Dan on a highline

The aim of slacklining could be to feel an ultimate sense of presence in beautiful places. Or perhaps to have fun with friends whilst learning a new skill. Even if you are not ready to walk between mountains, these tips below will help you challenge yourself to whatever level you choose. I’ve written this article to help you get started slacklining.

I’m going to start off by saying that you’ve probably read about, seen or even experienced a scenario where people new to slacklining start out on tight lines. My biggest motivation behind writing this article is to change the idea that it is best to start on tight lines. There are no resources that I, my friends, the ISA (International Slackline Association) general assembly or the ASA (Australian Slackline Association) know of that talk about this, aside from ‘Sag is Swag propaganda’ memes on a Facebook Group called SlackChat. Read on to find out why you should start on a looser line.

Pros and Cons of Tight Lines

Getting started slacklining, most people set up a tight line (one that goes 'twang'): for example, a length of 2-inch webbing tensioned between two trees using something like a ratchet system.

The appeal of a tight line is that it behaves similarly to a balance beam, and is therefore easier to walk AT FIRST. Most people can take a step or two pretty quickly, but often fall at the ⅓rd mark when the lateral movement of the line begins to increase and the line is no longer as still as a beam. With tight lines, there is a low ceiling of progression that is rapidly reached (after a couple of weeks). Many people lose interest at this point.

After this, the only way forward with tight lines is to do bounce tricks in the form of 'tricklining'. If bounce tricks aren’t for you (as they aren’t for me), and you are more interested in ultimately walking longer lines between trees, over lakes or maybe even mountains, then you will have to completely re-learn slacklining, as my friends and I have had to do. Tight lines develop bad habits. They're often set up at hip height (I can never understand why), which not only increases your chance of injury if you fall off awkwardly – it also encourages poor technique when it comes to mounting the line. This is because people tend to hop or jump up onto the line, using arms for momentum. This is dangerous, tiring, biomechanically inefficient and puts strain on pre-existing knee or hip conditions.

'Transition' Tension: The Ideal Learning Curve

I am here to tell you to START ON LOOSER LINES. A 'transition tension' or 'hand tension' line is loose enough to be able to be moved from side to side a little bit when it is not weighted. There should be no 'twang' to the line. Anchors can be between hip and chest height with the line 5–10m in length. Aim to have the line around shin-height or lower in the middle when there is weight on it. There should be around 40–100cm of “sag”. You may have to play around with tension and anchor height. Please take the time to do this. You will improve your rigging skills the more you apply them and future setups will be quicker. It will take a few minutes at most and will hopefully ensure a perfect balance between difficulty and injury minimalisation.

NOTE: I have deliberately left out rigging instructions in this article to avoid liability. Your slackline kit should come with instructions from the manufacturer or retailer you purchased it from. If these instructions are lost, YouTube has plenty of great resources for both primitive and ratchet setups.

If you have experience on tight lines and can already take steps on them, take a bit of tension out. Get comfy, then de-tension a little more and so on until the line has become significantly looser. This may take a session or two to adapt. The aim that I am suggesting for slackline progression involves walking 'transition' and progressing toward longer and/or looser lines. There is a much closer skill transfer between longer lines and looser 'rodeo lines' with the technique and subconscious balance corrections that develop. With many beginners, often there is a focus on starting from one tree and walking to the other tree. But if your aim is to walk longer lines, you'll progress further in your skills if the focus is instead on what it feels like to exist on the line.

Warming Up for Slacklining

Like all sports and movements, a warm-up decreases the likelihood of injury and prepares your body and mind for activity. Allow 5–10 minutes for this.

  • On flat ground, stand on one leg. Hold for 10 seconds. Then do the other leg and repeat. Practice doing it with your knees slightly bent and your hips engaged. Keep your arms up, your shoulders back and your gaze at eye level, on something like a piece of bark on a tree.
  • Try the same with just one arm up, then the other. Hopefully by now, your ankles, hips, knees and shoulders are getting a bit of blood flow.
  • Sumo squats (wide stance) and lunges, performed slowly and controlled will also help. Make sure to keep your knees in line with your hips and feet. Avoid letting your knees “buckle” inwards or outwards. You may have to bring your legs closer together or focus on recruiting muscles on the outside of your hips or inside of your thighs.
  • BONUS ROUND: Let’s assume you have your left foot on the ground. Bring your right leg in front of you and take it off the ground. Straighten the knee slowly, to form an L shape. keeping your left hip engaged and left knee slightly bent. Bend the right knee again, then tilt your hips to bring your torso parallel to the ground. Then kick your right leg behind you and hold. This is difficult and similar to a 'Warrior 3' yoga pose. Your arms can be outstretched like wings of an aeroplane (easiest), by your hips (harder) or above your head (hardest). Repeat on the other side.
  • A note on your core: Your core does not need to be engaged to the point of being rock hard (as if bracing for an impact), but it helps to have it engaged. Have your belly button slightly pulled in and engage your pelvic floor muscles a bit. Apply this principle when it is time to hop on the line.

