Different Zipline Braking Styles


When you go ziplining, how you stop is not the same from one zipline course to another. What are the different zipline braking styles you might experience?

When ziplining, you’ll stop either via passive braking or active braking. Active brakes require you to manually stop yourself, usually with a leather glove on the cable or a brake pad. Passive brakes use gravity, springs, or magnets to pull you to a stop.

In this guide, we’ll explain both types of zip line braking styles in detail, then delve into the pros and cons of each. We’ll also talk about how you’ll know which braking style you’ll use when you go zip lining, so make sure you keep reading! 

The Types of Zipline Braking Styles

As we touched on in the intro, a zip line stops through either passive or active brakes. Let’s go over both braking styles now and explain them more fully.  

Active Braking

The first braking style is the active brake. As this name suggests, the zip line rider actively stops themselves on the line using one of two methods, either their hands or a brake pad.

Once you learn about these two types of active braking methods, you’ll understand why zipline companies largely do not use active brakes these days. 

Hand Braking

When a zipline course requires the rider to stop themselves using their hands, they’ll have a pair of thick, leather-padded gloves to do so. The rider doesn’t have to provide the gloves themselves; instead, they’re a part of the zipline rider’s equipment like their harness.

As you ride down the zipline, you reach one of your gloved hands up and grip it around the cable. By applying pressure on the cable, you create friction and bring your riding speed down gradually. Then you eventually stop. 

You’ll be trained on how to hand-brake before you go riding down the zipline, including when you should apply the brakes. However, there is no area on the cable that denotes when it’s time to brake. If the rider misses their cue, they could crash into whatever’s on the other end of the zipline, be that a tree or a wooden platform.  

Brake Pad Braking

If a zipline rider isn’t required to wear a glove to make themselves stop, then the zip line company will provide them with a brake pad instead. The brake pad is a holdable device that stops the zipline at a time the rider wants to. 

Once again, you will receive training on how and when to use the brake pad. At least your hands are spared! 

Passive Braking

Much more common across zipline courses throughout the country (and elsewhere) are passive brakes. Zipline companies will use one of three types of passive brakes: spring braking, magnetic braking, or gravity braking. Here’s an overview of each type.

Spring Braking

Spring brakes are named that due to the inclusion of springs in the braking system. These aren’t small springs either, but huge coils made of durable metal. Upon being impacted by a zip line rider, the coils will compress.

This compression stage is important, as the spring absorbs the brunt of the zipline rider’s momentum rather than the rider themselves. This is what allows the rider to slow down and then stop.

Of course, a spring doesn’t stay compressed forever and will pop back out, right? Yes, and that’s true of spring brakes as well. Thus, you should expect a degree of rebound with spring brakes. It won’t be enough to propel you back up the zipline, but it can be a bit of a surprise if you’re not expecting it.

Your weight can impact just how much rebound you’ll experience as you brake. If you’re heavier, the spring will release more readily than it will for a lighter rider. The reason is that the spring compressed more in the first place, so it will create more rebound when it unfurls. 

Since the rebound cushions you from a sudden, hard stop, riders who weigh less will be in for more of a fast, even painful jolt than heavier riders. 

Even the weather comes into play when using spring brakes on the zipline course. After all, if conditions are slick due to rain or humidity, you’ll speed down the zipline cable faster than you would on a dry day. Since you’re coming upon the spring brake faster compared to the norm, you’re going to cause the spring to compress more.

You know by now that that increases the degree of rebound. This time, the rebound would be likelier to occur regardless of the zipline rider’s weight. That said, heavier riders will of course have even more rebound than they would on a dry day. 

Are spring brakes the best type of passive braking? No, they’re not, and the paragraphs above exemplify why. That doesn’t make spring brakes unsafe, but they could certainly use more improvements.    

Magnetic Braking

The second type of passive braking is magnetic brakes. Through the power of magnets and eddy currents, you come to a stop without any rebound as you get with passive braking, nor any friction like what’s required with active braking. 

The currents of the magnetic brake generate an electromagnetic force from the conductive moving object (aka the zip line rider) and the magnet. This happens due to electromagnetic induction, which creates electromotive forces along a magnetic field.

As the zipline travels past the magnet, which remains stationary, the eddy currents circulate. These currents have a magnetic field of their own that resists the magnet’s field. This is what applies a drag force on your zip line from the magnetic brake and allows you to stop. 

One of the biggest benefits of magnetic braking is that the experience you get as you stop on the zipline is consistent regardless of the rider’s weight or the weather outside. There’s no sudden jolt nor is there any bouncy, painful rebounding.

Gravity Braking

The third and last type of passive braking is the gravity brake. This form of braking is more than a brake attached to your zip line setup, but, rather, gravity braking influences the design of the entire zip line course.

