I'll always have a soft spot for the two-tiered hill in front of Bradley Hills Elementary School in Bethesda. That's where my sister and I dragged our red and blue plastic sleds on those rare and wonderful snow days and stayed until our socks and mittens were soggy, we'd performed the obligatory stuff-snow-into-your-sister's-jacket ritual and the slope turned from snow to muddy slush. When we got older, my dad drove us to the long, powdered hills at Stoneridge High School or the expansive ones behind the National Library of Medicine, where we plowed our way down multiple runs, sometimes two or three to a sled.
That kind of sledding, which was practically mandatory on snow days, seems positively innocent now. These days most park officials and private property owners are hesitant to advertise their hills to sledders for fear of injury-related lawsuits. (The Capitol, for one, specifically prohibits it.) Nevertheless, as long as there are kids, inclines and snow, there will always be sledding -- and there are as many ways to sled as there are sledding hills in the Washington area.
Anything flat with a slick bottom can be used to get you down a hill, although safety experts, including the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), recommend buying a sled with a steering device, such as those modeled on the classic runner sled, the Flexible Flyer, which generally sells for $50 or more. Plastic disc sleds, which are generally harder to steer, are available at many grocery, variety and hardware stores, often for less than $20. And if a snow day catches you without a sled, there's plenty of room for improvisation -- some sledders swear by a piece of cardboard inside a trash bag -- when looks don't matter and the only goal is getting downhill fast.
That goal, though, should be pursued with caution. "The safest thing is, don't go," says orthopedist Stephen Rockower of Capitol Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, reached at his Rockville office shortly after treating a sled-induced sprain.
The AAOS cautions sledders to wear helmets (a bike helmet, adjusted to fit over a hat, will do), get adult supervision and always take hills feet-first, avoiding rocks, fences, streets and other sledders. (As in real estate, the rule of thumb for safe sledding is location, location, location: Sledders should look for modest inclines free of rocks, trees, water and other dangerous obstacles.) In addition to the thrill of blazing a trail on freshly fallen snow, sledding on powder rather than icy, packed snow provides a little bit more traction, which can help sledders stay in control. "Look ahead and see what's down in front of you, and learn to know when to bail out before you hit a tree," says Rockower.
Safety is the key to a good time when the temperatures drop and we're graced with a sprinkling of powder. So the next time it snows, grab a sled -- and a helmet! -- and head for the hills.
Where to Sled
Sledding is a serendipitous undertaking -- there's no way to plan when you're going to do it, since it's dependent on the weather, and it's not much easier to plan where. Official bodies are loath to condone the practice. Yet every neighborhood has its sled-friendly slopes and there's no way for us to list them all.
The Parks and Recreation departments in the District of Columbia, Fairfax County and Prince William County recommend the hills below for sledding (no other area jurisdictions were willing to endorse specific locations).
Banneker Recreation Center, 800 Euclid St. NW.
Randall Recreation Center, South Capitol and I streets SW.
Friendship Recreation Center, 45th and Van Ness streets NW.
Lafayette Recreation Center, 33rd and Patterson streets NW.
Battery Kemble Park off Chain Bridge Road NW.
Fort Stevens Recreation Center, 1327 Van Buren St. NW.
Edgewood Recreation Center, Third and Evarts streets NE.
Rosedale Recreation Center, 17th and Gales streets NE.
Kenilworth-Parkside Recreation Center, 4300 Anacostia Ave. NE.
Fort Greble Recreation Center, Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Elmira Street SW.
Lake Fairfax Park, 1400 Lake Fairfax Dr., Reston (behind restrooms).
Mason District Park, 6621 Columbia Pike, Annandale (at the end of Meadow Trail).
Jefferson Manor Park, 2909 Farmington Dr., Jefferson Manor (at the shelter building).
Cardinal Forest Park, 6121 Roxbury Ave., Springfield (along the sewer easement).
Greenway Heights Park, 8203 Riding Ridge Place, Great Falls (through the stream valley property).
Westgate Park, 7550 Magarity Rd., McLean (behind second ball-field).
Prince William County
Locust Shade Park, 4701 Locust Shade Dr., Triangle (around the amphitheater and on the driving range).