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How to Setup a Highline and Live to Tell About It

Want to pursue the sport of Slacklining up high? Rigging a highline and not sure where to start? Read on for a fundamental review of what is involved.

First off, this is not a page that will tell you everything you need to know. When we say it's an advanced topic, we mean that you need to not only read about but actually understand a lot of complex topics to engage in this sport safely. Simply put, I cannot make this topic beginner friendly because a beginner shouldn't be doing this. In addition, we also had to throw in quite a bit of legalize, so my appologies, you'll just have to deal with it. My feeling is, if your really looking to highline then your tough enough to deal with taking the burden of learning a large amount of fairly complex rigging information as well as dealing with the possible reality of the situation - which let's not kid ourselves, if you screw up, something breaks or you just have bad luck, whoever is on that line will fall to their death.

The internet is a bad place for highline information. Simply put, you can't learn it without practicing it. You cannot ensure you are practicing it correctly without having access to someone else who knows what they are doing. You can however use the internet to find a mentor. Post up on the slackline forums looking for a mentor and you just might find a local willing to teach you.

The reason why I'm putting this out here isn't to actually encourage people to jump into highlining, but instead to make sure people understand a few of the principals behind highlining so they can be much more educated to make the decision for themselves. I'll put this up front and in bold:

"Slackline Express LLC does not manufacture any slackline kits which are intended to be the only thing keeping you alive. Highlining takes training and proper equipment to do safely. We don't condone using our slackline kits or advice as your sole tools in highline rigging. Taking the sport up high is dangerous and could easily get you killed. You could be fully educated, trained and do everything right and still end up falling to your death."

Thankfully, to our knowledge no one has ever died of highlining. It is however really damn amazing and I hope that it stays that way. However, there have been many close calls and lots of injuries. With the explosive growth of the sport and the fact that many are learning off the web, only time will tell if our mortality rate will stay where it is. The only real saving grace is that so few people take the sport up high and those who do are climbers educated in not just textbook knowledge but field seasoned in rigging.

For those looking into highlining who are not seasoned climbers, you have a lot of research ahead of you to solve basic safety considerations such as assessing anchor strength, equalization of forces and selecting proper equipment, so we strongly recommend finding someone qualified to teach you in person. If you just need a definition for a term I use on this page, Google it. I suggest reading John Long's Climbing Anchors and the rest of his series from Falcon Press and a book on Rescue Rigging if you want to find additional reading material. That will give you enough of an overview to understand how large of a topic rigging is. More importantly though, you need to practice the techniques in these books a safe environment to understand the principals and develop an eye for solving the problems presented by vector based physics with the tools available to you.

Ok, since that is now out of the way, here are some basic questions we get.

What is highlining?

Highlining is the sport of slacklining performed at a height above what one could fall safely. This category is further divided by some into Midlines, which are lines generally from 20 feet to say 60 feet high (that part is subjective) and highlines which would be anything above a midline. Highlines have been done between rock columns over a thousand feet up.

I don't know much about rigging, can you tell me (over email or phone) how to rig a highline?

NO! Highline rigging can be complex and should be taught in person by someone who is experienced in rigging. Even if you follow textbook placements you might not see the hidden dangers or take all of the parts of the scenario into consideration. While reading and research helps, we firmly believe that no one is qualified to instruct highline rigging over any other means than in person.

What is the difference other than height?

A lot. You have to spot a good location, determine if adequate anchors can be accomplished at that location, determine the method of setting anchors such as bolting or using climbing nuts & cams, determine your mainline requirements, backup requirements and a system to impliment redundant anchoring and a system to share the load across those anchors; usually while hanging off the edge of a cliff or way up high in a tree. Normally a rock climber can use a couple trademark techniques and go years without using advanced systems, this isn't the case with highlining. Highlining turns most of our rockclimbing rigging 90 degrees off of center and adds extra forces that we normally aren't worried about. Highliners also need to understand advanced rigging techniques and equipment to backup and supplement your normal slackline system because of the loads involved, which are much higher than recreational climbing equipment was designed to accomodate and still offer an adequate margin of safety.

