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Rocket Science

Updated: Mar 22, 2022

How Mad River Rocket forever changed the sport of sledding


On a picturesque and snowy mountain, winding tracks are being carved through a porcelain ocean of pristine and fluffy powder. Coasting down the slope with confidence and control, focused athletes are weaving around obstacles while gracefully maintaining their balance. When the riders reach the bottom of their run, there are no parking lots or lift lines in sight. They aren’t skiing or snowboarding at a commercial winter resort – they are blazing a fresh trail down a backcountry mountainside on a Mad River Rocket sled.

As the finest high-performance powder sled currently available on the market, the Mad River Rocket has built a dedicated following over the past several decades. According to Mad River Rocket founder Dave Sellers, the original sleds came as a result of a long and exhaustive period of development. Dave recalls that one of the sled’s early prototypes provided an especially exhilarating – albeit hazardous – riding experience. “One of the most enjoyable phases was where we tested out a foam mattress wrapped in polyurethane. Four to five people could get on at a time. It was incredibly fun, but the problem was that they were impossible to control. We would run into trees and then bounce off of them back down the mountain with no idea where we were going. Borrowing someone’s mattress and hiking up the hill was also incredibly impractical.”

Dave says that during the development process, the time that he spent with the Mad River Valley’s resident Olympic boater Bill Heinzerling had an incredible formative impact on the project. “I spent some time canoeing and kayaking with Bill, and it dawned on me that in order to achieve optimum control of the sled, the rider needed to be on their knees – similar to the stance of a canoer. The problem was that with a lightweight plastic sled, it was nearly impossible to stay on while sliding down the hill on your knees. The first ‘Bingo!’ moment came when we attached a rope across the sleds to hold our knees in place. It was a good start, but the sleds still didn’t have any control on the snow.”

Dave remembers that another epiphany occurred when he met with Jim Henry, the founder of Mad River Canoe Company. “We went to Jim, and he showed us how to make molds and how to make a new style of sled. He made several sleds in his molding machines with Royalex® plastic. Unfortunately, the sleds were still unwieldy and awkward. They were big enough to hold someone, but control remained an issue. It was then that David ‘Chainsaw’ Wolffe built a custom vacuum-molding machine for our sled making operation. David was working with Larz Barber at the Northern Power Windmill Shop in Warren. Larz also pitched in and helped to make sleds in the basement of the International Order of Odd Fellows building in Warren. It was incredibly gratifying work, but it required more time than any of us had. That’s when we went back to Jim, who suggested that we reach out to area shops that handled custom vacuum-molding. We found one in Chicopee, Massachusetts. They made a custom mold out of fiberglass for their machines. We started getting reliable sled shells, and we were able to refine and trim the design. We installed pads and knee straps, and the original Mad River Rocket sled was born.”

After years of running Mad River Rocket, Dave Sellers passed the company on to his son, Parker Sellers, who currently serves as Mad River Rocket’s President. Parker says that in addition to the recreational value of the sleds, his father was also motivated by an intrinsic desire to create an environmentally sustainable winter sports experience. “My father and his friends really loved winter sports, and they were also very environmentally conscious. They wanted to create an enjoyable alternative to skiing that didn’t require the use of energy intensive lifts. Their goal was to be able to hike up the mountains, sled down, and enjoy all of the natural beauty and fun of winter sports in Vermont without

infrastructure and fossil fuels.”

Parker says that after word of the sleds spread throughout the local community, the business continued to expand beyond the Mad River Valley. “Originally, it was just my father’s friend group using the sleds, but local residents began to take notice over the first few years. There were a lot of great sledding spots in the Mad River Valley that were perfect for younger kids and families. People would take our sleds to different backyards and mountains, where other people would ask about them and try them out. From there, it just spread via word of mouth. One of the first local vendors who ever sold our sleds was Barry Bender at Clearwater Sports in Waitsfield, Vermont. His involvement and input helped to grow the business and improve the design of the sleds from the very beginning. It was great to have that type of community support early on. Barry actually still sells and rents out our sleds at his shop to this day.”

Parker recalls that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Mad River Rocket tried to focus on rapid growth, through sales and partnerships with corporate chain stores. “Although we were able to grow our sales, the numbers didn’t add up for our business. We ultimately decided to shift our focus to quality and innovation and let the product sell itself organically. Today, the majority of our customers come from word of mouth or exposure on social media. They purchase our sleds through direct online sales, or from the independent stores that we sell our sleds to. We think that it’s incredibly important that every sled is made with care and precision. The responses from our customers have been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve gotten some really great video submissions on our social media from riders throughout New England, as well as the Midwest, Colorado, Alaska, and Utah. We also have riders and customers in other countries, such as Switzerland and Japan. It’s very fulfilling to see the Mad River Rocket community continue to grow and thrive.”

