Before Mustangs and Camaros, there was the Flexible Flyer, hot-rod of choice for adolescent boys. Real men rode face first, snow pummeling their faces, while lesser mortals rode sitting up, steering with their feet or the pull rope. These days, you can spend a lot of money on souped-up versions with seat backs, steering wheels, ski-type runners, and other geegaws. Don’t.
Masters of Spin
They’re called “flying saucers” because they’re fast–really fast–and provide the added benefit of making you dizzy as you spin uncontrollably down the hill. (This probably accounts for a lot of short-term memory loss among today’s adults.) The first saucers were metal, but modern versions are plastic, further proof that kids are getting soft.
Wooden It Be Magic
The classic wooden toboggan is the Ford LTD of sledding–big, heavy, and relatively safe, unless you’re headed for a tree. Steering basically happens at the top of the hill, when you choose your route to the bottom. After that, it’s a matter of screaming “Lean!”–which, as Ethan Frome learned, rarely works. The best seat is the farthest back, where you can bail out quickly. The worst is the front seat (a.k.a. “the human shield”).
For sheer comfort, there’s nothing like gliding downhill on a cushion of rubberized air–until you bounce off or get poked by the valve stem. Real tire tubes (not the store-bought variety) don’t have handles, so staying on board can be a challenge, and steering is a combination of body English and wishful thinking.
A cross between a sled and a saucer, the knee sled lets you enjoy the majestic beauty of nature for the 2.3 seconds it takes to get to the bottom. You can also do fancy jumps, flips, and turns, but if the AARP is sending you invitations, don’t even think about it.
Handle with Care
Remember that hillside scene in It’s a Wonderful Life? Put your bottom on the shovel with the handle pointing forward, lean back, and let go. Steering, such as it is, involves using your hands as rudders. Don’t try to grab the handle unless you’ve already had all the children you want.
A favorite with college students, the lunch tray is a thrill-seeker’s ride: fast, readily available, and nearly impossible to steer. The hard part is sneaking it out of the cafeteria, not to mention avoiding collisions with ivy-covered walls. Note: College students have also been known to go sledding on trash bags, shower curtains, garbage-can lids, and art-history textbooks.
For the consummate cheapskate, nothing beats a big piece of cardboard. On well-packed, dry snow, a homemade cardboard sled can give you several good runs before it turns into a wad of soggy cellulose. On loose, damp snow, though, cardboard is a no-go.
Somewhat related to the shovel-sled (second cousins, mother’s side), these plastic contraptions are like hard hats for your butt. They range from form-fitting to paddle-shaped, and one version is actually built into a pair of slip-on shorts. Go figure.
Chariots of Fiberglass
Modern variations on the toboggan tend to be smaller, one-person affairs made of the same material found in food-storage containers (polywolyvinylfredandethylchloride), and they’re just about as sturdy. Caveat vector. (“Let the passenger beware.”)
The flexible plastic roll-up sled was designed for cheapness and portability, not speed or control. Sure, it slides fairly well, but so do you–right off the sheet. On the other hand, you can always chop vegetables on it.
A Leak of Your Own
Somebody thought plastic inflatable sleds were a good idea–probably the same person who invented those singing-fish wall plaques. Designed to look cool, most of these dirigibles have the aerodynamic efficiency of an eggplant … except that eggplants don’t spring a leak if you go over a rock. Leave the blow-up toys at the beach.