What Is a Zipline?

The last few years have seen a major rise in the popularity of ziplines across the United States and around the world, but this new adventure has roots stretching back hundreds of years, and a past that is as diverse and captivating as any zipline adventure.

No one can say for certain when or where the first rope was strung from point to point, and someone slid across it.

What is certain is that the thrill of ziplines has drawn people from at least the early 1700's. In the 1730's Robert Cadman, an British stuntman, earned the nickname "Icarus of the rope", when he slid down a rope attached to the top of St. Paul's Cathedral in London while blowing a trumpet throughout the flight.

In 1739 at the age of 28 he attempted a similar feat at St. Mary's Church in Shrewsbury, England where he had attached 800 feet of rope to the church's 222 foot high spire.

That ill-fated rope sliding attempt highlighted the need for proper engineering. Over the years that followed it is certain that people used rope to create ziplines for everything from backyard fun to professional stunts.

The allure of ziplines grabbed people in 1905, with the release of the silent movie The Burglar's Slide For Life, a short comedy film that came out 9 years before Charlie Chaplin appeared in his first silent movie.

Throughout the mid to late 1900s ziplines became more common in military trainings, and as part of challenge and confidence building courses installed at schools and camps.

In these settings, as in zipline usage over the many prior years, installations typically only included a single line. In the 1970's & 1980's shows such as MacGyver featured zipline scenes as an adventurous addition to a given episode.

In 1992 the Movie Medicine Man, starring Sean Connery, featured a thrilling scene where Sean Connery climbed into the rainforest canopy, then proceeded to zip from tree to tree.

This use of ziplines for canopy research and exploration was being pioneered by scientists like Dr. Donald Perry in Central and South America during the 1980's and 1990's as a way to move from treetop to treetop without needing to ascend and descend each individual tree.

In 1992 the concept of a Canopy Tour, which linked trees by ziplines and bridges high in the forest canopy, was launched in Costa Rica targeting travelers interested in gaining a new vantage point on Costa Rica's rainforests.

In 2001, Buck & Danny Boren experienced one of these tours in the mountain town of Monteverde, while traveling around Costa Rica.

The father and son team returned to their home island of Maui, Hawaii where, leaning on design and construction expertise from related fields, they proceeded to develop the first commercial zipline tour in the United States on historic Haleakala Ranch.

Launched in 2002, the Haleakala Skyline Tour operated for over a year before an operator on Kauai opened the second zipline tour in the U.S. in 2004.

Since that time, the zipline industry has gained significant popularity, and around 2006 the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), began working to create safety standards specific to zipline tours, rather than relying only on the rudimentary zipline standards that had previously existed for ziplines that were a minor element in Challenge Courses.

Today there are hundreds of commercial zipline operations across the United States and throughout Hawaii. Safety is a primary industry focus. Third party safety inspections, as well as solid engineering, are part of many zipline safety programs.

Around the World the use of ziplines continues to grow as an adventure activity. However, as always, new uses for ziplines continue to appear, including as a means of transportation through flooded areas in Pakistan, and as a way to fly over Las Vegas crowded streets, or as a way to evacuate from buildings on a college campus. Where will ziplines take us next?