At Swarm we love rising to the challenge of learning a new industry and finding new ways to solve old problems. The Ultimate Iditarod Sled was the perfect chance to do just that. Dog sledding dates back to around 1,000 AD and the design of the dog sled has evolved very little along the way. While today’s sled are made from lighter modern materials, they are all based on literally ancient frame design.
A client approached us with his dream of racing in the Iditarod and commissioned Swarm to help achieve this dream by building a better sled. We had our chance to rethink the whole sled design and race process. Knowing nothing about dog mushing ourselves, we dove into the research and interviewed experienced mushers to develop a solution where every aspect of the race was considered and brought into the design of the sled.
A key component in dog sled racing is fueling the dog team to run more than 100 miles per day over a period of weeks, which requires approximately 10,000 calories per day over the course of two weeks. Feeding the dogs is a time consuming endeavor as the musher uses frozen meat and methanol to heat water and thaw out the food. On average, in cold weather race conditions it could take an hour to boil 3 gallons of water. Swarm developed a new cooking system for the sled that optimizes the fuel burning and contains the heat to boil water in a lightning fast 7 minutes from ice. This gains the musher an extra 50 minutes of precious rest time between runs.
Rest & recovery is an endurance athlete’s key to peak performance. For a long distance dog sled race, sleeping on the ground at a race checkpoint can be cold and noisy. After the chores of feeding and taking care of the dogs, putting them down for a rest and preparing for the next run, mushers will often only have little time to sleep in the frigid -40 degree weather. Swarm developed a carbon fiber sleeping compartment on the sled that is insulated, lightweight, comfortable, and sets up in literally seconds, allowing the musher to sleep anywhere along the course, out of the wind, out of the noise and as cozy as one can be in a dog sled race.
Gear storage was also carefully considered down to the last balaklava and dog bootie. Current sleds have woefully inefficient storage methods. Imagine a giant duffle bag that holds everything a musher might need. It starts out organized, but after a few stops, it quickly morphs to a mess requiring constant digging to find necessary items.
To combat this, Swarm developed a hardshell gear compartment at the base of the sled under the sleeping compartment. Well planned dividers were designed into the carbon fiber shell to give everything a place. In addition, the gear was spread out wide and shallow to make everything easily accessible and keep the load low, giving the sled even more stability. A hardshell keeps everything dry and safely in its place. This ease of access for a musher’s gear further decreases the time to accomplish tasks at stops and speeds up their overall pace.
Sleds sit on fixed, straight runners, attached to a noodly frame. They are steered primarily by the musher’s commands to the dogs and the musher dragging the sled side to side. Because dogs have a mind of their own and the loose flexible frame, the sled tilts and can flip onto its side when making tight turns. This “steering” is dangerous and fatigues the musher who is constantly fighting both dogs and sled.
To solve this, Swarm designed and built a sled with two rigid carbon fiber side members or frames connected by pivots giving over 30˚ of side to side articulation. To provide even more steerability, Swarm added ridged sled runners with side cut, like an alpine ski. When the musher pushes the handlebar to the left or right engaging the side cut and steering the direction the musher wants to go. After testing (and breaking) many existing runners, Swarm created and built a wider runner with integrated bases that was more durable, more stable, and provided better float. We created a ski with sidecut and permanent bases built to last the entire race. The Ultimate Iditarod Sled went over 500 miles in two Iditarod qualifying races.
The final result was a sled that was as comfortable as a Cadillac but cornered like a roadster, holds all your gear and make stops easier and faster than any sled in history. The team at Swarm had a blast designing, engineering, and fabricating every single prototype as well as the final sled in house.