Evidence indicates that the sled was used in the Neolithic period, before the invention of the wheel or the use of any draft animal except the dog. Probably it was first drawn by a person. Whether the sled originated in the Old World or the New, or independently in each, is not known. Eskimos used a dogsled in pre-Columbian America. In ancient Egypt sleds were used to haul blocks of stone. The sled is still commonly used in northern regions.
Sleds are typically smaller and simpler than sleighs which are generally understood to be a larger vehicle designed for riding in a sitting position that is drawn by a draft animal such as a horse or oxen, though this is not always the case. The sitting connotation is clear as the English bobsleigh is a steerable sled invented to sit upon or within. North Americans transmorphed this into bobsled, since clearly the vehicle is not drawn by a draft animal. Both (or all four) are lightweight vehicles whereas a sledge is more usually a low, sturdy, and rough work vehicle designed for haulage of heavy loads such as cordwood, stone or ice blocks or the manifold heavy transport needs on a farm.
With only gravity as the propelling force, a sled can be used downhill as a recreational (toy) vehicle or drawn behind one trudging step by trudging step to haul a load—such as logs or children back up a slope. Modern competitive sledding has come about since the 1870s when steerable sleds were invented as a recreational prescription to combat winter boredom amongst the rich and privileged in the alpine resort town of St Moritz by British hotel guests.
Alternatively, sleds may be pulled by animals, usually horses, mules, oxen or dogs. They may also be pushed or pulled by humans (playing children, a parent pulling a child, etc.). 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-teams were used by most others, such as Roald Amundsen. Today some people use kites to tow exploration sleds in such climes. The Egyptians are thought to have used sledges extensively over the sands whilst building their public works, in particular, for the transportation of taller obelisks.
A troika is a vehicle drawn by three horses, usually a sled, but it may also be a wheeled carriage.
The SR-71 Blackbird is also referred to by the nickname "sled" and its pilots are referred to as "sled drivers".
The various categories of sleds include: