Hike and Fly – Concept and Preparation

Being free to move over hills on foot or in the air is a privilege only achieved with a paraglider.  There is no other sport that allows such diverse adventure from such a small and lightweight piece of equipment.  Hike and fly draws on many disciplines, learned over years of flying and experience in the hills.  This experience allows you to use your paraglider as a tool to move efficiently over complex terrain.


In Europe the popularity of hike and fly is booming, encouraged by the advent of light weight equipment and the dramatic reduction in pack sizes.  It is seen as an active sport and many use it as a form of exercise.  In the UK we have been slower to accept the concept, generally preferring to drive to a take-off than walk.  Certainly, our hills and weather are different but once you start looking you will begin to see new opportunities for flying and adventure.


In the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons we have a huge playground designed for hike and fly.  The hills are smooth and clear and there is an extensive network of footpaths.  This guide aims to explain the concept and the tools to use to be successful and enjoy it.

Below is a link to a video produced by club member Alistair Andrews of a beautiful November Hike and Fly in the Black Mountains.


The tabs below will give you information on a wide range of topics regarding hike and fly.

There are two parts to this: forecasting and actual.


We are all used to looking at forecasts and planning a day’s flying.  When looking at the forecast consider where you plan to be at certain times during your hike and fly, and if there are any key times to note.  Can you pick a route that favours the forecasted changing wind?  This will be looked at further under Time Awareness.


Actual weather assessment is very important.  Remain vigilant as you walk and watch for clues to the current weather. This might mean you change your plan earlier rather than later and save an unnecessary walk to the wrong hill.  Also learn to use current weather data on your phone.  We are very lucky to have the Blorenge Weather Station.  Begin to build a mental (or paper) record of how a wind speed and direction on the Blorenge manifests itself on the hill you are on.  You might find that 20kph on the Blorenge is a gale on a higher hill deeper in the Black Mountains and this information will be of value to you on another day.


Blorenge Weather Station – SEWHGPGC (flysouthwales.co.uk)

As paraglider pilots we all naturally look at terrain through different eyes, instinctively looking for everything we need to know about a site and its flying potential.  Hike and fly takes you away from club sites and their site guides and forces you to use your own judgement.


You can prepare yourself by studying local maps, build up a good mental image of the topography.  Consider how the air might flow around the hills, and which wind directions would favour them.  Is there a wind direction that might make this location unsafe due to valley winds or being in the lee of other features?  Identify other risks such as power lines, limited landing options etc.  If you have a route in mind, try to identify where you would plan to launch from so that, when you arrive there, part of your site assessment is already complete.


While walking look for signs of the conditions.  Wind in the tops of the trees, birds soaring or thermalling and throwing a few blades of grass in the air are all methods that will tell you a lot and might mean you identify a more appropriate launch site en route.


Once you are on the hill and are looking for a suitable take-off, take your time.  If you need to walk higher to make a better assessment of the wind and its direction, then do.  Look for somewhere free of obstruction or anything that might damage your equipment.  We are very fortunate in our hills that we generally don’t have to look very hard to find a nice grassy take-off.


What you are planning on doing with your flight will also affect your site choice.  If you are looking to fly a top to bottom and then go to the pub, you might be happy to run the glider off a shallow hill with a cross wind.  If however you are looking to go cross country, you will be looking for something that provides more opportunities.


If you are in any doubt, then wait for better conditions or move on by foot until a better option presents itself.  We are out having an adventure, but physics and our own skills remain the same so don’t try anything you wouldn’t try on a recognised site.

This is important and has several implications.


The first thing to know is how fast or slow you move.  There is no correct speed, but it’s important that you know your own capabilities.  After a few outings you will begin to learn what you can do, and with experience you will become quite good at judging how long a hike will take you just from looking at a map (Mapping Topic).  The Blorenge and Magic are both fantastic hills to hike and figure out your stats.  Both are described in the Classic Hike and Fly Routes section and are a good place to start.


Once you know this information, it means you can incorporate it in your planning.  You will be able to plan ahead and anticipate what time you will be arriving at a potential take-off.  This will then have implications regarding weather, light left in the day etc.


Time awareness of the weather and where you are is important.  How much longer will the flying window be open for, or when will it improve?  This is information you gathered from the forecast in advance and you will now use it in conjunction with your present position.  You do not want to hike to a hill, find that it took you longer than expected and that the wind has now changed with time running out before sunset.

When we discuss racing, time awareness plays another role.  Where do you want to be at the end of the day?  Probably not an hour from the nearest road where your supporter is waiting.

This is a great topic!  What do you use in the air and on the ground?  I will talk specifically about two apps and use screenshots from them because they are what I know.  Other apps are available.


