The best sleds usually have slick, hard bottoms to zip across packed snow or room for more than one rider, which can also speed up the ride. Friction and warmth of bodies help melt the snow beneath them and send sleds schussing downhill much like the runner of ice skates melt the ice beneath them.
The trickiest sleds can be the blow-up variety.
“If inflated properly, it can be as good as hard plastic,” said Nate Moore, a sales manager for action sports at REI. “If they’re inflated at home, then brought into the cold outdoors, they lose some of the air. It’s best to inflate them at the hill.
“The larger the surface, the slower it will go unless it’s offset by weight.”
That also explains why classic wooden sleds with runners used to be so popular with speed-demon sledders.
“They were wicked fast,” he said.
These usually come in round snow-tube styles or toboggan length, which can look like a mini air mattress for floating on summer lakes.
Pros: They can cushion the tailbone, and are easy to deflate and store over the summer.
Cons: They need to be filled in the cold air and kept nicely inflated or they can be too slow. They also can rip or tear.
This longtime style used to be metal but is typically hard plastic.
Pros: You can’t beat it for spinning and zipping single-person speeds down the hill in record time.
Cons: Tough to control. The cross-legged style makes it challenging to throw out a leg for emergency stops, and the bowled-shape makes it tougher to tip over for a full-scale bailout. Plastic versions can break easily when near-zero temps make it brittle.
Pros: This is usually the easiest and most affordable sled to find, plus it also seats two to three riders. That is a definite advantage for any family wanting to hit a few distance records. A few variations have steering or brake options. Foam options can offer more cushioning but often go slower.
Cons: Like plastic saucers, they can be prone to cracking in subzero temperatures or if hitting a rock or debris on hills.
Classic wooden toboggan
Pros: These durable designs can include padding for riders, hold up to four people and last for generations.
Cons: They’re going to be a winter investment that’s more than $100 and tougher to find.
Flexible Flyer sled with runners
Pro: The runner-style makes this one of the speediest sleds, and usually it can be steered.
Cons: Constructed with wood and metal, they can do more damage in a collision.