Gear, software & hacks

G

Below are some comments on gear and some low-cost hacks I applied to make my flying more comfortable.

Paraglider

It has other informal names like the wing, the canopy, and the glider. They have different ratings like EN-A, EN-B, EN-C, EN-D, CCC, lightweight, paramotor, tandem, acro, etc. (and even in-between ratings like “mid-B” or “high-B”).

You will learn to fly on an EN-A, the safest classification of glider. Over time, some pilots want a wing that performs differently (faster turning, for instance), at the expense of reduced passive safety. The rule of thumb is to fly your wing “until you get bored of it”.

At the time of first writing this, I had flown 180 flights (110 hours) on my used mid-B glider, Flappy. I kept saying: If I lost her, I’d replace it with exactly the same type/rating of glider, since I’m anything but bored and I don’t want anything “hotter”. (Update: I ordered a high-B wing after 265 flights and 175 hours, mostly because it was as collapse-resistant as my first wing, just a lot faster on speedbar, both safety improvements in my mind)

A newer or higher rated wing isn’t going to make you a better pilot: more practice is going to make you a better pilot. (The same applies if you’re a beginner buying the fanciest electric guitar or most expensive set of golf clubs; don’t be like that)

You will probably end up in the bushes quite a bit in the beginning, so a gently used wing will depreciate in value slower than a brand-new wing full of small holes and scratches. Discuss this in detail with your instructor (and other instructors).

Harness

The thing you sit in. You’ll start in a seated harness and many people spend their entire flying career in a seated harness – the view is unrivalled. Others might go for a more aerodynamic and comfortable cocoon-shaped pod harness, a lightweight hike-and-fly harness, a reversible harness, or a tandem harness.

I love cross-country flying (where you try to cover distance), hike-and-fly (where you, well, hike up something and fly down) and I’m very keen on bivouac adventures (where you fly somewhere, camp for the night, and fly/hike out the next day), so I’m flying a lightweight pod harness with lots of pockets and storage space (at the expense of increased risk of riser twists and reduced visibility).

Tip: leave a copy of your important information in your harness and your carrying bag/backpack, in case you misplace it or you need medical attention. Include your ID, license number, insurance information, next of kin etc.

Note that pod harnesses may be less safe than seated ones, especially for a beginner. The reclined position means that it takes more time to get seated and comfortable and you are generally less likely to be in the parachutal landing fall (PLF) position. They may also be prone to more yaw and line twists. Discuss it with instructors and other senior pilots.

Harness safety

Most harnesses have seat and back protection, some have nothing at all. Having been both a witness and involved in accidents, I (now) focus a lot more on the passive safety of my harness, not just my wing.

I created a specific page, just on harness safety. Please read it here: Paraglider harness safety

Reserve

Your harness (usually) has space for a reserve parachute, under the seat or connected to your chest. If things go wrong with your paraglider, this is the thing that might save your ass.

I have a lightweight reserve parachute (again, I hike a lot with my kit), which makes it more expensive and fragile. It is also steerable, nice for when I do long flights over nasty terrain. These reserves cost more, but after deploying you can steer them like you can steer a paraglider (albeit at a much higher sink rate), something that might be handy when flying over lots of trees.

Some lightweight harnesses don’t have space to install a reserve parachute, but you can (and should) still fly with a chest-mounted reserve that attaches directly to your risers, unless you only plan on soaring very close to the ground (as a reserve takes some altitude and time to open up).

Reserve simulation deployment

You need to get your reserve checked and repacked at least once per year. Why not add a potentially life-saving lesson to it? The day before your service/repack, tie your harness to some rafters, have a friend spin you around to simulate a collapse or riser twist, and throw your reserve! It’s great to find out what it actually feels like on your harness.

Get someone to record it in slow-motion mode to see if you can improve anything.

Helmet

“A shitty helmet to protect a shitty brain.”

Some dad, somewhere.

