OUTDOORS: The Subtle Art Of Slacklining

Written by Tristan Higbee on . Posted in Sports

“Are you training for the circus?” the woman asks with a guffaw. Good one, lady. Like I haven’t heard that one a million times already.

I continue staring at the tree in front of me, trying not to break my concentration. Despite my best efforts at being antisocial, the woman proceeds to tell me that the circus could actually be a viable career option for me. More guffaws. As my new friend starts to tell me her life story, starting with how she just loved going to the circus as a kid, I lose my balance and end up sprawled on the grass, thinking about how odd this activity really is.

No, I don’t have any desire to jostle with the bearded lady and dancing bears for attention. I’m just one of a growing number of people who enjoy the sport of slacklining. If you’ve never heard of slacklining, maybe you’ve seen someone do it at some point. This is how I usually explain it to people: It’s like tightrope walking. But instead of a tight rope, you walk on a… slack line. Oh, and it’s usually set up between a couple of trees. And most of the time you’re only a couple feet off the ground.

OK, so it sounds pretty lame when dumbed down like that, but I promise that it’s actually a lot of fun. Slacklining was started by rock climbers in California who wanted something to do when they were too tired to climb or when the weather was crummy. They started out by walking on the chains and cables that encircle parking lots. The next logical progression was to walk on climbing webbing. Webbing is “a strong fabric woven as a flat strip or tube of varying width and fibers often used in place of rope.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.) Walking on the webbing provides a unique experience because it actually stretches and bounces under body weight (unlike a tightrope, which is usually a steel cable), allowing for more dynamic movement and tricks. And just like that, slacklining was born.

The slackline itself is made from 1” webbing at least 30 feet long. In a nutshell, here’s how it works: One end of the webbing is attached to a fixed object (usually a tree) and the other end is threaded through some sort of pulley system that is set up on the second tree. You pull the webbing through the pulley system and then lock it off when it’s really tight. Yes, a slackline actually has to be pretty tight. The “slack” part comes into play when you actually step onto the line and it groans, stretches, and bounces under your feet.

Luckily for us all, slacklining is a pretty simple and inexpensive hobby. You can get all the gear you need for $30 or so. Here’s a YouTube link to a simple setup that uses just webbing and carabiners, all of which can be purchased at the Mountainworks climbing shop near the Provo dollar theater. (Out-n-Back on State Street and even BYU’s very own Outdoors Unlimited also might have the requisite gear.) Web sites like slacklineexpress.com offer ready-made kits that include more advanced (and more expensive, though easier to set up) tightening systems with ratchets and other fancy gizmos. Then all you need to do is find a couple of trees (Kiwanis Park or the area around the duck pond at the southern end of BYU campus are great areas for this) and you’re good to go!

Slacklining will feel really unnatural at first, so here are some pointers: Start off by lightly resting the foot of your stronger leg (it’s easiest if you take your shoes and socks off) on the line and then just trying to stand up. Stand up in one fluid motion, with all your weight quickly shifting onto the line. If you’re anything like the rest of us, your leg will pull an Elvis (think lots of shaking) and you’ll fail miserably. Keep at it, though, and eventually you’ll be able to stand on the slackline with your arms outstretched at your sides and your other foot out in the air for balance. It helps if you keep your eyes fixed on the tree in front of you instead of down on your feet. It can also be beneficial at first to rest your hand on the shoulder of someone standing next to you, just to get a feel for things.

Once you can stand and balance comfortably (and that can take anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple hours of practice), try taking a few steps. Again, you’ll probably fail miserably and spectacularly. Just keep working on it and eventually you’ll be able to walk back and forth along the line like a champ. If you’re feeling confident in your abilities, there are all sorts of nifty tricks to try. Do a quick YouTube search if you want to see some of them.

Slacklining has it all, baby. It’s fun, it’s cheap, it’s good exercise (tighten those abs!), it’s relaxing, and it’s a great date idea. What more could you want in a hobby? Get after it!

Tristan Higbee is an outdoors correspondent for Rhombus. He likes slacklining and… stuff.

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