No activity combines characteristics of the Adventurer lifestyle more than slacklining (sometimes referred to as highlining). Balance, bravado and bullheadedness are needed in equal measures. First, there’s the not-so-simple task of climbing a mountain.
Then, there’s actually rigging a line spanning two summits, which can sometimes mean two different climbs. After that it’s just a run-of-the-mill walk across a thin, droopy line swaying in the wind with only a rope or a parachute to save you from plummeting to your death.
That’s why slacklining is on the fringe of the fringe: the periphery of an already small group that’s far from anything resembling mainstream. As one slackliner describes it: “most people think we’re crazy,” which sounds like our kind of people.
What Is Slacklining?
Slacklining is similar to tightrope walking except for the dynamic way the rope moves. That’s because slacklining, as its name suggests, provides slack in the line.
Rather than the taut line of a tightrope walker, which remains static throughout the walk, a slack line is kinetic with an extra amount of line added making it sway up and down, left and right.
Like a much-leaner hammock, a slackline is a nightmare for vertigo sufferers, and a jostling, dangerous trip for those undaunted individuals that traverse the line from hundreds, sometimes thousands, of feet in the air.
There’s not much touching the soles of the slackliner’s feet as they dance across the tiny, one-inch wide, nylon surface of the typical slackline. A slackline walker’s purview is juxtaposed between the stationary ground and the parabolic swing of the line.
This confuses the senses and generally knocks people off balance.
Dean Potter, one of the originators of slacklining, walked across Yosemite Falls on a slackline early in August of this year. The cascading falls below him added an element of motion that tricks the senses even more. There is the movement of the line, the trajectory of the falls, and the stationary ground.
Equilibrium is almost impossible. In the video, Dean uses a safety rope and does a leg-sweep to catch him when he falls. The rope gives him a backup if he loses his balance and can’t sweep his leg: an important last resort before death.
Sometimes, rather than use the rope attachment that slides along behind the slackliner to secure the walker to the line (the preferred safety measure for all the top slacklining videos you see), slackliners will use a small parachute.
This is a rather precarious safety measure because if you fall off the line, you have to be far enough away from the cliffs and line you don’t entangle your parachute.
Or, like a man addicted to epinephrine, you can purposely jump from the slackline to combine B.A.S.E. jumping with slacklining and create BASElining.
BASElining is also popular with the current world record holder for longest solo slackline completed (103.5 Meters, 105 ft high in Moab, UT). For Andy and Dean, BASElining is a thrill; for the rest of us, it’s playing Russian roulette with two bullets.
Another slackliner, Christian Schou holds the **unofficial record for the highest slackline at 1000 meters up in Kejerag, Norway, but most slackliners practice at lower levels. They even make up tricks and routines for competition on the lower lines where death is NOT tapping you on the shoulder.
But that’s not really in the spirit of the Adventurer. The fear of slacklining is often just as strong as the joy of completion when you’re on an insecure line that could extinguish your corporeal self.
To attain true enlightenment, Dean Potter will slackline without a net, without a rope trailing behind, and without a parachute. If Dean falls off the herky-jerky line, he dies.
Mr. Potter claims the omnipresence of death on a slackline lends him an air of transcendental calm like that of a monk in a monastery. It better, or he’ll drop right off this mortal coil.
How to Start Slacklining
Slacklining is becoming more accessible to the general public with every passing day. That’s because most slacklining discussed by the media is done hundreds of feet in the air.
If you’ve already attended our Slacklining 101 course, you already know it’s not as easy as simply walking across a tightrope.
Since there’s slack to the line, practicing or even participating in the pursuit is highly dangerous if you’re doing so at the altitude normally achieved by professionals, but it doesn’t have to be.
Recent competitions, like the Gibbons Games competitions, the 2012 Teva Mountain Games, featuring Alex Mason, the 14-year-old slackliner, and the 2011 Slackline World Cup in Munich show a sport bolstered by the low-risk performance a few feet from the ground.
With that in mind, we thought we’d get you started on your very own slackline. Maybe someday you too can slackline between two trucks, above the Yosemite Falls, or 6,000 feet above China’s Enshi Canyon.
For now, unless you’re Alex Mason, Dean Potter, the aforementioned Andy Lewis, or any number of professionals, lets just get you started on the nylon. The tricks and height can come later; first you gotta get on that line.
The first thing you’ll need to get started is an actual slackline. The typical slackline is composed of 1-2″ nylon webbing. Since we’re discussing beginners, we suggest getting a slackline kit. You can obviously purchase the nylon webbing separately and then use your own carabiners (five works) to set up your own, but for beginners, the kit is the way to go.
There are a few kits to choose from, but we suggest a 15 or 25 meter Gibbon Kit (retail between $60-100 on Amazon). If you’re thinking of slacklining more intensively, we suggest the Mammut Kit, which is about twice as much money but with a much more complicated set-up.
They’re safer, and for the more advanced slackliners farther up in the air, that can be important. Currently, they’re out of stock on Amazon, but you can do some googling to see what else is out there. For most of you, the Gibbon Kit will suffice.
