Introduction to Paragliding

This short introduction to paragliding covers information that most often comes up in conversations with my friends who are not familiar with with the sport. I’ve also included a number of links with further detailed information. Paragliding over the ocean

Paragliding over the ocean

Basic Introduction to Paragliding

First of all, paragliding is free flight. The pilot is hooked into a harness, but is in no way physically connected to anything on the ground. During instruction, students and instructor communicate via radio (like a walkie-talkie).

Paragliders fly similarly to hang gliders and glider planes. We can catch lift by thermaling, which is using thermals (hot air coming from below) to rise up and soar. Many birds also use thermal lift. We can also use ridge lift, which is when air blows in and hits a cliff side or other ridge, which causes the air to then move up. We use that air to gain altitude, too.

Paraglider pilots fly on a ‘wing’. We also have a parachute in our harness, which we deploy in an emergency. However, once we deploy the parachute we will only sink to the ground, and can no longer fly. Barring any emergency, and with good conditions, paraglider pilots can fly very long distances. World records are 100+ miles.

In order to launch and fly we need wind at a certain windspeed (not too fast and not too slow) coming from a certain direction. The direction needed depends on the launch site. The launch site is typically at the top of a hill or ridge. Rain cancels any flying, as the cloth the wing in made of gets too heavy when it is wet. If conditions are not ideal, a paramotor can be used. A paramotor is a big propellor attached to the pilots back.

Paragliding on the California coast. Longest Bus Ride

Paragliding on the California Coast

How do Paraglider Pilots Steer While Flying?

We shift our body weight and we also have brakes. When one brake is pulled, we turn in that direction. In combination, we can turn quite quickly. Spiral maneuvers can also be performed. Advanced pilots can perform acrobatics with somersaults, dizzying spirals, and other skills.


How do Pilots Get Back Down to the Ground?

We can move out of areas where there is lift and we can use learned skills to decrease altitude, like making S-turns in the air.

Preparing for launch. Longest Bus Ride

Preparing for launch

What Safety Gear is Used While Paragliding?

  • Helmet – buckled
  • Harness – buckled in at all times
  • Parachute – deployed in emergency
  • Boots – protect ankles during launch and landing
  • Gloves – protect hands from cold and in case extreme line management is needed
  • Sunblock
  • Sunglasses
  • Warm clothes – it’s cold up high!
  • Radio – communication
  • GPS – for location in case another pilot has an emergency landing and needs to be located
  • Cell Phone – call out for assistance in case of landing not in the designated landing zone
  • Vario – speed of altitude increase/decrease and other measurements

Are There Many Women Pilots?

There are definitely more women than I expected and some have been flying for many years. When I’m at events, sometimes guys ask if I’m a pilot, which is a question that I don’t think a guy would ever ask another guy. Luckily I had a really great instructor who is great with female students just the way he is with male students.

Launching on a hill side. Longest Bus Ride

Launching on a hill side

What Happens If You Need to Pee While Flying?

You have options. You can land safely and then go find a friendly bush. In my experience bushes are often nicer than the available toilet facilities. Or, sometimes they’re the only toilet facility, which is why I think there aren’t more female pilots…. tangent!

However, if you want to stay in the air, I’ve heard that guys can lean out of their harness, but that can end up pretty messy. Otherwise, I’ve also heard that there are diapers (I think pilots use these during competitions) and funnels and such. For me, landing sounds like the nicest option.


I Might Be Interested in an Introduction to Paragliding Class

Great! Go on the USHPA website and find out who the instructors are in your area. My instructor offers a 2-day introduction to paragliding course, which I took before committing to the more extensive course. You could also go for a tandem ride first. My very first flight was on vacation on a tandem off the top of Mt. Haleakala in Maui, so I can recommend that, too!

Taking off in the California mountains. Longest Bus Ride

Taking off in the California mountains


Paragliding on Wikipedia

United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (USHPA)

My instructor in California – Lift Paragliding. He won Instructor of the Year in 2013.

Paraglider flight in mountains. Longest Bus Ride. Introduction to paragliding

Paraglider flight in mountains

I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to paragliding. You can also read my introduction to spelunking (caving) here.