Slacklining began several decades ago as a rest day activity for rock climbers, and the gear they used was generally old retired climbing equipment. Nowadays, slacklining is a burgeoning sport all on its own with specialized gear designed specifically for it. You can still rig one up in the same style as the Yosemite climbers of the 1980's did, but that method is becoming more uncommon. With the advent of new tricks and longer lines, higher forces are being placed on the gear than ever before. That banged up oval carabiner you found at the base of the rock wall, or that old tow strap you dug out of Mom's garage doesn't cut it anymore. It is important to know that the pieces of gear you are using are safe, strong and are not going to have a dangerous failure mid-walk or jump.
There's a lot of terminology and different types of new gear out there, so we've broken all the main categories down for you, from the types of webbing used to how the system is tensioned, with recommendations for which types to choose based on your ability or sub-specialty.
Types of Webbing
This is the original style of slacklining. 1-inch webbing looks more intimidating than the now standard 2-inch lines. Don't let this guide your purchase though, as the main factor in difficulty is more about tension and stretch than webbing width. 1-inch lines come in a combination of materials that affect the feel underfoot and the stretch of the line. From pure nylon like the webbing found in the Balance Community Primitive Kit to polyester models, the material of your webbing is an important factor to consider.
Nylon webbing is stretchy, giving a line the potential to move and sway if not rigged with significant tension. However, the stretchy nature of nylon does mean that it is very strong. This strength is one of the reasons that nylon webbing continues to be a favorite in mid-length highlines. Adversely, the stretchy nature of nylon makes it difficult to achieve adequate tension in your line, causing the line to sway too much or even causing the walker to bottom out (hit the ground) while walking in the middle of the line.
1-inch nylon slacklines are generally sold as tubular webbing. This means that instead of one piece of woven nylon, you are essential walking on a flattened tube of webbing. The circular webbing and the soft feel of nylon make for gentle edges on the tensioned line. Some lines feel coarse underfoot and when tensioned create sharp edges that have been known to cut fingers. This is not a concern with nylon webbing.
Polyester 1-inch webbing, doesn't have as much stretch as nylon. This makes the line well-suited for static/yoga poses, but not much else.
While 1-inch webbing was the maiden form of slacklining, 2-inch models now enjoy significantly more popularity. The perception is that the wider surface area is easier to walk on, and their ratchet rigging systems are less intimidating for first time users. Unlike tubular 1-inch webbing made of nylon or polyester, the 2-inch lines are flat woven (not a circle) and generally a mix of both polyester and nylon. This makes the lines fairly stiff and low-stretch, but still gives them a nice powerful bounce. The low-stretch quality of these lines lets you set them up much closer to the ground than a 1-inch line without having to worry about bottoming out.
The more "classic" style 2-inch kits, like the Gibbon ClassicLine and the Slackers Classic Series Kit, have some of the stiffest webbing out there. This minimizes stretch and its ability to sway, thus making it easier for someone to walk on it. In comparison, the lines designated as trick lines, such as the VooDoo Fearless and Slackline Industries Trick Line, have a thinner, coarser feeling webbing that acts more like a trampoline. This lets slackers get big air and perform aerial maneuvers on the line when it's adequately tensioned.
Most 2-inch models have one end that has a reinforced loop. This is so the main line can be used as one anchor — you wrap the line around the tree and pass it through the loop, or "girth hitch" it. The rest of the line then runs towards the ratchet side. The benefit to this system is fewer extra parts, but the downsides are wear on your line from rubbing against the anchor point and a decrease in your walkable line length.
Types of Tensioning Systems
There are three main types of mechanisms popular in tensioning slacklines. First is the primitive system used with 1-inch webbing. Next, and most popular these days is the ratchet system. Finally, there are complicated pulley systems that are used to rig long and/or highlines, however we will not cover those in this guide.
