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What Is Highlining? Defy Gravity While Walking on Air

Highlining – walking from on a thin piece of webbing across from two cliffs or buildings—thousands of feet above the ground. Sound insane? It is—and it’s growing in popularity as a worldwide sport.


You may not be walking literally on air, but this is as close as you can get.  Highlining – it seems impossible, and perhaps a bit crazy. But as an extreme sports athlete, “crazy” often means confidence, skill adrenaline and grit. And highlining has got to be one of the sports that require a certain mental toughness that not many people have. It’s easy to see why: With just a short rope attached to you to a thin wire across a canyon or two buildings, it’s your job to walk the line from one side to the other, with perfect balance. Simple, right?

Highlining Basics

First, what is highlining? Highlining is a subdivision of slacklining, and much more extreme. Here are the main differences between both:

  • Slacklining is when a one-inch wide piece of nylon webbing to attached from two anchors—usually two trees-and you try to walk (or run!) across on the webbing. It’s usually placed about 2 or so feet above the ground.
  • Although there is no official number, generally any high over 20 feet is considered to be highlining, with many athletes operating at hundreds of feet or more in the air.

Between mountain, bridges, buildings and whatever else you can think of, highlining leans more on your mental strength and mindset than the technical and physical ability that other extreme sports demand. But your balance still needs to be perfect!

Highlining is one of the most extreme of extreme sports—you are suspended tens or hundreds of feet into the air, with only a rope tied from your harness to the line you are walking on. It gives an incredible adrenaline rush and attracts spectators as well. While highlining, you will be permanently secured by a harness, attached to the main highline and, at the same time, to a lifeline, called the backup.

Highliners Have Yogalike, Slow Movements

One of the first things to think about when starting to highline is the location. Perhaps 15 or 20 feet off the ground would be a good high? Wrong. Even if your tether ( or leash that links you to the highline) is short, if you fall, you might swing down and hit your head directly on the ground. It is best to start about two feet off the ground with slacklining. Become really proficient at that, then increase the distance between you and the ground.

Now that you’ve got that taken care of, onto the actual highlining: There aren’t many set rules per se, as different athletes have their own styles and things that work for them, and you’ll learn what works best for you as you go along. You can wear shoes, or go barefoot if you prefer. Some focus on the quiet, natural sounds or listen to music while preforming. One thing most highliners all have in common is their yogalike, slow movements with their limbs to keep their balance. Many also partake in yoga and other flexibility and balancing workouts to maintain their abilities.


What is Highlining FreeStyle?

Highlining has grown in popularity across the world, and there are captions where athletes complete in different highlining divisions —freestyle is one of them. The main goal of highlining is to get from one side to the other smoothly without falling. Highlining freestyle, on the other hand, is anything but: Flip, swing, bounce, do a handstand and any other mind-blowing tricks you can think of on your slackline, thousands of feet in the air? Now that’s something else.

Doing Highlining Freestyle means that some part of your body will nearly always be touching the line and does not put a lot of stress on your muscles like other freestyle sports or workouts. You’ll still gain an overall great workout for all your muscle groups and conditioning, while preforming super cool tricks in the air.


Highline FreeSolo

There is, however, one other level that makes this sport even more extreme. How could this be, you ask? It’s called Highline FreeSolo, and you do the exact same thing as highlining – without any type of harness connected to your line. This is something only a few people in the world attempt, and is only done by very experienced highliners. Even then, the risk may not be worth the reward—be just a hair off balance, and you’ll be falling to your death in a blink of an eye. We think that highline freestyle is enough of an adrenaline rush all on its own.


5 Highlining Tips

  1. The first highlines should always be rigged with experienced highliners, in order to learn the basics. Nevertheless, everyone ought to check the rigging and question it critically.
  2. Solid slackline skills are a must.  Being able to climb up the leash and swinging back upon the line have to be mastered.
  3. What’s the scariest part of highlining? Falling, so let’s get that out of the way. Try a few test falls, so you know what’s coming and how it feels when you reach the end of your tether. Once you get over that fear, some pressure you’ll feel will be off your shoulders.
  4. Trust in your gear. When starting out, you won’t be able to trust your abilities, but you must be able to trust your gear in order to relax, which is vitally important.
  5. Highlining is absolutely exhausting, mentally and physically. It will take you longer than you expect to get good at it, but the good news is all it takes is more time on the line and you’ll get there, eventually.

The History of Highlining

In the 1980s, climbers Scott Balcom, Chris Carpenter and Chongo Tucker first tried slacklinging at Yosemite and were hooked, but wanted to try something a bit different. They when to Pasadena, Calilofrina and created their first highline, suspended under a bridge between two support beams. The same techniques and ideas they started then on their first highlining, which  was 22 feet long and 80 feet high, are still being practiced today. In particular, their use and development of the harness and balancing techniques serve as the basis for modern day highline thrill seekers.

But by 1885, Scott Balcom took the sport to new hights – literally. He set up  55-foot long, 2,890-foot high highline across the Yosemite’s Lost Arrow Spire and completed this never-dome-before feat. Since then, just a few others have completed this same highline location, and so many other dangerous and awe-inspiring walk in the air.

Take It Easy

The next time you are doing a tedious task, just imagine you are thousands of feet above the ground, only a rope as your road and another rope keeping you from falling to the depths below. Deep breath. One foot in front of the other. Take it easy. You’ve still got several hundred feet to go…doesn’t that make day-to-day tasks a little less intimidating?


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