But wait, there’s also a couple iterations within the Gibbon offering. There’s the Classic, which we suggest for all adult beginners, and then there’s the Funline, which is perfect for younger kids interested in testing their balance, but not to the point their parents will worry.
Then there’s the Jibline, which is bouncier and more dynamic for better for tricks; the webbing is also thinner to heighten the bounce affect. We suggest the classic, and if you master that, move on to the Jibline for more competitive, trick-oriented slacklining.
In the Classic Kit you’ll get a 2″ line, which some believe is easier; it’s certainly wider, but some reviewers have found the 1″ line easier. We suggest starting with the 2″ nylon because it provides more surface area for your feet.
The slackline kit also includes reinforced loop slings to place around the base points of your slackline.
You’ll also get a rachet to tighten or loosen the line, and a rachet safety lock. The Classic Gibbon line can handle up to 4 tons, so you don’t have to worry about being to heavy for the line, no matter how loose you make it.
Barefoot is preferable. Your bare feet will naturally form to the contours of the nylon. If you wear shoes, avoid thick-soled boots. Some skate shoes work, as do ballet slippers.
Anything with a thin sole will help you feel the line better, but if you don’t mind showing off your gnarly feet, barefoot is the way to go.
Avoid wearing baggie or oversized pants. If you’re standing on the cuff of your pants, even while barefoot, you’re losing the countour of the line as well as the traction you need to stay up and move.
If you don’t own a pair of form-fitting pants, or you’re uncomfortable in shorts or leggings, hem your pants, or better yet, tie a rubber band around your ankles to keep the cuffs from hanging under your feet.
Two trees will do as a base for the purposes of learning to slackline; you can use other objects as long as they’re as durable end points as a mature tree. Some people use manmade objects like poles or sturdier fences, but you’re a lot better off if you use two fully developed trees.
The desired range between the end points of your slackline, for beginners, is somewhere in the vicinity 15-25 feet. Sure, you’ve got more than 3x that length in excess nylon as a part of your Gibbon 30 meter kit, but the longer the distance the less likely you are to stay on.
Loop your line close to the end points at first, then move on to greater distances.
For beginners, you want to loop your base lines at a height around your upper-thigh to hip level. Set the tension so you have 6-12″ of give when you’re in the middle of the line. This is for beginners, so feel free to change the sag and length of the line as you advance.
Learning to Slackline
You’ve gotten your gear, and you’ve set up your slackline. Now what? Well, you have to get up on that line. We suggest bringing a partner to help stabilize you when you first climb on.
Ideally, you’d have two other people with you when you first get on the line. They can hold your hands on either side until you’re comfortable enough to let go. Avoid using sticks to prop yourself up as many have found it actually hinders your learning curve and it’s dangerous when you fall.
1) Mounting the Line
When you’re stepping onto the line you’ll notice it will start to wobble violently. To avoid this, place one foot on the line, but keep all your weight on your grounded foot. Place your opposite thigh under the line to steady it before lifting your other foot in the air.
When you hop on the line, make sure your weight is on the grounded foot, and wait until the grounded foot is about 12″ in the air before transferring your weight onto the original foot as you hop on the line.
When hopping on the line, avoid doing so at an angle; hop straight down on the line. This mounting technique will decrease the line’s wobble, and you’ll be able to comfortably stand on the line.
Some people believe the one foot on the line, one foot hovering in the air is the best place to get acquainted with the balance needed. Instead of having two limbs to balance yourself, you’ll have three. Whatever works best, but eventually, you’ll have to put that other foot down to move forward.
2) Foot Position
Foot position is also important. The most common are the Forward Foot and Sideways Foot position. The Forward Foot places the line between your big toe and your second toe with the line traveling directly under your heel.
The Forward Foot position is most common when you’re learning to just walk on the line.
The Sideways Foot position involves placing the line diagonally under your arch, with the line resting to the outside of your big toe. The Sideways position is easier with shoes and when doing some tricks.
3) Walking the Line
First thing to remember once you’re up: don’t watch the ground. Find a point at eye-level in front of you and focus on that. Let your body and feet find the line. If you want to look at the line, make sure it’s at least 15 feet in front of you.
Take a deep breath and exhale. Shake out your legs, arms and shoulders before you get on the line.
This might sound like some goofy advice before you go embarrass yourself on the dance floor, but you want to be loose before you get on a loose slackline.
Once you’ve started, don’t lock your knees. Keep them bent, and lean your torso back a little bit with your hands out wide.
As you take a step, keep that head up and find the line with your feet using your arms and torso to balance. When you use your arms to keep balance, bend them at the elbows rather than the shoulders; it’ll be easier to remain centered on the line without dropping the shoulders one way or the other.
If you’re ready to try tricks, remember that the lower you are, the lower your center of gravity, so remember to spread your feet out wide on the line and lower your torso to keep balanced.
Bend your knees outward rather than down to keep your center of gravity in your hips. Your hips need to be loose, so avoid an erect torso when you’re lowering yourself on the line before or after a trick.
Remember to have fun. If you fall a lot at first, that’s perfectly understandable. You aren’t going to be a Dean Potter your first time up (that’s why you aren’t slacklining from thousands of feet in the air).
Have fun, and with enough practice you’ll be slacklining like a pro (except much closer to the ground).