5 Steps to Hike-and-Fly Heaven

How to Successfully Take Your Paraglider On An Adventure

The author launches a speedwing in Lesotho.
The author launches a speedwing in Lesotho. Image Courtesy Annette O'Neil

"Hike-and-fly": not only is it a great way to combine physical fitness with airsports, it's often the only way to reach beautiful remote launches you'd never otherwise get the chance to see.

Hike-and-fly paraglider missions allow pilots to descend into charming little villages from remote mountain peaks; to cover hundreds of miles in the air, bopping between primitive campsites; even to pioneer brave new landscapes in one’s own extended “backyard.” If you’re interested in this exploration-intensive discipline within the sport of paragliding, you’ll need to be current, confident in your skills and, not the least of these, fit (or open to getting much, much fitter). Here’s how to get started.

  1. Be a skilled, current pilot. Beginner paraglider pilots should stay at well-known, populated sites until they’ve earned the skill set to confidently assess conditions and put together a safe flight plan. Pilots returning to the sport should get some coaching and regain currency before venturing out on a solo (or mini-group, if there is no rated instructor) hike-and-fly mission.
  2. Dial in your take-offs and landings. You may be able to hook brilliantly into a thermal, but that won’t help you here. Hike-and-fly pilot safety is defined by the time you spend leaving and returning to Earth. Before you hit the trail, be confident that you can launch smoothly and land precisely where you choose to land. As you aim your skills towards hike-and-fly, start training yourself to assess landing areas from the air, using indicators other than man-made windsocks and windblades. Learn to read how surrounding terrain and foliage affect the wind on the ground. Workshop landing in smaller and smaller areas until LZ hazards become peripheral fixtures and not red-alert terrors on your final approach.
  1. Do your research to find launch sites. Head to the United States Geological Survey to check out topo maps. Browse ParaglidingEarth to see what pins other pilots have dropped, cross-referencing these with the terrain information set out on Google Earth. Look at satellite images for wide, potentially launchable-and-landable clearings (as well as the shadows that demarcate steep mountain launches). Ask other local pilots about their favorite hike-and-fly spots. Look at all available materials regarding weather and conditions for the launch from which you’d like to fly.
  1. Carry the right gear. Even if you're not heading out on a full vol-bivouac* mission, you’ll need to have some specialized gear if you plan to make hike-and-fly part of your core paragliding lifestyle. The most important change you’ll make is the switch to lightweight gear, as heavy glider bags will stop the progression of your new discipline quite literally in its tracks. For intermediate flyers, this often means stepping up to a smaller, more compact wing and an alpine-style harness with a greatly reduced profile. Don’t worry about downsizing too far, however, as it’s not necessary: many very experienced hike-and-fly (and vol-bivouac) pilots use a lighter-weight version of a reasonably forgiving DHV 1-2 wing. Beyond these, it’s advisable to pack a compact, outdoorsperson-specific first aid kit and a spot beacon, even at sites you don’t feel that you’re likely to need them.
  2. Be ready to physically walk away. Just like “ridge rats,” hike-and-fly pilots don’t get to fly every day. The difference is that the latter must often hoof it for miles back to civilization when the conditions aren’t right. World-class pilot Squash Falconer, a female British airsports athlete at the top of her game, has plenty of advice along these lines. Squash is one of the only pilots to have hiked-and-flown venerable Mont Blanc. Notably, she has summited . “Being able to make the decision not to fly,” Falconer notes, “is even more important, and a much harder skill to develop, especially when the only option is to hike back down.”

     

    * vol-bivouac (aka “bivvy”): an overnight hike-and-fly, sometimes lasting many days, in which the pilot carries a lightweight kit of camping gear and provisions in his or her pack