Balancing Act – What is Slackline?
If you’re here, there’s a good chance you have encountered a slackline recently. Perhaps you saw some people in the park walking along a strip of fabric with the ease of a gymnast on the balance beam. Maybe a friend or yourself recently bought a kit and aren’t too sure how to get started.
Slackline is Not Tightrope
While both take balance, dedication, and time spent honing skills, the main difference is the apparatus itself and how it is utilized. Tightwire (sometimes also called tightrope), features a wire about 1/2″ wide and requires special shoes to prevent discomfort without losing the “feel” of the wire.
The rigs are specialized and very expensive, as those who are looking to buy them are professional performers and not typically for recreation. Tightwire walkers will sometimes use tools to help them balance such as fans, long poles, or parasols. This is not necessary, as using just your arms (also known as “free walking”) is acceptable, but balance aides can help when performing difficult tricks or crossing great distances.
A slackline kit can be purchased on Amazon or your local outdoor/camping store and can be rigged by the user in a safe way without extra training. The line, called “webbing” is 1″ to 2″ wide, making it ideal for sneakers. Some prefer to go barefoot, but this can make the slackline slippery from sweat, so at least have on a pair of socks.
Typically, the webbing is pulled taught between two trees, but if that is not available standing rigs can be purchased at a higher cost. Slackline does not use poles or fans, but sometimes slackliners will rig themselves with a harness while walking a high distance or use a balance aid rigged above the slackline when starting out, or for young children.
So How Did Slackline Come About?
It’s still unclear what the “official” story is about the invention of slacklining, but most can trace the origin to the rock climbing community. Particularly the community around Yosemite National Park in the 1980s. Legend has it that a few bored climbers started stringing climbing ropes between trees and challenged each other to walk across it. It remained a relatively niche sport despite gaining national attention in 1985, when Scott Balcom walked 55 feet across a canyon, 2,000 feet above Yosemite Valley.
The more recent popularity over the past 10 years can be attributed to more coverage in outdoor adventure magazines, and the mainstream accessibility brought on by the ratchet-strap setups sold today. No longer just limited to those with advanced knowledge of carabiners and knots, slacklining has risen to become a full-fledged sport. It has an International Federation, contests around the world, and sponsored athletes.
How to Get Started – Setting Up Your Line
All you need is a slackline kit, two rigging points (typically two trees), and the willingness to try new things and maybe look a little silly at first. Slackline is acceptable for all ages, although the very young or the timider may want to look into balance aides when starting out.
Once you have found your rigging points, it’s important to note how high you want to set up your slackline. It is generally recommended for beginners to have it 1.5 to 2 feet off the ground for kids, and 2.5 to 3 feet off the ground for adults. Having it low to the ground will decrease anxiety about falling and make it easier to step on and off.
Make sure you ratchet the slackline tight when you first begin to walk. More experienced slackliners will prefer more give to be able to do tricks, but it will be easier to maintain balance on a tighter line when starting out. Also bear in mind that the longer the line, the more it will sink in the middle.
Learning to Walk
The most important thing to remember when learning how to walk a slackline is that you will fall – a lot, and that’s ok! Most people will only be able to stay up a few seconds on the line their first try. The key is consistent practice and you will be walking confidently in no time.
If you are practicing with a friend, take turns walking next to the slackline with a forearm out and shoulder height. This will allow the walker to either hold on to the arm for balance or to let go and only use the arm when they start to lose balance. Many beginner kits will also include a “helpline”, which can be set up above the slackline and used to hold on to.
Balancing on a small surface is scary. More often than not your legs will start to shake the first time you put your foot on the slackline. It’s perfectly normal and with time your body will build up the muscle memory and no longer shake. This is why it’s helpful to have a guide the first few times until you get your balance.
In order to “mount” on the webbing, you must think straight. Start with one leg on the webbing pointed down the line, the other down on the ground, and then “pop” onto the line with the free foot. Resist the urge to turn your feet sideways once on the line, that’s a more advanced move.
The key to walking on a slackline is posture. Keep your chest upright, knees slightly bent, feet parallel to the webbing, arms and wrists up but flexible, and most importantly – your gaze must be fixed to your destination – the end of the line. It’s easier to maintain balance if you are looking at a static point and not your wobbly feet!
In the beginning, you will be tempted to counterbalance with your legs. That is perfectly fine starting out, but get used to using your arms for balance. Don’t let them drop too low or you could overbalance. Imagine you are chest high in the ocean and your arms can’t get wet.
Now I’m Hooked! What’s Next?
Now that you’ve been walking for a while, it’s time to branch out further into the world of slackline. Perhaps you’ve gotten good enough to want to take it to the next level, or maybe you want something to aspire to someday.
Longlining: A slackline any longer than 100 feet. They often require advanced pulley systems capable of bringing tension to the longer webbing. They can be strung over bodies of water or close to the ground for an additional challenge.
Highlining: Considered the most dangerous and therefore the “apex” of the sport. A slackline is rigged at a very high distance, sometimes over a canyon or valley, or between buildings. It requires the use of a harness or tether while on the line as a fall from that height could cause permanent injury or death. The rigging is complicated and specialized, requiring many failsafes.
Tricklining: Performing aerial stunts on the webbing. Tricklines are thinner than typical slackline and offer more bounce. They are rigged close to the ground in case the performer should fall during their difficult trick execution.
Fitness Line: A short, wide slackline that focuses on strength and balance training. Usually for indoor use and tied to a standing rig. They are becoming popular in Crossfit and yoga studios as part of coordinated fitness routines.
Slackline is a great sport to test your concentration, balance, core strength, and overall fitness. It’s a family-friendly activity that will get everyone outside and perhaps test your humility as well. Slackline is also a perfect way to entertain guests at your next party, although drinking and slacklining are strongly ill-advised. Enjoy the beautiful weather, have some fun, and get fit doing it with these helpful tips.