Zip lines are sprouting up everywhere as many winter ski resorts look to make money in the off-season and institutions like zoos and museums work to increase visitor numbers. As the attraction becomes more ubiquitous, the demand for faster, higher and longer lines continues to grow.
Of course, with this growth comes increased scrutiny and regulation, especially when a customer can be seriously injured. One system component that is evolving alongside this growing attention is the zip line braking system. As new courses are being designed and constructed, the terrain of many courses may not provide the necessary amount of gravity to slow the participant enough to safely land. When gravity is no longer the sole braking option, operators need to deploy other braking systems to provide the desired level of safety.
In an article for Adventure Park Insider, Shawn Lerner, founder and CEO of Zip-Flyer LLC said, “It’s widely known the root cause of most zip line accidents is operator error. In many parks, the guides are still responsible for braking participants safely. While most guides are well trained and take their work very seriously, the future of these parks and industry regulation is in the hands of every guide on a daily basis. That said, owners and operators want braking systems that not only work every time, but take the braking out of the hands of their staff.”
There are several types of braking systems in use for zip lines: In general, they fall into 2 major types, “active” systems and “passive” systems. An active braking system requires riders to initiate action to slow their rate of speed. These systems tend to be the easiest and least expensive to set up, but they often require a higher level of rider skill and engagement.
While many zip line operators still successfully and safely use active systems, more and more adventure parks and commercial operators are installing passive systems — or a combination of active and passive systems, especially when riders include children and inexperienced riders. Passive braking systems do not require rider action and operate independently of any rider action.
According to Zip Line Gear’s guide to Zip Line Braking Methods, the most common Passive and Active brake systems are:
Leather glove braking requires the rider to apply sufficient pressure to the overhead cable. Riders need to be trained on when and how to safely use glove braking. Additionally, environmental factors that may add moisture to the cable, such as dew or rain, will require the rider to recognize this condition and apply more pressure over a longer period of time.
With this system, the rider must engage the brake by pulling down on the BrakehawkTM to create friction between the zip line cable and brake pads. In this method, hands do not touch the cable itself.
Boa Bungee Brake
A rider’s impact is gently absorbed by a block mounted to the cable and attached to an anchor with a bungee cord. When the bungee cord retracts, the rider cascades back to the low point on the cable to dismount.
This method is made for zip lines that have little or no speed at the end, or as a back-up brake system. These are commonly found on over-water zip lines where riders risk landing in shallow water if they pass a certain point. The tire provides a no-pass barrier. They are also meant to protect the equipment, as the tire lowers impact.
Used almost exclusively by commercial locations, this system features a block mounted to the cable and tethered by rope to a guide who slows the rider manually. Benefits of this system are many from a commercial viewpoint: It moves riders through very quickly, rarely requires rescues (when riders stall mid-zip line and need to be retrieved), and offers the most dynamic braking resistance, meaning guides have the ability to apply friction to match the rider’s weight and momentum.
Magnetic Centrifugal Brake
This is the only passive braking method that is truly dynamic - the harder the block is hit, the greater the resistance delivered by the brake. These tend to be more expensive, but are highly effective and reliable.
The coils of the spring compress in order to absorb a rider’s momentum and push the rider back.
In this method, there is no actual brake. The cable is tuned so that gravity moves a rider toward the end of the zip line, but there is not enough momentum to take them past the end. By leaving a large amount of sag, or uphill cable at the end, or reducing the overall drop of the cable end-to-end, the cable slowly brings a rider to a stop.
It is important to note that the braking systems used on a zip line are critical to assure consistent rider safety under all environmental conditions in which the attraction will operate and with varying rider profiles, and are absolutely integral to the success of your business.
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