Equipment wise, everything you need to rig a highline could easily set you back $500-$1,000 if you do not have any existing safety gear. As you can see highline gear is usually not cheap, but the experience and knowledge to know what is safe is what will keep you alive.

Setting BoltsWhat do you need to know?

Rigging: To rig a highline you need to be fully capable at creating complex SRENE anchors that are built to EXPECT the normal worst case scenario loads. If you don't know what equalization and non extending anchors are, your in for a world of hurt unless you have a rigging mentor to create a foundation of understanding necessary to take it beyond that level. You also need to understand the physics behind slacklines. Slacklines can produce amazingly high loads on anchors, they have snapped fresh and well placed 3/8" bolts and have caused fully rated climbing cams to fail from being overloaded. Most slackers prefer to set bolts instead of climbing gear. Reason one is because good bolts are great for safety and multidirectional, reason two is that slacklines produce loads so high normal lead climbing gear might no longer be suitable for life saving duty, thus making that $60 cam no longer safe for lead climbing. This also isn't the place to learn to place bolts or what a good nut placement is, slacklines represent the worst load scenarios for bolts due to the angles involved. I'll sum it up by saying that the angle to the load essentially creates a levering force that multiplies the load. A 160 lbs slacker can easily create 1,600 lbs of tension just standing still on a slackline, when he takes a leashed, that load will jump higher. Check out of Force Calculator for the exact calculations for your span and plan on having no item that isn't at least double to tripple the strength of that load.

Spotting a site: not all sites are created equal. First instinct might be to set a low midline, say 15 to 20 feet, mistakenly thinking that it is safer. Nope, bad idea. Why? Because depending on the length of the line, by the time you add stretch in the slackline, walk out to the middle, fall and end up on a leashed fall you've managed to swing down pretty low. Possibly low enough to swing head first into the ground. Ok, so if you place it 25 foot high or more your ok right? Nope, not always. What usually happens is people get freaked out in the first couple feet. Partly because most people aren't used to starting off standing on their anchors and partly because the open space messes with their heads and scares the bejeasus out of them.

Learning to highline is always a humbling experience - regardless of how good you are on lowlines, do not assume that you can approach the line and be walking the gap completly your first day, much less your first try. Highlining is a headgame and your lowline skills only carry over so far.

When calculating forces, the best scenario is falling in the middle as this will distribute the load over both anchors equally. If however you fall near one end of the line, the nearest anchor is burdened with nearly all of the load, which can yield impressive forces. Not only can this be harsh on the anchor, it can be harsh on the slacker. Falls in the first few feet usually cause you fall and swing back into the rock wall, tree or whatever very hard. This is where the most common highline injuries happen. Swinging back hard into rock unexpectedly has lead to injuries such as mild concusions and even a broken back. To my knowledge there aren't stats on injuries in highlining, but most highliners I know have experienced this effect first hand and often have scars to prove it.

Also, don't be an idiot and highline over roadways where you will fall in the middle, dangling 13 feet off the ground and a Semi-Truck comes through with a 14 foot high trailer. Bottom line, pick places where falling and swinging won't be horrid and where you have tons of clearance from your leashed fall to the ground. Do us a favor, do it where you are actually permitted to rig one, the last thing we need is someone causing access problems and getting slacklines banned all over the place.

What equipment do you need?

This varies a lot and depends on the location and preferences. Some things are given, you'll need anchors, a main line to slack on, backup main line(s), and various slings / webbing / cordolette to equalize it all together, a fall harness of some kind and a fall leash and connector.

We recommend you purchase and assemble your highline gear to fit your needs and preferences. If you don't know what you need, you still need to learn more about what you are getting into. We've listed some options below, you may not need all of the following or may have better or adequate substitutions with other gear you already own. Many of these items we carry in stock but links marked with an * are links to external vendors. Where we can, we try to link to 3rd party vendors that we've had good experiences buying from ourselves.

