Rescue Sled Fundamentals: Part Two – Rescue Sled Assembly

Rescue Sled Fundamentals: Part Two – Rescue Sled Assembly

by Shaun Nauman

<< PART 1   |   PART 2 

This is part two in the series of Rescue Sled fundamentals. In part one we covered easy modifications that can done to your gear to accommodate a rescue sled. In part two we will cover how to assemble a rescue sled using these easy modifications.

In a recent Companion Rescue Course, there were several scenarios and questions, a few of which I will echo here.

Q: Why not just place the victim on the snowboard and tow them out? 

A: You can try this experiment for yourself; using a snowboard as a sled will not work to transport a person. Sleds that we use for hut travel which are fluted on the bottom reduce lateral sliding and skidding. A snowboard has a flat base. You will find that when you add a pack or person to it will go sideways, often ending up on it’s side because it had no parallel guiding. By transforming the splitboard to tour mode (ski mode), you have created two rails that will prevent sideways sliding.

Q: Should you administer any type of pain killer, muscle relaxant, or medication to make transport less painful for them?

A: The official answer according to NOLS is no medications. Again, if you have medical training and you are confident in your diagnosis it is a subjective call.

For more scenario questions and answers please refer to the bottom of this article.

Place spare gloves, or skins on shovel for padding
Assembled rescue sled using a splitboard

I need to begin by saying that this article provides a guideline for making a rescue sled. There is no absolute right or wrong way to make one. Different setups, equipment, physical abilities of those involved, and the situation at large will dictate how a person or party would go about this. If even one person in your travel group has the materials and / or modifications to make a sled, the party as a whole is in a better situation should the need arise.

I go in to this as a premise that I wear AT boots with a Dynafit toe-piece. I am a proficient skier and snowboarder. With the exception of Fritschi bindings, I can tour on virtually any backcountry setup in existence using the victim’s equipment. Therefore, if the victim’s equipment is not suitable for making a rescue sled, I will put them on my equipment, and use theirs to tour out. This same scenario will probably apply to most backcountry users that have an AT boot. After all, you are only using their equipment in a tour mode likely with skins on. Generally speaking, you should try to use the victim’s equipment for the sled when possible.

If you are in terrain where it is not feasible to tow the victim out the entire distance, you should at least get them to cover in a safe area. If you have to leave them to get help; leave them with however much water, food, layers, warmers, etc you can spare — without jeopardizing your own safety. You should also leave their avalanche beacon on, attached to their body if possible, in the ‘send’ position. If you carry GMRS radios, also leave them with a radio set to Channel 1 – this is a typical monitoring channel and you can notify SAR the victim has a GMRS tuned to Channel 1.

If the victim is coherent, remind them of the effects of “paradoxical undressing” and the symptoms they will feel at ‘stage two hypothermia’. Remind them not to remove layers even if they feel like they are warm or burning up.

Keep in mind that if you have moved them to a covered or sheltered area, mark the location with something visible; a piece of clothing, flag, bright colors or whatever you can find. A typical universal signal of crossed trekking poles is also a good marker. You have to remember that you may not be returning to the victim before SAR, or another party does — you want to make sure the location is visibly marked for others to locate them. This is especially true if the sheltered location is not visible or recent snow is coming down, or is forecast to.

There is no way to predict or prevent everything that can go wrong in the backcountry. You can mitigate some things with minimal preparation. Modifying your equipment to make a backcountry sled is just common sense. It’s a resource that none of us want to think about using, like avalanche gear – yet we carry it – always.

Below is a photo summary of a splitboard that has had minor modifications to accommodate a rescue sled. These modifications are easily done and covered in part one.

Other Q&A’s

Q: If a person is badly injured isn’t it standard to leave them ‘in situ’ to avoid further injuries?

A: This depends on variables.  If you are trained as a Wilderness First Responder or have medical training and feel confident in your diagnosis you can follow those guidelines. If you are in an avalanche danger area, have been involved in an avalanche and the victim is at risk to a secondary slide, or in a high exposure area – you will want to move them to shelter. Leaving a victim at risk to the elements until Search and Rescue  arrives can deteriorate their situation worse.

Q: How feasible is it for person that weighs 125lbs to sled carry someone that weighs, say, 200lbs?

A: Very possible, and usually easily done. This will depend on the person doing the rescue and terrain variables; but generally speaking a victim weighing even double of the rescuer can be accomplished – especially for a short distance to move them to shelter.

Q: Should you use your own equipment or the victim’s?

A: You would typically use the victim’s equipment. However, if their equipment isn’t adaptable for a sled, or their equipment is too short, you can compromise. 

Q: What if the victim did not modify their equipment to accommodate a rescue sled, then what?

A: A rescue sled can put together without holes drilled, and even without cordelette or ski straps. You can use backpack straps, webbing, and even parts of the skins to make a sled in a desperate situation. The modifications are simply to expedite and produce forethought if the situation should arise.

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