FF6: Slacklining for Beginners (Summer 2011)


What is Slacklining?

    Slacklining, or walking on a slackline, is a new sport created from rope walking that was historically done out of necessity. The modern version started in the 1980’s with high lines in the US peaks and has recently been popularized as both an urban park and a mountain sport.

Why Bother?

    The most obvious benefit from trying to walk on a slackline, regardless of whether you are successful, is improving your balance. Just about everyone wishes their balance was a little better and one’s steadiness on their feet only gets worse with aging unless you devote time to improving it. And besides, slacklining is fun.

“Ta-da!” Bill taking a stroll on a very low slackline in Selva.

    And yes, it is scary. But I’m convinced that if one doesn’t push on the edges of their fear that one’s fear will eventually strangle one.  Confronting fear in a contained way helps to tame it. Success breeds success; failure breeds failure so why not cultivate success?

    While enhancing your confidence and balance, you’ll also improve your strength and coordination. We see significant improvement with every session on the line. And even though we are only able to take a half dozen steps at a time, we can tell that our practice has improved our agility when dancing through the boulder fields and on the very narrow trails when hiking in the Austrian Alps.

Can You Hurt Yourself?

    Of course you can hurt yourself on a slackline, but little in life is devoid of risks. My guess is  that ankle injury when you dump off is the greatest hazard. Bill has tumbled and rolled onto his back a couple of times and banged a foot once though I am so far unscathed.

Making It Safer


    If you want to go slacklining but are apprehensive or are waiting for an opportunity to arise, do some pre-work to improve your odds of early success. Start by walking on a curb with a little drop-off on each side so you have a low balance beam. Demand that your eyes gaze out to the horizon instead of staring at your feet or the curb. Balance is wildly improved by looking up.

    Emphasize standing tall with your gaze out in front of you with every step. Hold your arms out to the sides with the elbows at shoulder level and the hands reaching up from there so your arms are in the shape of a goal post. Practice walking and then perhaps jogging on your curb balance beam with your arms held up. When you wobble, demand that your big toes stay pointed forward rather than pivoting inwards. Resisting that inward rotation of the foot will make the difference between staying on the line and falling off with your first freestyle steps.

    Also practice standing on one leg on your balance beam with the other leg held out a little to the side and your arms up. Of course, your gaze is still out to the horizon. Practice holding for this position for 30 seconds or more on each leg with the knee slightly bent to strengthen the needed muscles.

Doing rep’s to strengthen the legs for slacklining.

    To strengthen your leg muscles for a more advanced move--properly mounting the line--find a low retaining wall that you can step onto. The ideal choice is one with a bit of a slope so you can readily experiment with different heights. Something a little above knee height is a good starting point.

Stand close to the wall with the wall on your left side. Step the left foot onto the top of the wall and then bring the right leg up to meet it. Do what feels like a sensible number of rep’s up onto and down from the wall, preferably with your arms up in the goal post position. Then turn around and repeat the strength work with your right leg. Once you begin mounting the line and taking a few steps, you’ll do this step-up motion dozens of times in a 10 minute session on the line so it helps to already be strong in this range of motion with both legs. This will also help prepare the ankles for sudden dismounts.


    If you are setting up your own line or hopping on someone else’s, choose a low line and an even ground surface. We prefer to slackline barefoot and so we look for smooth, grassy or dirt surfaces without rocks, stickers, or bees. If the ground surface is harsh, we wear our Vibram 5 Fingers for foot protection without overly compromising our foot mobility.  My guess is that the more hardware you have on your feet, the tougher it is to balance. 

    We usually set-up our line so the ends attached to the trees or posts are no higher than crotch level for the shortest-legged person. The lower the line, the easier it is to both mount it and clear it when you tumble off.  We tighten the line so that the mid-point is at least a couple of inches off the ground when the heaviest person is on it.

Getting Started

Using a Helper

    Watching several YouTube videos was a good introduction to slacklining for us though the starting techniques weren’t remedial enough. The first half dozen times we used a slackline we relied heavily on a partner for any success at all rather than using the freestyle approach recommended in the videos.

    Begin by mounting the slackline at the non-ratchet end and initially put one or both hands on the tree or post for stability. Then stand with both feet on the line and one hand on the support and the other on the helper’s shoulder.  Once you feel like you can step away from the support, balance with one hand on the helper’s shoulder. The helper should face away from the post and stand to the side and slightly forward of the walker. The walker must resist the temptation to yank the helper’s head or shirt off with too strong of a grip. If you start to fall, jump off rather than expect the helper to catch you. The helper walks with you and only provides a touch-point, that’s it.

