How outdoor aerial adventures are evolving

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Outdoor aerial adventures come make the most of the natural elements. Photo: courtesy of Sky Adventures

Zip lines and rope courses are not what they used to be.

Like any industry, the aerial-adventure market continues to evolve. Adventure and amusement companies innovate as enthusiasts call for bigger features. Aerial enterprises are also shifting from classic, quiet eco-focused treetop tours to adrenaline-pumping raised obstacle courses.

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Elevated ropes courses push the adventurous in both mind and body challenges. Photo: courtesy of Asheville Treettops Adventure Park

With innovation always comes a balance with safety, according to Philip Wilson of Extreme Engineering, the company that created the original, patented, mobile-rock climbing walls and auto-belay systems, and continues to design a variety of challenge courses around the country.

“We are currently working on a more automated aerial course that incorporates a steel zip-line roller coaster and some harness-less systems that will decrease risk, drastically improve safety and speed up cycle times,” Wilson says. “We also are using computerized, controlled decent devices to provide family-friendly thrills that will bring people seamlessly up to the air, launch them on a zip coaster and also challenge them on some very unique, Tough Mudder-like concepts.”

The aerial adventure of zip lining first seemed to find its mojo in jungle landscapes like Costa Rica. These days, however, zip lines are everywhere, from staged indoor adventure-lands to ski resorts to standalone platform parks popping up along every tourist highway in America. Finding one that fits your interests is a matter understanding differences in zip line setups.

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The ride up to the zip line is just part of the adventure in Costa Rica. Photo: courtesy of Sky Adventures

Traditional zip lines—rigged distinctly in forests and jungles, and designed to take in the flora and fauna—are called canopy tours. Riders travel in a seated harness or fly on their stomachs Superman-style from platform to platform. There’s plenty of time to catch a bird’s-eye view of the local environment while navigating floating walkways and bridges.

For adrenaline junkies, there are now flying cables that push the zip line boundaries in height, speed, length and drops. For example, the MegaZip—the longest, highest and fastest zip line in the industry—stretches up to 7,000 feet and runs up to 130 miles per hour. Starting and stopping demands a specialized system of industrial-strength cables and technical braking components.

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Screen grab from the high ropes course section of Area 47 adventure park in Austria.

The ropes course is another outdoor aerial adventure segment that continues to expand and splinter each year.

Perhaps mirroring the growing popularity of obstacle course racing, these lofty tangles, set 30 to 40 feet above ground, no longer consist of a few cargo nets, cables and tightropes. They come in a variety of heights, skill levels and feature-rich fragments, pushing individuals, partners and teams to test coordination and tackle fears.

According to Wilson, another trend finding its way into aerial adventure is immersion “theme-ing,” which he says, “transforms guests into different worlds and turns them into thrill-seekers.”

Some adventure parks have added roller-coaster-style kicks to traditional cable lines, combining a open-air flying feeling with the drops, rolls and turns of an amusement ride, and ultimately created a whole new zip line experience.

Ropes courses are also tackling “theme-ing.”

“The ropes course is being replaced by the adventure-park model, which is a more independent and recreational experience as much as a personal growth experience,” says Jeff Greiner, president of Adventure Center of Asheville. “The other trend is ‘play-pen’-style aerial adventures involving all pole or steel structures that have a more amusement-park feel than a park or natural outdoor experience.”

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Sometimes the biggest thrill in aerial adventuring is overcoming a mental fear or simply accomplishing something you never thought you could. Photo: courtesy of Asheville Treetops Adventure Center

The newer, more sophisticated ropes courses are called aerial adventure courses. These risk-and-reward treetop labyrinths include an elevated matrix of cable-locked horizontal elements like rope walks, contortionist mazes, balanced beams, cable traverses and elevated bridges, as well as strength-building vertical sections, such as towers and rope ladders. Of course, some of the latest and largest adventure parks include all of these elements, plus fixed features like free-fall drops, bungee launchers and giant swings.

Aerial adventures are “a great challenge and confidence-builder for those that come willing to push their perceived limits,” Greiner says.

And some multipurpose excursions take in even more natural surroundings with add-on adventures like kayaking or horseback riding enroute to zip line starting points.

Clearly, there’s no shortage of options to fly sky-high in increasingly entertaining ways. Deciding on how to do it comes down to one question: How wild is your style?

Try Exploring:

Asheville Treetops Adventure Park, North Carolina

Sky Adventures, Costa Rica

Kipu Zipline Safari, Hawaii

Area 47, Austria

Aerial Extreme, United Kingdom

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