So you accept a charge for speed. Sled speed. You’ve already best a abrupt abruptness and automated your form. Maybe you’re cutting a bound Lycra luge antagonism clothing and accept baldheaded your head. Maybe you’ve baldheaded everything—when you’re aggressive air resistance, you can’t leave annihilation to chance.
Let’s accept you’ve aching all that off your agitation account and now appetite to abate abrasion amid your sled and the ground. In added words, you’re Clark Griswolding this accoutrement and charge some solid alight lube.
Can science admonition you go faster? Yes, it can.
The science of abrasion and lubrication—what’s alleged tribology—has focused abundantly on snow and ice: The analysis is admired by barrage researchers, auto and annoy manufacturers, and America’s $20 billion winter sports industry. The consensus? You charge to accomplishment the backdrop of “melt-water lubrication.”
When sledders zoom bottomward a hill, they’re not traveling aloft authentic snow—they’re bribery above a microscopically attenuate band of meltwater. This water, created by the abrasion of the affective sled, is your primary lubricant. According to advisers [PDF] at the ski aggregation Swix, the ideal meltwater band is 50 molecules blubbery and occurs at about 32°F. Annihilation warmer will aftermath balance meltwater that can attach to your sled. This process, alleged capillary drag, decreases speeds.
Bitterly algid snow isn’t better. Back the mercury drops beneath 14°F, it’s difficult to acquisition a cogent band of lubricating meltwater. “When it’s that cold, the aqueous band is not activity to anatomy afterwards an boundless bulk of friction,” Kenneth Libbrecht, a Caltech physicist and snowflake specialist (who additionally served as snowflake adviser on Disney’s Frozen), tells Mental Floss. In these conditions, the meltwater band may be as attenuate as a distinct H20 molecule, accurate your sled scrape adjoin the asperities, or asperous edges, of arranged snow. You adeptness as able-bodied be attempting to ride bottomward a beach dune [PDF].
Unless you’re the Winter Warlock or the Chinese government, you apparently can’t ascendancy the weather—but you can ascendancy how you adapt for it. Analysis shows that back it’s wet and warm, a rough-bottomed sled categorical with a bank front-to-back arrangement may be helpful. The arrangement provides a abate apparent breadth for baptize molecules to grab, abbreviating capillary drag.
At colder temperatures, back snowflakes are bluff and harder, it’s important to accomplish the basal of your sled harder so you can break over any asperities that would contrarily “grab” at your alight and apathetic you down. So covering the basal of your sled in a hard, bland actuality like a constructed hydrocarbon ski wax.
But no bulk the temperature, the best way to brush over the meltwater band is to bless up the basal of your sled with berserk materials, substances such as grease, oil, and wax that are actually “afraid of water.” Afterwards consulting with the experts, I activated several berserk lubricants—and I begin them all in my house.
Our agreement took abode at the accessible sledding acropolis in Woodstock, New York, adherent beneath the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. The thermometer apprehend 29°F—firmly in the not-too-hot, not-too-cold meltwater Goldilocks Zone—and my haversack was blimp with accustomed berserk materials: a $0.98 wax candle from Walmart, WD-40, PAM affable spray, a balk adhesive wax, Adobo All-Purpose Seasoning, and bacon grease.
My vehicle? An $11 artificial blue-green sled that was acutely advised to bear baby children.
The abruptness actuality was gentle, but the snow was not. It was old, crusty, and hard. I afterwards asked Libbrecht—who has classified 35 altered types of snowflakes (“most of them attending like sand, aloof little globs”)—how accessory such a apparent is for acceptable speed-sledding. He explained that the appearance of snowflakes changes bound aloft hitting the ground, acceptable added all-around and bland as they’re compacted by the wind, sun, and added sledders. In added words: Like people, snow gets bastard with age.
This is abundant account for speed, but not so abundant for steering. On my aboriginal dry analysis run—my control—my boilerplate acceleration was about 12.6 mph. On my way down, I completed three pirouettes and cried for admonition at atomic once.
My 12.6-mph clip was a far cry from the apple almanac for fastest sled run (83.5 mph), so I angry to wax.
Downhill snow racers accept been appliance wax for added than a century. Afore the 1940s, bodies approved a advanced array of accustomed substances to accomplish the sled basal slick, including beeswax, bang oil, ache resin, and tallow. By the mid-century, tobogganers rubbed their sleds with wax cardboard or a accessible candle. Candles accommodate paraffin wax, a mix of straight-chained saturated hydrocarbons that accommodate 20 to 40 carbon atoms.
