Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hitchin' 'em Up

Canadian Inuit (Eskimo) musher running a fan hitch

Dave asks such interesting questions!  The other day he asked "Have you run your team single file much? What are the pros and cons of single file, side by side, we don't have to go into the fan hitch style!"

Being a living historian I feel compelled to first explain a bit of the history of different types of sled dog hitches.

Although we don't 'have' to go into the fan hitch, I feel compelled to do so anyway.  The fan hitch is probably the oldest method of tying dogs to a sled simply because it was invented by the the people who were probably the first humans to routinely use sled dogs for transportation.  In the fan hitch, each individual dog on the team has it's own tug-line, which is tied directly to the vehicle.  Usually the lead dog was hooked up to the longest line, and the others were hooked up to shorter lines so that when running over a smooth surface they tended to fan out.

The advantage of a fan hitch is that each individual dog can pick his or her own path.  When running over sea ice that is impacted by large tidal fluctuations, pressure ridges and other irregularities in the ice can make for rough footing.  Dogs that are not overly restrained by a more restrictive rig are less likely to become injured.  A fan hitch is only efficient when all the dogs are running in more or less the same direction, preferably the same direction as the sled.  The more angle between a dog and sled, the less efficient the hitch will be.

Running a team in single file is probably the most efficient of the sled dog hitches.  Since each dog is pulling in the same direction, directly in front of the sled, they can apply maximum thrust to the vehicle.  The single file rig was well suited to travel in the boreal forests, where trails were very narrow in order to pass through thick growths of timber.

The single-file method was probably introduced by early French fur-traders, as the best available evidence suggests that Native American and First Nations people in boreal regions did not routinely use dogs to pull sleds until after the introduction of the fur-trade.  By the middle of the 19th century teams of two to six dogs were routinely drawing surprisingly heavy loads throughout the boreal regions of North America.

19th Century Musher Running Team in a Single File Hitch

A single file hitch allows the musher to take advantage of the full strength of his or her dogs, making it possible to use a smaller team than would be necessary using other hitches.  It also allows the team to travel over a very narrow trail, no wider than the path left by a person hiking on snow shoes.  The primary disadvantage to a single file hitch is that it is only useful with relatively small teams.  If more than six dogs are hooked up in single file, the 'string' of dogs becomes longer than is easily managed.  This was especially true back in the days when mushers relied more on the whip than on training to control their teams.

I have run dogs single file, with very good results.  The season of 2006 - 07 I had only 4 dogs, yet was able to travel pretty much anywhere I wished when running that small time in single file.

Stardancer Team in Single File

The Alaskan Hitch, also called the Nome Hitch, is the most common modern method used by mushers today.  In the Alaskan hitch, dogs are hooked in pairs to a single gang line (main line).  It apparently was introduced in Alaska by Russian fur traders in the early 19th century, but the image below shows that a version of the Alaskan hitch was being used in Siberia in the 18th century, and probably earlier.

18th Century Image of a sled dog team in Siberia

The primary advantage of the Alaskan hitch is that one can run twice as many dogs in the same space as a single file rig, yet the width of the team is still narrow enough to fit within a reasonable back country trail.  The disadvantage is that the dogs are pulling at an angle to the gang line, so individual dogs can't exert as much pulling force on the sled as they could if pulling straight ahead.  


  1. Thanks Swanny that was a beautifully illustrated and written answer to my question!!! I was thinking of buying some of the "Yukon" harnesses on the Nordkyn outfitters website. It looks like you could use then both ways, single file and Alaskan style, side by side. Do you have less tangles with single file? You only go as fast as the slowest dog? How do you control their speed or pace? You should post that on the Old School Dogs site! Thanks for taking the time to post that explanation. Remember how Max took off in another direction in the fan hitch in Eight Below and Bruce Greenwood and the sled slipped into the ice crevase(sp)!

  2. I do see fewer tangles with a single file rig. Anytime you get rid of neck lines, there is less "stuff" for a dog to hook a leg over and tangle in. With running single file between a pair of traces, the tension on the traces leaves the dog feeling more constrained, so s/he is less likely to try to spin around, which can also cause some pretty ugly tangles.

    As with any other rig, you can only go as fast as your slowest dog. You can use your brake, a drag mat and your voice to control the speed. With training and experience the team will soon learn to run at the pace you prefer (for the most part). Of course an excited team just launching on a run will take a couple of miles (more or less) to settle down.

  3. Thanks for answering my questions! Have you seen the Aliy Cam video of the Red Team desending the Happy River Steps? Aliy's trail camera work filled in for what the Iditarod Insider did not cover this year in my opinion.

  4. I'm stuck with the world's slowest dial up connection while I'm here at work, so I won't be able to check out the "Aliy Cam" vids until I return home. Once I'm back in the world of reasonably fast Internet I plan to watch the whole series.

  5. Swanny, I have seen your post in many historic sites! I am looking for patterns for historic dog harness and packs. also, i am looking for details of the Fine (show off) French Canadian dog harness.

    Can you help?

    Merci! EdouardMcGrath@gmail.com

  6. Swanny, I have seen your post in many historic sites! I am looking for patterns for historic dog harness and packs. also, i am looking for details of the Fine (show off) French Canadian dog harness.

    Can you help?

    Merci! EdouardMcGrath@gmail.com