In some countries, like South Africa, you’re allowed to paraglide in an unrated helmet (like a cheap skateboarding helmet you can buy in a toy shop). In Europe (and to participate in FAI events), you’ll need a helmet that conforms to the EN 966 standard: certifying that it is specifically made and tested for paragliding (and paragliding incidents and accidents). It might be tempting to get a cheap helmet, but this is the one place where you shouldn’t skimp or buy used (since you can’t necessarily verify the structural integrity — if the helmet has been in an incident or not).

I have a fat cranium and I searched for ages for a helmet that fits my fat dome. I like that it has removable ear pads (great for switching from colder to warmer weather). There is a debate about open-face or closed-face helmets; I simply prefer the better visibility of an open-face helmet over the added safety of having my chin, nose, and teeth covered.

Keep your helmet in its carrying bag and pad it in your backpack to protect it. When you’re travelling on a plane, keep it in your carry-on luggage or wrap it properly (before slapping a few “fragile” stickers on your luggage).

Flight deck & instruments

Using a flight instrument (or two!) helps you keep track of your flights over time, including the date and time, flight duration, location, and so on. Eventually, you’ll want to get a variometer (or “vario”), something that helps you determine your rate of climb or descent.

Flight deck

Many harnesses have built-in flight decks (especially pods). You could get one for your harness, or just secure your instrument(s) to your arm, leg, or risers. Some front-mounted reserve parachute containers also double as flight decks. Ask around and see what other senior pilots have done. Remember: instruments are another distraction that could get in the way of safe ground handling, launching, landing or flying.

Smartphone apps

As a beginner, just start by writing down in your flight log (preferably in a cloud-hosted spreadsheet) details about each flight you took that day. Just the basics: flight duration, location, things that you learned or could have improved on. You can also ask your instructor to send you a Whatsapp video or voice note, recorded during or right after each of your training flights, with some comments on what you did right and wrong.

When your instructor thinks you’re ready / when you can handle another distraction before and during your flight, get FlySkyHy (iOS) or XCTrack (Android). You can start tracking a flight (or even set it to auto-start once it detects you are gliding) and keep it in your pocket with your screen and even the volume turned off. This way you’ll have a log of each flight.

When you feel comfortable (and can handle the distraction) you could turn on the sound and vario feature (where it notifies you with ascending or descending beeps if you’re going up or down) to help you thermal. Most modern smartphones have reasonable barometric sensors (to determine changes in pressure; i.e. altitude), but later on you will probably want to buy a dedicated variometer to help you find and stay in thermals.

Also: download a free hiking app (like Organic Maps for iOS / Android) with the map of the area or country you’ll be flying in. They have much better features than Google Maps, like finding water, elevation contour lines, and will show the smallest of footpaths that might just help you get back to civilisation easier.

Remember to attach a leash to your phone’s case and attach the other side to your trousers or harness, as in the picture below. A cell phone can kill or seriously injure someone if dropped on their head from even just a few metres.

Phone leash

Many pilots attach a piece of velcro to the back of their phone case to mount on their cockpit, but I find that the velcro always snags on my clothes and makes it difficult to take my phone out of my trouser pockets. Instead, I got a bicycle/motorcycle phone mount and attached it to my cockpit flight deck with some velcro and a leash.

Bike phone mount
Power bank and charging cables

If you’re flying with your phone’s paragliding app (using the GPS and usually with the screen on for the duration of your flight), you’ll run out of battery pretty fast. I turn my iPhone to low-power mode before flying and I’ll connect a power bank if I know (nay: hope) I’m going to fly for a while.

My phone’s charging cable got frayed pretty quickly (the side that plugs into the phone) from all the bumping and rough handling, so I upgraded to an L-shaped charging cable.

(I experimented with various wireless induction chargers and magnets, and all of them were fiddly at best. None of them gave my phone enough charge during flight, and when it wasn’t placed perfectly, it wouldn’t charge at all. Also, the magnets are weak, so my phone kept falling off. Not recommended.)

