As the weather turns cold and the snow begins to fall, many of us look forward to taking a sled out to the nearest hill. While it would seem that people have been sledding ever since the first caveman figured out that a flat object is fun to ride downhill, the idea of sledding is actually somewhat modern.
The Ancient History of the Sled
Wall painting from the tomb of Djehutihotep which displays the method they used to move a 57 ton statue
Although we think of sledding as a popular wintertime sport now, the first sleds were built and used in hot climates, and had nothing to do with snow. The Ancient Egyptians and many other cultures used a form of sled to transport extremely heavy stones and other goods across flat surfaces. By setting up a system of logs to use as rollers, a sled could be placed on top, functioning much like a modern conveyer belt. And even though there were plenty of tall sand dunes in Ancient Egypt, there is no evidence that any of the laborers used to practice sledding down them for fun on their off time.
Sled versus Sledge
The modern word sled comes from an older root word "sledde", which is related to the word "slide". That makes sense once you think about it, as all sleds are designed to "slide" over a surface.
Sleds first became common in the Middle Ages in Europe as people used them for hauling heavy loads across snow, ice, and even grass, any situation in which wheels were of no use or could get bogged down in the terrain. Eventually, any sled that was pulled by people became known as a "sledge", a variant of the word sled that is still used in some parts today.
Once horse-drawn wagons and carriages became a common form of transportation throughout Europe, it was only natural that some people would add runners to the bottom for easier passage through terrain that was unsuitable for wheels. The popular song that starts "Over the hills and through the woods, to grandmother's house we go" features a line about riding in a sleigh over snowy ground.
Taken in New York City during the Great Blizzard of March 12, 1888.
—Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Today, everyone knows the traditional image of Santa Claus and his reindeer-drawn sleigh. Many Arctic cultures from the Inuit in the Americas to the Lapplander culture in northern Scandinavia have been using sleighs pulled by dogs or reindeer for centuries. The original concept of Santa Claus adopted the northern cultures' use of a sleigh to depict traditional transportation across the snowy terrain of the North Pole.
Toboggans and Different Types of Sleds
In modern times, different kinds of sleds have different names, depending on how they are constructed and used.
Toboggan - Originally used by native peoples in northern Canada, the toboggan was a wooden sled with no runners/skis and has a flat bottom. In modern usage, any flat-bottomed sled used on snow with a curved front is a toboggan.
Saucer - Made in a round or curved shape, these modern sleds are usually made out of metal or plastic for reduced friction.
Flexible Flyer - A brand-name now used to describe any sled made out of wooden slats suspended above two thin metal rails or "skis".
Luge - Used primarily for sporting competitions, a luge is a small sled designed for one or two people where the rider lies lying down on their backs for increased speed. Luge is a competitive sport in the Winter Olympics.
Bobsled - Sometimes called a "bobsleigh", a bobsled is a sled designed to hold two to four people. Built in a kind of "car" shape, the riders are partially enclosed inside the bobsled, which rides above narrow runners or "skis". Now a competitive sport in the Winter Olympics, although originally bobsledding began on public roads in Switzerland.
Skeleton - Developed in Switzerland by British sledding enthusiasts, a skeleton is a tiny flat sled that is ridden down a curved track by one person lying face down. Now a competitive sport in the Winter Olympics.
Snow Tube - Used for sliding quickly down smooth, snowy hills, snow tubes are rugged inflatables that provide a fast riding experience, due to the minimal amount of friction. Also, because they're made of flexible materials, snow tubes come in any number of shapes and sizes.
Although likely more a predecessor to surfing, it's also worth noting: In the Hawai'ian islands, natives traditionally engaged in a sport called Hölua, or heÿeholua (to slide together or as one entity). Using a special wooden sled similar in design to a surfboard but with narrow runners underneath, Hawai'ans would ride the sleds down the lava-covered sides of volcanos.