Soaring Adventures

Ever since Hollywood action heroes began flying on steel cables strung between cliffs, buildings and trees, zip lines have captured the imagination of the everyday person. The true birthplace of zip-line tourism, however, rests with the rainforest canopies of Costa Rica. It was here that zip-line excursions took hold, and then spread worldwide, offering an ideal “high thrill-to-skill” activity for almost anyone with an adventurous spirit and average fitness capabilities.

How-To Guide

The zip-line industry is growing rapidly, and keeping up with the latest technology, best procedures and most effective policies can be a daunting task, says Monty Holmes, owner of Captain Zipline Adventure Tours in Salida, Colo., just west of Colorado Springs. A comprehensive source for information is the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), a trade association which offers membership and training.

The Nuts And Bolts

Most zip lines are made of galvanized aircraft cable built to military specifications, but stainless-steel cables and connectors are used in some jungle and marine environments.

There are several different cable configurations and braking systems, both mechanical and gloved participant-actuated. Some systems use twin cables--one above the other--where others use two harnesses and a single cable. Alternative braking mechanisms are being developed constantly. For zip-line rides with steep descents, a cable-car assembly may be more appropriate.

Before opting for a mechanical component in a zip-line ride, consider carefully since this decision mandates inspections by the state amusement-ride authority, and adds to operating costs substantially. Captain Zipline Tours utilizes the original Costa Rican zip-line techniques with a single ½-inch cable and gloved-hand braking and cable-rope brakes operated by the landing-area guide with no mechanical equipment involved.

A typical zip-line tour begins with a group of 4 to12 guests and two guides. Prescreening potential zip participants is important to weed out any conditions that could compromise the guests’ health and safety. Explanation of the required liability release and signature are required for insurance regulations, and provide a last check of past and present health conditions. No cellular telephones or cameras are permitted on the tour, as they are an unnecessary distraction. Guide presentation of the tour sequence and discussion of safety issues are followed by fitting the harnesses and helmets. Trolley and carabiner gear are attached to the harness, and gloves are fitted to participants; one final check for proper gear fit and a personal observation of the participants are conducted before the practice zip-line demonstration. Specifically, guides check for the “Five H’s”:

1. Long hair must be tied back and under the helmet.

2. The harness must fit snugly.

3. All hardware should be in good, working order and properly configured.

4. Helmet fit has to be comfortable and secure.

5. The “human” condition is evaluated for readiness and ability to travel on the cables. All guests are assisted “zipping” on the practice (bunny) cable while proper technique is explained until each guest feels ready and willing to continue.

Guides must check each other’s gear before beginning the zip tour. The lead guide goes first, zipping down the cable to the landing to await the customers, and providing rope-assisted braking for them, if needed.

Back at the takeoff location, participants are hooked up individually by the trailing guide; they zip down the cable, are unhooked at the landing platform, and are directed to assemble in a group out of the traffic flow.

The trailing guide follows and unhooks himself/herself, and the group proceeds to walk (between the guides) to the next cable span.

Information highlighting interesting flora, fauna, geology, history and culture during the hikes can enhance the eco-tour-by-zip-line, and add value to the experience. While zipping, children 12 years of age and younger should be coupled with a guide behind them, attached by sling. Young children (8 to12 years old) do not have the weight or mental focus to travel the entire cable length, or operate the hand brake effectively. Thus, they can safely enjoy the ride by zipping in tandem with a guide. In many cases, the child gains enough confidence to zip solo as the tour proceeds and the cables get faster. Typically, insurance regulations prohibit children less than 8 years of age from zipping.

Maintenance Issues

Cables--The cables will stretch during the initial months of operation, and the individual strands will tighten. Periodic tightening to fine-tune the speed of travel (more sag makes for a slower ride) will be needed. After about 16,000 trips down the cable, the wear-and-tear of zipping starts to become evident and replacement is recommended. This wear is typically found on the top side of the cable. All connections must be checked for proper torque: bolts, anchor-guy wires, poles, platforms, foundations, railings, ramps and rope-braking mechanisms must be viewed and corrective actions taken.

Ground conditions--The area in proximity to the tour may affect the safety of participants as tree limbs and rocks can be hazardous. These areas must be routinely inspected.

Gear--All customer gear undergoes a thorough annual inspection--the date of manufacture of harnesses and lanyards is checked, and the out-of-date or damaged gear must be destroyed. Safety and rescue gear should be present for inspection as well. An inspection log for all customer and guide equipment should be completed every day the tour is operated and reviewed annually with records kept for at least seven years.

Emergency-preparedness evacuation plan--This must be coordinated with local authorities. A written operational plan will help zip-tour personnel fine-tune actions in the event of an emergency. Rescue equipment and a spare set of customer gear are carried on the tour by the lead guide with cellular telephones and hand-held, short-range radios included for communication between guides and base-station personnel. Many of the above described items will be addressed when state and local permits are submitted.

Annual inspections--ACCT-listed professional inspectors evaluate cable spans and cable wear as well as cable abuse and all connections in regards to proper torque. Bolts, anchor-guy wires, poles, platforms, foundations, railings, ramps and rope-braking mechanisms are viewed and corrective actions recommended during this process. Other areas and issues included in the inspection process are addressed above.

Zip lines are arriving at park and recreation areas, so plan for them as well as for the mass number of visitors who will be experiencing the whine of the trolley zipping down the cable while enjoying an adventure activity and making memories of a lifetime.

Monty Holmes is a graduate of Florida State University and a lifelong “student” of environmental preservation and world travel. He made a life for himself in construction and property development while pursuing other ventures, including Web-site development, public-health education, and eco-tourism ventures. He can be reached via e-mail at

Rita Washko is a board-certified Internist, a public-health scientist and a trained writer who shares an interest in habitat preservation and cultural exploration with her husband, Monty Holmes.