sleigh riding in eastern europe

Sledding

Sledding is the one winter sport that most adults have fond memories of, but seldom participate in after their kids are old enough to ride by themselves. It's a shame, because it's essentially free, easy, refreshing, healthy, and completely unstructured. Each winter millions of adults will stand by a picture window -- safely inside the home -- and look longingly as the neighborhood kids sled down the local hill.

If that describes you, do yourself a favor and go outside.

Never mind that you have to put on boots, mittens, and who knows what else. If that's too much trouble, skip some of it, and just do a run or two. You aren't buying a lift ticket or a rink pass to go sledding, so who cares? Perhaps you're afraid to get your clothes wet. So what? Put 'em in the dryer.

Just get out there and do it...it will probably be the most fun you'll have all winter.

History

When did sledding begin? The more accurate question is, when did Scandinavian and Indiginous people first change their work carts from wheels to runners when the snow fell...by all estimates it's before recorded history. Once the work cart was done carrying its load for the day, a natural amusement was to put children in the cart and push them down a hill. Sledding is likely the oldest winter sport, if not one of the oldest surviving sports of all.

What is known is that sledding contests were organized and recorded in almost all parts of the world in the 19th century. The sport was revolutionized in the 1880s when Samuel Leeds Allen invented the first steerable runner sled, the Flexible Flyer .

Types of Sleds

plastic tobogganCurrently there are 8 types of vehicles that are generally classified as sleds:

  1. Metal Runner Sleds
  2. Next Generation Runner Sleds
  3. Wood toboggans
  4. Plastic toboggans (shown at right)
  5. Metal disks
  6. Plastic disks
  7. Snow mats
  8. Inflatable tubes

Although each of these is a type of "sled," for the purposes of this web page we are specifically referring to the unstructured activity of sledding -- find a hill, and go. For information on lift-served snowtubing hills and constructed toboggan runs, please click these links.

Some Technique � As if you need to be told.

Starting the sled is most important; a seated sleigh rider generally needs a push, while a rider lying prone on his or her belly can get a running start and jump on the moving sled. Some call this "flopping."

The first ride down an unused hill sets the path for future runs down the hill, particularly with the proliferation of tubes and plastic toboggans seen today.

The toboggans, tubes and disks are generally most effective type to use on new snow, where metal runner sleds tend to bog down. New hybrid runner sleds such as the Hammerhead have wider runners, and even optional flotation runner attachments for new powder snow.

Once the snow is packed down, or icy from a thaw/freeze, runners sleds usually have a speed advantage. They certainly have a control advantage; the aforementioned Flexible Flyer was the first that could truly be steered away from trees, rocks, and other obstacles. Some physicists claim that runner sleds and ice skates actually create enough friction to momentarily "melt" a microscopic layer of snow and actually glide on a film of liquid that acts as sort of a ball bearing between the runners and the snow. Others claim this is hogwash. When all is said and done...who cares? We sled because it's fun.

Safety

Sledding is riskier than you might think. In the USA alone, thousands of cases of accidents and injuries are reported each year, and unfortunately, some fatalities. Most of these accidents involve sledders hitting cars, buildings, trees, and other immovable objects. The smart move of course is to sled in an open field or park, and test the run at low speed to determine the scope of the sled's travel. But you already knew that.

Let's face it, as long as there is snow and something to slide on, kids will grab sleds and do stupid things. Fortunately, most of the results are harmless, so don't let our dire warning temper your enjoyment.

New Twists

While next generation runner sleds such as the Hammerhead are sure to change the way we sled, other factors are changing where we sled. A recent surge in backcountry skiing and snowboarding has led to a new sport: Backcountry Sledding.

Like backcountry skiing, backcountry sledding seeks out steep, "untracked powder," even in and among trees -- a must to avoid for conventional sledders. Backcountry sledding uses sleds with larger surface areas to "float" in powder, and more responsive controls for avoiding obstacles. Some backcountry sleds even offer padding and a type of "binding" system, so that the rider can easily locate a sled buried in deep powder.

Why sled?

Remember, you don't need to pre-arrange anything. You don't need to buy a lift ticket, rent equipment, or wait on line. You go when you want, for as long as you want. If you decide to stop and make a snowman, it doesn't cost you a dime. You don't need any skill or lessons. If you're desperate, you can ride on a cardboard box.

Is any sport purer than sledding?

typical modern high performance sleighat right, a modern high-performance sleigh from Hammerhead Sled, the opposite extreme from sliding downhill on a crushed cardboard box. This isn't your grandfather's Flexible Flyer, folks. It is a bit pricey, but if you're into sleigh riding, the Hammerhead is as good as it gets. If you think of the old runner sled as a Buick, the Hammerhead is equivalent to a Ferrari. Bring this thing to the snow covered golf course and you'll definitely have the hottest thing on the hill. For more information, please click here. For pricing and availability, please click here..

Key Links...

  • Find a Hill Here's a database of about 400 sledding hills across the USA; maintained by Hammerhead Sleds.
  • Setting up a Race Course this is another page on the Hammerhead sled site that describes various forms of amateur racing.

Below, winter in New York's Central Park at the dawn of the 20th Century. Note how the Flexible Flyers already outnumbered the traditional sleds. Photo courtesy wikipedia.

historic sleigh ride photo





Masthead photos used by permission:
Ralf Roletschek
Creative Commons
US Army/public domain
Erik Charlton.