Locus Map (Android)


Knowing How to use this app is power.  The low cost OpenCycleMap option is more than enough to get you started; OS overlay is available to purchase.  All screenshots will be based on OpenCycleMap mapping.  (Don’t let the cycle part fool you, these maps are designed for hikers too and give all the detail you need and sometimes paths that OS doesnt have)


Obviously it’s a map and shows you terrain, paths and contours.  Hopefully you are familiar with reading a map. If not, spend some time studying it and comparing it to the terrain around you.  Ideally you will be able to look at it and instinctively know from your weather assessment which slopes offer potential flying options.


What Locus Map does very well for us is allows us to plan and make quick route assessments.  The ‘Route Planner’ function might not be completely intuitive to start but you will quickly learn.  By dropping a few points on the map along your chosen route you will get a distance and a climb/decent.  The software is sometimes clever enough to snap to the path you want to measure, but if it doesn’t you will have to use the ‘Draw Manually’ function.  Now that you know how fast you move you can make a quick assessment of how long this will take you.


Using the Blorenge as an example, the two images below show it’s taken two points on the map to plot a route from Castle Meadows to the take-off.  The ‘Hike’ function in planning has cleverly snapped to the most direct path giving us some very accurate information.  The route is 2.7km long and, looking at the elevation section, the total ascent is approximately 480m.  This has taken very little time to produce some very useful information which we can now use to determine how long it will take to get to take-off.

Another method to generate a rough estimate of distance and height is to use the cursor function.  The crosshairs button centres the map on your location.  Your altitude is overlaid in red.  If you now pan around the map with the cursor and put it on a point of interest, the distance to that point is displayed and that point’s elevation.  A useful feature for a quick estimate.


By recording your track from the start, your phone will always know where you are and won’t take several minutes trying to locate you when you start the app.  It will also give you distance, elevation and speed data at the end of the day, if that interests you.


All of the maps are downloadable for offline use too so, if you land somewhere you weren’t expecting, you will know exactly where you are, with all of the footpaths around you and the ability to scope out take-off options.  People love to compare this to a paper map that doesn’t run out of batteries but we would have to carry a lot of paper maps and, in hike and fly, weight is important.


XCTrack or Other


It is very useful to have a good terrain file on your flying app to allow you to assess your route while in the air.  The screenshot below is from XCTrack, taken from a flight from Hay Bluff to Crickhowell (Classic Hike and Fly Routes).


Points to note:

  • The quality of the terrain file.
  • The calculated wind arrow and how this can be used to identify wind-facing slopes in conjunction with the terrain file.
  • The black glide line with the black circle which indicates your point of impact if your glide ratio remains the same. This is really useful for hike and fly and can be used to judge crossing obstacles such as rivers and roads.  It should be used with care in case the conditions change, but it’s a useful tool nonetheless.

Whether you use a personal tracker or another method, let someone know where you are and when to expect to hear from you.  This might aid your rescue or prevent an unnecessary and embarrassing unwanted rescue.  Send a text before you descend into a valley!

Everyone has their own requirements, from gel to sausage rolls.  Ensure that you take enough to keep you going all day.  If it turns in to a big day on foot you will need a lot of food to keep you moving.  Eat regularly and if you are slowing down or finding it hard, it’s probably because you haven’t eaten enough.  The same goes for water; it might be heavy to start but keep drinking and your bag will get lighter!  Carry some purification tablets too in case you run out of bottled water, or maybe build them in as part of your plan.

Only fly if you feel its within your capabilities, just like you would anywhere else.  Hike and fly shouldn’t demand any more advanced piloting skills than flying a recognised site – its more about sensible decision making and site/condition assessment.


Practice launching in different conditions and directions – the wind might not always be bang on the hill.  You might just need to run the wing off the hill sideways to cross a valley or fly down.  Forward launching, reverse launching, side launching and kiting are all skills used when moving through the hills.  Practise these whenever you can so that you know what you and your wing are capable of.

Use whatever equipment you currently own to get started.  Light weight equipment is nice but plenty of people use standard gear for hike and fly.  You are probably already comfortable with your current wing and harness which makes your decision making on the hill easier.


With time you might consider a lightweight glider or harness.  The gear is less durable but you should be proficient enough not to be dragging it over the ground.  Lightweight wings are easier to launch in lighter conditions.  When packed into the rucksack, having a compact and lightweight bag is a different experience and much more enjoyable.


Consider using walking poles, they are a big aid when hiking up hills with weight on your back.  If you haven’t tried them before, borrow some.  You will be more stable going uphill and downhill, you will have better traction when the ground is slippery or loose, your posture will improve with a bag on your back and you will likely move faster.  They don’t need to be expensive, just make sure they can pack down small enough to fit in your harness when you fly.


Avoid carrying an excessive number of flight instruments.  The use of the mobile phone for mapping and tracking when on the ground and in the air really means no other flight instruments are required other than a small Bluetooth vario.  The phone also gives us our communication, weather etc so you should carry a battery pack to allow it to run for a day or longer.  10,000 mAh is a good starting point – they aren’t big, heavy or expensive.  And don’t forget the cable!