How to Stand Up on a Slackline

Let’s assume your right foot is the stronger one. Ensure your left leg is not too far away from where the line “settles” before you step on it. Start in the middle of the line and perform a slow, controlled movement similar to a leg press with your right foot. DO NOT HOP. Keep your knees bent and hips neutral. Aim to engage your butt and keep it tucked under a little rather than sticking it out. Look up at either the tree or connection point at the other side. Keep your arms up and your shoulders back the whole time. Engage your core and pelvic floor.

If the line is too high, lower it or loosen it as mentioned earlier. The idea is to gradually transition your weight from the ground to right foot on the line gradually and in a controlled manner. If you cannot transfer the weight completely, DON'T. Even just doing this partial press alone will greatly improve this completely new movement you are attempting. It is normal for the line to shake and that will lessen with time and experience. Attempt this on the other leg after a couple of minutes to train symmetry and combat fatigue. These are new movements that will fatigue unconditioned muscles rapidly. Training the other side will give the tiring side a few minutes of rest.

For looser lines (mild or no 'twang'), get into the habit of putting your second foot on the line as fluidly as possible. Do so the moment your right foot leaves the ground. It doesn’t matter if your second foot steps in front or behind the foot already on the line. For tight lines only, you can keep your weight on just the one foot when you are up, but do not let it go too far to the side as a counter balance. When you can mount the line on both sides, hold for 10 seconds before attempting to take a step. More on this in my next article.

Troubleshooting: If this step is too difficult, continue with the leg press action aiming to push the line down with the lower quarter of your body. Engage your core as mentioned above, your gluteal muscles (the best you can), the muscles in your thigh and the muscles deep in your ankle that “scoop” your foot from side to side. Know when to draw the line and call it a day as by this stage you will have probably asked a lot from muscles that you didn’t know you had! Listen to your body. Half an hour of training is enough for your first session (unless you really have more juice left, but do not push it much longer). You can always slackline another day once your body has recovered and you will probably be able to train a little longer next time too. It is beneficial to take frequent breaks for not just your body but also for your mind to recover, especially if you are feeling tired or flustered.

This is 'step one'. It will probably take longer than you expect to become comfortable with it. This is OK. You do not lose points every time you fall. No one is judging you for not being immediately successful. Conversely, every attempt you make brings you closer to levelling up. Enjoy the process. Feel your body adapt and improve on this completely new skill that NO ONE is good at at first. Even if the sum of your first and second slackline session is being able to stand up by yourself every few attempts, this is an achievement to be proud of. Anything more than this is a bonus. Be patient, be present in your movement. Know you can always set up another day if you don’t achieve your goal for the day. You may have set this goal for yourself in an arbitrarily limited time frame and it takes strength and humility to lose to your own expectations. Slacklining is a difficult but rewarding game. You will get better at it the more you play.

Correct Form Checklist:

  • Core – Belly button and pelvic floor engaged. Remember to breathe.
  • Torso – As upright as possible. Small movements are good but do not let the movements become big or erratic as that will make the line throw you off. When this starts, step off the line and mount again slowly. With practice, you will get used to the line moving underneath you.
  • Hips – Neutral, butt tucked under slightly, facing forwards and not pointing to one side. Aim to distribute your weight evenly on both feet.
  • Knees – “Moderately” bent. Too little and you will compromise stability. Too much and you will tire very quickly.
  • Ankles – Engaged. Be conscious to recruit muscles around your shin that scoop your foot from side to side.
  • Arms and Shoulders – Up at all times when starting! Elbows bent and relaxed if possible. The smaller the movements, the less the line will throw you from side to side.
  • Head – Level. Gaze at eye level on the tree or slightly below at the anchor. Do not look at your feet.