Vario

After flying for a while –and definitely if you’re interested in thermic flying– you’ll want to invest in a basic variometer, which will be a lot more accurate than your smartphone. You don’t need all the bells and whistles as a beginner. As long as it beeps when you’re going up, you’d be good to go. Oh, and those thermal sniffer screens (with circles showing where you need to turn to climb higher) are great. You can get a leg strap, mount it to your risers, or put it on your flight deck.

A handy feature of my Skytraxx vario is FLARM (collision avoidance technology, which helps identify you to sailplanes) and FANET (where you can see your distance from other FANET-enabled varios; good for finding your friends in the sky and on the ground). My Skytraxx also shows the thermal spots on a map that other Skytraxx-flying pilots recently found before me.

Thermal hotspots

There are pretty reliable places that trigger thermals. Just ask for the “house thermal” near most popular launches. Since many pilots upload their tracklogs, it is possible to build up a database of places where pilots have found lift in the past (and you are somewhat likely to encounter lift if you went looking for it on a good thermic day).

You can fiddle around with the XContest / Paragliding Forum APIs, but easiest is to visit https://thermal.kk7.ch from where you can download the hotspots in many formats. You can use Google Earth in your route planning, or export it to show in your vario. I prefer to have a separate screen for these in my hiking app, Organic Maps. The excellent (but German) app, Burnair, also has a thermal hotspot view; same for some high-end varios.

Bluetooth speaker

Not recommended if you have less than 150 hours in the sky, and not recommended if you’re flying where others are flying. I find music to be calming at the end of long cross-country flights. I never turn it so loud that I won’t hear other pilots shouting at me. Whenever I’m taking off, landing, or flying with others, I turn it off it. I don’t ever fly with headphones. I have a mellow playlist saved on Spotify for this.

Garmin InReach Mini

Since I do a lot of remote cross-country trail running and hiking (and now paragliding) I’m often in areas with no cell phone reception. The InReach Mini is affordable enough (around $350 new, about half that if you buy it used) and with the $15/month subscription you get to send unlimited pre-programmed messages with your location to your contacts via SMS or email, anywhere in the world you have a clear view of the sky. Things like: “Starting my flight of the day”, and “Please pick me up”.

Their software is absolutely maddening (basic things like adding a new contact take patience), but they make excellent hardware. It also has an important SOS feature for when you’re in real trouble. I clip it to my harness before every flight.

Note that the iPhone 14 and onward will have satellite SMS, which could be a way for me to reduce my kit size ever so slightly, once they expand it to the entire globe (and not just for emergency SOS but also for normal messaging)

Read the full article on emergencies and insurance: Emergencies.

My flight deck setup

I keep my power bank zipped up in the cockpit compartment, with the speaker and vario attached with some velcro, and my phone in the bicycle mount above. I use Siri: “Hey Siri, call such-and-such” (maybe to ask for an in-flight weather report from a friend) or “Hey Siri, open the Windy App”, or “Hey Siri, open Whatsapp” for hands-free operation. In smooth air, I pull my phone from the cockpit and take photos.

Connectors

I use old paraglider lines for my leashes, with loop knots to secure my devices to my harness. I once had a slip-type carabiner (the ones you just push in to open) snag one of my glider’s lines. This is something that might be trivial to fix on the ground but could be deadly in the sky or on launch if it grabbed your main lines. If you want to use a carabiner, use the threaded or twist-lock kind.

Two-way radio

This page got a little long, so I created a standalone page on two-way radios, and how to program them to the SAHPA frequencies in South Africa, here: Paragliding radios

Bags and backpacks

In addition to the hydration pack for my radio, water and snacks, mentioned above, I use the following:

  • A concertina bag to neatly fold my wing
  • A paragliding hiking backpack where I keep my wing, harness, and other gear
  • A bunch bag/stuff sack (a bag to quickly bunch up your glider and walk with for shorter distances)
  • A small waterproof bag with a basic first-aid kit and emergency information (always kept in my harness)
  • I keep everything else (instruments and clothes) in a lightweight bag that zips shut and goes into my harness while flying.

