How do you spot a hardcore ice angler? Is it the angler stooped over his hole never once taking his eyes off the flasher for hours at a time? How about the person packing everything but the kitchen sink onto the ice?
Or is it the guy with a Smitty sled? Bingo! That right there is the hallmark of an avid ice angler. When someone optimizes their ice fishing setup to the point that only a custom built Smitty sled is worthy of hauling their gear onto the ice, you know they mean business.
Is a Smitty sled essential for ice fishing? Not at all. But it does make pulling a bunch of heavy fishing equipment way easier. So why not build one for yourself? It’s pretty cheap to do and even easier to make. At least easier than you might think.
Not sure how to start? No problem. I’ll show you exactly how I built mine and how you can make yours even better. All with pictures along the way. Don’t put off building your DIY Smitty sled any longer. Keep reading to see how it is done in 7 simple steps!
What is a Smitty sled
Without a doubt, ice anglers acquire a lot of equipment and one of the most essential pieces of gear is a sled. After all, what good is all the rest of your stuff if you can’t even get it to your fishing spot.
Most of the sleds you see on the ice are nothing more than molded plastic tubs that you pull with a rope. Otter sleds and Shappell Jet sleds are among the most popular. They certainly make lugging all your gear onto the ice a little easier but more often than not, it feels like you are dragging a snowplow.
Enter the Smitty sled.
In its most basic form, a Smitty sled utilizes a pair of down hill or cross country skis attached to the bottom of an existing ice fishing sled. When mounted properly, the skis offer nearly frictionless travel over ice and snow which makes pulling a heavy load significantly easier.
As near as I can tell, “Smitty” style sleds have been around for many decades in one form or another. It wasn’t until recent years that they gained some much deserved attention. Apparently an iceshanty.com forum user is credited with coining the term “Smitty sled” and bringing them to the forefront. He has even filed for a trademark. Whether it was ever approved, I don’t know. Regardless, we all appreciate his contribution to the ice fishing community.
Now, avid ice anglers see them as a way to further customize their ice fishing experience. And most important of all, they make hoofing it across the snow or slush covered ice as easy as it gets.
Does a Smitty sled really work
Try a Smitty sled one time and I guarantee you’ll be sold. They really do work that good. A well built Smitty sled makes dragging all your ice fishing gear nearly effortless. With a standard Otter sled, hauling a full load through snow covered ice was an arduous chore for me. I barely made it a hundred yards without needing a breather. Once I modified it into a sled on skis, I could cover more ice than ever before.
Now that I’ve used my Smitty sled for awhile, I find it hard to believe more ice anglers don’t use them. In fact, they seem quite rare. Yet, nearly everywhere I take my sled it gets a fair bit of attention.
For many anglers, a Smitty sled is probably overkill. If you only venture out on the ice a few time each year and are only willing to walk a couple hundred yards or less then a standard sled is fine.
Smitty sleds are ideal for ice anglers who like to explore new fishing spots and don’t shy away from walking a mile or two to find fish.
How much does it cost to make a Smitty sled
The best part about converting your current sled into a Smitty sled is that it costs hardly anything if you shop smart. Since there are so many different ways to build one, it’s tough to say exactly how much it costs. But I can still give a good estimate of what you can expect to spend on materials for a nice Smitty sled.
First, here are the basic components required to build a Smitty sled like mine (minus the rod holder and cargo extension), which I’ll show you how to build next.
- Otter Sport Sled (small size): $50
- Down hill skis from thrift store: $10-$20
- 2×4 and 1×4 lumber: $10
- Hardware: $5
- Rope: $5
- Paint: $5
You likely have some of the materials already. Things like scrap lumber and an assortment of screws and bolts. I’m willing to bet you also have an ice fishing sled too. This obviously cuts down on the cost to make a Smitty sled.
If you are building a Smitty sled from scratch, expect to pay $80-$100 for the materials needed. The skis and sled components are the most expensive part of the project. Save money by shopping at a Goodwill or other thrift store for inexpensive skis. Making a Smitty sled will cost well under $50 if you already have a sled.