These systems are low cost and easy to travel with. A primitive rig uses a couple of carabiners, some rings and your main webbing to create and hold the line tight. Using a line lock hitch to avoid placing knots in your webbing, primitive systems rely on friction to hold tension. The main webbing is wrapped around a few carabiners and passed underneath itself. As you pull out the slack, the webbing cinches down on itself. Simple. However, the high friction required to hold the line up means that as you pull you are pulling against an inefficient system. This makes it difficult to get the line tight enough to keep a slacker off of the ground when in the middle of the line.
This set-up is great for travelers and those who already have a basic understanding of rigging or climbing. While the set-up is not too complicated and fairly basic compared to more advanced pulley systems, it is more involved than ratchet systems. Also, systems made of smooth polyester webbing can not have enough friction against themselves for the friction hitch to hold. While this was not a safety issue in our case as we had it relatively low to the ground, care must be taken when rigging primitive set-ups as you don't want them up too high or over hazards.
Similar (but not equal) to the ratchet found in your local hardware store, slackline ratchets use a lever-and-lock ratchet to help you quickly and easily get your line super tight. First you feed your line through the bar inside your ratchet and pull all the slack out. As you start to crank down on your line it is incredibly important that you keep the webbing in line with itself. If the webbing gets misaligned it can catch in a cog of the ratchet as you continue to tighten, or, more dangerously, as you try and release tension. This shreds the edges of your line and eventually makes it unusable.
To release the tension in a ratchet system, you must pull the release trigger and open the ratchet a full 180 degrees. This causes the cog lock to release and the line makes a loud POP as it comes loose. The sudden release of tension is dramatic and can scare novice slackers. On top of it, your hands are right there in the action. You must always be extremely careful when releasing a ratchet and remember to tend your webbing to avoid it getting caught.
Choosing the Right Kit
The first question to ask yourself is "What do I want to get out of my slackline?"
If you are a casual beginner or looking to have a fun addition to backyard BBQ's or Sundays at a park, read on:
Basic ratchet lines are going to be your best bet for years of fun. One of the least expensive but also most basic lines is the Gibbon ClassicLine. This model gets you up and walking for only $70, and the durable line lasts for years — we recently came across an old Gibbon line that was left out for two full summers in Yosemite National Park, and though it was pretty worn out it was still walkable.
If you're looking to get into slacklining but have bad knees or are timid about falling, then the Slackers Classic Series Kit is a great buy. It comes with an overhead hand line that helps you keep your balance and start walking with confidence. Another option is our Best Buy winner, the Slackline Industries Base Line. This affordable kit helps you get the ball rolling with an instructional DVD as well as tree protection, which lets you put up your line with the knowledge that you won't damage your trees or your new line.
If you are a beginner or intermediate slacker with the potential and/or desire to take it up a notch, this section is for you:
If you fall into this category, pretty much every line in our review will suit your growing needs. Our first choice for you is our Editors' Choice winner, the Slackers Wave Walker. It's bouncy and fun, and also includes an overhead hand line which helps you learn how to walk and start your journey into tricklining.
If you are certain that tricklining is for you, the Slackline Industries Trick Line does a great job at getting you through the early stages of dynamic tricks.
All serious slackers are also masters of the 1-inch line. If you want a primitive 1-inch kit that grows with you towards a future in longlining and highlining, the Balance Community Primitive Kit, our Top Pick for Traditional Slacklining, is the way to go.
If you are an intermediate or advanced slacker and are looking to bolster the depth of your gear pile, we've got some advice for you:
A slackliner can never have too much gear. For those of you on a budget but serious about tricklining, the Voodoo Fearless trickline is significantly cheaper than the other professional level tricklines on the market. It is a quality, bouncy line that will take you to the upper reaches of tricklining.
As well, our Top Pick for Traditional Slacklining, the Balance Community Primitive Kit, keeps your skills up to date for your weekend highlining trips and longline excursions.
Slacklining is a great activity to get you fit and take you to wild places you never before imagined. We hope this review helps get you started on the right path.