Ziplining 101: How to keep your family safe

Oct 5, 2015 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Image: YoBro10/Getty Images

Zip lining may not be the first sport you think of when you think of dangerous activities. In fact, you may not even think of it as a sport at all. But as the popularity skyrockets so do the injuries, according to a new report that found that cruising through the trees on a tiny wire has some serious safety issues.

Go to an outdoors tourist destination almost anywhere these days and you can find zip line tours. And why not? They're fast, fun, and you get to see a lot of cool stuff without having to hike to it. Plus you get a really cool GoPro video to post to all of your friends. (And isn't that the gold standard of adventure vacations these days? First-person video or it didn't happen!) But this mad adrenaline rush comes with a physical price as zip lining has become the sport with the fastest rising rate of injuries, according to a study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine.

The actual number of injuries may seem pretty small, since it's still a relatively uncommon activity — there were about 3,600 people hurt in 2012 — but the experts warn that the injuries happen to a higher percentage of participants than other sports and are more severe, often requiring hospitalization. (If you're unsure how this happens, consider that for every few nail-biting near-miss videos you've seen online there is one that, well, doesn't miss. Ouch.)

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The most common way to get hurt zip lining is, unsurprisingly, falling, which accounts for 77 percent of all injuries. Collisions with trees, rocks and other people account for 13 percent. All this happens because despite the aura of safety a fixed line gives, sometimes ropes snap, harnesses loosen, equipment fails and protective gear isn't worn properly, the report warns.

And while this might not be a big deal in, say, soccer, it can be disastrous when you're whizzing through the trees. The average professional zip line tour averages 35-50 miles per hour but some can reach speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. Speeds this fast can turn a small branch from an annoyance into a black eye.

But, the report says, the real problem may be all the unregulated amateur zip lines. There are only about 300 professional zip line tours in the U.S. but there are over 13,000 backyard varieties — which may or may not follow safety regulations. And even among professional organizations there aren't consistent regulations said Gary Smith, M.D., Ph.D., the study's senior author, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital and professor of pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. "Commercial ziplines and non-commercial public-accessible ziplines should be subject to uniform safety standards in all states and jurisdictions in the US to help ensure safety," he added.

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In the meantime there are things you can do if you love zip lining (and seriously, it's so much fun!) but don't want to get injured. The study recommends that you:

1. Seek out an organization that has well-trained staff and that can show you that their zip lines meet industry safety standards.

2. Follow all posted rules and instructions from staff.

3. Always wear proper safety equipment, such as a harness, helmet and gloves.

4. Do not use homemade or backyard zip lines.