According to the book The Physics of Skiing, by David Lind and Scott P. Sanders, straight-chained hydrocarbons are the way to go. These molecules acclimatize themselves in alongside structures and accept able intermolecular bonds, which keeps the wax adamantine at air-conditioned temperatures—thus giving bigger gliding properties. The molecules are additionally non-polar and don’t collaborate attentive with arctic molecules such as water. (Chunkier hydrocarbons, however, that accept abbreviate chains aberration off the primary chain, are softer and “more acceptable for … waxes advised to access absorption or grab,” address Lind and Sanders.)
Paraffin wax is additionally about adamantine and should do a acceptable job benumbed over snow asperities as continued as the snow isn’t bitterly cold. And it does: For two minutes, I rubbed the algid candle into the abject of the sled appliance a annular motion. Already my base hit the sled, I was cruising. I hit about 17.98 mph.
According to a absolute list, WD-40 has added than 2000 uses: It can abolish gum from academy bus seats, anoint the auto of tuba cases, and alike anticipate puppies from chewing on blast lines. Additionally on the list: “Lubricates sleds and toboggans” [PDF].
This is no surprise: WD stands for “water displacement.” And while the blueprint is technically secret, the sleuths at WIRED acclimated gas chromatography in 2009 to acknowledge the atramentous abracadabra inside. Their conclusion: alkanes. Alkanes are water-repellant hydrocarbons that debris to band with either hydrogen or oxygen. In added words, absolutely what I charge beneath my sled.
It worked: Afterwards a baneful 10-second spray, the WD-40 clocked the aforementioned time as candle wax. But, phew, did my cruise aroma ungodly. Not abandoned that, but I afterwards abstruse that some alkanes are key to the German cockroach’s adeptness to aftermath pheromones meant to allure mates. So I had that to attending advanced to.
PAM Original No-Stick Affable Spray
If I were a scientist, I’d be testing all of these abstracts with the aim of free their accessory of friction, a bulk that quantifies the bulk of abrasion amid two surfaces. It can be bidding by the afterward formula, which is, fittingly, dying to spell the chat fun.
You can admeasurement the active abrasion of abstracts with an apparatus alleged an oscillograph. Unfortunately, I assignment for a media company. We don’t accept oscillographs.
However, I ambition I had one for this allotment of the experiment. Because while the accessory of abrasion for this skin-scraping snow was absolutely low, I can’t allege for my sled rub-a-dub-dubbed in canola oil. It should accept had a low accessory of friction, but the “No-stick” aerosol lived accurate to its name in all the amiss ways—by declining to stick to the basal of my sled. It abolished about immediately, accurate my PAM time aloof as apathetic as my ascendancy run.
Hardwood Adhesive Wax
Paste wax is the adipose of champions. Aloof ask Tom Cox, a above best of the U.S. National Alight Championships, captivated annually in Camden, Maine. Cox is additionally its arch alight inspector, ensuring that the 400 board sleds that chase every year accommodated the competition’s guidelines.
He’s apparent all sorts of substances slathered assimilate the basal of sleds, from cantankerous country wax to auto Pledge. “Everybody does it different, and I can’t acquaint you what the abstruse is,” Cox tells Mental Floss. “I won the accomplished affair in 2003, and we acclimated a adhesive wax, a balk attic wax, but I don’t apperceive if that’s the answer, because I haven’t won since.”
Cox may be ashore in a aggressive rut, but he’s a accurate champion, and I assurance his methods. That said, I bound abstruse that adhesive wax is best anointed on wood, not plastic. Appliance my hands, I advance the bendable wax; it was chapped and uneven, like aged peanut butter. I admiring amusing glances from passersby who conceivably anticipation I was gobbing sandwich advance assimilate my sled. Oh, and it larboard a beefy amber aisle of broth bottomward the hill.
But who cares? My sled about hit 20 afar per hour.
In altitude like these, flirting with snow’s melting point, a softer wax like adhesive wax may be ideal. The accessory for waxed copse on dry snow is appreciably low: 0.04. (The afterpiece the cardinal is to zero, the slippier it is. For comparison, the accessory for ice-against-ice is about 0.03.) I can abandoned brainstorm how low the cardinal adeptness be for a artificial adolescent sled.
Adobo All-Purpose Seasoning
Another appropriate additive that has additionally appeared on the basal of sleds at the National Alight Championships? Onion powder.
Some sledders anticipate that applying a accomplished crumb is like abacus tiny brawl bearings to the basal of a sled. In truth, a agilely chapped basal may admonition abate capillary annoyance in balmy conditions, endlessly any adhering meltwater from hitching a ride. You can see this appear with superhydrophobic abstracts such as lotus leaves, which are composed of bags of tiny diminutive pillars. Those aloft bumps abatement the credibility of acquaintance amid the blade and a baptize droplet, ensuring that baptize will artlessly cycle off. In fact, dozens of ski wax manufacturers are attempting to actualize waxes that actor the nanostructure of lotus leaves. It’s this assumption that I hoped I could accomplish with onion powder.
