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What is a Zip-Line?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A zip-line is a method of transportation for people and goods which may also used in a recreational capacity. Zip-lines are created by stringing a very strong cable between two points, and attaching a pulley to the cable. To use the zip-line, people grab onto or snap onto the pulley and launch themselves, traveling rapidly across the line to the other side. It is also possible to clip buckets or baskets onto the pulley for various goods.

You may also see a zip-line referred to as a death slide, aerial runway, or flying fox, among many other things, and it is also spelled in some regions without the hyphen, as zipline. The size and scope of zip-lines around the world varies widely, from simple backyard zip-lines which are designed to be safe enough for children to very high, long professional ziplines used in locations where other methods of transport are not practical.

In some regions of the world, people use a zip-line to get across a river, canyon, or section of forest. In this instance, the zip-line is typically quite high up, to prevent snags, and it may be very long. These zip-lines are useful for people who live in remote regions, as well as researchers and outdoor adventurers. In places like the rainforest, in addition to being used for transport, such zip-lines may also create a tourist attraction, as it can be quite enjoyable to whiz across the forest at high speed, catching the sights. Ropes courses and orienteering challenges often have zip-lines as well, of varying lengths and heights.

Due to safety concerns, people are usually encouraged to wear harnesses and helmets when using a zip-line, to reduce the risk of falling and to protect them if they do fall. Many companies manufacture specialized pulleys and harnesses for zip-lines with safety in mind. Some of these systems have built-in brakes, for stopping at the other end of the zip-line; in other instances people may rely on very thick gloves or stoppers in the zip-line itself.

Using a zip-line can be quite exciting, especially if it is long, as people can built up quite a head of steam, traveling very rapidly along the zip-line. Because zip-lines come in an array of lengths and heights, it is possible for people of all ages to enjoy zip-lines, from young children who might prefer a short, low, backyard zip-line to experienced adventurers who want something a bit more exciting.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Sports n' Hobbies researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon947210 — On Apr 24, 2014

I zip lined and tarzan-swung in Costa Rica with my family: wife and three young kids. Every line was age and professionally managed. It's very exciting. Go! Do more than zipline. Surf. Go whitewater rafting. Go on jungle walks and forest walks. Camp in a tree house. Visit as much of the country as you can and eat local food at local places like truck-stops and small cafes.

By anon275593 — On Jun 19, 2012

Considering what happened to that poor girl in Georgia, I wonder if zip lines are ever safe.

By candyquilt — On Jul 14, 2011

My dad said that zip-lines used to be used by miners to carry supplies and goods back and forth. Mines are usually located in hard to reach areas, so it makes sense that zip-lines were used. The other reason must be that people of all sizes can travel by a zip-line and it can hold a lot of weight. It's not very hard to use either.

It's interesting how something developed out of necessity has transformed into a fun and adventurous activity now. It wouldn't have if there wasn't a demand. I think after hiking, climbing, mountain biking, skiing and rafting, it's probably the most exciting activity. Perfect for people looking for an adrenaline rush. I should start a zip line tour, there is a lot of profit in it!

By burcidi — On Jul 14, 2011

@burcinc-- In the US, most tours and recreational organizations use pre-manufactured equipment and gear. My brother ran a zip-line for the summer several years ago and he was telling me how much they had paid for the equipment. As far as I know, there are some really well known brands that have proven to be safe and many people work with them.

The cable is very durable, it won't break. The most dangerous part about zip-lines is probably being able to break and slow down when you get to the end of the line. If you can't slow down, you could hurt yourself. I think a lot of zip-line operatives set up the cable in a way that you slow down on your own because of gravity.

Since you are going to be in Costa Rica you might want to ask them about how they break- whether they have a mechanized system, gravity system or if they're going to teach you to break yourself. Potentially, the mechanized system might cause a problem if it breaks down.

By burcinc — On Jul 13, 2011

This is on my to-do list when I go to Costa Rica. I heard that they have zip line tours through the rainforest. I think it will be amazing!

But what if the cable breaks while you're on it?! It's supposed to be pretty high up. I doubt that the helmet is going to do much if you fall. But can the cable actually break? It's supposed to be really durable right?

Anyone know what the cable is made of?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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