• 1" Webbing - 300 foot Rolls, 100 feet, 50 feet - you'll need plenty extra, we recommend buying by the roll to save $
11/16" Webbing (if you thread lines yourself)
2" Webbing (works well for anchor webbing and is durable)
Cordolette* or Webolette* (not necessary, but certainly simplifies things)
Slings or Runners* (as needed)
• Trad Gear: Passive Protection* and Active Protection* (depends on your anchors/rock)
Bolting Gear* (Only use with landowner permission!)
Climbing Harness* (any climbing grade harness will work)
Steel Rescue Grade Carabiners (won't stretch under load like aluminum)
Steel Shackles* ( overkill, but really secure)
Steel Rap Rings for fall leash connector to the main line
• Tensioning Systems: Pulleys, Ratchets or Carabiners
Fall leash: Dynamic climbing rope to tie into
Padding: Your crash pad or pack will work too.

A note on carabiners: Each and every carabiner manufacturer we talked to each recommended we never reuse slackline carabiners for life saving use; slacklines put a high static load which is rough on equipment which is often designed for sudden impact so they stretch during impact, then stretch back.

Under a slackline, that doesn't happen, it stretches and stays that way until you un-rig. Don't believe me? Set a slackline nice and tight, put someone on it, then try and open the gate on a carabiner, it won't open because the biner has stretch that tight against the gate. Bottom line, dedicate any of your gear that holds the main system tension for slacklines, if using a backup system that isn't tightly tensioned, that part could be reused for other purposes of course. We recommend you invest in some steel rescue carabiners for this reason; they are designed for higher loads, that and bolt hangers won't chew into them like they will do to aluminum while your surfing the line. Instead of carabiners some people also recommend industrial rigging equipment such as steel shackles that are rated for 20,000 lb test or greater. While I haven't personally felt the need for these just yet, they aren't a bad idea to look into.

Anchoring gear: If your planning to place bolts, make sure that the landowner or access situation allows it. To place bolts, you'll need the usual bolting gear. As I already mentioned, 3/8" bolts have been snapped so there is a strong preference for large 1/2" bolts, 3 on each end, all placed where they can easily be equalized and are all in solid rock. If bolts are forbidden bite the bullet and consider dedicating whatever climbing gear you need to rig the anchors as full time highline gear. Basically over rig the hell out of the anchors because it will be seeing 1500-2000 lb of tension or possibly more depending on length and how you bail onto it and you need a safety margin well over that amount.  

Main line: In a perfect world you would have a main line sewn to fit the gap. Contact Us if you want one sewn to your specifications. For most people that isn't going to be a reality. Instead try and minimize knots and use the strongest knots possible The Frost Knot seems to be tossed around as a stronger variant of the overhand knot for webbing and seems to fit the bill. If possible, the no knot or friction hitch is perfect since it doesn't reduce the line strength. One trick is to use hardware such as climbing harness buckles to adjust the line length without weakening the webbing as much as a knot would. Technically speaking, your normal use slackline may work for the main line since the real difference is that you have a backup main line, however, we still recommend using a fresh line.

Main line backups: There are differing schools of thought on the fine points of all rigging, and how to make a backup main line is no different. Some people like to thread 11/16" webbing through the 1" webbing on the main line to create a Threaded Mainline and that's it, calling the 11/16" the backup system. Personally, I disagree with this practice. While a threaded main line will get tighter easier for some tensioning systems, it does not increase the strength of your system. From our testing, threaded lines are less than ideal because your backup is pre-tensioned and strength wise the core breaks independantly and then the 1" breaks at standard breaking load. Since it doesn't yeild any higher tensile strength, nor does it share the load if you ever managed to break your 1", I cannot recommend using a threaded mainline as your only line. If you do use a threaded mainline, we recommend that you add an additional second 1" line or climbing rope and only tension the backup hand tight.

