Some kids want to grow up and be firefighters. Some want to be president. But when I was child, I wanted to be a professional luge racer. I'm not sure what inspired my dream—certainly not the skintight outfits—but every winter I packed down the snow that fell in our driveway and covered it with freezing water until it hardened into a demonically fast sledding hill. In my 9-year-old mind, this was my path to Olympic fame.
But my illustrious career was cut short one afternoon when my brother gave me a hard push at the top of the run. I careened down the hill and flew off the track, diving into a large shrub. A frozen twig stabbed through my cheek, and I spent the evening in the hospital, my hopes of an Olympic gold shattered. Note this picture of me a few days into my early luge retirement, practicing a new sport on my brother.
Imagining a Rocky Balboa-like comeback, I jumped at a chance to test out the latest in sledding technology. When I was a kid, sleds looked pretty much the same as they had in the Middle Ages: a small platform on top of two runners. Today the market is flooded with various makes and models, from simple, plastic saucers to high-end, snowmobilelike sleds complete with steering wheels and brakes. One, called the Airboard, promises Porsche-like handling. It also comes with a Porsche-like price tag: nearly $300.
To determine which sled was most worthy of dubbing Rosebud, I performed a variety of tests. But before I detail the methodology and results, I should note that some sleds work best in certain types of snow. For instance, the 1950s-era, wood and metal Flexible Flyer will speed on icy, hard-packed snow but tends to get stuck in deep, fluffy powder. I only tested sleds that promised to work in all conditions.
Speed (10 possible points): At Wintergreen Resort near Charlottesville, Va., I rode each sled down a 900-foot-long tubing hill. Called The Plunge, the slope has a vertical drop of more than 100 feet, and Wintergreen promises speeds of up to 40 miles an hour down the hill.
Handling (10 possible points). While not all sledders believe in the concept of steering, I'd argue that control is an important part of the fun. At the very least, it will keep you from running into bushes, telephone poles, trees, and my nemesis, frozen twigs.
Schlep-ness (10 possible points). To see how easy it was to pull the sled up a steep, snowy incline, I lugged the sleds up a steep, snowy incline. If the sled came with a rope, I used it. If it didn't have one, I tucked it under my arm.
Durability (10 possible points). I poked all the sleds with a butter knife to see how well they could take riding over a sharp rock or a branch. The Wintergreen maintenance crew also helped me test the sleds for sturdiness: They used them for the better part of an afternoon.
The Results (from worst to best)