The Big Slide

We tried six ways to get down a snowy slope fast. Here's what gave us the best ride.

Focus On Sleds

February 01, 2004|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,Sun Staff

Mention a Flexible Flyer today, and a kid yawns.

Ask a kid if he'd like a ride on your old toboggan, and he looks at you like you belong in a nursing home.

There's one word a kid uses on the slopes today and one word only: plastics.

In an age of instant gratification, is there any wonder that even sledding equipment would get slicker? Today, the race is on to build sleds that are faster and lighter than ever before. No kid wants to schlep a sled up a slope; in fact, kids today are born thinking the sled should come to them. The very thought of toting something made of wooden slats and clunky metal runners kicks their whining into overdrive. Smart sled makers saw this day of entitlement coming and stocked their laboratories with plastic and fiberglass.

Some of the hottest rides on the market today are slippery plastic inner tubes of all shapes and sizes, built not for control but for speed. There are also lightweight plastic saucers, heavy-duty snowboards with and without straps for your feet, and super-thin boogie boards that look more like something you'd find at the beach. We asked a group of kids and grown-ups to give six a try.

The one thing almost all the sleds have in common is plastic. They may take eons to dissolve in a landfill, but, like a lot of things in this disposable society, we can say they were fun while they lasted.

WHERE TO BUY

Target, Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Sports Authority carry these products, but availability varies. A good place to start is www.wham-o.com.

Going the distance

In the world of sledding, there is a desire to part the trees, to smoke the mailbox, to reach the road. If ever there was hope of getting there, it came with Sledz's super-slick "Snow Racer" ($29.99). This is the long-distance runner, the marathon man, and that's why it's all over the neighborhood slopes. It's a boogie board like you'd find in Ocean City, except it has a fiberglass bottom, and the phrase "smooth as a baby's bottom" does not do it justice.

Shallow snow, deep snow: Doesn't matter. When the competition poops out in the powder, the Snow Racer keeps going.

Rating: ****

Heavy sledding

Wham-O's Boggan ($19.99) is built in the traditional style but made of a light-weight plastic. It provides a decent ride for adults riding with small children, but riding alone can make one feel like a pig in a trough. The Boggan got mixed reviews among our riders. Of the sleds we tried, it was the best-suited, it seemed, for riders who wanted to sit instead of lie down, but the braided rope was a joke when it came to steering.

In fact, steering of any kind was a joke.

In fact, it was like steering a battleship.

Rating: **

Stunt or stink?

There's something about pitching down a snowy hill that attracts a 10-year-old boy -- and all the fathers who watch him. Maybe it's the challenge. Maybe it's lost youth. Maybe the mothers are just smarter: You never hear a mother calls dibs on a snowboard.

No matter who tried Snowboogie's "Stuntboard" ($24.99), nobody at our hill had much success. It needed straps for your feet, for one thing. We also wondered if a flat-surface instead of a grooved bottom wouldn't help keep it from slipping away.

A sixth-grader among us called the Stuntboard the "stink" board. And the name stuck.

Rating: *

The crowd pleaser

One of the hottest things on sled slopes today is the inner tube, and now we know why. A big fat inner tube is like a big, fat uncle. Jolly and loveable. Good for a few laughs. Something more than one person can enjoy at the same time. Even the mothers like a spinning inner tube. It's a fast ride but about as harmless as Parcheesi.

The trick is to find one with sturdy plastic like SportsStuff's "Ameri-Sport" ($13.95). Beware of hills under trees, too. One sharp twig and you could be stuck with that big, fat deflated uncle for life.

Rating: ****

Tame game

Once, people were not ashamed to "borrow" cafeteria trays and use them as sleds. On some college campuses, this was de rigueur. We wished we had a cafeteria tray when we rode Riva's "Spacesaucer" ($5.99).

The Spacesaucer is perfect for a toddler. A toddler is so padded in a snowsuit that she doesn't feel every buried stick and walnut shell. A toddler won't strain the flimsy plastic. A toddler will never be humiliated, as a grown-up was, when the saucer broke into three pieces in front of a hill crowded with children who pointed and laughed.

Here's hoping this saucer gets lost in space.

Rating: *

Looks aren't everything

Ski-Doo's inner tube "Bullet" looked sooo good in the box. It was the most expensive thing we tried, at $41.95, so we wanted it to be tops. It was made of the sturdiest nylon and plastic; it had the most clever design and the best packaging; it even had directions in French.

On the slopes, the Bullet was not a dud, but it didn't live up to expectations. It was a good ride, a fast ride, and it provided the thrills of an inner tube, but its ridges and pads slowed it down.

How do you say "bummer" in French?

Rating: ***

RATING SCALE: **** Run, don't walk, to the nearest slope! *** An avalanche of action! ** "Come along, Grandma" * A downhill dud

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