I’ve got to be honest here: I’ve seen a good few hippy types walking across a slackline at festivals over the last few years, and always thought it would be 1) easy and 2) a bit boring. After a lesson earlier this month, my preconceptions have been debunked and my opinion altered. It’s actually really fun, very challenging (in a good way – not like barrel tossing or water polo) and addictive. I’m a convert now, which made writing the article easier.
Like yoga, pilates and other meditative forms of exercise, slacklining has been around for centuries in various incarnations. Recently this interesting ‘sport’ started making a serious move into mainstream circles, as you’ve probably seen from all the people setting up slacklines at your local park. At face value, it’s a lot like tightrope walking, minus the circus pageantry and with a more accessible vibe. To help us find out more about slacklining and how to get into it, I chatted to Ashley Burleigh, Managing Director of Tri Slacklining Ltd here in the UK.
In terms of setting up, you don’t need a great deal of gear and equipment to get going. The items you do need are very important, though, and can’t be substituted for materials found around the home.
- Webbing - 25 metres should be more than enough.
- Two pieces of carpet or ‘tree pads’ - these will protect the trees from any damage caused by your slackline. Make sure your padding is big enough to go around the entire tree.
- A ratchet set - this is used to set the tension in the line and hold it in place.
- A mattress - if you’re nervous about your first slacklining experience, put a mattress on the ground beneath you to boost your confidence.
Note: You can set up a slackline without a ratchet set, using 5 carabiners and a pair of climbing slings, but this is more difficult and requires some understanding of secure knots, plus a buddy to help you pull the line tight. If you’re a beginner, rather invest in a ratchet.
Ashley Burleigh says that anywhere with flat ground and sturdy trees are a good place to start. “That’s what makes public parks the most common place to start slacklining - but it is important to check the local bylaws about attaching items onto any trees first!”
The general guidelines for the UK are as follows:
- Slacklines must be attached with adequate tree protection, to trees that are no smaller than 50cm in diameter and living.
- Lines must not obstruct any walkways, paths or public areas, and should be attended at all times.
- Slackliners are also responsible for all equipment safety checks.
Slacklining is not limited to parks, gardens and outdoor venues. “There are also many indoor slackline clubs popping up around the world. In the UK, we currently have 11 indoor slackline set-ups and 3 dedicated slackline parks, all of which are great places to learn the basics, practice new tricks and meet other slackliners. The ukslackline.com website has details on all the clubs and groups in the UK", Ash explained during our conversation. The advantages of going to an actual slacklining club are getting the benefit of expert assistance and help, which can be a golden asset during the formative stages of your development - when it’s easy to give up and get over it.
Setting Up Your Slackline
Getting the line attached to two trees is not as complex as it looks – but it needs to be done right for it to be safe. Rather than trying to explain the intricacies of setting up the line and losing your attention, here is a short, informative video that explains it well:
Walking The Line
Don’t start this experience with hopes of being able to do cartwheels and Gangnam Style across the line on your first day. Your initial progression will happen slowly. It takes some time to get used to the sensation of slacklining and for your muscles to adjust - you’ll be working parts of your core and legs you didn’t know about before. “As a beginner slackliner, you will be learning to walk all over again", Ash Burleigh explains. ”Start by learning to balance (not walk) on a slackline. Try the following poses":
- Stand still on the line
- Balance on your left foot
- Balance on two feet
- Balance on your right foot and keep swapping between the poses
How To Stand - And Take Your First Steps:
Your posture, stance and concentration are the most important parts of successfully walking the slackline. Here Ashley explains the basics that will help you take your first steps: “Keep your toes pointing forwards, down towards the end of the slackline and keep your arms high and loose, not out to the side as a lot of beginners tend to do."
“The next two points are very important to maintaining your balance: relax and focus. Keep relaxed at all times. This means arms loose, knees slightly bent and always moving your body. As soon as you stiffen up, the tension in your body goes into the line and you will be more likely fall off. Focus on one point; think back to school and learning to balance on one foot, remember being told to focus on one point? The same applies here, keep that focus and you'll keep in balance.”
It’s important that you focus on your posture and balance. From personal experience, one of the hardest things to do was to stop myself from looking at my feet. This doesn’t help - hunching over will only upset the progress you’re making. “To take your first step is to mix all three poses together; left foot, both feet, right foot, both feet, left foot and so on. Take your time between each pose to maintain your balance."
Safety in slacklining becomes a serious issue when people set up their webbing in precarious locations - like above a canyon or between two buildings. But even a foot off the ground at the park or in your backyard is still high enough to take precautions. These mostly pertain to your environment. “Before you step on the slackline you should be checking a number of different things: The trees you’re anchoring to - are they healthy? Are they thick enough? Think about other park users, are you going to be in their way? Is the ground clear of anything that may hurt you when you fall from the slackline?”
As mentioned earlier, a mattress below the line will help you in the beginning if you’re scared of falling. The important thing is to stay relaxed; not just when you’re on the line, but if you fall. Don’t tense up - just go with it and try to roll on the grass, naturally. If you’re almost at the other side and can’t stop yourself from falling, allow gravity to have its way. Don’t rush to complete the line. “A 'key' safety point that we tell all our clients is do not run! Running is uncontrolled and will almost certainly end up with you face first on the ground!”
How Difficult Is It?
Slacklining is not the easiest sport in the world, but I’ll say this much - as a beginner it’s still barrels of fun. Even when you spend your first session falling off and just learning to stand, you’re working new muscles and getting a completely new kind of exercise.
“Anyone can do it and it is difficult when you first start, but the learning curve is very steep. Every time you step onto the line you will notice your own progression, and within a few hours it is possible to be walking a short slackline, which is what I think most people find addictive about it. The more you progress the more you try and push your own ability either by attempting tricks, walking longlines our braving highlines. There is plenty of support out there for beginners that want to progress through links on our website trislacklining.com", Ashley Burleigh says.
For gymnasts or people with experience in balance-based sports, like surfing, snowboarding, skiing or skating, getting the hang of it might be a bit easier, but once you’ve got the taste for it you’ll improve on your own steam.
What Are The Physical Benefits?
As I keep mentioning, slacklining is exercise. You’ll wake up in the morning with stiff legs and wonder how it all happened. “Slacklining has obvious fitness benefits, like improving your core strength, stability and postural control, but it is also great for developing muscles in your arms, back, glutes and legs, and reducing the tension on muscles", Ashley explains. For people who spend way too many hours sitting at their work desk (myself included), the impact this has on your core is both a welcome and rude awakening to the largely-unused core. “Recent studies show that slacklining's complex movement and intense exercise has been shown to be very good for the brain, improving memory and decreasing stress levels due to the level of focus required to walk a slackline.”
“The greatest benefit of slacklining is the fun to be had - it allows individuals to be creative and exercise at the same time. Although it’s a very individual sport, its normally practised with many other people, with a great sense of social acceptance and a community vibe running through the whole slacklining scene.”
Essential Travel would like to thank Ashley for his participation in this article and for supplying the photos.
Last Updated: May 2013