Hike and Fly is a little different than ordinary paragliding. You are expected to be entirely self-sufficient for most of the day. It might involve ascending a peak and gliding down, but it’s the blend of cross country flying and hiking to complete a journey that really makes it ‘hike and fly’.
Instead of getting to launch, flying, then getting retrieved, these three phases blend into one adventure through the landscape. You might walk half way up a hill, notice the wind is good, open your wing and kite up a spur, fly across a bowl, kite up further, fly over the back to land by the lake, have a swim, then hike up to the peaks for an evening glide. It changes your thinking. Any flight is good, because it saves your tired legs from more walking. The numbers don’t matter, it’s all about the experience.
PREPARATION FOR HIKE AND FLY
Get light paragliding gear. Unless you are a hardcore athlete, the weight of the bag you carry will make a huge difference to your enjoyment. The ultimate single skin setup with a ‘string’ harness and ultralight reserve could be as light as 4kg, but that’s probably too extreme for fun. If you’re looking to get one set of equipment that does everything, go for a light harness, a light reserve and a light wing plus helmet and instrument totalling roughly 8kg. Then scrutinise your setup to find other weight savings (hint: clothing, junk in pockets, keys, coins, tools, kitchen sink).
There might be significant savings you can find in your own body weight. A ‘bit of a belly’ is easily 5kg. That’s a case of beer (12 cans) you don’t need to carry up every hill. The best training preparation for hike and fly is regular hill-walking. You might as well take your wing with you, in case it’s flyable!
In the UK, having a Pilot rating (IPPI 4/5) is a minimum for cross country flying. I recommend you have some XC flying experience on top of that because you’ll be exploring new terrain. You need a good knowledge of flying sites so you can judge if it is flyable or not. You need to be able to find a takeoff spot on your own, and be able to judge the weather. Find a flying buddy to join you to improve your safety.
HIKE & FLY GROUNDWORK
There are many free mapping apps which show marked trails. This makes navigating the back country fairly easy, but these apps drain your phone battery fast, so you will need an external battery pack. Before leaving your home, download the area you are going to explore using Wi-fi, so you’re not depending on mobile signal to find your next trail.
Hiking poles help a lot when you have many ascents, or a long way to go. Collapsible versions will fit in the back of your harness.
Good shoes are very important. Trail-running shoes have good hard grip for rocky trails. Hiking boots provide a better footfall for walking with a load. Keeping them ½ a size larger than you’d normally choose for trainers means your feet won’t blister on hot days or with sustained hiking.
Water is the most critical resource to manage in any day out in the hills. I always carry purification tablets because they are incredibly light. I usually add some hydration tablets to improve the flavour and replace electrolytes lost during sweating. You can get fancier with filters, but I’ve learned to keep my kit minimised so I always have it with me.
HIKE & FLY FLY FLY
Flying is 10 times faster than walking, so if it is flyable at any time you want to be airborne. Stay in the air and collect every bit of lift, because it can take hours off your ascents and give you kilometres of gliding.
Conversely, it doesn’t pay to hike up if you expect a still-air-glide to the valley floor. You’ll use up more energy and time than just walking on the level, and there’s a risk that you might not be able to fly. I only go up if there is a significant shortcut I can take by flying, or if there is a good chance of soaring to extend my glide. If thermals are likely, I go up whatever terrain is nearest!
Choosing your strategy is challenging, especially as you become tired. You need to constantly monitor the weather, search for launch sites, pick the right trails and manage your energy levels.
Get an instrument that will indicate the route very clearly. I like to use my phone to display trails separately so I can make smart moves before landing.
HIKE AND FLY RACES
We often associate competing with added risks, but in a competition you benefit from weather briefings, local knowledge, a route to follow and other pilots to indicate the conditions. In the UK we have the X-Lakes event (Northern England) and the Dragon Race (Wales). Europe offers many events: Eigertour, Bordairline and Airtour to name a few.
You need a support crew for the higher level races like X-Pyr, X-Alps and Bornes to Fly, which is a logistical and financial challenge for most pilots. These races also have high entry requirements, to ensure safety. Nonetheless, the athletes are often pushed to their limits. Any ideas of ‘running ahead of the pack’ are soon destroyed as you feel how gruelling it is to move fast in mountain terrain, all day long. You have to devise a strategy to fly.
In the amateur events, help is at often provided by volunteer pilots and race organisers. You might even get live tracking, and gear drops to help lighten the load. If you’re smart, you’ll get a friend to support you. There’s nothing more welcoming than the sight of a well-stocked camper at the end of a hard day out in the hills, and a friend to share some banter with.
KEY RACING SKILLS
They say ‘failing to prepare is preparing to fail’. What skills should you practice?
- Slope-landing, to conserve your altitude so you can hike over obstacles.
- Landing in tight spots, which will help your confidence in tricky transitions.
- Strong wind launching, which keeps you safe on random mountain relaunches
- Navigating (with and without your app)
- Packing (fast and tight) without leaving anything behind!
This is not a discipline I recommend to low-airtime pilots – it’s an advanced ability, to work towards. Build your skills progressively so you can be safe on your own. Work on your launches and landings until you are always in control. Begin exploring familiar terrain (hike and fly around your usual paragliding sites) before venturing into unfamiliar terrain. Then I’d suggest looking at the Lake District, North and South East Wales, and the Scottish Highlands. In Europe, look at the Alps and the Pyrenees. A final word of caution: regardless of your level, take a satellite tracker like the Garmin Inreach for contacting emergency services. Good luck with your hike-and-fly adventures!
WALK LESS, FLY MORE
I love this game, so comprehensive training for all aspects of Hike & FLY is available in my Flight Academy, where you can build your skills step by step in the online courses and level up to SIV, XC flying, and beyond. Get started with a free trial and see how it works!