Cooldown: Light stretching after has always helped me, personally. However, since slacklining requires more strength and endurance rather than flexibility, heavy stretching before or after a session is not necessary and may just be asking more of the muscles you have already fatigued.

A note on setups: ratchet vs primative; 2-inch vs 1-inch

Ratchets: This is a common beginner setup. The pros are that it's convenient and functional, you need minimal rope protection, and it's easy to put a large amount of tension on a 2-inch line (which is why ratchets are a popular setup for 'tricklines' – see my Glossary, below).

The downsides of a ratchet are weight, packed size and potential misuse leading to injury. Ratchets need to be tied off in case a part of the ratchet system fails (which can lead to serious injury, and in one case led to a death). Ratchets are also often used incorrectly (it's easy to forget to set the lever into 'lock' position when the line is in use). Ratchets also need to be checked regularly for 'creep' and slippage that happens in the webbing. The ratchets themselves are also heavy, have lots of moving parts and have the potential to corrode.

Primitive setup: A lightweight tensioning and locking system that uses 3–4 carabiners and 1–2 rings to put a 3:1 tension on a slackline. This is almost always done on 25mm (1-inch) webbing. Compared to 1-inch webbing, 2-inch is perceived as easier, but this is merely an illusion. However wide your line is, the idea is still to maintain your centre of gravity over what you are balanced on. One-inch systems are lighter, often have higher manufacturing quality and are the standard for highlines as well as ‘parklines’ and ‘waterlines’ above 20 metres long.

Pros of Primitive Setups:

  • Often lightweight;
  • Use high-quality parts that are interchangeable.

Cons of Primitive Setups:

  • Require learning how to set it up;
  • Have more parts involved than a ratchet system;
  • Can't hold as much tension as ratchet setups (so, usually aren't used for tricklining).

If you already own a 2-inch ratchet system and can't 'upgrade' to a 1-inch system, fear not; there is still a lot of training you can do on your current setup as mentioned above.

More Videos from Dan

Body Positioning

Slacklining: Pep Talk!

Don't Forget to Have Fun!

Slacklining GLOSSARY

  • Anchor: The part of a slackline that fixes each end. It is used interchangeably to describe either the sling or webbing around the tree or the tree (or other structure) itself.
  • Creep: Fine mechanical stretch between fibres that happen due to long-term static loading, e.g. a tight ratchet set up semi-permanently in a backyard.
  • Exposure (pose): A position where the slackliner turns to the side to face their body perpendicular to the anchors. It offers a completely different set of muscles used and provides a great view of the landscape for the slackliner.
  • Highline: A slackline setup between cliffs, mountains, valleys, buildings or other high place. It is walked whilst wearing a harness and rigged with “redundancy” in mind to ensure that any failure of gear does not result in serious injury or death.
  • Primitive setup: A lightweight tensioning and locking system that uses 3–4 carabiners and 1–2 rings to put a 3:1 tension on a slackline. This is almost always done on 25mm (1-inch) webbing.
  • Rig: When used as a verb means to set up. When used as a noun refers to the entire system.
  • Rodeo line: A lightweight, very low tension slackline with high anchors that can be used for training at an intermediate level and beyond. It offers a challenge to many slackliners including professionals. All slackline kits can be set up as a rodeo line.
  • Sag: A term describing the distance of depression in the middle of the line in relation to the height of the anchors when someone is on it. This is influenced by tension and the characteristics specific to the slackline webbing used. For example, Sally set up a 10m line with anchors 1.5m high and the line 0.5m off the ground in the middle when she is on it. Sally has set up a line with a sag of 1m. Sag may also correlate with the difficulty of a line, but not always, and there are other factors to consider such as length, tension and weight of the webbing.
  • Tension: How much force has been applied to make the line tight. In this article I have broken it down into tight (with 'twang'), transition and rodeo. To de-tension means to take tension out or “loosen”.
  • Tight line: A line that goes 'twang'.
  • Transition: A tension term I have used to describe lines that are not too tight and not too loose. A 'Goldilocks' tension for learning on.
  • Trickline: A very high-tension slackline that is designed for bounce tricks. This form of slackline most commonly uses 50mm webbing and is tensioned with either a massive ratchet or a pulley system.
  • Waterline: A slackline setup over water.
  • Webbing: The part of a slackline that you walk on.

Dan Sinanian,
Bogong Equipment

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