Slacklining and tightrope walking in principle are very similar sports. They both require balancing on a thin line linked at 2 points. However, there are differences and the two systems are used very differently.
The main differences between slacklining and tightrope walking are the material of the line; webbing vs steel cable and how they are set up. A tightrope is held at a much higher tension so it doesn’t flex as much as a slackline.
One of the big differences between slacklining and tightrope walking is the materials that are used for the line itself. Most slacklines are made from either nylon or polyester and are created into a flat material. They come in two different widths of either 1″ or 2″. Whereas a tightrope is made generally from a steel cable. This means that due to the natural properties of the materials used a slackline has more flex even before tension is applied.
The difference in material also means they come in different shapes. Whilst a slackline is a flat piece of webbing 1-2″ wide, a tightrope is a wire and so is cylindrical and generally no wider than 1″. Steel cables for tightropes use a spiral of multiple threads to create strength. In order to maintain safety so that the threads don’t split apart, there is a core in the middle which spirals in the opposite direction.
The two systems have both similarities and differences with regards to set up. They both require 2 anchor points. These are the solid points at either end of the line that can withstand the significant forces of either a tight rope or a slackline including any people who use the lines. For traditional slacklining these anchors are often tress that have a diameter >30cm. This will generally mean they are strong enough to withstand the forces. It’s really important when using trees as anchors that you protect the tree from damage. Tree protectors are common place in any slacklining kit and they are put around the tree before the slackline sits on top.
Another set up difference is the use of stabilisation lines for setting up a tight rope. These are supplementary lines that prevent the tight rope from moving laterally (left to right). This means that as well as restricted vertical movement (up and down) a tight rope is also restricted laterally. This is the opposite of a slackline which can move in any direction. Because of the lack of movement of a tight rope the challenge is different, more similar to a gymnastics balance beam as there is less movement underfoot. When you step on a slackline for the first time controlling the movement of the line under your foot is the first big challenge. It will wobble and shake all over the place and just standing up will be a challenge. If you’re interested in what my first experience was like on a slackline check out my Journey to a Backflip series of blogs which is documenting my experience from total novice to competent slackliner.
A further difference between the set ups is just the amount of equipment required. Check out this article by Matthew Wittmer where he details exactly step by step how he sets up his tight rope. It includes multiple cables, large wooden frames, large hoist, a ladder and more. Compare that to a slackline kit which you can see in the photo above. There are two pieces of webbing, one with a ratchet, that creates the line to walk on and two tree protectors. The secondary line in the picture above is a training line and so is optional. The bag is to store and carry the kit around.
As well as the different materials the two systems are tensioned differently. Naturally the system used to tension a cable is different from a flat piece of webbing. Both use ratchet systems in order to maintain tension but tightropes often use a hoist whereas a slacklines will use a simple hand ratchet. This means they are often at lower tension which allows them to sag or bow. Slacklines are meant to sag and that means they can be springy, like a trampoline. These different characteristics mean the two systems are used differently and provide different challenges to the user.
I touched on it during the set up section above but slacklines are designed to move. They can move in any direction which means the balancing technique is very different from pretty much anything else. One of the key things is the need to walk on soft knees, with arms up above the shoulders often called the Gibbon pose. This helps to control the line and stop it from moving quite as much. It’s also easier to begin with when you are near to one of the anchors as that helps to stop the line from moving quite as much, providing more stability. This isn’t required on a tight rope as you don’t have to control the line from moving below you anywhere near as much. However, that doesn’t mean tight rope walking is easy, and often a long pole is used to help balance. This is because the line is very narrow, much narrower than the width of your foot.
With slacklining their are multiple disciplines that are all unique in their own way. There are 5 disciplines; highlining, tricklining, waterlining, rodeolining and yoga lining. Below gives a quick overview of each discipline, but for more info I have an article all about what the sport of slacklining is and the separate disciplines.
Highlining is the most similar discipline to tight rope walking. It means slacklining at significant height >5m, and distance. People continue to challenge themselves in both highlining and tight rope walking to be able to go higher and over further distances.
Tricklining is as the name suggests, performing tricks on a slackline. This includes spins, flips and twists from multiple take off positions and linking different skills together. This is the only competitive discipline within slacklining and the video below shows some of the best tricks from the World Cup in 2022.
Waterlining is when you slackline over water. This adds another dimension to balancing as not only is the line moving, but the water below means that the surface below is also moving. This makes it more difficult for your brain to understand the movement and react accordingly.
Rodeolining involves putting no tension on the slack line and creating a large U shape between your 2 anchors. This means it has to be rigged higher to allow for the drop. It involves less traversing and involves balancing in the middle of the slackline and allowing it to swing from side to side with more and more amplitude.
Yoga lining is also fairly self explanatory. It involves doing basic yoga poses on a slackline which elevates simple yoga movements to make them significantly more difficult.
There are similarities between slacklining and tight rope walking with the most similarities coming in the highlining discipline. The main differences are the materials used and how the 2 systems are set up.