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How to shop for a sled, according to medical experts

You want a sled that’s maneuverable, stoppable and encourages proper sitting position.
You want a sled that’s maneuverable, stoppable and encourages proper sitting position.
You want a sled that’s maneuverable, stoppable and encourages proper sitting position.Imgorthand / Getty Images

Whether it’s because the next snowstorm is looming or because you saw a certain TikTok video, you may be considering buying a sled this winter. And though it’s natural to want to prioritize high speeds, low prices and light weight (so you can haul it back up as quickly as possible), experts told us the most important things to look for are safety features.

SKIP AHEAD Highly rated sleds | Tips for safer sledding

We asked medical experts what to look for in sleds when you’re considering buying one for you and your kids. Though there’s always a risk of injury in any outdoor activity, they had specific recommendations for sleds.

When it comes to safety, there’s no “perfect sled,” said Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist with practices in North Carolina and South Carolina. But you don’t need to be an emergency-room doctor or orthopedic surgeon to know when sledding isn’t safe, according to our experts.

“It’s a lot of common sense,” Geier said.

However, there are some features that help more than others. Experts told us to look for a sled that:

  1. Is easy to maneuver
  2. Is easy to stop
  3. Allows or encourages riders to sit in the safest position: facing forward with legs out front

According to Melanie Wuzzardo, a registered nurse and the injury prevention coordinator at Colorado’s Swedish Medical Center, most sledding injuries are caused by collisions, which is why you should look for sleds that you can control enough to help you avoid a tree or another sledder.

In addition, you should always take the proper precautions, such as choosing the right sledding location and using the proper equipment. And all sledders and observers should obey common sense rules, like getting out of the way of the field of oncoming sledders, ensuring adult supervision and not letting very young children sled alone.

Top-rated sleds of 2022

Since we don’t test sleds ourselves, we turned to experts for guidance on how to shop for sleds. Based on their recommendations, namely that a sled should be steerable, stoppable and promote proper sledding form, we picked the following highly rated sleds.

Flexible Flyer Sled

Among sleds, Geier said he admired the old-fashioned “wooden ones with metal blades” for their sturdiness. Weighing 12 pounds and 48 inches long, this solid, classic-style sled with its steel runners and birch frame lets you steer either with your feet or by attaching a rope (not included) to the front. Recommended for ages 5 and older, it holds up to 250 pounds according to the company. It has an average rating of 4.6 stars from over 700 reviews on Amazon.

Spyder Shredder

A foam snow sled from the popular skiwear company Spyder, this sled offers control via under-sled rails and rubber-mounted grip handles, according to the company. It’s about 48 inches long and relatively light at 4 pounds. It has an average rating of 4.3 stars from over 100 reviews on Amazon.

SportsStuff Classic Plastic Snow Sled

Let’s say you just want a very basic, very affordable sled. This 35-inch-long plastic sled is steerable through its molded plastic handles and directional channels. It has an average rating of 4.6 stars from over 3,700 reviews on Amazon.

L.L.Bean Kids’ Pull Sled and Cushion Set

If you have very little ones, it may make sense to “opt out of big sledding hills for toddlers and babies and stick to towing them around in a pull sled instead,” according to Wuzzardo. In that case, you may want to consider this pull sled, which, according to L.L.Bean, is built to last from kiln-dried northern hardwood that will endure long enough even for families with several children. It’s only 31 inches long and narrower than most of the other sleds on our list at 14.5 inches, but there’s also a larger model 8 inches longer and 3 inches wider for another $20. It has an average rating of 4.8 stars from over 200 reviews at L.L.Bean.

Tips for safe sledding

A December 2020 study by the Center for Injury and Research Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, found that 220,488 people were treated in U.S. emergency departments for sledding-related injuries from 2008 to 2017.

“It’s a dangerous activity, that’s for sure,“ Geier said.

Sledding accidents can cause lasting damage. Geier said they most commonly cause head injuries and concussions — he noted the damage was often to the upper extremities, speculating it’s typically caused by sledders putting “their arms out to break the collision.”

Safe sledding’s not particularly complicated, but there are a number of things to keep in mind, according to Geier and Wuzzardo. These include but aren’t limited to the following:

Where you should sled

Consult local laws. Sledding is dangerous enough that several municipalities across the country have banned it, Wuzzardo said. Make sure you’re not breaking the law before you go out.

Find a safe spot. Locations to avoid, including “hills with trees, big rocks, fences, poles, bumps or other obstacles or on hills that end near a lake, stream or pond (even if they are frozen), fence, trees, streets or parking lots,” Wuzzardo said. In general, the steeper it gets, the riskier it becomes, particularly if it doesn’t offer a “long level runoff at the end.”

Check ground conditions. “If you hit a patch of ice or it’s just generally icy, you lose any control,” Geier said. See whether that snowy hill really is snowy or actually frozen solid. If the latter, consider another slope or coming back another day.

Sled during the day. Accidents happen even when you can see where you’re going, and the dangers are compounded when it’s night out, Wuzzardo said.

What equipment to use when you sled

Know your sled. If there’s a weight limit or other restriction (say, on the number of passengers), obey it, our expert said.

Wear a helmet. Wuzzardo specifically recommended a “snow sport helmet or a multisport helmet.” She suggested that adults wear helmets, too, both to model safe behavior and because age doesn’t make a person “injury-proof.”

Remember, it’s winter. Dress warmly. Sledding collisions aren’t the only hazard when it’s cold out, Wuzzardo said.

But don’t wear clothes that could get tangled. Scarves especially, according to Wuzzardo, can get tangled under the sled or on objects in the environment and pose a strangulation hazard.

How to sled safely

Once you’re done, get out of the way immediately. It’s tempting to celebrate a successful ride by high-fiving your child at the bottom of the slope, but you and your child are both targets if an impatient friend is already racing downhill toward you.

Have an adult around. Wuzzardo said there should “always be an adult to supervise sledding,” particularly when children under 10 are involved. The grown-up can help make sure sledders go one sled at a time, when the hill is clear. This eliminates the risk of sleds colliding or crashing into kids hanging around the bottom of the hill after a run.

Small children shouldn’t sled alone. Especially small children, like toddlers, should always sled with an adult — in a sled that can be steered and stopped, according to Wuzzardo.

Don’t tow your sled from a car or other vehicle. It’s easy enough for a sled to go out of control in the best of times, but adding a motor vehicle to the mix is incredibly dangerous, she said.

If you can’t stop, roll sideways. If you’re going to hit something or somebody and can’t brake the sled in time, roll sideways off the sled so there isn’t a head-on impact, Wuzzardo said.

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