Tobogganing and Sledding – A History and Comparison

Tobogganing and sledding are both age-old ways to enjoy the snow. But what is the difference between these two winter activities and how did they start? There is more to both activities than meets the eye and the basic concept of both has been used to spawn fast and furious modern sports such as bobsledding and the Luge.

Toboggans are probably the simplest form of sledding. A toboggan takes the form of a simple sled which is curved in front and is placed directly onto the snow without the use of runners or skis to gain speed and direction on the underside. The sled can carry a single rider or a group of riders – usually children – and toboggans are traditionally made of bound, parallel wood slats which are bent at the front to form a ‘J’ shape. Traditionally, toboggans are controlled by means of a crude steering system whereby a piece of rope is fixed to the top of the loop and controlled by the feet of the person at the front of the sled.

Today toboggans are made of wood or aluminum and are a far cry from the traditional toboggans which were used for transport by the Innu and Cree Indians of northern Canada. The Olympic sport of bobsledding has its origins in the toboggan. The bobsled is essentially a curved front toboggan with sides walls and runners and the sled or sleigh is usually made of metal. Much heavier than their more rudimentary counterparts, they are capable of reaching neck-breaking speeds as they slide down carefully designed icy channels.

Sledding seems to be a much more common concept these days. A sled is similar to a toboggan but it makes use of skis on the underside of the sled in order to enable better control. Sledding has its origins in Switzerland in a small resort town of St. Moritz and the sport arose shortly after the arrival of English tourists in the early 1870s. These visitors had a lot of time and, since tourism was in its infancy, not much to do with it. They noticed the simplistic delivery sleds which were being used by young boys for odd jobs and discovered that these provided an excellent form of entertainment when sat on and pushed down a hill. These delivery sleds were basically toboggans and offered very little in the way of steering so it wasn’t long before these English tourists were devising ways of improving the steering capabilities of their sleds. With the help of creative Swiss craftsmen, they were soon able to successfully navigate their way through narrow lanes and down streets.

Before long they took to racing each other and soon the sport of competitive sledding was born. Soon the concepts of tobogganing and sledding were combined to create the sport phenomena known as bobsledding. Later Luge and Skeleton were developed. Today sledding has become a global phenomenon which continues to enjoy popularity with children and adults alike.