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Sleigh vs. Sled: What's the Difference?

Jake Rossen
This kid might be slaying the hill, but he's not sleighing it.
This kid might be slaying the hill, but he's not sleighing it. / DGLimages/iStock via Getty Images
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For people living in colder climates, a hillside covered in snow is a license to go sledding—usually while crouched on a plastic sled and ideally on a school snow day. But when is a sled a sleigh, and when is either one considered a toboggan? What’s the difference between the three of them?

According to Grammarist, a sled refers to any apparatus used for the purpose of traversing downhill on ice or snow. The bottom of the sled might have runners or a smooth bottom. It comes from the Middle Dutch word sledde; the British sometimes refer to a sled as a sledge.

A sled uses gravity to propel people downhill.
A sled uses gravity to propel people downhill. / Imgorthand/iStock via Getty Images

A sleigh (from the Dutch word slee) is different: It’s a sled on runners that's pulled by horses or reindeer, like the type of locomotion favored by Santa Claus. You wouldn’t use a sleigh unless you were being pulled by a service animal of some sort.

A sleigh uses animals for forward propulsion.
A sleigh uses animals for forward propulsion. / lisegagne/iStock via Getty Images

A toboggan (from the French Canadian word tabaggane) is a narrow type of sled, but one with a front that curves up and backward that makes it easier to cross more difficult terrain. There aren’t usually any runners underneath. Toboggans, which are typically made of lightweight wood, were once made by the Inuit out of whalebone. In the 1800s, tobogganing became a social pastime for adults, who would don semi-formal attire like dresses before shooting down a hill.

A toboggan has a swooping front.
A toboggan has a swooping front. / FatCamera/iStock via Getty Images

And what of the bobsled? That’s a sled with a steering mechanism added. Unlike sledding or sleighing, it’s an Olympic sport, though many athletes began their love of competition while sledding (not sleighing) on a school snow day.

[h/t Grammarist]

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