WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY KATE PERKINS
A MINNESOTA COUPLE CREATED A NICHE PRODUCT FOR WINTER TRAVEL THAT’S USED AROUND THE GLOBE. Grant and Ashley Schnell own SkiPulk.com, a company that makes specially designed sleds pulled by rigid poles attached to a harness—“pulks.” The setup has been designed and honed to be the perfect device for winter travel into the wild, and SkiPulk.com’s sleds have been used on journeys to the tops of mountains, remote areas of wilderness, and both the north and south poles.
The Schnells run SkiPulk.com out of their home in Rice, Minnesota, north of St. Cloud, where they build all the pulks and ship them to customers around the world. The sleds, too, are molded locally in Brainerd using molds that were designed by Grant and SkiPulk.com founder Ed Bouffard. Everything, including the shape of the sleds, the tailored covers, and the pole and harness systems, has been developed over years to do the best job it possibly can in the snow.
SkiPulk.com was started by Bouffard in 1994. He and his family and friends loved to go to ski-in cabins at Tettegouche State Park. They’d bring all their gear in sleds behind them, but if the sled was pulled by rope, it could knock down the skier as he or she went downhill.
Bouffard and his friends began using PVC poles to create a rigid towing system, which prevented the sled from plowing into the skier. But, they found that PVC broke easily. They sat together in their cabin, talking about what they could use that would be rigid, yet flexible enough to prevent breaking when going downhill. Bouffard’s friend had a yak farm and mentioned that he used fiberglass poles for fence posts. Trying them out, they found the fiberglass poles worked perfectly. They were flexible enough to not break when heading down hills, but also rigid enough to keep the sled from hitting the skier.
Grant and Ashley took over the business from Bouffard several years later. Grant had been working for Bouffard for several years as a side job, and both the Schnells and Bouffard share a passion for year-round outdoor recreation.
Since the original design, the company’s pulk innovation has continued. Grant’s most recent product development for pulks is a fat bike hitch, which allows bikers to attach a pulk to the seat stem of their bicycles. In recent winters the product allowed Grant himself to take a several-day winter pulk trip through the woods. Grant and his buddies put all their gear in their sleds, including tents and wood stoves, and took to the woods.
While the SkiPulk.com version of a pulk is relatively new, pulks themselves have been around for a long time. Bouffard explained that the word “pulk” comes from a Scandinavian word, “pulkka,” which was a type of sled used in that region.
Winter camping inherently requires more gear than summer camping, and pulks allow winter campers to transfer that weight to the ground, rather than carrying it on their backs. That means that snowshoers and skiers don’t punch down as far into the snowpack and can travel more easily. SkiPulk.com’s sleds can be pulled while on foot, snowshoes, skis, behind bikes and even behind kite skiers, who are pulled by large kites in the wind.
Bouffard said that SkiPulk.com’s sleds are designed to travel well in the snow, in icy conditions or sideways across hills. Some models have optional retractable fins, which can be deployed with ski poles to help the sled track.
Those aspects make the sleds great not only for winter camping, but for pulling children or walking out on the lake for a day of fishing.