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)
Wham-O Boggan Sled, $14.99 This sled sped down the hill at a good clip, and the long towrope made it easy to haul to the top of the hill. But one of the plastic handles cracked on the very first run, and by the end of the day, the sled's thin nose had shattered, and all but one of the handles had broken in half. Sure, this sled was built for little kids, not a 175-pound, 6-foot-tall adult, but even with a $15 price tag, that is unacceptable.
Total: 20 (out of 40 possible)
Killer B Sled, $89.00 As I shopped for sleds, I became fascinated by their overwrought names like Ski-Doo, SnowBoogie, and Fire Ball. But "Killer B" is easily the most ridiculous appellation. The "Killer B" is essentially a snow kneeboard. To ride it, you place your knees in the foam pads, buckle in your thighs, and then steer down the hill with your hands. In theory, this is supposed to give you extraordinary control: The company's Web site shows a video of people using this sled to slalom down a densely wooded mountainside.
But while the company's motto is "get on your knees," it should be "land on your face." After numerous tries, I could not complete a run without tumbling over. Bo, an experienced skier and a member of Wintergreen's maintenance team, described the experience well: "The sled is all squirrelly." You might be able to learn how to control it with a lot of practice—and certainly the hard, plastic exterior is sturdy enough to take many falls—but sledding should be an immediate-gratification sport. Leave practice and fancy equipment to the skiers.
Avalanche, $9.99 This is a plastic version of the 1950s-era steel saucer. I used this model instead of the metal one because it's lighter and doesn't rust. It's also the cheapest sled I found—and it shows: It had almost no handling. As I rode down the hill, I spun in circles. While some might call that fun, I call it dizzying. And on one run I got stuck going down backward. Could there be anything more embarrassing than losing control of a toy meant for a 10-year-old? The big plus of this sled is that it's very easy to lug up the hill. But that isn't great either, because you end up getting to the top before you've recovered from the last whirling dervish-like ride down.
Large Polar Flyer Sled, $30 This is the Honda Civic of sleds—inexpensive, reliable, and severely lacking in speed. Made from stiff foam, the sled resembles a body board meant for riding the ocean swells of Southern California. But even with a running jump, this sled wouldn't give a fast, blow-your-hat-off-your-head run. Some fins on the bottom of the sled would have certainly improved its speed—and lackluster handling.
(In a related note, Wham-O, the company famous for inventing the Frisbee, also makes a foam sled. While I did not test the Wham-O's foam model, the sled market is apparently so tight that the company recently sued another manufacturer for trying to steal its patented sled technology. More on that patent snowball fight here.)
Deluxe Toboggan, $99.95 If I gave an award for aesthetics, this wood toboggan would have won the gold medal. Made from long, thin planks of northern ash, the sled has a long back and curved prow, making for a rustic-chic look. Think log cabins, flannel sheets, and wood stoves. Indeed, I felt like I was cruising through a J. Crew catalog. But the performance was middling: Although the sled reached a fair top speed, maybe 30 miles an hour, it had the nonresponsive handling of a panzer. If the toboggan started going in one direction at the top of the hill, it would continue on that route for the entire ride down.
Torpedo PT Blaster, $59.99 Do you really want to ride a sled that appears to be named after the torpedo boat that President John F. Kennedy commanded in the South Pacific, the PT 109? The answer, in a word, is yes. While this sled took more than 30 minutes to assemble—no other sled required such efforts—it performed very well on the slopes. Its three-ski, snow mobilelike design made it one of the fastest sleds of the group. The sled also had a steering wheel and a "spring-loaded braking system." Neither worked particularly well, but they're fun accessories.
The sled's biggest flaw was its lack of portability. Since it had no towrope, this 12-pound sled needed to be hauled up the hill under your arm. No, thank you. I should also note that the sled has a fairly small frame, and I felt like I was riding a kiddy tricycle, with my knees so close to my head that they felt like earmuffs. But if you have a small child at home aspiring to become the next Georg Hackl (perhaps the best luger of all time), this is the sled to buy.
SnowBoogie Tech Flyer, $69.99 Late last year, Wham-O released this sled as the update to the old Flexible Flyer—and let's face it, it's one ugly sled. It looks like a caricature of a space alien, with its thin neck and ungainly gray arms. But as a piece of sledding technology, it's a marvel. One person can ride as easily as two, and a single rider can go down the hill seated, headfirst, or on his back like an Olympic luger. And this sled was fast. I would venture 40 miles an hour fast, which, going down a sledding hill, feels a lot closer to 900 miles an hour. The sled also has excellent steering, and with a double-wall plastic construction, it feels Ford tough. If money is an issue (see below), this is the best all-around sled.
Airboard, $269 If money is no object, then this is the sled for you. The Airboard is an inflatable plastic sled that looks like an arrowhead-shaped raft. On the bottom, it has hard plastic ridges that you use to steer as you fly headfirst down the hill. And I mean fly. According to the manufacturers, this sled can reach speeds of 80 miles an hour. While I probably didn't go that fast, I felt like I was going light speed. Indeed, this was the fastest sled that I tested—the others were pokey sedans compared with this Formula One car.
The sled also handled well, easing in and out of curves, and with my feet dangling off the back, it had a fairly effective braking system. While the sled does need to be pumped up periodically, it seemed pretty durable, easily passing the butter knife test. If $269 is too much to shell out for a sled, a few ski resorts are renting the Airboard this season, including Smuggler's Notch in Jeffersonville, Vt., and Keystone Resort in Colorado.