spaces, thoughlike parts of Antarctica, vast stretches of interior Canada or Siberia, and smooth fast ice locked to shore (though this may become a rare terrain!) in both polar regionsthe sledhut concept is worth considering.

Notes For Future Sledhuts

I never weighed the sledhut. In fact, I havent seriously weighed my gear since 2002. Thats because I know what I do and dont need, take the bare miniumum to remain safe, and I figure, This is the weight of the sled, and I have to pull it. Of course, Im not trying to make record-breaking treks, and my concern isnt with every ounce.

Still, the sledhut was remarkably light, but could be lighter with lighter materials, such as Kevlar hulls. A few more windows would be welcome (the sledhut has two, one on either flank; these are flexible, transparent plastic sewn into the fabric walls), but not mandatory. I often wished for a hatch in the underside, so that I could scoop in snow to melt for cooking without opening the main hatch; a large, insulated water tank would be good, but I can think of a few reasons why it might cause more problems than it solves.

Since I wasnt about to suit up to go out into the slush to answer the call of nature, I became good at balancing myself over a plastic bag in a horrific squatting position inside the sledhut (sorry to mention it, but everyone asks!)and although everything ended up where it was meant to be, this operation was frankly weird and fraught with danger. Please, somebody, solve this awful problem. Finally, though Im used to using a headlamp, sometimes I hung a light inside for general illuminationa fixed candle lantern might be ideal, though a little heavy.

Other little modifications could be made, but in truth the sledhut worked as-is. People have made-do with less, and survived. Ive seen photos of 1930s Icelandic sleds, up off the ice on skis like the sledhut, with small, single-person tents mounted on their cargo beds. Once you start thinking about designs, imagination can take you a long way. Ive found that building my own expedition gear is extremely satisfying; it keeps me directly involved with the expedition in the long year between Winters, and the constant problem-solving process of going from sketches to functional gear is a lot of fun. It normally involves a lot of deep, serious thought and can result in sketches of some of the craziest and most impractical equipment youll ever see.

When I went back to Iceland in November 2004, to shoot some b-roll footage for the documentary film on my expeditions, I crawled into the sledhut for the first time in nine months. At first I thought, How the heck did I live in this contraption? I couldnt move or breathe or turn around; it was a crazy coffin after all. But soon I remembered how to do it, fell back into my routine and realized that yes, for me, in Iceland, this was the Better Way.

Thanks to Halldor Kvaran for building the sledhut and letting me use it! Hes in Reykjavik, Iceland, is former president of the Icelandic Alpine Club with many Vatnajokull expeditions under his belt, and currently owns the sledhut.

Cameron McPherson Smith's archaeological, mountaineering, sailing, and icecap expeditions have taken him to Ecuador, Colombia, Africa, Canada, Alaska, and Iceland. In 1998 he built a 60-foot, 20-ton replica of a Native Ecuadorean sailing raft and sailed it from Ecuador to Panama with the international Manteno Expedition ( and 'Voyage of the Manteno', televised on National Geographic Television).

From 2000-2004, he explored Iceland's Vatnajokull ice cap, alone, on foot, in Winter, televised as The Deadly Glacier on National Geographic Television. Dr. Smith, an archaeologist at Portland State University, is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Fellow of the Explorers Club, a member of the Authors Guild, and a member of the Society for Human Performance in Extreme Environments.

His non-technical writing has appeared in Scientific American MIND, Archaeology, Skeptical Inquirer, South American Explorer, The Next Step, Spaceflight, Playboy, and other magazines, and in the anthology They Lived to Tell the Tale; True Stories of Modern Adventure from the Legendary Explorers Club (Lyons Press 2007).

He is currently writing a book on Iceland expeditions, and engaged in a three-winter expedition to the sea ice of North Alaska: trekking the terrain in February 2007, paragliding over it in December 2008, and diving under it in March 2009 (

He is also beginning an underwater archaeological survey of the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge in Washington state, to complement his excavations on land there since 1992. His blog covers his outdoor experiences.