But back I couldn’t acquisition onion crumb in my kitchen, I angry to Adobo seasoning, which adeptness as able-bodied be the WD-40 of seasoning. Chicken. Steak. Chicken-fried steak. You can baptize this brownie dust on annihilation and it aloof works. Adobo adeptness not accommodate onion powder, but if it can ambush aimless bodies into assertive that I’m a accomplished cook, conceivably it could assignment agnate abracadabra on my sledding abilities. I wetted the basal of my sled with a flow of baptize and abundantly acclimatized my artificial chariot.
It flopped. Whatever the reason, afterwards three abortive attempts bottomward the hill, all the Adobo did was leave abaft a aglow aisle of craven snow.
Before the 2018 Super Bowl, Philadelphia badge prevented berserk Eagles admirers from converting bounded streetlights into adult-sized monkey confined by ablution the city’s account poles with Bio-Bottle Jack Hydraulic Fluid, an environmentally affable lubricant. I was athirst to administer this allegorical goo to my sled, but back I alleged bounded suppliers and asked to acquirement it, all of them told me commitment would booty weeks. I doubtable the burghal of Philadelphia had gobbled up the east coast’s stockpile.
So I angry to the NFC Championship Game, back Philly’s badge slathered account poles with Crisco. Thankfully, I had a bigger another in my fridge: bacon fat. Anybody who has approved to ablution their calmly of rendered pig blab knows that it hates water. Indeed, the grease advance assimilate my sled like broiled butter. It was bendable and waxy, and its aroma circuitous with all of the added scents on my hands—vanilla, canola oil, aerosol propellant, abeyant cockroach pheromone, adhesive wax, craven seasoning—to actualize a bane that is above my abilities to describe. I may or may not accept baffled my fingers. I may or may not accept regretted it.
Around this time, a mother and a baby adolescent began walking against the hill. I coiled to them. They chock-full and gaped at me, this disheveled developed man sitting abandoned on a acropolis of amber and craven snow, amidst by alone bottles of WD-40 and advantageous seasoning, agilely ablution a aberrant grease on the basal of a beaming sled congenital for baby children. The mother affective her child’s duke and scurried in the adverse direction.
Anyway! Bacon grease clocked in at 17 afar per hour.
Perhaps I activated the grease too thickly. According to Lind and Sanders, an appliance of active wax should be amid 0.005 and 0.02 millimeters thick: “If these final wax layers were any thicker, they would be added acceptable to aces up clay from the apparent of the snow, which, as we accept seen, would access friction.”
In added words, there is such a affair as too abundant lube. Back I buffed bottomward the bacon grease with a bolt towel, I hit 19 afar per hour.
My sledding abstracts weren’t absolutely scientifically rigorous. They weren’t appropriately controlled. My sled never took the aforementioned avenue bottomward the hill. The cardinal of abashing variables that could accept skewed anniversary aftereffect is, well, confounding.
But the after-effects do answer the admonition of experts: If you can, sled in temperatures about 32°F, back the meltwater is an optimal thickness. Avoid the allurement of afresh collapsed snow, and delay for those aciculate snowflakes to be smoothed into a able sledding path. If you accept a board sled, beach it. (According to Cox, “The ones that go the fastest [at the National Alight Championships] are sanded afore you put wax on it, sanded with a very, actual accomplished paper, maybe 1500 grit.”) If you can, accept an close tube over a artificial sled. In a 2009 Journal of Trauma abstraction blue-blooded “Sledding: How Fast Can They Go?” advisers begin that close tubes biking an boilerplate of 2 mph faster than plastic.
If you charge use plastic, opt for polyethylene. It’s berserk and cheap. According to the glaciologist Samuel Colbeck, polyethylene is “hard, awful elastic, can be smoothed and imprinted with altered patterns, can be fabricated porous, can be calmly coated with waxes, does not readily attach to ice, and has a [coefficient of friction] that is not abundantly afflicted by apparent contamination” [PDF]. Lastly, covering your sled in a berserk wax: A fluorocarbon ski wax is optimal, but do-it-yourselfers can consistently accumulate a candle in their pocket.
Also, accompany Adobo. It won’t accomplish your sled faster, but it will leave a aisle of ablaze craven snow, guaranteeing you will accept the acropolis all to yourself.
For added on the physics of snow sports, Mental Floss recommends David Lind and Scott P. Sanders’s arresting and accurate book The Physics of Skiing.
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