What's a slackline?
A fun way to challenge yourself and greatly improve your balance.

Picture a length of rope strung horizontally between two trees, several feet off the ground, and yourself standing on it, walking across it, trying not to fall off. But it's more than it appears. A little time on a slackline will blow your funky mind.

What's the main point?

At first, just to stand upon the slackline and not fall on your ass. You look like a windmill at first, arms everywhere, then one day you calm down and suddenly find yourself standing still, three feet off the ground, smiling as if you just learned to levitate. After you learn to get up on it, you try to stand on the slackline for as long as you can. Eventually you find yourself standing and sitting, turning around, bouncing, getting on with no hands, etc. Your sense of balance gets better and better, with some unexpected and pleasing side effects in the rest of your life.

Not a tightrope, then?

As the name suggests, slacklines are conceived in contrast to tightropes, with much lower tension. The first slacklines were discovered by accident, in rope railings and such. True tightropes use as much tension as practicable to make them behave like a solid (if very narrow) beam. The point of a slackline, rather, is that the slack makes it bouncy and somewhat unpredictable.

A slackline is often suspended only a few feet above the ground and typically made out of tubular webbing (like flattened rope) for greater foot comfort. Rather than feats of high daring, the point of walking a slackline is to balance upon it in spite of the stretch, vibration, and side-to-side oscillation that result from moderate tension. It begins as a challenge to even stay upright, and eventually becomes as varied and interesting as surfing.

Now why on earth would I do this on purpose?

Slackline may sound strange but it's addicting. It's fun alone as form of yoga/meditation that is more spontaneous and less scripted than forms like Tai Chi. It's also a great social activity with friends or in public, as it tends to draw other people in and make them curious. If you have one slackline and a couple of friends you can all take turns for an hour and never get tired of it. If in the beginning the slackline seems unpredictable, you soon find that its oscillations are controlled by none but yourself, and you can generate waves on purpose and ride them...

Can anyone do this?

Most people surprise themselves -- and that's one of the coolest things about it, you're constantly surprised that you can actually stand upon something so apparently unstable. As daunting as it sounds and looks, the learning curve is quick (steep! check ariels' wu for learning curve). It only takes about an hour of persistent attempts (perhaps spread out over several days) to learn to get up on the slackline. Your next couple hours of practice will see you staying on longer and longer, and eventually walking around.

When you've been at it long enough, you notice that we're all born with better balance than we would ever know, and it never shows itself until we challenge it. It's an amazing feeling to feel your birthright come back like this. Sometimes you've been balancing five feet off the ground for 5 or 10 minutes when it occurs to you that it's not your mind performing this feat... it's a built-in function of your body. And just last week you thought you'd never even get up off the ground with this crazy slackline thing.

All of the friends i've introduced to slackline, including some who stood around and watched the rest of us very skeptically several times, have come back again and again for more practice, always mentioning how it sort of draws you in, makes you want more, makes you want to be good at it. They all ended up balancing on a slackline for minutes or more and some of them now walk around on their own backyard slacklines for a few minutes every day.
Are there benefits, besides fun?

Slacklining makes noticeable, lasting improvements to your posture. It's subtle but it's there... one day after you've been slacklining from time to time over a couple of weeks, you'll find yourself standing in line somewhere with an armload of heavy objects, and not getting a backache. You wonder why, then notice that your hips have made this subtle balance shift that you never discovered before. Then you realize that you got this from slacklining, without trying!

That happened to me. It has also carried over into a more comfortable, less tiring posture while sitting in a chair, walking, running, skating or skiing. I find it easier to relax and breathe deeply. The slackline (gently) works all sorts of unwanted things out of you. You simply can't stay up on a slackline if your mind and body are tight, stiff, and distracted with various mental and muscular tensions. The slackline will toss you on your ear. Likewise as you grow more flexible, focused and quick, the more it rewards you with incredible sensations of flight, freedom, control.

The slackline and its partner the Earth are tough masters, but very effective. You learn to fall gracefully, and the new grace begins to affect your everyday actions. Life itself gets more interesting as a wide range of day-to-day activities become invested with this new sense of improved balance. Ok, so that's still a lot of baloney... until you try it for yourself.

Is this dangerous?
Sure, at first. Slacklines are not for people who take even a single instance of falling to the ground as a horrible experience never to be repeated. In the course of learning to slackline you will definitely land badly a few times. Thus it is absolutely necessary to do this on a soft surface. The minimum is soft thick grass. Better yet would be a deep layer of straw, or do this on a beach. Some people have set up a slackline over a double layer of tumbling mats. If you can get ahold of a spare foam rubber mattress or two, that's perfect!

Needless to say, please don't hurt yourself and resent reading this. Research slacklines on your own for an hour before you make your own setup. Also set up your first rig a short distance off the ground to minimize your damage.

I thought this was just for daredevils.

By far the majority of slackline enthusiasts are having fun a few feet off the ground. But there are a number of slackline height and distance junkies pushing the limits past what anyone would have believed a generation ago. Darrin Carter, for example, has made several slackline walks from the rim of Yosemite Valley to the Lost Arrow Spire and back -- with no harness and no safety rope.

So how do I set up my own slackline?

For a basic 15-20 footer between a couple of trees, you'll need:

  • 30 feet or so of 1" flat tubular webbing -- it's easier and more comfortable underfoot than rope
  • Two additional lengths of webbing (or 9-11 mm or ½" rope), one to tie around each tree or other anchor
  • 4 or more carabiners to connect everything and set up a pulley system for tension
  • The whole setup should cost you under $30 at your local mountaineering store or REI, unless you get really into this and buy expensive pulleys so you can set up faster and easier.

    The actual setup is easy and can be done in 2-3 minutes after some practice. The basic idea is to create two anchor points and string the slackline between them, with one fixed end and a pulley system for tension at the other end. You'll need at least a 4:1 pulley system so you can get over 600 pounds of tension in the line. If using trees for anchor points, take care not to create a setup that will abrade their bark or bite in too deeply. Multiple loops and thick cardboard or wood tucked under them can spread the weight, and tighter loops keep the anchor from rubbing up and down too much. Don't kill your favorite tree - it needs to be a good 12" diameter or you may break or uproot it.

    Can I use just a rope and no extra gear?

    No problem. If you want this to be as simple as possible, use a telephone pole for one anchor and the frame of a car (not some part that will pull off easily) for the other end. The key is to move the car away from the pole very slowly as the line gets tight. Luckily the average car or truck will run out of traction at right about the perfect amount of line tension for a slackline. If you do this, you may still wish to rig some way of getting the car end of the line higher off the ground. An "A-frame" of two-by-fours nailed together is popular for this purpose.

    Further reference

    There are a number of well-illustrated websites dedicated to slackline, some of them more .com and some more .org -- seek and ye shall find!

    This writeup is composed entirely of my own experiences and experiments.
    p.s. ~ if you can walk a slackline while slinging fire, i want to see!

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