Choosing the right equipment for adventure flying can become a trade-off between light weight and comfort. Bastienne Wentzel explores the options.
Lightweight paragliders, 3-4kg
Nearly every manufacturer now has at least one lightweight wing in their range, and some make virtually every glider, from EN A to EN D, in lightweight as well as standard versions.
They can be basically the same design as the equivalent full-fat wing but made using lightweight cloth, unsheathed lines and light Dyneema risers. For the manufacturer this is the easiest option and requires less certification than designing a completely new wing.
As the demand for lightweight wings rises, we are also now seeing more specially-designed lightweight wings that are optimised for a particular use, such as high-performance wings for vol-bivouac or adventure-race competitions. In addition to being lighter, these have attributes such as better slow-speed handling, so they are well adapted for tricky top-landings.
A wing made from lightweight material has less mass and less inertia, so it can feel a bit different in the air compared with the standard version. It will have lighter handling and be less damped, which means it can feel more twitchy. The reaction to collapses will be less violent.
The downside of a lightweight wing is it can be less robust and durable, so you have to take better care of it: definitely don’t drag it around on launch!
Single-skins, hybrids and mini wings, 1-3kg
For those looking for the ultimate in light weight and compact packing size, single-skin wings could be the answer. Having no bottom surface can save quite a bit of weight; at the time of writing the Dudek Run&Fly is the lightest available, at under a kilo. This has made it a favourite with mountaineers as well as trail runners who want to carry as little as possible.
Single-skin wings are known for their easy launching ability, especially in light or tail winds as they rise easily and tend not to overshoot, but they can be more demanding and harder to control in stronger winds.
Single-skin wings are usually very roll stable, as having the attachment tabs exposed in the airflow reduces lateral movement. The first single-skinners had very light brakes and a tendency to pitch, which can feel unsettling to pilots. It also made them less efficient in moving air as they easily got knocked back, reducing their glide performance.
To counter this, and to give a more solid feel, manufacturers added inflatable spars or tubes along the leading edge. There are now hybrid wings with a double-surface structure at the front and a single-skin part at the back, for example from Apco. This is to improve the handling and makes them feel more like double-surface wings, but adds some weight.
Some hike-and-fly wings are so small they can be classed as mini wings. A small glider is naturally lighter than a larger one, adding to the popularity of these wings for hike-and-fly. There is no strict definition of this class, but most people agree they have a modest aspect ratio and are below 20m2 in size resulting in a higher wing loading. They also have shorter lines and slightly different flying characteristics.
Links and lines
For line sets even ‘full-fat’ wings often use the thinnest lines as this affects drag. There is therefore little room to lighten line sets. In fact, despite being a bit heavier, some designers use sheathed lines on hike-and-fly wings as they are easier to handle.
Lightweight riser sets, however, can often be radically different from the heavier versions. Many designers use Dyneema rope or tape, often referred to as bootlace risers. These can save half the weight but come at the expense of being a little harder to handle.
Many lightweight wings use softlinks, also made from Dyneema, instead of maillons to attach lines to risers. Larger versions can be used to attach the risers to the harness to save more weight. They are more fiddly than standard karabiners so they are best used if you plan to keep your wing permanently attached. Remember to check them closely for wear each time you fly.
Harnesses, 200g to 4kg
You can save quite a few kilos by choosing a lightweight harness, as the lightest string harnesses certified for paragliding on the market today weigh just 200g. They can be just some Dyneema string and fabric, so very thin and light.
Be aware, these ultra-light harnesses do not have any protection (which is required in some countries for certification, but not all). Ask yourself whether it is worth the risk of a back injury on a hard landing? Many of these extreme harnesses do offer the possibility to add some protection, for example an airbag. Mostly this only adds a few hundred grams and is well worth considering.
For short flights these bootlace harnesses will do just fine. But they offer only basic comfort and they can pinch your legs or cause a sore back during longer flights. Consider a dedicated hike-and-fly harness with more padding, wider straps and more extensive protection for much more comfort. There are even lightweight pod harnesses on the market which weigh less than 2kg.
The next step up is a lightweight reversible harness. These often feature a seatboard and save you the added weight of a backpack. At well under 3kg, the lightest of these offer a lot more comfort in flight with little sacrifice in weight.
Finally, consider that some of the more extreme harnesses can be quite fiddly to do up. Plus, many lightweight harnesses don’t have a reserve container. That means you need a front container for your reserve. Be aware that front containers are more sensitive to human error than built-in containers. In addition, front containers add a few hundred grams to your kit.
Reserves, 900g to 2kg
It’s easy to think that on a hike-and-fly trip you are only going to fly in the smoothest conditions. You would never need a reserve during those flights, would you? What could possibly go wrong?
Then again, the weather can change, you could be late to take-off and the wind might have picked up. Your equipment may fail unexpectedly and there may be other pilots flying around. No one can ever recommend flying without a reserve, because it may just save your life.
Lightweight reserves use Dyneema lines and lighter fabric. The lightest today are well under a kilo for the smaller sizes. The lighter fabric may wear sooner, but so long as you take care of it a lightweight reserve is fine.
Choose a reserve with an EN 12491 certification to be sure that it opens quickly, has good pendulum stability and descends at less than 5.5m/s.
