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Family Fun
Family Fun

How to choose a sled

Whether you're taking to the hills at the park down the street or trying your hand at it on vacation, there are ways to enhance your sledding experience.

For starters, get a sled. Before buying one, it helps to know some of the physics behind sledding. Easy, now — this is understandable physics, thanks to Chris Stockdale, a professor of physics at Marquette University in Milwaukee and a sledding enthusiast. He was happy to impart some wisdom and help make the sled search go a little more smoothly.

The science: When it comes to sledding, the operative word is friction. The less the better: You want to minimize it as much as you can. First, consider the conditions you're sledding under. "If you're on ice you can get away with the classic Flexible Flyer," Stockdale says. "Those work well if you're on hard-packed snow or an icy street." Sledding on a Flexible Flyer is almost like skating, he says. As you pick up speed, the blade melts the ice a little and you cut friction.

Plastic sleds have more friction than wooden ones, and wooden ones create more friction than metal ones. But a plastic sled that's kept clean and has no dents (such imperfections will slow you down) can function as well as a metal sled.

Your success will also be dictated by the sled's shape. If you're going downhill on wet snow, Stockdale says a sled with a wider base (unlike those narrow Flexible Flyer runners) is preferable. Narrow runners exert a lot of force in a small area on a soft surface, which can cause you to sink in and maybe even dig into the ground. The wider base distributes your weight, cutting friction and enabling you to build speed. It's like snowshoes: "They're large and wide," Stockdale says, "so you don't fall through the snow. Same with a sled. You want something with a wide base so it can distribute your weight."

The shopping: Myriad stores and the Internet offer all manner of sleds and saucers. If you want to buy from a place with some history, Paricon (pariconsleds.com) — a 150-year-old company that supplied sledges for polar explorer Admiral Peary — has a 48-inch steel runner Flexible Flyer for about $90.

Some buying tips from Stockdale:

Location counts: If you'll be sledding in a park, go for the wide base. If you'll be sledding mostly on an icy street, the Flexible Flyer will get better results.

If you're buying for a kid, choose "something durable, that can get banged up because they'll be dragging it around. You can get some very good plastic sleds or moderately priced metal sleds. Clearly avoid the real thin runners because (the kids will) spend a lot of time stuck in snow. If you'll be pulling someone on an icy sidewalk, thin runners are good. But going downhill at the park, wide runners or no runners are the best."

Steering? You don't need much, Stockdale says, unless you're going really fast. "They're fun," he says, but most people won't steer that much.

Wax can cut friction, but it also can build up, which slows you down. "Most sleds, especially plastic, you don't need to wax," he says. If you're worried about rust on your metal runners, give them a good wipe-down when you're through sledding, then let the sled dry in the garage.

bhageman@tribune.com

Degree of difficulty: Easy

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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