Instead of using threaded lines for the tensioned mainline, my thoughts instead are why not move the threaded line to the much looser tensioned backup duties where the loads are lower and the redundancy isn't a problem. Another good option in windy scenarios is to use a length of dynamic climbing rope taped to the bottom of your 1" mainline as a backup. It does add extra weight to the system, but it is sepcifically designed for dynamic loads you will be placing on it and the extra weight has been found to cause less vibration when the line is in wind.

However you decide to go, once you've got your mainline picked out and secured between the span, you'll need to bond the two lines together every so many feet with athletic tape once it is tensioned. Taping every five feet allows for a common reference number that also aids in measuring the system for proper bragging rights. You can't just measure the webbing before hand since it'll stretch under tensioning a lot. Again, the golden rule is that your real backup line should only be minimally tensioned.

Other gear will of course be required to Equalize your Anchors and to softpoint out tensioning systems. This will vary too much for each situation to really lay down rules but I will say that cordolettes are really handy for strong 3 point equalization. For additional strength, you can make cordolettes out of static climbing rope instead of 7 or 8 mm accessory cord. Instead of standard sized webolettes, you can make them out of 2" webbing for a very robust equalization tool.

Tensioning system: If doesn't matter how you tighten the line so long as it gets the job done. Your highline tensioning system may very well be the same as you use on low lines. Other times you may have to make modifications to your normal scenario to get the system tight enough for your liking since highlines are often fairly long and tensioning on the side of a cliff may be awkward to say the least. For pulley style systems that normally have you pull from the center of the line, either swap the order of your pulleys or add an additional turn at the center using a spare carabiner or pulley to make it tensionable from the anchor side of the system.

For some situations and preferences, removing the tensioning system is a priority so they will want to soft point the line to the anchor to remove the tensioning system. Soft pointing adds complexity to the rigging process but can remove weight from the main line, remove extra links in the safety system and makes double checking your work easier. The downside is softpointing can cause melting under high loads and adds an additional point of single point failure. An alternative is what we have dubbed hardpointing which is either having a mainline sewn to fit the span exactly so it is simply clipped between the anchors once tensioned or using another peice of hardware such as a climbing harness buckle to adjust the mainline to the exact length, thus minimizing additional hardware.

Harness: Most highliners I have heard of use their normal climbing harness. However, that isn't always necessary. While I personally prefer my normal harness, some instead rely on a swami belt out of 2" webbing, which works fine and allows them to easily hook their leash behind them if desired. If you don't have a climbing harness, find a local shop and have them fit you into one. You won't need a super fancy climbing harness, just something comfortable to fall in. You may find it helpful to have a couple gear loops.

Leashed FallFall Leash: This is often personal preference. Some just use a couple strands of webbing, some static or dynamic rope. My preference is dynamic rope so you'll be reducing the load on the system, albeit slightly when compared to the more static alternatives. It gives a slightly less harsh landing as well and is designed for exactly what you'll be doing with it.

Connection point for leash: I have a very strong perference for solid steel rings, commonly reffered to as rap rings as does most experienced highliners. These are extremely strong and have no gate to fail. Since there is no gate, they must be placed around the mainline and backup line before it is secured and tensioned. Not all rap rings are suitable for being a fall leash connector as some are only designed for body weight use. We recommend it being at least 20KN or 5,000 lb tensile strength. We also find it useful to have an inner diameter of at least 2" to ensure that it will glide easily. For redundancy sake, we usually use 2 of them.

For those who use carabiners to attach their leashes, do not use a single locking carabiner. You never know how your going to fall and if you fall to the opposite side than your leash is lying then it will rotate the carabiner while you are still falling and risk catching your entire fall against the gate of your carabiner (the weakest part of the biner). If that gate fails, and it could, you'll be a gonner.