(Many pilots like to wear a stylish moon bag/bum bag/fanny pack, where it’s easy to access snacks or cameras).

Backpack mod

My kit was always far too loose in my Nova glider bag (110-litre bag, size small); flopping around all over, especially when hiking.

I decided not to spend the $250+ (R5000) for a dedicated hike & fly bag and rather mod mine for a two-in-one. Some heavy-duty clips, attached to the existing straps (to pull the opposite direction) and a small strip of webbing for a third clip to make it look more neat and flush did the trick.

I estimate it to be around 80l now. Nice and tight, even when hoofing it with my full kit up a mountain (and I can always just release the clips to go back to fatso mode for when I’m using a bigger harness or when travelling internationally and so on).

Clothes

These are my thoughts on clothing, as they relate to making me a safer pilot.

Head

I always fly with a cap under my helmet (that doesn’t obstruct my view) to protect my face from the sun. In addition to that, I wear UV sunglasses (or snowboarding goggles; but they obstruct my vision too much for comfort) and a merino buff around my neck and over my face. You might look like you’re going to rob a bank, but it’s incredibly easy to burn your face and neck when you always have a cool breeze blowing over you.

Despite all of these things, I still put on sunscreen before heading to the hill (and after a flight).

Upper body

For my hands, arms, and torso, I cover up with gloves (thin trail running ones in summer, thick ones in winter) and arm sleeves. It gets a lot colder at altitude, so I almost always put on a thin windbreaker or down puffer jacket (or both). Zip them up just an inch or two, so you don’t have to fiddle too much, with both hands off your brake lines, if you get cold.

Legs

For anything other than dune soaring, I put on a pair of strong trousers made from tactical material (blue jeans should also do) over my shorts. I’ve been witness to (and guilty of) many landings where people end up in the bushes and you can really get badly scraped. Once, a pilot in my group lost his balance ever so slightly on takeoff, stumbled to the side and onto a dead bush, and it poked a neat, tiny round hole in his leg. Blood gushed out of the puncture like out of an open tap (a perfect Quentin Tarantino movie scene t.b.h) and he had to rush to a nearby clinic.

When I need to hike up (or walk somewhere after flying) I simply slip out of the warmer long trousers and I’m already wearing shorts for the mission.

Feet

I wear trail running sneakers: good for hiking up, good grip for landing and getting my speed bar, and well, I already have them, so less to buy. Some pilots prefer boots for the added ankle support (I don’t, even when trekking).

Videos & photos

I either use my iPhone (pulling it from the flight deck where it is held down by velcro) or a 360 camera to record my flights. Some of the footage I simply upload unlisted onto YouTube, for me to review frame-by-frame later (things like launches and landings or the millions of other small things I should improve on).

I put the 360-camera on a selfie stick and stick it into my harness and press the record button (or use the voice-activated commands: “start recording”, “stop recording”) and edit the footage later on. Hands-free FTW.

It’s a bad idea to mount your action camera on your helmet since you always have the glider lines pass close to your head when you do a reverse launch (99% of my launches). If this ever got snagged, it could be somewhere between funny and deadly; I’d rather not find out. I used a bite-mount on my old action cam (you can make one from an old snorkel) with a lanyard connected to the camera, around my neck. You can also consider getting a GoPro (or other action cam) “no snag” helmet connector made for skydiving.

I upload some content to my (private) social media pages and some I publish on my public YouTube and TikTok (and private Instagram) channels.

Selling your gear

There are marketplaces and social media groups for this sort of thing. The best price is the one where an honest, willing buyer and an honest willing seller agree and are both happy. To guide you a little, below is what Greg Hamerton suggests (for wings). Harnesses and varios depreciate slower.

About me

Werner van Rooyen

Formerly Business Development and Marketing at Luno (where we went from eight nerds in a tiny office to hundreds of people spread over three continents) and before that Marketing at PayFast. Currently investing, paragliding, and doing research, mostly in Mexico.