You don’t have to be under 18 to get a big kick out of sliding on snow.
My red plastic sled hovered over the edge of the snowy embankment and teetered like a stunt car on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
I nudged it forward and dropped with a whoosh as my heart climbed into my throat. Leaning back and pulling on the towrope, my sled hopped to the top of the powder and picked up speed, screaming down the hill until an unseen bump sent me airborne.
For a moment, my body was a tangle of limbs. My vision flickered with snow-sky-snow-sky until I landed in a great cloud of powder, eventually coming to a halt upside down and backward, with snow coating my smile.
Organized sledding areas
If backcountry sledding is too extreme for your crew, there are plenty of sledding parks and commercial tubing hills from which to choose:
• Lake Wenatchee State Park and Hyak Sno-Park have groomed hills that allow sleds. Details: parks.state.wa.us/647/Snow-Play-Sno-Parks.
• In national parks, sledding is generally prohibited with the exception of designated areas at Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park and Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park.
• Tubing parks with tow ropes can also be found at the Summit at Snoqualmie, Echo Valley at Lake Chelan, Suncadia Resort (near Cle Elum), Leavenworth Ski Hill, Whistler Blackcomb Resort (B.C.) and at Loup Loup Ski Bowl, in Okanogan County.
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When you’re in the backcountry, sleds aren’t just for little kids, and crashing is half the fun.
Some of my favorite “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoons were those where the companions tobogganed through the woods. They captured the wild, slightly-out-of-control excitement that sledding offers. It’s an emotion that we adults rarely embrace, yet hop on a sled and you’re instantly transported to your younger days.
Sledding in deep snow is the adult version of what you did as a kid, but it’s a lot different from racing down icy neighborhood streets.
This winter we’ve seen big snow dumps in Northwest mountains, making conditions perfect for finding your own personal sledding hill.
The first time I tried wilderness sledding I was visiting Scottish Lakes High Camp, near Stevens Pass in the Central Cascades.
My group borrowed some sleds for an afternoon snowshoe hike and while the high country is better known for skiing, we learned that bombing down snowy basins on sleds could be just as much fun as carving turns on skis.
After the first few runs pack down your course, you start to achieve terrific velocity, and sleds frequently veer offcourse into untracked powder where riders disappear into epic billows of snow.
Full-speed wipeouts happen on nearly every run, but there’s a freedom to uncontrolled plummets. When you do crash, it’s like tumbling onto several feet of pillows.
In fact, if you make good decisions, it’s hard to get hurt.
Making good choices
Let me say this very clearly: Sledding is one of the most dangerous activities you can do in the winter. My sister is an ER nurse at Seattle Children’s hospital and she tells me that they’re flooded with sledding injuries whenever it snows in Seattle.
But with some good basic decisions, you can minimize your risk.
A classic mistake for city sledders is to choose a run that ends in traffic. I see people doing this all the time: Their run crosses a busy street where neither sledder nor car can stop quickly.
Remember, your run-out will get longer as the snow compacts, so think ahead to the hazards such as fences or frozen ponds where you’ll eventually finish.
Other sledders are another big danger. I still have a scar on my cheek from a childhood accident when my friends dropped their metal sleds and ran away seconds before I smashed into them. Make sure the run is clear before you begin.
In the backcountry, the biggest hazards are usually trees or buried stumps.
Ideally you want a steep, wide-open slope with a gradual ending. Your hill needs to be steep enough to gain speed, but not so steep that you could trigger an avalanche, so it’s best to learn about avalanche terrain and check local conditions before you start. A free class through the Northwest Avalanche Center (nwac.us) will help you recognize problem areas.
And whenever you sled, think seriously about wearing a helmet.
Choose the right sled
Sled design has evolved to include a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some are good choices for thick snow while others are better for hard-packed streets.
Old fashioned Flexible Flyer sleds with metal runners just sink in deep snow, and those that are shaped like boogie boards don’t ride well on powder. Brakes and steering controls are basically worthless.
The best backcountry choices are the classics: toboggans, tubes and saucers. Many are light enough to carry when you go snowshoeing, in case you find a good sliding spot.
A variation of the toboggan that I’ve had success using is the utility tote. These are high-walled, multi-purpose sleds designed for hauling firewood or gear that also double as excellent powder riders (shappell.com/sleds.html).
If you want to get really creative, you can try using river kayaks or inflatable rafts. These are better for longer runs and can be steered with your hands or paddles.
Where to go
The beauty of backcountry sledding is that you can do it almost anywhere that’s steep and free of hazards. The best spots I’ve found were off snowshoe trails in logged or thinned National Forest areas with no protruding stumps.
Forest Service roads are sometimes steep enough to use, especially if you find a good chute between the switchbacks. Mountain areas with power lines are good options because the lines often cross steep terrain and they’re free of large trees.