Using a Post

    When in South Tyrol in the summer of 2011 we benefited from a new slackline park in our host community. Amusingly, a slackline park only has posts but no slacklines. We had to rent a line and set it up and take it down each time we wanted to practice. We discovered that one pair of anchor posts were positioned with a third post within easy reach at about the midpoint of our line. It was really too close to the line because we’d bump the post and lose our balance when we tried to walk past it, but it was a dandy training aid. The amount of time we could spend practicing skyrocketed because one of us wasn’t always occupied by being the helper--instead the walker put a hand on the post.

I used a mid-line post to gain confidence on the line.

   Standing independently on the line with one hand on the sturdy post allowed us to play in new ways. I loved using the line as a mini-trampoline and would bounce for minutes at a time on the line. It was child-like fun to bounce and it helped increase my ease with being on the line while it was moving.

    After satisfying my need to bounce for the shear fun of it, I’d lift one foot off the line and practice balancing on one foot while still bouncing the line up and down. My standing foot never left the line when bouncing however. One hand on the post, one foot on the line, and bouncing was playful fun and good for building confidence.

    I’d then do the same keeping the line still: one foot on the line, both arms up in the goal post position, with one hand on the post to practice balancing. I made a point to spend equal time on each foot, inviting my non-dominant leg to become just as talented.

    Next up was backing up a few steps and then walking forward with the lightest touch possible on the post. Regardless of how much weight I transferred to the post, I always  intended to keep my arms high to anchor a successful posture.

The Wobbles

   When we started standing on a slackline the whole thing wobbled and trembled like it was in an earthquake. It was very unnerving and of course the movement made trying to stand or walk, even with help, all the more difficult. We didn’t discover a specific remedy--it’s one of those problems that melts away with practice. Trying to put a little more flex or resilience in the bent knees may have helped, but these wobbles do go away soon enough so just hang in there.  They did however reappear in a tamer version when we began walking freestyle.


    Bill was bolder than I and moved off of the post long before me. He worked diligently on the proper mounting position, which is standing on the ground mid-line and stepping up with one foot and balancing without a helper. (This is the same motion you might have practiced on a retaining wall.)  Like when working at the post, the first challenge when freestyle is to balance on one foot with the arms up, then progress to taking steps, expecting to fall off every every few seconds.

    My more cautious approach had me practicing mounting on a single leg with my post in easy reach, then choosing a moment to fall off with some control. I happily and slowly increased my confidence in mounting and falling by working near the post.  I also learned the hard way that extending the leg quickly once you step onto the line is much less fatiguing that proceeding slowly and cautiously as I had been doing.

A high spot on the ground made mounting the line easier.

    Bill did find 1 trick, which was discovering a high bump in the ground beneath our slackline in South Tyrol. Standing on the bump carved a couple of inches off of the height of the line from the ground and made mounting much easier and less tiring.

    From this point it was practice, practice, practice with the gaze high, the arms high, and in a slightly crouched instead of bent-forward position. We kept reminding ourselves that most of the benefits from slacklining came from attempting to walk on the line, not actually being able to walk freestyle.

Time Required to Learn

    Bill has read that some people can learn to walk on a slackline in a day, but neither of us are a part of that “some”.  Our best guess is that natural ability, prior experiences, and willingness to be bold are all factors in determining the time required master this new skill.

    There is a concept called “neuromuscular patterning” that suggests that if you are learning something radically new, like a new language, that it takes 6 months after your first attempts for the new neuromuscular wiring to get installed. In our limited experience, we believe that it doesn’t take a lot of exposure to the new language or skill to stimulate that 6 month internal project. I dabbled with German one year and the next year when I tried it, I was significantly better--something we attributed to the neuromuscular patterning that went on in the background even though I wasn’t working on the language.

    With the neuromuscular patterning concept in mind, we haven’t worried about being aggressive in learning to use a slackline. We took our first steps with a helper the previous fall on a mountain playground line in Austria and spent a few minutes several more times when we were in the area. A couple of weeks later, we dabbled for 10 minutes on a private line in Innsbruck. Two months later, we bought our own line and made attempts about once a month over 4 months, spending about 15 minutes each on the line. In our minds, we were being very efficient about our skill development in that we were giving time for the new circuitry to be laid.

    It was more than 6 months after our first steps on a slackline in Austria when we practiced more diligently in South Tyrol. By chance, we had the time and the opportunity to make a push for greater progress. Together we spent a total of 2½ hours a day twice a week for 2 weeks on the line.  Over the course of those days, we both became capable of midline mounting and taking a half-dozen or more steps.  So our recommendation isn’t to approach slacklining as an “all-or-nothing” big project but something to dabble with so as to allow time for the necessary neuromuscular patterning to occur. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and mastery isn’t necessarily the key objective--a casual approach may ultimately be the most successful one and your balance will improve with every attempt so you can’t lose.