Until just about yesterday, "sledding" connoted either a somnambulant slide on a Victorian-era Flexible Flyer or a kamikaze plummet on the engineering equivalent of a garbage-can lid. The metal runners of a traditional sled tend to gouge through soft snow like twin plowshares, and runnerless disks on an icy slope can reach (literally) breakneck speeds.
But according to Pete Kearns, sled buyer for Eastern Mountain Sports ( www.ems.com ), that's all ancient history thanks to the latest generation of conveyances designed, in varying combinations, for both velocity and control.
Welcome to the era of freesledding. "Today's sleds range from PG-rated thrill rides to Ferraris on snow," says Kearns. "But mainly they're a whole lot of fun." First, consider how far you intend to push the envelope, then pick a model that suits your style. When the next snow day comes around and your kids want to go sledding, you just might find yourself racing them to the door.
The Ride: Mad River Rocket Killer B ($99; www.madriverrocket.com )
The Concept : Thigh straps and foam knee pads help rider and plastic shell become one, allowing for exceptional handling. "You can go through deep powder, down supersteeps, even thread through woods," Kearns says.
The Technique : "Kneel and drag a hand just a little and the sled turns promptly," Kearns says. "It's also easy to do a hockey-skate stop. Just dig a hand in, lead the sled upslope, and skid to a halt."
The Ride: CherryMax Hammerhead ($299; www.hammerheadsled.com )
The Concept : The seat is a piece of mesh suspended over an aluminum frame, which Kearns says "makes for a very smooth, Cadillac ride." Optional fat skis can be snapped over the runners for better gliding in champagne powder.
The Technique : You can lie prone, but, says Kearns, "you're more comfortable sitting up and steering with your feet. Push right, go left and vice versa."
The Ride: Airboard Classic 130 ($279; www.airboard.com )
The Concept : In a word, says Kearns, "Speed. When you're going straight, it's as fast as a bobsled." Airboard's inflatable Classic 130 from Switzerland is basically a bodyboard for the snow, with side handles to grip and three ribs as runners. It excels on hardpack.
The Technique : Lie flat and steer by leaning your body. "But remember," Kearns cautions, "this one's built to move. Stick to open bowls or a wide-open sledding hill."
Green Mountains -- Warren, Vermont
Lincoln Gap Road, in Vermont's Mad River Valley, is closed to cars in winter, leaving a steep, unfettered run. Waitsfield-based Clearwater Sports leads Rocket-Shoeing trips (i.e., snowshoe up, sled down) in the gap ($55 per person; www.clearwatersports.com ).
Cascade Range -- Sisters, Oregon
Hoodoo Mountain Resort's Autobahn Tubing Park tows you up and lets you fly down 800 vertical feet on the screamer of your choice ($25 for a daylong pass; www.hoodoo.com ). Up to 16 chutes line the peak, depending on the amount of snow.
Rocky Mountains -- Minturn, Colorado
Meadow Mountain Tubing Hill ($20 an hour for a lift ticket; www.vail.snow.com ) has groomed, high-banked tracks and multiple lanes for sledders. No pesky skiers or boarders allowed. Located between Vail and Beaver Creek, the mountain is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.