Steerable Sleds for 2012: Still All Fun, Still No Learning Curve

Mad River Rocket goes airborne

Hi-tech sleds like the Mad River Rocket take sledding to new heights. (Tim Jones photo)

Many active winter sports have a long learning curve. Sledding isn’t one of them.

To enjoy sledding, you simply get yourself to the top of a snow covered slope, then sit, belly flop or kneel on your conveyance and slide down. Repeat as many times as necessary to fill your fun reservoir.

There are basically three types of snow sleds—ones you can’t steer at all (tubes, saucers) ones you can maybe steer a little (most toboggans) and the ones that really put you in control of your destiny.

Out Of Control Fun

If you don’t have a sled of your own, snowtubing at any of the dozens of ski hills which offer lift-serviced tubing lanes is a great way to catch a whiff of the excitement. Part of the fun of snowtubing is that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when your instincts tell you that you are totally out of control in what your brain knows is a controlled and therefore safe environment. There’s no steering a snow tube, no controlling its speed. That’s the beauty of those tubing lanes they craft so carefully at ski resorts: you can fly within safe boundaries.

When Control Counts

“Wild” sledding is something different. When you are out in the real world, having to dodge other sledders, or even trees and rocks, it’s nice to have a little control of the situation—something you don’t get with a typical bargain basement plastic sled.

It’s not surprising that sledding has gone high-tech these days. I’m very familiar with three different models of modern steerable sleds (one of them, alas, no longer made) and I’ve gotta tell you, they are loads of fun. If you don’t have time to learn to ski, these steerable sleds and their first cousin the Snowbike are the way to get your adrenaline rush on snow.

Airboard Sled in action

The Airboard inflatable sled has “chines” on the bottom for steering. (Tim Jones photo)

Airborne on Airboard

The first high-tech sled I tried was the Swedish-made Airboard. They rent them and give introductory lessons at Smugglers Notch  in Jeffersonville, Vermont.

Some ski resorts will allow you to use The Airboard on beginner terrain, most won’t. But the Airboard is light and easy to carry, so going up the hills under your own power and then sliding down provides both exercise and thrills.

The Airboard inflates like the tubes you tow behind a motorboat in summer. The air-cushion effect gives it a very comfortable ride and a nice “bounce effect” when you go over bumps. Smiles guaranteed. But, unlike most inflatable tubes, the Airboard has hard plastic “chines” on the base (much like a boat hull) that  let you carve turns in soft packed snow (a groomed ski slope is perfect) and powder. These chimes don’t do much on crust or ice, so beware . . .

There’s a very small learning curve with Airboards. Basically, you just lean to turn. It’s all pretty intuitive and you should have no problem getting the basics down enough to do it safely on an open, moderate slope. I found I actually tended to turn it too much.  You can control your speed by dragging your feet and, by turning across the hill, just as you would on skis.

The Hammerhead Sled in action

The Hammerhead Sled is the High-tech, go anywhere version of the old “Flexible Flyer.” (Tim Jones Photo)

Hammerheading

If you have fond memories of the old “Flexible Flyer” sled, you’re gonna go nuts over is newest, hi-tech incarnation, the Vermont-made  Hammerhead. Ruggedly built of aluminum tubing with a mesh deck that has a little “bounce” to it for comfort and rugged fiberglass and plastic skis, this is tough enough for riders of almost any size.

The Hammerhead steers in much the same way as the old Flexible Flyer with pivoting front arms, The skis are “railed” so they have an edge that bites into the snow for positive turning. This is the easiest of the new sleds to steer and the best on firmer snow. You can swap out the rear skis choosing narrower for more control on hard snow or wider for more floatation in soft snow, but this isn’t really a power machine. In my experience, the Hammerhead works best on firm but not hard snow. Take it to a slope that other people have packed with snow tubes and plastic sleds and everyone will envy you. One of the greatest experiences in my sledding career was coming down Vermont Route 108 (which is closed in the winter and had been packed by snowmobilers) from the top of Smuggler’s Notch to the parking lot at Stowe on a Hammerhead. The Lincoln Gap Road near Sugarbush is my next target for a Hammerhead adventure.

Sad About The Mad

Mad River Rocket in action

The Mad River Rocket is so steerable, you can even rip a powder line through the trees! (Tim Jones photo)

The Mad River Rocket, which was also a Vermont product, is possibly the greatest “wild sledding device” ever invented. I say “was” because, sadly, it appears that the Mad River Rocket company is no longer. It also appears that The Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, VT is your first best hope of finding one. A careful internet search found no other options . . .though I’m sure used ones will eventually show up on eBay and Craigslist.

Too bad, it’s a great product and I hope someone buys the molds and patents and brings it back!

The Rocket has so much flotation and is so steerable you can even use it to sled in the woods, neatly carving turns around trees. It’s the only sled I’ve ever tried that really feels comfortable in tight woods.

You ride the Rocket by kneeling on it and tightening a strap over your thighs, which welds you to the sled, and steer by leaning and dragging your hands. Not the most comfortable riding position (especially for older folks with creaky knees). But the control you have is utterly amazing. Kids are doing jumps and flips with them . . .you can find videos on the Mad River Rocket website which is still live but not being updated.

The Mad River Rocket excels in soft snow, doesn’t do as well on packed or groomed. As an added bonus, if you’re a bit handy you can build a harness that turns it into a very serviceable pulk for winter trekking.

My advice: if you can find a Mad River Rocket Killer B sled, grab it. You’ll have a ball with it and your kids and grandkids will thank you for the opportunity to play with it.

Weezing in Winter?

We haven’t had a chance to try them  yet, but TSL (a company which makes wonderful snowshoes) is importing a French-made sit up toboggan called the Weez which steers with  handle-and-brake rigs on both sides of the rider. It comes in 1- and 2-person configurations. Presumably, when you pull the right brake you’ll pivot slightly on that side and go right, and vice versa. Looks like fun. We’ll give you an update as soon as we’ve actually tried it.

Would You Sooner a Yooner?

TSL is also importing what looks like the  sit-skis used by handicapped skiers. It’s called the Yooner. Again, we haven’t tried it and have no idea how hard it is to learn or how it would do on unpacked slopes. Stay tuned for a full report if and when we get to try one out.

Any of these high tech gems will turn an ordinary winter day into playtime. All you need is a slope and a little snow. Once you’ve invested in the sled, the fun is free.

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About Tim Jones

Tim Jones, Founder and Executive Editor, started skiing at age 4 and hasn't stopped since. He took up Telemark a few years ago and is still terrible at it. In the summer, he hikes, bikes, paddles and fly fishes. In addition to his work at EasternSlopes.com, Tim also writes a pair of syndicated weekly newspaper columns.