What is the Difference Between a Sled and a Toboggan?

Mary McMahon

Sleds and toboggans are both used to transport people and goods on terrain that has a limited amount of friction, such as snow or ice. Both have been widely used in northern climates since before the invention of the wheel. Sleds and toboggans appear in sporting events, children's winter games, and as a mode of transit in some regions. While similar in concept, the sled and the toboggan are different in construction.

Sledding is a very popular activity in many snowy countries.
Sledding is a very popular activity in many snowy countries.

A sled is composed of a flat surface with runners or rails attached. The surface of the sled is lifted off the snow by the runners, which glide along the top of the snow. Sledding is a popular outdoor sport in many snowy countries. For downhill sledding, no power is needed because the weight of the sled and its rider will pull the sled forward. For flat ground, some sort of energy is needed, and usually provided by livestock. When attached to livestock such as horses, a sled is often referred to as a sleigh or sledge.

A toboggan is an even surface which is turned up in the front.
A toboggan is an even surface which is turned up in the front.

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While sleighs have romantic connotations for most modern humans, they were the primary mode of transportation in ice bound countries until the twentieth century. Some regions of the world still rely heavily on sleighs for transport when roads are inaccessible. A sleigh can be very lightweight, designed to bear two to three humans and a minimal amount of luggage, or it can be designed for heavier use. In some northern countries, sleigh rides are popular winter events, and usually end in a warm lodge with hot beverages and a fire.

Some sleds are made to be pulled by dogs.
Some sleds are made to be pulled by dogs.

A relative of the sled is the bobsled, which is a long narrow sled equipped with a steering mechanism. The bobsled is designed for speed, and usually accommodates one or two people for racing. Originally, a bobsled was made by joining two sleds together, although modern bobsleds are built specifically for bobsledding use. Bobsleds are used for sport in many northern countries, and also appear in the Winter Olympics.

Huskies are popular sled dogs.
Huskies are popular sled dogs.

A toboggan, or flat sled, is an even surface which is turned up in the front. A traditional toboggan is made from wood, although other substances can be used as well. No runners are fitted onto a toboggan-the toboggan is itself a giant runner. Toboggans can be dragged across the ground by people, dogs, or other livestock, and appear to have originated in Canada. The term for a toboggan comes from the Micmac Indians of Canada.

Toboggans have limited steering ability from the deck of the toboggan, although people or animals harnessed to it can direct it. Sleds can be steered from inside with the use of cables attached to the runners, which will rotate them as desired. Sleds and toboggans come in all sizes, from cheap plastic children's toys to large industrial models designed to move large amounts of heavy equipment and supplies in northern areas.

The bobsled is designed for speed.
The bobsled is designed for speed.

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Discussion Comments


We used to rent wooden toboggans and run them down a chute at a local park. Sleds were only allowed on a big hill on the other side of the park. I think the worst ones were the round disks with handles. Steering and braking were impossible, and I was always running into people who were climbing back up the hill.

The toboggan chute was closed permanently after the mayor broke his leg during a run. Someone forgot to remove some of the security bars at the end of the course and his toboggan went flying out.

Interesting. I always had it backward growing up here in northern Indiana: I referred to all the flat plastic and wooden vessels as sleds and the ones with the rails as toboggans.

The Flexible Flyer sled was always a beast going downhill. It was quick and actually someone maneuverable on packed or not-as-thick snow, but it didn't work very well if the snow was deeper than a few inches, which generally was the case here. Most of us downhill kids preferred saucer or inflatable sleds ... err ... toboggans, since they stayed on top of the snow's surface and packed the snow down as it went, picking up speed no matter how deep the snow got.

So if you're looking for no-frills speed without much maneuverability in any snow, pick a toboggan type. If the snow is packed or not as deep and you prefer to be able to steer somewhat, grab a Flexible Flyer or similar sled.

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