Skip to main content

What Is a Toboggan: Hat or Sled?

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

KCC has a lot of pride in her great state and enjoys sharing the best it has to offer. She is a native Texan who grew up in Central Texas.

So, what is a toboggan? It depends on where you live!

So, what is a toboggan? It depends on where you live!

The Regional Debate Over Toboggans

Several years ago, I had some friends who were Yankees (and they were pretty darn proud of it). He was from northern Maine, and she was from New Hampshire. You really don't get much more Yankee than that. This was their first winter in Texas.

On a particularly cold day, I mentioned that their son needed a toboggan. I got the strangest look from the couple. Since we had no snow on the ground, they thought I had lost my mind. They asked me why he needed a toboggan. I told them "to keep his head warm, of course." The couple roared with laughter.

I Thought Toboggans Were Knit Caps; They Thought They Were Sleds!

That was the first time I realized that everyone in the world didn't call a knit cap a toboggan. To them, a toboggan was a traditional wooden sled. No wonder they wanted to know why I thought their son needed one! And, no wonder they found it so funny that I thought one would keep his head warm.

They honestly thought I had lost my mind. Here I was, nearly 40 years old, and I had been calling knit caps toboggans all my life. Of course, they were the same age and had always known sleds as toboggans.

It's not that I didn't know a certain type of sled was sometimes called a toboggan; we just don't have them in Texas. They, on the other hand, couldn't fathom a hat being called a toboggan.

This image from "Camp Life in the Woods and the Tricks of Trapping and Trap Making" by William Hamilton Gibson depicts a toboggan sled.

This image from "Camp Life in the Woods and the Tricks of Trapping and Trap Making" by William Hamilton Gibson depicts a toboggan sled.

Researching the Meaning of "Toboggan"

That funny anecdote began my research mission. My friends were determined to prove me wrong, and I was determined to prove to them that at least one dictionary in the world acknowledges that a toboggan can also be a winter hat.

I did eventually find a dictionary that had "toboggan" listed as a hat. Unfortunately, it was a large two-volume set, and I wasn't going to pay that much money to prove a point! However, I'm beginning to see more and more dictionaries (printed and online) that include a toboggan as a type of winter cap or hat. Wikipedia also acknowledges it as a type of hat.

It became quite a topic of (friendly) contention between us—so much so that I finally named my dog Toby as a jab at them. That's Toby, short for toboggan. My New Englander friends and I would quiz people we met on the street, hoping to determine the regions of the United States that used it as a term for a sled vs. a hat.

This is a toboggan if you're from the South.

This is a toboggan if you're from the South.

A Toboggan Is a Hat to Southerners

Here's what I found out on my end. From the research I've done, it appears that the southern region of the United States (the areas that use Southern American English) use the term toboggan to refer to a knit winter hat.

This area includes the states of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Texas. It may also include specific regions of Oklahoma, Missouri, Maryland, West Virginia, Florida, southern Indiana, and New Mexico.

If you're in the American South, your toboggan is your hat!

A Toboggan Is a Sled to New Englanders

If you're from New England, as well as many other places in the US, a toboggan refers to a type of simple traditional sled without runners, designed for riding down hills. This type of sled was created and used by the indigenous people of northern Canada.

If you're in America outside of the South (or if you're in Canada), a toboggan likely refers to a sled.

Etymology of the Word

The Online Etymology Dictionary states that the word "toboggan" originates from the word tabagane, which was the French interpretation of the word for the sled in one of the Algonquian languages (likely tepaqan from the Mi'kmaq language).

The Word Detective blog claims that the use of "toboggan" as a term for a hat in Southern English originates in the early 20th century, when it was referred to as a "toboggan hat" because it was the most commonly worn type of hat for sledding.

Other Names for a Toboggan Hat

It turns out that a "toboggan" hat has many different regional names. Here are a few other terms that are used in the English-speaking world for this type of hat:

  • beanie
  • sherpa
  • watch cap (military)
  • sock or stocking hat
  • snookie
  • burglar hat

Let's All Go Tobogganing!

You're in good company whether you wear a toboggan or ride one. How about we put on our toboggans, pull out our wooden toboggans, and take Toby the dog for a ride?

Questions & Answers

Question: Where I was raised in SW Pa., a toboggan may be a hat or a sled. Meaning derives from context?

Answer: Of course, but the point was that some only know it as one or the other.