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Published December 20 2012

Benshoof: Pushing it to the limit on the sledding hill

FARGO – If you’re reading this, the world hasn’t ended yet.

This is good news, as it means we may get some sledding in this winter after all.

Because of the lack of snowfall so far this season, the City of Fargo recently started making snow for the Dike East sledding hill. But with the impending end of the world, I was afraid I wouldn’t get a chance to use it.

Given this second chance, I decided to optimize my sledding experience this winter. To get some tips, I called up Andrew Croll, an assistant professor in the North Dakota State University physics department.

There are a number of different factors that go into the speed of one’s sled, Croll told me. One of these is friction, which occurs when there’s contact between the ground and the sled.

The more friction there is, the more likely your sled is going to be slowed down, Croll says. This is especially true if you have a sled with a larger surface area.

“If I had a lot of contact, like a big wide sled or a toboggan, that’s probably going to have more friction than a sled that just has runners,” he told me.

Another important detail to consider is the type of surface you’re sledding on, Croll says. But because you’re not going to be able to do a lot to change Fargo’s sledding hill (unless you’re at home and cover your hill with water to create a slick, dangerous speedway), you should focus on the material of your sled.

One example everyone might recognize is in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” when Clark Griswold sprays cooking oil on his sled to make himself go faster.

And go faster he does – all the way down the hill, through a forest, through a building, across a street and into a WalMart parking lot.

While the success of Griswold’s cooking spray technique was obviously a bit of cinematic embellishment, “in principle it makes sense,” Croll admits.

But even if you opt not to risk your life by adopting the Griswold method, there are simpler ways to increase your speed.

Take a cue from cross-country skiers, for example, and try applying some wax to the surface of your sled, Croll suggested.

Or, at the very least, clean your sled’s surface with a rag, or use sandpaper to smooth down bumps or scratches.

If you do decide to soup-up your sled this winter, remember to be safe, even though it may be “uncool” to wear helmets. Because, like Croll said, “at some point you do have to stop,” whether that means hitting a tree, car, house or another person.