A small first aid kit with a torch and matches/lighter is also a sensible item to carry.


Go through everything else you have in your rucksack and consider if it’s really necessary… the weight all adds up.

Every sport in the world that requires a rucksack puts a lot of consideration in to how a rucksack fits and distributes the weight, except in paragliding.  Historically paragliding rucksacks have been huge floppy things with awful straps to connect the bag to the human.  This is ridiculous considering the weight we are carrying.  Unfortunately your options for a well designed rucksack are still limited but some do exist.  A standard wing and harness can be fitted in to a 90 litre bag, you just have to practise packing it.


If you learn how to pack your current rucksack correctly you will find it less fatiguing to carry and your posture will improve.


The standard paragliding rucksack hangs a long way back from the carrier, and the carrier compensates by leaning forward.  This is uncomfortable and fatiguing.  A well packed rucksack places the centre of gravity as close to the person as possible.  Consider this when you pack your rucksack and try to make it longer and thinner.  Two easy changes you can make are:


  • If you currently fold your glider over four times when you pack, reduce that to three. This will make the packed glider longer but when in your rucksack the centre of gravity will be closer to your body.  This also results in the harness being closer to your body.
  • Put ancillary heavy items on top and close to your body. Water as the heaviest item should be the closest thing to your shoulders at the top of the bag.  Light weight jackets and gloves can be stuffed into the gaps further away from the body.


Use the compression straps down the sides of the bag to hold this long thin shape and prevent things from moving.


Consideration should also be given to what all the straps on the rucksack actually do.  A well carried bag places the weight on to the hips, not on to the shoulders which is where 99% of paraglider pilots carry from.  The difference a well set up bag makes on fatigue and comfort is massive.


Ideally a rucksack has some structure to it to aid the weight distribution through the straps, but paragliding rucksacks are soft and the structure comes from the equipment inside so consider this when packing.  A firm packed bag is good.


The shoulder straps should be carrying minimal weight and are there for the stability of the bag.  Any weight carried on the shoulders has to pass through your upper body to the legs which is why its fatiguing.  Release the pressure on the shoulder straps until they have minimum contact while still holding the bag to your body.


At the top of the shoulder straps is another adjustment, the stabilising straps, which allows you to pull the rucksack, hence the centre of gravity, in towards your body.  Pull these in so that the rucksack is held comfortably against you.  All to frequently these are seen fully extended because they slip, and the pilot will be leaning against the shoulder straps to counter the weight of the bag hanging off their back.  Tightening these two straps will allow the pilot to stand more upright, and significantly improved posture.


The waist strap is where the weight should be carried.  Physically this makes a lot of sense, it’s the most direct route to your legs and prevents the rest of your body from having to carry the load.  Tighten this strap enough so that it doesn’t slip and so that the weight doesn’t migrate to the shoulders as you move.

You don’t need to go and buy anything special but, if you are interested or getting more serious about hike and fly, here are some considerations.


Lightweight trail shoes are very popular in the sport.  They offer good grip and don’t weigh you down on a long hike.  They are generally best worn off-road and might wear out quite quickly if used on pavements/roads.  Trail running socks are also very good at controlling moisture.  With time you will find a combination that works for you to prevent sore feet and blisters.  Ask around to find out what other people use.


Wicking materials for base layers are generally better than cottons because they won’t hold the moisture as badly.  This helps when you cool down and get ready to fly and means you won’t be wet with sweat in your harness.


If you are using a pod harness, shorts are generally warm enough when flying and obviously more comfortable for hiking.  If you aren’t in a pod harness, zip off trousers might be the answer.  Elastic waistbands are beneficial because they negate the use of a belt which might interfere with the rucksack waist strap and become uncomfortable.


Plan to be warm in the air like you normally would.  It might be hot hiking, but at 5,000 ft you need to be warm.  You might get caught in adverse weather on the ground too.

Maps courtesy of OpenStreetMap Contributors.

Paragliding generally is not a particularly physically demanding sport.  Introduce a hike up a hill and suddenly it’s a fantastic activity to improve your fitness.  If you hike up the Blorenge, Magic or any other hill once a week you will quickly begin to feel stronger and fitter.  Maybe start to walk to every take-off when you fly and leave the car at the bottom.  This makes the retrieve at the end of the day easier too. Pandy is a perfect example.


This said, your fitness is what it is and, just like your equipment, don’t think you have to change it before starting to hike and fly.  Set yourself realistic targets with regards to your routes. Starting with an evening walk up a hill and a top to bottom will teach you a lot about what you are physically capable of.


Others might use hike and fly as a reason to remain fit.  Personally, the thought of feeling strong and enjoying being out in the hills with my paraglider on my back is what motivates me to get out and run for training.

Please use common sense – hike and fly doesn’t mean a free-for-all.  Abide by site guides and seasonal restrictions.  If you come into contact with landowners you must remain courteous as you are representing the club and the sport.