COLD REGIONS TEST CENTER, Alaska-- Deployed Soldiers are constantly loaded down with gear, but nowhere more so than when operating in a cold weather environment.
In addition to their conventional weapons, Soldiers need to utilize heavy equipment such as space heaters, cooking stoves, fuel, and heavy duty thermal tents in order to survive in brutal cold.
To effectively conduct dismounted operations in the these environments, a sled is the only practical means of transporting all of this equipment, and it needs to be rugged enough to carry not only the aforementioned items, but even a wounded Soldier across many miles of the world's most dangerous and unforgiving terrain.
Enter the Ahkio sled, a venerable piece of Army cold weather gear which was recently subjected to two weeks of punishing use by testers at U.S. Army Cold Regions Test Center (CRTC) with participation from Soldiers stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
"It is a system you use to move big loads across snow and arctic terrains in all seasons," said Isaac Howell, test officer. "The scope of the test was to accumulate 45 miles on each sled, dragging it in the full spectrum of terrain encountered in the cold weather environment. Regardless of where you are in cold regions you will always encounter snowless terrain, so we really needed to see how the sled held up: One day we dragged it over seven miles of rocks."
Over the course of the evaluation, testers were interested not only in the Ahkio's durability across punishing terrain, but in how easily it could be packed in extreme cold and how much weight it could support. The days were long and exhausting, but testers tried to make them as fun as possible. For example, one day Soldiers and testers trekked to two stunning glaciers in the area around CRTC's ranges.
"That was in part a motivational thing for the Soldiers," said Howell. "We needed deep snow, and that's where the deep snow was. Seeing something cool was the carrot at the end of the stick: the glaciers themselves were not a component of the test."
In a typical squad of Soldiers utilizing the Ahkio, three to five pull the sled while others walk ahead in snow shoes to break a trail. On this day, four feet of virgin snow stood between the Soldiers and test team and their objective, seven miles away.
"That day was pretty daunting. The test team functioned as trailbreakers because we didn't have a full group of 10 Soldiers."
Howell walked in the center, while two men behind him would put one of their steps within one of his footprints, ensuring the thinner trail the sled would be traversing would be the most densely packed.
A former infantry officer, Howell is cognizant of the Ahkio's vital importance to cold regions Soldiers in all seasons of the year.
"It has applicability to the non-cold seasons," he said, "It all depends on the terrain."
One type of cold climate terrain is particularly disliked by hikers -- muskeg, Arctic bogs that from a distance look like short, grassy plains, but are in reality stagnant pools of waterlogged, spongy vegetation in various states of decomposition. Muskeg is also interspersed with stunted trees and concealed ponds of acidic water that can trap unwary animals.
"I have walked in many different terrain types on this planet, and nothing has been harder than walking in muskeg," said Howell. "You have these tussocks that rise two feet above the ground and it's nearly impossible to traverse with a load on your back."
All told, the Soldiers and test team dragged the sled 52 miles on foot in ten grueling days of evaluations. After each march the Soldiers and test officers recorded their comments on the sled's performance.
The test team saved the last day of testing for a destructive test, loading the Ahkio to 350 pounds of weight and dropping it from a forklift raised to different elevations onto its front, back, side, and bottom.
When dropped nose-first from 15 feet, the sled's aluminum frame bent at its impact point, but otherwise remained intact, a fitting end to a punishing test of one of a cold regions Soldier's most vital accessories.