6 Things to Do Before You Go Zip Lining

Zooming along a zip line can be exhilarating, but it should also be safe. go.biwako/flickr

If sliding down a wire cable high off the ground at speeds that would get you pulled over in a school zone is your idea of fun, well ... have fun up there. We'll stick to hiking on a nicely paved flat trail.

Still, we get it. You're not alone. The popularity of zip lining, as it’s most commonly known, has grown tremendously over the past 20 years. The site ziplinerider.com lists more than 200 zip line courses in more than 40 states. There are hundreds of others in Canada, in the Caribbean, in Central and South America, in Europe, in Africa, in Asia, in Australia and in New Zealand.

They're at resorts, at camps, at zoos and, often, in the middle of nowhere. In places like Costa Rica, these lines take you high over the tree canopies of the jungle. There are zip lines that run over waterfalls on the Big Island of Hawaii. You can zip over lakes, rivers and gorges, with views of mountains, oceans ... you name it.

The thrill of sitting in a harness, sometimes several stories high, and flying at roller-coaster speeds (and above) is appealing to an increasing number of millions wanting to experience a different kind of outdoor adventure. But be warned: Zip lining is not all wind-in-your-hair, caution-to-the-wind thrill seeking.

It should be — if you’re doing it right — wind-through-your-helmet, take-all-precautions, carefully considered thrill seeking.

As with many outside-the-box outdoor activities, zip lining is all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. After some highly publicized zip-lining accidents — including a death in Hawaii and the terrible tale of this Georgia woman’s fall into the water after an accident on a homemade zip line — safety has become paramount for every adventure outfit worth its carabiners.

A note: There are plenty of backyard-type, homemade zip lines. Not to put too fine of a point on this, but THOSE ARE DANGEROUS. If you mess with any zip line that isn’t professionally installed and operated, you’re messing with trouble.

Here are some tips to heed when you’re considering strapping on for a zip line ride:

1. Make Sure the Operator of the Zip Line Tour Is Legit

It's not simply seeing if the company's web site is slick enough. Before you decide to zip into the great beyond, make a phone call or two. Ask questions. Though there are currently no national standards for zip line construction and operation, many states have them, and any legitimate operator should also adhere to the standards set by the Association for Challenge Course Technology or the Professional Ropes Course Association. So ask about that. Ask how often the course is inspected, and by whom. Ask about the company's safety record. Ask about its insurance. Ask about how the people there will keep you safe.

2. Look Around

Once you get there, does the place look legit? Are the operators who will help you in your adventure professional? Is a safety demonstration included? (If not ... take off. Go bowling or something.) Look at the equipment provided, including carabiners, ropes, harnesses and helmets. Are they well maintained? Look at the course itself. Do the lines look free from wear and tear? How about the platforms? Do they look sturdy? Do they have guard rails?

3. Listen Carefully

No one, even bad zip line operators, will strap you in and push you off without at least a small nod to safety. So don't act like you do when the flight attendant goes into the pre-flight routine. It's important to listen intently to these safety briefings. And, again, ask questions.

4. Watch Your Step on the Course

Once on the course, make sure you're strapped onto a safety line at all times — not just while you're zipping through space. (Some places require that you have two safety lines hooked on.) Many accidents occur by a simple step off a platform. So if you're on the course (which often means many feet off the ground), you should be safely attached to a line that will catch you if you fall. Also, watch out for other adventurers and the guides. Don't get in their way.

5. Know Your Limits

A couple on a zip line in the jungle
Knowing the weight limit of the zip line course is important. Can it support two people? Consider other potential factors, including heart conditions and height-related phobias. Ammit Jack/Shutterstock

Most zip lines have, as you might imagine, a weight limit. But being big isn't the only thing that should make you think twice before zipping along. If you're pregnant, if you have a heart condition, if you think the stress just might be too uncomfortable, take a pass. Head for that nice, flat, paved hiking trail. It's a nice walk. And you don't have to worry about looking down.

6. Wear a Helmet

Just do it. And while we're at it, ditch the flip-flops, too. Closed-toe shoes only, please.