Parker adds that although Mad River Rocket sleds are easy to learn how to ride, there are several key guidelines that are important to keep in mind whenever you head out on the slopes. “It’s tempting to play a passive role when you’re sledding, and just hold onto the sled while you’re going downhill and wait for things to happen. With a Mad River Rocket sled, that’s not what you want to do. What you need to do is hold your arms out for balance. To steer the sled, you have to actively engage your body in the same way that you would when you are leaning on a bicycle. If you lean to the left, it steers to the left, and vice versa. You have to be an active participant. You have to use your body to push the sled where you want it to go. Since you are connected to the sled with a strap, you can twist your upper body to turn the sled, as well. If you want to do an even tighter turn, you can lean in and drag your hand on the snow. If you push hard enough, you can even do a ‘hockey stop’, where you slide, lean and drag at the same time. We actually designed the newer version of the sleds with that in mind. The updated sleds have an extra little edge on the side underneath. The edge points outward and upward, so it only touches the ground when you do an exaggerated lean and drag. It’s meant to engage the snow when you’re sliding sideways on packed snow. With deep powder conditions, you can also stop or slow down by leaning back and dragging both hands in the snow. That’s particularly useful on steeper backcountry terrain.”

Parker emphasizes that another important thing to keep in mind is that the density and quality of the snow largely impacts the speed and maneuverability of the sled. “Mad River Rocket sleds perform very well in all types of winter environments – with the exception of incredibly icy and slippery surfaces – but they truly excel in powdery snow. They have a big bow on the front of the sled that plows the snow to the side with incredible efficiency. The sleds also feature what my father Dave referred to as an ‘inverted keel’ design underneath. In other words, the trail that the sled leaves behind looks a lot like a monorail track. With just a few inches of snow, the sled rides on that ‘rail’ you’re carving through the powder. That gives the rider a lot of control when the snow is deep enough to form the rail, but when you’re riding over packed snow, it’s a different kind of physical undertaking. The sleds move faster when they are unencumbered by the powdery snow. That’s why the first track down a backcountry slope tends to be the slowest. If the snow is densely packed down, you’re going to move at a quicker pace. The more times you ride down the same track, the faster it gets. Once it gets too fast, you can just blaze a new trail and start all over again packing that snow down. The steepness of the hill and the depth of the snow also play a big part in the speed at which you’re going to travel.”

Available in “large” and “small” models, the versatile sleds are perfect for a variety of uses beyond the backcountry, including recreational backyard sledding, park sledding, and “freestyle sledding.” Parker says that as the sleds continued to grow in popularity, a dedicated contingent of experienced sled riders has pushed the sport forward in new and adventurous ways, such as acrobatic “freestyle” trick riding. “The ‘freestyle sledding’ movement developed at a parallel rate with skateboarding and snowboarding in the 1990s when they were becoming popular. I think that when extreme sports came to the cultural forefront, people felt naturally motivated to try to do the same things with the sleds, such as flips, spins, grab tricks, and big air jumps. It has really developed into an incredible subculture. There are several established ‘crews’ of sledders around the country that submit their videos to us. Some have been sledding for decades. It’s humbling to see how much of an impact our sleds have had on their lives.”

Over the years, Parker has seen a number of incredibly innovative customized modifications to the Mad River Rocket sleds. “We had a user send in a video of someone riding a Mad River Rocket sled down a half-pipe with skateboard wheels attached to the bottom. We’ve seen people turn their sleds into ‘pulks’ to haul their equipment while they are cross country or backcountry skiing. One customer even submitted instructions on how to build one, which are on our website. One of the long-time sledders padded his sled with a sheepskin rug. He used spray foam to attach it to the sled, then sat on it to mold it to his body. He calls it the ‘deluxe’ version. I’m continually amazed by the inventive spirit of our customers.”

Moving forward, Parker says that Mad River Rocket intends to build on its success by bringing people together through their online community – and someday, in person with a sledding event. “I really enjoy the social media posts. I love it when customers post pictures and videos of their adventures. I’d really love to start a customer competition, of sorts, in the future. In the past, we have given out small prizes to the best video submissions in categories such as ‘best jump’, ‘best backyard run’, ‘best backcountry run’ and ‘best family sledding run.’ It’s a great way to build our community. It makes me incredibly happy to see someone climb the summit of a mountain and rocket down through some fresh powder. It shows that we’re really helping people enjoy themselves outdoors in ways that they never would have been able to without our sleds.”

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