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A sled, sledge, or sleigh is a land vehicle with a smooth underside or possessing a separate body supported by two or more smooth, relatively narrow, longitudinal runners that travels by sliding across a surface. Most sleds are used on surfaces with low friction, such as snow or ice. In some cases, sleds may be used on mud, grass, or even smooth stones. They may be used to transport passengers, cargo, or both. Shades of meaning differentiating the three terms often reflect regional variations depending on historical uses and prevailing climate.
In Britain the three terms are generally quite similar in meaning, although sledge usually refers to a smaller sled, used mostly for freight, one that can generally transport no more than one or two persons with only a limited amount of cargo. Sledges may be pulled by dogs or other smaller animals, although confusingly a sledge pulled by a dog in British English is often referred to as a dog-sled. A small recreational sled, pulled by humans, can also be referred to as a sledge. Sleigh (pronounced "slay") remains largely a synonym for sled regardless of its capacity (and similarly in Canada).
In American usage sled remains the general term but often implies a smaller device, often for recreational use. Sledge implies a heavier sled used for moving freight or massive objects (syn. "stone boat"), while sleigh typically refers to a moderate- to large-sized, usually open-topped vehicle equipped with one or more passenger seats, essentially a cold-season alternative to a carriage or wagon, typically drawn by horses or (at least in the Santa Claus legend or in reference to Scandinavia) by reindeer.
The word sled comes from Middle English sledde, which itself has the origins in Old Dutch word slee, meaning "sliding" or "slider". The same word shares common ancestry with both sleigh and sledge.
A few types of sleds are used only for a specific sport:
Sleds and sledges were found in the Oseberg "Viking" ship excavation. Sledges were useful not only in winter but can be drawn over wet fields, muddy roads, and even hard ground, if one helps them along by greasing the blades with oil or alternatively wetting them with water; in cold weather the water will freeze to ice and they glide along more smoothly with less effort to pull them. The sledge was also highly prized, because - unlike wheeled vehicles - it was exempt from tolls.
Man-hauled sledges were the traditional means of transport on British exploring expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic regions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Dog sleds were used by most others, such as Roald Amundsen. Today some people use kites to tow exploration sleds in such climes.
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