Keep in mind that sled costs vary greatly. Larger sleds average 30 inches wide and usually cost $80 to $120. Smaller sleds are more reasonable around $50. Which one you buy all depends on how much gear you need to haul.
From experience, I rank the Otter Sport sleds among the best for ice fishing. They are super lightweight yet strong enough to handle any abuse thrown at it. They are also the most reasonably priced sleds I have found. I suggest getting yours from Scheels for the best price.
If you don’t think Otter Sport sleds will work for you, then check out my other article showcasing different ice fishing sleds to see which one suits you best.
Complete guide to building your own Smitty sled
Building your own Smitty sled is fairly straight forward. It’s a great off-season project and takes only a few hours to complete (depending on how fancy you want to get). The sled I’ll show you how to build is quite simple so it only requires common tools and very little carpentry skills.
Smitty sled materials and tools
I’ll list all the specific materials I used here but feel free to substitute various parts with other stuff you have on hand.
- Otter Outdoors Sport Sled (size small)
- Down hill skis (length varies)
- 2-3 ft long piece of 2×4 stud
- 8 ft 1×4 board
- 2 inch outdoor wood screws
- 3 inch outdoor wood screws
- 1 1/2 inch stainless bolts with nuts and washers
- 20 ft of rope
- 2 small carabiners
- 2 ft piece of 3/4 inch PVC pipe
- Circular saw, chop saw or hand saw
- Assortment of drill bits and driver bits
- Crescent wrench
- Sockets and ratchets
What kind of skis do you need for a Smitty sled
Ski selection for a Smitty sled is mostly based on personal preference and what’s available. The truth is, just about any set of skis will work. However, there are a few things you should consider when choosing which skis to get.
Down hill skis or cross country skis both work fine. My preference is for down hill skis. They are slightly wider which keeps my Smitty sled riding a little higher in powdery snow. Again, it just depends on what you have available to use.
In either case, you may even end up cutting the skis down in length if you can’t find shorter ones. I lucked out and found a set that was the exact length I needed. Ideally, you want your skis to be slightly longer than the sled length. But there is no hard and fast rules. Skis 12-18 inches longer than your sled is a good starting point.
In addition, make sure the skis you choose have a good curl on the tips. This keeps the ski from digging into snow or slush. A slight curl on the back is even better. Sometimes you need to let your sled backwards down a hill and that curl will make that task much smoother.
How to build a Smitty sled: Step by Step
Decide on cargo sled and ski alignment: You have a lot of options when it comes to placing your sled on the skis and deciding how wide you want your ski track. I find that putting the sled a little back on the skis requires less effort to pull when fully loaded with gear. Leave a few inches extending beyond the back of the sled though.
The ideal length to span between your skis is less clear. At the very least, they need to be placed as wide as the sled width. I essentially lined up the center of the ski with the side edge of the sled. So, if your sled is 30 inches wide make sure your skis are 30 inches apart from center to center. This keeps your sled from getting tippy. If you think your sled’s center of gravity is higher, then span your skis even further apart.
Prep the skis: Most skis you buy second hand will have the bindings still attached. Remove all the bindings to make room for the connecting rails.
Build the connecting rails: The connecting rails are what align the skis parallel to each other and provides the support structure for your sled. It’s important to make them sturdy to handle heavy gear and shifting weight. That’s why I opted for 2×4 struts and 1×4 cross members. These handle well over 150 pound loads without straining.
Cut the four 2×4 struts however you please. I gave mine a bit of an angled cut with a chop saw. The base that mounts to the ski is about 6 inches long and tapers up to the 3.5 inch width of the 1×4.
Once you have the struts cut, measure and cut the two 1×4 rails to your desired length. Mine are 24 inches in length.
Now use 2 inch wood screws to fasten the rails onto the struts. You may want to pre-drill holes if splitting is an issue. You should end up with two connecting rails that are ready to attach to the skis.
If you want to paint your rails, now is the time.
Attach the connecting rails to the skis: Of all the steps, this one is most critical to get right. You don’t want to connect the rails to the skis just anywhere. Make sure the skis are parallel and positioned with the front tips even with each other. If the skis are askew, the sled won’t track right when you pull it.
