The weight watchers guide to Speedflying
Title photo: packed bag, rain, cafe
"Its cold, its raining, my borrowed bikes brakes don’t work and I’m pretty sure I’m going to get pancaked by an Amsterdam taxi any minute now..."
The decision to board the 8:30pm overnight train heading north was made at 7:36pm in Munich - in a country that’s banned speedflying all together... Regardless, here I am - on a bike, in the rain, with a wing on my back. Without the advent of ultralight materials and equipment I’d be stuck on foot fumbling around like a pack mule with a 90L packing bag, or be browsing the supermarket for 69c noodles to levy the secure hotel room needed to lock away my flying gear. Shedding the pounds has more advantages than you can poke a selfie stick at. You can now travel just like a backpacker and do boring, ground based, normal things without being inhibited by a 20+kg, 90L monstrosity of a packing bag.
Photo: different wings laid out - yak, fluid, bobcat, or packed wings
Do you really need to take the dive into an ultralight set up? If your only flying local sites or always travel with a car/van, then probably not. However if you are travelling or intend on traveling to remote areas, hiking for extended periods of time, or just being far more flexible - read on...
Firstly, the most important part of your kit is not surprisingly going to be your wing. Chances are you already own one so changing to a lighter, more travel friendly model may be out of the question. However, for those who are in the market for some new canvas, here’s the rundown...
There are only two ways to minimise the weight of a wing. Go small, or opt for a model made from ultralight materials/construction. If you’re new to the sport, the first option is out of the question unless you really like the emergency department. The advantages gained by shrinking a wing for beginner to intermediate pilots are so minimal that the disadvantages usually vastly outweigh them regardless of your skill level. Each square meter you shave off a modern miniwing will on average save you a grand total of 100g. Pretty minimal when you consider how how drastically the performance of the wing changes for each square meter lost. - It's probably not worth it
The second and far most convenient option is to pack a full sized, light weight wing. All major manufacturers make them (think Pi, Yeti, Ultralite etc) and they offer the functionality and performance of a 'proper' paraglider at often half the weight. With the emergence of hike and fly competitions even EN-D and CCC rated wings are now offered in ultralight forms - everyone is catered for.
The Achilles heel of the reversible harness is its practicality
When selecting a harness, there are a few crucial rules to keep in mind in regards to safety and compatibility. Reversible harnesses are a seemingly logical choice however the negatives outweigh any perceived gains. The main selling point with a reversible harness is that you’re fulfilling the role of two pieces of equipment with just one, saving both weight and money. However, in reality a lightweight standalone harness and a lightweight pack will still trump a reversible setup in terms of weight and will usually end up cheaper. Ironically, the Achilles heel of the reversible harness is its practicality. With a reversible harness, transitioning from hiking to flying involves turning your pack inside out and consequently losing all your spare change and keys in the process. A separate harness allows you to remove the bag easily to access lift tickets, snacks, cameras and so on. All paragliding harnesses must pass load testing ensuring a weighted safety factor which exceeds typical flight conditions. This however does not take into account the repeated abuse a harness encounters from speedflying, mountaineering, travelling or harsh conditions. Opt for a simple harness, the fewer adjustments and buckles the better. Test before you buy! All harnesses have a different posture in flight, some will feel more comfortable than others. Just because a harness fits one pilot like a glove doesn't mean it works for everyone. If you're going to be flying with a backpack over the harness, make sure you test it with one on.
When replacing a piece of equipment with a lighter alternative calculate the weight saved versus the dollar cost. For example; that new ultralight harness might save you 150 grams but its going to cost you 600 big ones, while replacing your parka with a down jacket is only going to cost you $300 and save you 250 grams. Its a meticulous process that’ll leave you craving a caffeine hit but its the only way to ensure you’re getting the best weight saving for the money. Of course - the best way to save your precious pennies and reduce pack weight is to remove unnecessary travel items altogether. Sure that suit jacket makes you feel like Daniel Craig while you’re wearing it, but to everyone else it makes you look like a sweaty mess dragging around an oversized roller bag. Oddly enough, the less equipment you already own the better, as you won’t be buying newer, lighter and inevitably more expensive versions of things you already own.
The ‘everything else’
Every year the choice of equipment to take into the air with you grows. Newer, higher tech varios and trackers, fast packing bags, flying boots, camera mounts, stuff sacks, drones. They all serve a purpose, but there are only 3 pieces of equipment which actually affect your flying. A wing, a harness, and something to connect the two (carabiners/softlinks). Everything else is optional. As a result a flying setup under 3kg is achievable with modern wings.
What you end up with comes down predominantly to personal preference, however a few common features found in many packs makes them unsuitable for flying. Go frameless or simply remove the frame. This saves weight and ensures the pack conforms to a seated posture while flying. A neatly folded wing placed against your back will function better than any aluminium frame anyway. Lighter packs always have fewer pockets and features, find a level of minimalism that you’re happy with. If you’re an ultralight junkie then a cubenfiber potato sack will weigh in sub 500g, however a comfortable, well featured hike and fly pack is easy enough to find around the 1kg mark. The size of your pack will also be of fundamental importance, too big and it'll be impossible to load comfortably, too small and you're leaving lunch at home.
There's a saying from the old hiking guru's that a pound on the feet is worth five in the pack. In non mountain-folk-speak it means that heavy shoes suck. Slowing you down, making you fatigue faster and making for less agile launches. The level of sturdiness you're happy with here will come down entirely to personal preference and any existing injuries. Its a weigh up between cushioning, ankle protection and flexibility. A sturdy high ankle boot will protect your ankles however a lightweight trail runner will make you more nimble on launch (I use the latter)
To Sum Up
Modern materials and technology are making flying rigs lighter and lighter each year. If you're looking to make travel and hiking easier then it's hard to overlook the advantages offered by decreasing the weight of your specific setup. But be warned, its rarely a cheap process. To get the most out of your setup:
- choose a simple, foolproof harness that wont let you down or weigh you down
- compare dollar value for weight saved when exchanging/buying new equipment
- leave unnecessary gear at home. If you can do without. do without
- remove the heavy aluminium frame from your pack, if buying new - go simple
- one camera is more than enough
- stay light of your feet - ditch the heavy boots