Always pick the size that fits your take-off weight, or your descent rate will increase. Stefan Kurrle, reserve specialist at Independence Paragliding, has advice for when your adventures regularly bring you to higher altitudes: “If you fly above 1,500m-2,000m be aware that sink rates increase at altitude. To compensate, a rule of thumb is to reduce the load by 10% for every 1,000m: if you weigh 100kg all-up, choose a parachute with a max load of 110kg.”
Helmets, 400g to 1kg
You are expected to wear a helmet from day one in all free-flight sports. Specific helmets are designed for specific activities and it is unwise to save either weight or money on a helmet.
The two most important properties for a helmet are the shock absorption (where you fall head-first onto something) and penetration resistance (when something falls on your head). Choose a helmet for air sports certified according to the EN966 standard, which includes these tests.
When your adventure includes other sports like climbing or mountain biking, it’s tempting to use one helmet for all. Many climbing helmets are lighter than flying helmets. But be aware that climbing helmets are not designed for flying: they only need to provide protection from above (rockfall) and the requirements of how well they stay on your head are different.
If you want to combine activities, use your flight helmet for the other sports, not the other way around. The lightest EN966 certified helmets available weigh just under 400g, and are worth every gram.
How to choose a hike-and-fly wing
When looking for a specialist hike-and-fly wing you should take into account your skills and experience, and ask yourself what you want to do with the wing.
Weight: How important is this? Will you be scaling mountains where every gram counts, or walking in the hills where it is not as critical?
Cloth: Are you willing to sacrifice durability to go as light as possible? If it’s a second wing you won’t be putting so many hours on it, so lightweight cloth will last.
Lines: Do you want unsheathed lines to save weight, or would you rather have more durable, sheathed lines that are less likely to catch on take-off? Shorter lines need less room to lay out. There’s also less chance of catching a line on rocks or plants.
Risers: Normal webbing or bootlace? The latter can be harder to sort, as they have no colour-coding. On a remote or high-altitude launch, simplicity can often be an important safety asset.
Ease of packing: Do you mind if you have to carefully concertina-pack the wing because it has lots of plastic rods inside it?
Performance: Does this matter to you? And what type? Do you want a fast wing to descend from mountains in strong winds, or is a wing with decent glide and thermalling ability more what you are looking for?
Certification: Hike-and-fly wings can be certified from EN A to EN D, or could be load-tested only, especially in the smaller sizes
These are specialist bits of kit. Marcus King considers the options
Single-surface tandems, from 2.6kg
There are now tandem options that weigh as little as 2.6kg for the wing. That means it’s possible to have a complete tandem kit for the same weight as a standard solo wing.
The main choice is whether to opt for a double-surface or, for the ultimate in lightweight, single-skin. Skyman’s Sir Edmund 31 Light weighs just 2.6kg for a 31m² wing that can carry up to 190kg. AirDesign’s new UFO Bi weighs 2.8kg for the 30m² wing with a similar top weight. Niviuk have chosen to use slightly heavier materials for durability on their Bi Skin 2 P which again is 30m² and will carry up to 190kg.
Like the solo single-skins, single-surface tandems are easy to launch, especially in light winds. We’ve flown all three models and found that the tandems feel a lot more ‘normal’ compared to the solo versions.
Carrying more weight means they get moved around less and don’t have the slightly nervous feel that the solo versions can have. The latest models have made great improvements in the landing behaviour and all three wings have good flare abilities, which is important if you are landing in a rocky mountain environment.
Where there is some compromise is penetration and glide into wind. Single-skins have improved a lot but they are still slower and lack some glide performance compared with standard double-skin wings.
Double-surface tandems, from 4.5kg
If weight isn’t the only important factor then there are now quite a few double-surface tandems aimed at the hike-and-fly adventure market. These include the Advance PiBi, Gin Yeti Tandem, Nervures Fitzroy and Ozone Wisp. They all weigh around 4.5-5kg for a wing that will carry up to around the same 190kg and are generally 38m² .
Of course, other companies do light versions of their full-size tandems, but these usually have a more complicated internal structure. So despite being made from light materials they still weigh over 6kg. Companies such as Little Cloud also offer smaller-sized tandems made from full weight materials – the Bidule, for example, also weighs just over 6kg.
The hike-and-fly focused tandems all have simplified structures and are similar in design to EN A wings. The small Yeti Tandem is certified EN A and the rest (with the exception of the Fitzroy, which is load tested only) are all EN B, so you can be assured of a safe wing.
Most are made from Porcher Skytex 27 or Dokdo 20 fabric but some have leading edges made of heavier material for durability. With all the models there is also a choice of having Dyneema bootlace risers or easier to handle webbing risers, which add a couple of hundred grams to the pack.
Lightweight tandem harnesses, from 410g
Front-mounted reserves don’t really work for tandem, so you need a harness that can carry a tandem reserve (light versions are available) with easy access for the pilot.
There are some light standard tandem-pilot harnesses with back protection, but these weigh at least 3kg. On the lightweight side Advance’s Strapless Bi 2 weighs just 410g and includes an underseat reserve pocket.
Kortel offer a tandem module which adds a reserve container and a 10cm back protector to their Karver harness. It weighs 1,350g.
Neo have recently released an innovative Rescue Backpack, which can be used with any light harness. At 645g, it is a backpack that contains the reserve. You remove its cover before flight to allow access to the reserve handle and the bridles that clip directly to the spreaders.
Published in Cross Country’s Adventure Guide 2022