Next place your connecting rails onto the skis. Use masking tape or a felt tip marker to trace out the position of each strut. That way you can return the rails to the exact same spot after you drill holes through each ski.
Once you have the strut positions marked, drill two holes through each ski where the struts will be attached. Then use a counter sink bit to allow the screw head to be flush with the bottom of the ski to reduce drag. Don’t have a counter sink bit? No worries. Most wood screws grab hard enough to drive the head flush with the soft under layer on the ski when torqued down. Then, just scrape off or sand the bur that forms.
To fasten the connecting rail onto the skis, I found it easier to lay the rails upside down and set the skis into position. You may also want to pre-drill holes in the struts using the holes you drilled in the skis as a guide. Finally, use 3 inch outdoor wood screws to fasten both rails to the skis.
Attach your sled onto the rails and skis: At this point, you’re nearly done. You simply need to attach your cargo sled onto the rails and skis. There are several ways to do this. I opted to drill 4 holes through the sled and rails and bolt them together. This gives me a solid connection while allowing me to quickly detach the sled component if need be.
You can also use short wood screws for a fast and simple connection. However, it is not as sturdy.
Attach the tow rope: Your basic Smitty sled is nearly complete. All you need now is a rope to pull it with. On a Smitty sled, the best place to attach a tow rope is on the front tips of the skis. That way, as you pull on the sled, you also slightly lift the ski tips up which helps them stay on top of the snow and slush.
Simply drill a 1/4 or 3/8 inch hole through each ski about 1 inch down from the front tips. Next, prepare your tow rope. A 6 to 8 foot tow rope is what you’re shooting for so start with about 20 feet of rope. I also opted to add a 3/4 inch PVC pipe as a tow handle. It’s a comfortable option that I recommend you add to yours as well.
Once you have a handle placed on the rope, feed the ends through each of the holes you drilled in the skis. Feed the rope ends from the bottom of the ski to the top. This keep upward force on the skis as you pull. Make sure both sides of your rope are equal lengths from the handle to each ski. Now you can tie a double overhand knot at each ski to lock your rope in place. Cut the tag end off and burn the ends to prevent fraying if desired.
Alternatively, you can put loops of cord through the ski tips and use carabineers for a quick release system like I did. I put similar loops onto the sled as well incase I need to go light and leave the skis at home.
Customize to your heart’s content: You now have the bare minimum required to call your sled a Smitty sled. Yet, to really enjoy what this sled is capable of, try customizing it to suit your ice fishing needs.
I added a rod rack, spud bar holder and a cargo extension where I strap down my Humminbird ICE Helix 7 and tackle bag. But the sky’s the limit and you can create all sorts of awesome ways to pack your gear onto the ice. Some of the cooler sleds I’ve seen even have built-in seats, bucket holders and propane heater mounts.
Rather watch a video to see how this Smitty sled is made? Here is our full DIY Smitty sled tutorial:
Designs for portability
The true genius of a Smitty sled is customization. As long as you have the fundamental components in place, how you trick out your sled is entirely up to you.
For most anglers, portability is a major priority. Whether you have limited space in your car or you want to easily store it between seasons, a compact and collapsible Smitty sled is an awesome idea.
Portability wasn’t a primary concern for me. Even so, I still designed it to be easily disassembled with simple tools if need be. However, there are even better designs that are far more portable and break down in a snap to fit in small storage spaces.
If you really need a collapsible style Smitty sled then take a look at NDYakAngler’s sled in this video. You’d be hard pressed to make one more portable and easier to setup than this one. If you have an eye for aesthetics, then it probably isn’t for you. Yet, I bet it’s among the best lightweight and collapsible designs out there.
A Smitty sled brings a whole new layer of fun to ice fishing while simultaneously reducing the work required to get your gear from point A to point B. So, if you want to take your ice fishing prowess to the next level, start building yourself a Smitty sled. I promise you’ll love it! Plus, you won’t dread walking across a long expanse of ice to find your next secret ice fishing spot.