March 18, 2010

Steerable sleds: They're fun for all and easy to use, too

TIM JONES

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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.

Part of the fun of snowtubing is feeling totally out of control in 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.

''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 and I've gotta tell you, they are loads of fun.

The first high-tech sled I tried was the European-made Airboard (www.airboard.com). The Airboard can be used on beginner terrain at lift-serviced ski resorts and they rent them and give introductory lessons at Smugglers Notch (1-800-451-8752; www.smuggs.com ) in Jeffersonville, Vermont. The Airboard inflates like the tubes you tow behind a motorboat (which provides a nice cushioned ride), and had hard plastic ''chines'' on the base (like a boat hull) let you carve turns in soft packed snow (a groomed ski slope is perfect) and powder. You can control your speed by dragging your feet and turning. Great ride.

If you have fond memories of the old ''Flexible Flyer'' sled, you're gonna go nuts over the new, Vermont-made Hammerhead (www.hammerheadsled.com). It's extremely comfortable to ride on, steers in much the same way, but has skis instead of the narrow runners. You can even change the skis to suit different snow conditions-narrow for hard snow, wide for deeper powder. In my experience, they work best on firm but not hard snow. If you want to try them out, Tenney Mountain (603-536-4125, www.tenneymtn.com ) in Plymouth, N.H. rents Hammerheads and runs Saturday afternoon sled races

Finally, there's the Mad River Rocket (www.madriverrocket.com), which is also made in Vermont. This sled has so much flotation and is so steerable you can even use it to sled in the woods, neatly carving turns around trees. You ride the Rocket by kneeling 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), but the control is amazing. Kids are doing jumps and flips with them. The Mad River Rockets excel in soft snow, but don't do as well on packed or groomed.

Any of these high tech gems will turn an ordinary winter day into playtime.

SLEDDING SAFETY

Ramping up the speed and maneuverability of sleds also means ramping up the opportunity to have something go wrong. Like anything else, sledding safely requires the right gear and a dose of common sense.

First of all, dress properly. Sledding is so much fun, you might not notice how cold it is, so frostbite is a concern. Also, sledding alternates aerobic activity (climbing the hill) with an adrenaline rush (sliding down) so you want to be able to adjust your clothing. Unzip while you are climbing, and button up before your descend.

Good mittens or gloves are necessary not only for warmth but also to protect your hands from impacts; getting your fingers pinched between a sled and hard snow can hurt.

Modern sleds let you go places where sleds have never gone before. If you are sledding in the woods, on narrow trails or around any obstacles (such as other sledders) or on hard snow, wear a ski helmet and goggles to protect your head and eyes. You get snow in the face on these sleds, and the goggles will help you see where you are going. Being able to steer isn't much use if you can't see where to go.

Finally, steerable sleds let you control your speed to some degree, but it's easier to maintain a safe speed than to slow down if you get going too fast.

Be safe, have fun.

ROMP TO STOMP

It's an annual event and a great excuse to get outdoors for a great cause: On Saturday, Stratton Mountain Resort (1-800-787-2886; www.stratton.com), in Stratton, Vt., hosts the Tubbs Romp To Stomp Out Breast Cancer to benefit the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation.

It's being held at the Nordic Center in the Sun Bowl at Stratton. Registration ($30 event day, checks or cash only) is from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. or you can pre-register online ($25) up to two days prior.

Participants who collect pre-event pledges will receive prize packages based on total individual or team funds raised. If you want to set up a personalized Online Fundraising Page, go to www.active.com/donate/tubbsVT.

At 9 a.m. there's a 3K Snowshoe Fun Race. The main event, a 3K or 5K Benefit Walk launches at 9:30. Tubbs will have 350 pairs of snowshoes available for the event on a first-come, first-served basis, but if you have your own snowshoes, bring them.

If you don't already have snowshoes of your own, purchase a pair of Tubbs Wilderness women's series shoes this season from event-sponsor EMS (www.ems.com) or other retailer and Tubbs will donate $5 per pair sold to the Komen Foundation.

In case you are wondering where the money goes: 75 percent of event proceeds fund grants in Vermont and New Hampshire for programs that focus on breast cancer screening, education and treatment. 25 percent supports research and education projects nationwide through Komen for the Cure's national grant program.

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