Everyone has probably seen old pictures or a movie that shows native tribesmen dragging loads behind dogs or horses on poles across the plains. The “travois” comes from the French word “travail”, which basically means work of a painful or laborious nature; to toil. That doesn’t sound too good if I have to toil, but it is the travois that does the heavy lifting.
I shot a small buck several years ago. I was alone and it was about 15 minutes before sunset, so it was going to be very dark in about 45 minutes. I was about a mile from my truck, so I only wanted to make one trip. I weighed my options while I field dressed the deer. I could drag the him on the ground, but I didn’t want to destroy the hide. If I took the time to bone out the meat, I would reduce the weight of buck from about 150 to about 88 lbs counting his head and hide, but with my pack and rifle, I would still have to make two trips.
I had thought about what it would take to make a travois, but had not actually made one before. I grabbed the Ka Bar Machete from my pack and started cutting dead trees from a nearby aspen stand while it was still light. There were many small thin dead aspen that were still standing. I cut two poles about 10 feet long and then several shorter pieces for cross supports. I tested them for strength and laid them on the ground and started lashing the poles together like a ladder with paracord. I always pack several long sections of paracord and didn’t want to cut the cord, so I left the chord intact from one lashing to the next.
It took about 20 minutes to cut poles and lash them together. It wasn’t a work of art, but it only had to hold together for one mile. Then I would take it apart to recover my paracord. I rolled the buck onto the travois and tied him down so he could flop around or drag. I also tied my pack to the frame and slung my rifle over my shoulder and started down towards the trail.
Dragging the Travois
The weight was surprising easy to lift with the travois, but was difficult to drag through the shrubs. Once I got down to more open country and on the trail, it was much easier to drag.
After a few minutes, I stopped to rig a sling out of the para-chord so more of the weight was on my shoulders and not on my hands and arms. My rifle sling would have been perfect, but I didn’t want to lash the rifle to the drag. I also used an extra jacket for padding to protect my chest and shoulders.
I tried holding and pushing the frame several ways, such as pushing against the cross bar with my pelvis or hip or pushing with my chest and shoulders. It was much easier for me with the weight higher and pushing with my chest and shoulders. When one shoulder got sore, I could quickly rotate and push with the other shoulder without breaking stride.
I took breaks and stretched frequently, but it only took me about an hour to cover the mile to my truck, much faster than I thought. That is about the same amount of time it would take two people to drag a deer out on the ground. Been there and done that.
Suggested Improvements to Travois
Like everything else, after doing it once, I have thought about ways to improve the travois and make it work better if I ever need to make another one. After looking at pictures of traditional travois and thinking about the one I made, I can think of three improvements.
- Longer poles
- Triangle shape instead of ladder shape
- Wider base on the drag end
Longer poles give more leverage, but the poles themselves become heavier. Long poles are also difficult to maneuver between trees and rocks, so somewhere between 10 and 14 feet would be the best balance between the weight required to lift the load and maneuverability though the trees. Obviously, a travois works best in the open plains.
A triangle is always stronger than a square and a triangle shape automatically incorporates a wider base. The triangle shape would not want to “rack” as the ladder shape did. And being wider at the base prevents the load from wanting to tip over. With my narrow ladder, I almost tipped the load over several times because it was top heavy for the narrow base. The only problem with the triangle shape is that it requires longer poles, which increase weight and it may be difficult to find long poles on short notice.
The Physics – Force Calculations for 2nd Class Lever
Solve for the equation: F2/F1 = L1/L2
- F1 is the force you have to lift.
- F2 is the weight of the load (deer, pack and poles)
- L1 is the length of the pole (Tip to point you carry it)
- L2 is the length from the tip to center mass of the load
- F1 = Unknown
- F2 = 180 lbs
- L1 = 12 feet x 12 = 144 inches
- L2 = 30 inches
After cross multiplying:
- 144 F1= 30 x 180
- 144 F1 = 5400
- F1 = 5400/144
- F1 = 37.5 lbs (or 18.75 lbs each hand)
For that first travois, I used poles about 10 feet long. I estimate the deer and my pack weighed about 180 lbs, so with the center of the deer’s weight about 30 inches from the end and with the lever distance about 9 feet, I had to lift about 47 lbs. If I used longer poles, there would be less weight to lift, but the drag force would be about the same.
The table below shows the force in pounds (F1) needed to lift 180 pounds of weight (F2) with different length travois poles (L1). For all pole lengths, calculations assume the load (F2) is 180 lbs and the center of gravity is 30 inches from drag point (L2)
Effort Required to Lift 180 Pound Load with Varying Pole Lengths
|Pole Length||Effort to Lift|
For you physics professors, technically, once you raise the end of the pole to waist height, the horizontal vector and length have become shorter, so the effort to raise the load is slightly higher. Also, the calculations show the longer the pole, the lighter the load, but that does not take into consideration the weight of the poles themselves. Depending upon center of mass and length, 20 lb poles would increase the weight to be lifted by 3 – 5 lbs each.
Hints and Considerations for building a Travois
- Use the skinniest poles that will support the load to keep weight down. Lodgepole pines are probably the best because they are very thin for their height, especially when taken from a very crowded “dog hair” stands
- Long poles increase leverage, but also increase weight and make it difficult to maneuver through trees.
- Find the best balance between length and weight
- Triangle shape is strongest, but requires longer poles
- Keep load as low as possible and as far back to maximize the L1/L2 ratio, but too far will put load in the dirt
- Only need enough cross-braces to tie load and to push against – not building a ladder
- A wider drag end is more stable and has less tendency to tip over, but is more difficult to maneuver through trees
So, I hope you find yourself with a big old buck to drag back to the truck and nobody to help. It builds character and self esteem. But seriously, now you can consider building a travois and then teach everyone a new French word while you’re bragging about it.
My DIY Elk Hunting Guide is now available as PDF