A sled, sledge, or sleigh is a land vehicle with a smooth underside or possessing a separate body supported by two or more smooth, relatively narrow, longitudinal runners that travels by sliding across a surface. Most sleds are used on surfaces with low friction, such as snow or ice. In some cases, sleds may be used on mud, grass, or even smooth stones. They may be used to transport passengers, cargo, or both. Shades of meaning differentiating the three terms often reflect regional variations depending on historical uses and prevailing climate.
In Britain the three terms are generally quite similar in meaning, although sledge usually refers to a smaller sled, used mostly for freight, one that can generally transport no more than one or two persons with only a limited amount of cargo. Sledges may be pulled by dogs or other smaller animals, although confusingly a sledge pulled by a dog in British English is often referred to as a dog-sled. A small recreational sled, pulled by humans, can also be referred to as a sledge. Sleigh (pronounced "slay") remains largely a synonym for sled regardless of its capacity (and similarly in Canada).
In American usage sled remains the general term but often implies a smaller device, often for recreational use. Sledge implies a heavier sled used for moving freight or massive objects (syn. "stone boat"), while sleigh typically refers to a moderate- to large-sized, usually open-topped vehicle equipped with one or more passenger seats, essentially a cold-season alternative to a carriage or wagon, typically drawn by horses or (at least in the Santa Claus legend or in reference to Scandinavia) by reindeer.
The word sled comes from Middle English sledde, which itself has the origins in Old Dutch word slee, meaning "sliding" or "slider". The same word shares common ancestry with both sleigh and sledge.
Types of sleds
Sleds for recreational sledding
- Toboggan, an elongated sled without runners, usually made from wood or plastic
- Saucer, a round sled curved like a contact lens, also without runners and usually made out of plastic or metal
- Steel runner sled or flexible flyer, a steerable wooden sled with thin metal runners
- Kicksled or spark, a human-powered sled
- Inflatable sled or tube, a plastic membrane filled with air to make a very lightweight sled
- Foam slider, a flat piece of durable foam with handles and a smooth underside
Sleds for competitive sledding
A few types of sleds are used only for a specific sport:
- Bobsled (British bobsleigh), an aerodynamic composite bodied vehicle on lightweight runners
- Luge and the skeleton, tiny one or two-person sleds with runners
- Airboard, an inflatable single-person sled, similar to a hovercraft
- A cutter is a North American type of small horse-drawn sled
- Troika, a vehicle drawn by three horses, usually a sled, but it may also be a wheeled carriage
- In some regions, "sled"  is colloquial slang for a snowmobile
- In arctic regions, the Inuit qamutiq is uniquely adapted for travel on the sea ice
- Ahkio or pulka, a traditional sled of the Lapland region, originally pulled by reindeer; now more common as a human or snowmobile-towed sled often used for cold weather expeditions by mountain rescue teams and military cold weather units to haul equipment, supplies, and passengers
- In truck and tractor pulling, an implement pulled behind the machine which uses friction to stop the machine.
Sleds and sledges were found in the Oseberg "Viking" ship excavation. Sledges were useful not only in winter but can be drawn over wet fields, muddy roads, and even hard ground, if one helps them along by greasing the blades with oil or alternatively wetting them with water; in cold weather the water will freeze to ice and they glide along more smoothly with less effort to pull them. The sledge was also highly prized, because – unlike wheeled vehicles – it was exempt from tolls.
Man-hauled sledges were the traditional means of transport on British exploring expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic regions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Dog sleds were used by most others, such as Roald Amundsen. Today some people use kites to tow exploration sleds in such climes.
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