Opposite and opposed non-lockers carabiners are a better option, but I have heard rumors of one incident that popped the gate off one carabiner and the other gate was knocked open in the process, leaving them dangling on a partly open carabiner. While I haven't been able to confirm that report, it is a possibility. If you are planning to use carabiners, we recommend two locking carabiners which are used as Opposite and Opposed Carabiners. Again, we still strongly prefer the rap rings as they have gate to serve as a weak spot and are safe for omini-directional loads.

Padding: Don't forget to pad your edges. Edge abrasion or abrasion from your rigging system rubbing on other components has directly led to injuries and system failures. Depending on your highline anchoring this could be very critical. Most common forms of padding are simply placing your pack or crash pad under areas of abrasion. Don't forget to tie your padding to your anchors, many people have knocked their stuff off the edge while walking the line.

Anything else I need?

I easily could have omitted some gear or necessary rigging techniques, but mostly you need to get in the mind set to actually walk out into space and accepting the fact that learning to walk a highline can be damn dangerous to learn. Your first time it is highly likely you will bail on the anchors and swing into the rock. Some have used climbing crash pads hanging from the side to pad the area directly under the mainline for this scenario.

What are the hidden dangers?

Several, but most are similar to rock climbing risks in general. Anchoring to a single block of rock on one end is obviously not cool. Even large refrigerator sized blocks of rock that seem solid have been pulled off cliffs and taken climbers with them to their deaths. Tree limbs can turn into skewers when you come whipping back at the tree and should be avoided when picking locations. When falling, your fall leash connector can slam into your head, torso or arms. Other things to watch for is your landing zones. If anchoring to slab walls bailing near the anchors will likely put you slamming into the rock at weird angles which could easily break your leg or ankle.

injured slackerGot any advice on how to fall?

Basic rules of falling
#1 Avoid falling
#2 If you couldn't follow rule #1 then make sure you try to catch the line in your hands instead of taking a leashed fall. Gloves and long sleeves are recommended to prevent rope burn. As a tip, falling into the line and catching it by your armpits can hurt.
#2 If you couldn't follow rule #2 then your in for a wild ride you likely won't forget. Make sure you have a way of getting back up to the main line (tied hand loops, a pair of ascenders or great rope climbing abilities) since your leash may be too long to put the line within reach. Don't expect to climb back up and sit start on a highline. Instead, just shimmy your way back to the edge for another standing start.

Why don't you make highline specific gear?

While we carry/resale lots of gear that can be used for highline application we have not designed and rated our manufactured gear for this use. The real reason we don't manufacture highline gear is litigation and human stupidity. There is a book put out each year called "Accidents in North American Mountaineering" on climbing accident reports. Some people do everything right and die due to bad luck, bad timing or freak conditions while others do everything wrong and had no business being out there in the first place. Some sports are forgiving of the learning curve, this one isn't. Most of the parts you need for highlines can be found on this web site or can be found at your local climbing shop. If you don't know how to rig it from parts, seek professional instruction.

You now have the foundational blueprints of what is involved in rigging highlines. All this said, I still believe that no one is qualified to teach anyone how to highline off the web. I posted this information to ensure no one attempts to rig a highline and is woefully under prepared for what they are getting themselves into. In other words, get out there and learn from someone who highlines and make sure it's in person and you fully understand what is going on before you even contemplate taking that big walk out into space. For the record, I don't make a point of teaching highlining. While I'd like to I've made the big walk a few times and I don't feel comfortable in the mentoring shoes yet.

Bottom line: this page is strictly for informational purposes only. We (Slackline Express LLC, owners or employees) accept no liability for any omissions or faulty information which may be contained on this page. To put it in common terms: if you or your friends die it would be sad, but it would be your own damn fault.

- Slackline Joe

P.S. A big thanks to John Borland for sending in some great example photos.

Child walking a slackline

"This hobby is one of the most awesome things I've ever done. Your kit made set up so easy." - Heather M. More Gear Reviews