MAKING THE GRADIENT

TRIED & TESTED: It's snowing outside, but your faithful old tea tray is bent and rusty. Time to invest in a real bob or sledge? Our panel takes to the slopes
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The Independent Culture
Even if you don't have access to a snowy hillside, many dry ski slopes permit sledging, as long as your vehicle's runners are no narrower than a ski.

THE PANEL

Our panel included two snow specialists, ski and snowboard instructor Kevin Smith, and Terry Benford, manager of Skewbridge Ski School. The adult amateurs were Howard Denton, and Joe Pigeon; along with Steve Caplin, Carol Homden and their children Fred, six, and Joe, three; and Simon and Dawn Trevor-Roberts, plus offspring Katy, four, and Tom, six.

THE TEST

We went to the Brentwood Leisure Centre Ski and Snowboarding School (01277 215151) to try out a variety of sledges, bobs and luges (traditional wooden sledges are not thought suitable for the artificial surface). Two things worth remembering: the closer a sledge is to the ground, the safer it is; and lightweight plastic doesn't hurt when it falls on top of you.

*LASERLUGE

pounds 44.95

This American-made luge has a contoured plastic seat and backrest which are almost horizontal to the ground and taper into long front runners. Lie on your back, grip the handles, and steer by pressing the outer edge of the runners with the inside of your legs.

The Laserluge is recommended for users aged 10 and over. Kevin Smith said, "We already use these on the ski slopes." But the opinions of the amateur sledgers ranged from fearful (Steve Caplin: "This is a professional sledge. It feels as though it could get out of control.") to unimpressed (Carol Homden: "Leaning back means you have to be more determined, but anyone reasonably active could handle this.") The Laserluge's promoters aim to set up special slopes covered with Powder Pak for speedy luging. Meanwhile this product, sold as being fast and exciting, is "quite sluggish" (Dawn Trevor-Roberts) on a dry slope, despite lubrication from water, ejected from its interior.

***PAN BOB

pounds 2.99

The ultimate in portable snow equipment, the Pan Bob is a thin, pliable circle of plastic with an integral loop handle, which is alleged to slide equally well on wet grass, frozen ground or snow. Many of the testers had used pan-bobs on the narrow, icy paths of ski resorts. "You just sit on them, holding the handle, push yourself off and go careering down to the village," related Howard Denton. The only health risk, it seems, is the strain put on your neck by having to hold your head off the ground - something equally true of the Swiss bobs and luges. Everyone liked the price. "This is great," said Simon Trevor-Roberts, "it's so minimal, although you can't control it, except by praying. I'd keep one in the car in case it snows."

****FUN BOB

pounds 5.50

The Fun Bob takes the form of a large plastic saucer with grab handles. Sit on it and slide, or spin, towards the bottom of the hill at great speed, with no brakes or sense of direction. "It's the fastest of all the sledges, and the maddest," enthused Joe Pigeon, and all the children agreed. Other adults were more cautious: "It's slightly alarming," said Carol Homden. "You're very close to the ground and you spin round and go backwards, like on a fair- ground waltzer." "It's appalling," protested Steve Caplin, "uncontrollable and terrifying." But it was hard to deny the thrill of the Fun Bob, or its low cost. Perhaps you just need an open slope and bags of soft snow.

*****SWISS BOB

pounds 18.95

Despite their size - the Swiss Bob is marketed as being no bigger than two telephone directories - these colourful, air-cushioned plastic seats with handles turned out to be the winners in our trial for their lightness, speed and simplicity. Kevin Smith thought they were "best for under 10s," but that didn't stop the adult sledgers enjoying them. Dawn Trevor-Roberts declared: "This is my favourite because it's so firm and solid, not bendy like the cheaper ones and it goes fairly straight and smoothly. You control it by simply sticking your heels down. I'd buy one for myself just to have fun." The cushioning was found to protect against the cold of an icy slope, and Simon Trevor-Roberts, who developed a nifty way of turning by putting his gloved hand down, pointed out: "It's easy to walk back up the hill with - no bigger than a handbag."

**SNOWFOX BOB SLEDGE

pounds 18-19

Available in jolly colours which stand out in the snow, this sturdy, injection-moulded plastic sledge has a seat and footwell and depends on yellow plastic hand-brake levers on each side to stop. This confused the children, who instinctively held on to the tow rope instead of the brake levers. The Snowfox was not their favourite, and, as Steve Caplin remarked, "The rinky-tink handles are supposed to dig spikes down into the snow, but they feel as if they'll break. It's a comfortable sitting position, though."

***ROLLY TOYS SKI BOB

pounds 50-60

For the little boys among our testers, this purple sledge with a raised seat, parallel ski runners, a miniature steering wheel and front like a motorbike was the most instantly appealing. They fought over it, sat on it two at a time and then came back for more, which made the parents think it was good value, in spite of the price. Parental indulgence waned as soon as they realised the bob was too unwieldy to be dragged back up the hill by small children. "It's good because it's got stars on [the front] and you can steer it," explained Joe Caplin. But Kevin Smith declared the Ski Bob to be too high: "The kids are bouncing a lot on it, and the adults might overturn it. The steering isn't as responsive as it should be and there are no brakes. It could slip over." Fred Caplin listened patiently, but insisted, "I like driving."

***ROLLY TOYS SLEDGE

pounds 20

This red, injection-moulded plastic model with yellow handles above aluminium brake levers won points for the way its brake levers dug robustly into the snow or dry ski surface and instantly allowed testers to steer around trees and people. Simon Trevor-Roberts complained that the seat "gets you right in the back," but then it probably wasn't designed for children over 6ft tall.

***TP ACTIVITY TOYS BLUE SLEDGE

pounds 14.95

In plain blue, with no seat or footwell but smooth, graceful lines like a canoe and a plaited blue and red cord to steer, this sledge won points because you could, if you were inclined, lie flat on your front in it. This was Dawn Trevor-Roberts favoured position because "it's more exciting with your face close to the surface, and if you get into trouble you just roll over." Sit-up sledgers found the string "too thin to hold on to" (Carol Homden), which meant the steering was haphazard, but tucking their feet inside made them feel safe. According to Terry Benford, this type of sledge is "what we call a salad bowl in the trade; and you can't control it at all because your feet are inside."

STOCKISTS

Laserluge and Swiss Bob available by mail order, tel: 01933 359939; Snowfox, Pan Bob and Fun Bob, tel 01604 410181; Rolly Toys, tel: 01843 604448; TP Activity Toys, tel: 01299 827728. !

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