A zipline course with gravity brakes usually features an uphill cable towards the end. The cable will have slack to help influence its shape. 

As the zip line rider approaches the uphill cable, they slow down and sort of ping-pong on the line. Once they reach the lower area of the cable, they’ll naturally stop. Gravity is in action, which is why this form of passive braking is called gravity braking. 

Zipline courses with long lines don’t usually implement gravity braking, nor do fast zipline courses, as gravity braking is not conducive to either. After all, on a long zipline, the rider will increase in speed as they go along. 

Like spring braking, a gravity brake causes the zip line rider to bounce around a little, although in this case, it’s more like ricocheting. Slowing down is a more gradual process as well, so this can all add up to a boring and even painful part of the zipline experience. 

Passive Braking Pros and Cons

Now that you understand both passive and active braking styles, let’s talk further about what’s good and bad about both types, starting with passive brakes. 

Pros

  • Passive brakes, no matter which kind, are always safer than active brakes. There’s no need for the zipline rider to apply friction to the cable at any point, either by using their hand or a brake pad. They shouldn’t touch the cable at all. 
  • Zipline riders can enjoy their ride until the very end with no responsibility to stop themselves. This puts less pressure on the rider. 
  • Some types of passive brakes such as magnetic brakes have features like automatic resetting to lessen the amount of downtime.
  • Magnetic brakes also typically require less maintenance work.
  • Zipline riders will likely feel safer when riding on a zipline course with passive brakes. 

Cons

  • The weight of a zip line rider can drastically influence the stopping speed and force of spring brakes. 
  • Weather can also impact the stopping ease of spring brakes. Since most zipline courses will stay open in light rain and snow, there are plenty of opportunities each year where a zipline rider could come to an uncomfortable stop.
  • Gravity braking is not recommended for long or steep ziplines as well as any zipline courses in which the rider accumulates speed.  

Active Braking Pros and Cons

Next, let’s explore the pros and cons of active braking, the more manual of the two types of zip line brakes. 

Pros

  • Zipline companies can choose whether to give zipline riders either a leather glove or a brake pad. 
  • The zipline rider gets to decide when they want to stop and can do it when they’re ready. 

Cons

  • Even though zipline riders are trained on how to use an active brake such as a leather glove or a brake pad, in the excitement and exhilaration of zipline riding, they can forget their training. This can cause the zip line rider to stop too early, but much more often, too late.
    • If the zip line rider stops early, then everyone at the zipline company has to hold up operations until that rider can get themselves down the rest of the zipline. This can result in customer dissatisfaction, not to mention you can accommodate fewer zipline riders that day, which hurts your revenue.
    • When a zip line rider stops too late, they could fall unconscious or suffer lacerations, fractures, and even broken bones from the impact of hitting a tree or the landing platform. 
  • Due to the speeds in which zip line riders travel when riding down the cable (which can be around 30 miles per hour but sometimes faster), gripping the cable with your hand­–even with gloves on–can be very injurious. The rider’s glove can get caught in the zipline components such as the trolley. Friction burns can occur in any areas where the skin is exposed. Broken and mangled limbs are also within the realm of possibility. 
  • The friction that’s required of active braking will wear down your zipline cable faster compared to using passive brakes, which require less friction and sometimes no friction depending on the type. 

How Will You Brake When Ziplining?

The type of brake you’ll use when ziplining is at the discretion of the ziplining company. Many zipline companies have detailed FAQs sections on their websites you can peruse ahead of your ride to glean additional information.

If it’s not clear by the zipline company’s website whether they use active or passive brakes, or which type of active versus passive brake, we recommend reaching out and asking. You can pick up the phone and call or contact them via social media or email.

As we said earlier, although active brakes are uncommon these days since their risks are so well-documented, that doesn’t mean zipline companies have abandoned active brakes wholesale. Your zipline company might tell you that yes indeed, they still use active brakes.

If that’s not something you’re comfortable with, then you can cancel the zipline experience. Provided you’re still within your cancellation window, you should incur no penalties. Even if you don’t get your full refund back, you know you’ll be safer ziplining elsewhere, and your safety is what matters most. 

Final Thoughts 

The two types of zipline styles are active and passive brakes. Active brakes require the manual effort of the zip line rider, who must use a brake box or their gloved hand. They apply friction on the cable to stop.

Passive brakes use magnets and eddy currents or springs and even gravity to pull riders to a stop. These methods require less friction on the line, which prolongs the life of the cable. Zipline riders don’t have the onus of stopping themselves, and that makes their experience more enjoyable, not to mention reduces their risk of stopping injuries.

We hope the information in this guide makes you feel more comfortable and safer the next time you go ziplining!  

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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