For the most part, the historical record about zip lines is quite limited. While zip line tours are obviously a new invention, the actual origin of the zip line seems to be much further back in time. For centuries, the zip line has been a way to transport people and items through mountainous areas. From ancient transportation to modern adventures, zip lining remains a favorite way to soar across the skyline.
Mountain climbers have also been partial to the zip line for some time. While a Tyrolean traverse is a common mountaineering practice (shimmying across a line to cross between two steep points, sometimes without a pulley at all), the zip line one-upped the Tyrolean by using the gravity of the slope to make the process a little quicker. It was this unlikely reason that zip line tours -- also referred to as canopy tours -- sprung up as a recreational activity in the rainforest of Costa Rica under the banner of eco-friendly tourism. Promising the adventure of flying like a bird through a natural habitat, these zip line rides have become a huge industry in the adventure tourism trade of that region.
Zip lines have also become a large part of ropes challenge courses, designed to teach teamwork and provide recreational activities through team-building and problem solving, as there are generally high-fives all around when a high-speed trip down a zip line on a frighteningly simple pulley ends in all participants still breathing.
Centuries ago, zip lines were once used in areas like the Nujiang valley of Yunnan Province. Known for the many mountains, rivers, and valley, this area is still considered remote today. Centuries ago, it was even harder to cross rivers. Zip lines were the answer to hazardous ferry rides or swims across the murky and fast moving waters. Due to the poor safety record of these early zip lines, most of them have been replaced by actual bridges. There are still a few of the historic zip lines in place, but these are quickly being replaced by more modern options.
As westerners arrived in the Australian Outback, they had to contend with new animal species, an unfamiliar environment, and difficult traveling options. Across the outback, zip lines were used to transfer tools, food and cigarettes across streams, gullies and rivers. According to some reports, Australian troops even used zip lines to deliver ammunition, food, and mail to the front lines during military conflicts.
Mountain climbers have used zip lines for years. Techniques like the Tyrolean traverse are used by mountain climbers to shimmy between two different points. While the Tyrolean traverse occasionally uses a pulley, it is sometimes done with nothing more than just a rope making a primitive zip line. Mountain climbers use this technique to travel between two steep points without the danger of trying to climb between them.
The Hualapai Indians use ropes made from local plants to make zip lines to cross various parts of the Grand Canyon. This way they saved a lot of time and danger in crossing steep cliffs. They were remarkable in escaping other native Americans as well as the white men that were their enemies. At one time it was reported that they had over a hundred such zip lines set up to cross over some of the deepest parts of the Grand Canyon.
Known for his science fiction and imaginative novels, H.G. Wells was an innovator in more ways than one. Back in 1897, H.G. Wells used a zip line in the novel “The Invisible Man.” He called the zip line an “Iinclined strong”. It was placed on the village green and used a pulley-swung handle for villagers to use. His use of the zip line was not without precedent. Over 100 years earlier, in 1739, Robert Cadman became known for his use of a zip line. As a steeplejack, Cadman had to climb tall structures and chimneys to make his living. He died tragically one day when his rope snapped as he zip lined from St. Mary’s Church, in Shrewsbury. While H.G. Wells may not have been aware of this particular story, he was undoubtedly familiar with the ropes and pulleys used by steeplejacks to climb chimneys and steeples when he first wrote about zip lines.
Despite the centuries-long history of zip lines, modern recreational courses can trace their origins back to the 1960s and 1970s. It was during this time that Donald Perry, a graduate student at California State University, Northridge, was doing research in the rainforest of Costa Rica. Perry was pursuing a doctorate in biology and he was fascinated by the diverse wildlife found in the forest canopy.
Perry pioneered the study of what he calls the “main level” of the rain forest, the canopy, where upwards of 40 percent of all life on earth exists. Navigating through the trees of the jungle was not an easy task, as tree limbs were prone to breaking and they were crawling with a variety of poisonous insects.
Originally, Perry used a crossbow to shoot a rope into the branches of trees so he could climb them. The locals started calling him el Hombre Mono (the Monkey Man) because he was the only person bold enough to climb through the canopy. In 1979, Perry devised a better way to make his way through the trees: a self-designed zip line. In his book Life Above the Jungle Floor, Perry recalls his first zip line adventure, “I watched the platform recede and felt a sense of ecstatic joy as I glided past branch tips, where only the lightest of jungle animals could venture, and into the airways of butterflies and birds. My zip line saved my life”
Donald Perry’s inventive way of zip lining the rainforest soon attracted media coverage from Smithsonian Magazine, Scientific American, and Geo (Germany’s National Geographic). Perry’s exploits in the jungle even earned him a consulting role in the 1992 movie Medicine Man, in which Sean Connery zip lines through the Amazon rainforest to find a cure for cancer. Inspired by Perry’s zip lines, Canadian entrepreneur Darren Hreniuk built the world’s first recreational zip line course in Monteverde, Costa Rica in 1995. Although Hreniuk tried to patent the concept and aggressively block rival course from opening, the courts ultimately ruled that zip line technology belongs in the public domain.
Over time, zip lining became a hugely popular tourist activity in Costa Rica and it has since spread all around the globe. Today, 72 countries boast commercial zip line courses. Canopy tours and modern zip lines first gained popularity in the 1970s. Biologists and researchers were first starting to explore the canopies above the jungle floor, and they needed a way to traverse the canopy quickly. Experts in botany, ecology, zoology and entomology began using zip lines to conduct their research. Before long, entrepreneurs realized the commercial value of the zip line for thrill-seekers. New methods and techniques were developed to make a more enjoyable, safer ride across the jungle’s canopy. Spanning a few hundred feet or several kilometers, these zip lines enabled riders to traverse mountainsides at hair-raising speed.
Today, there are over 400 zip line courses throughout the United States. Offered in diverse climates like Hawaii or the Rockies, these zip lines are an exhilarating adventure for the thrill-seeking tourist. While the excitement is still the same as earlier zip lines, the safety and quality has improved significantly. As the rickety zip lines and suspension bridges of the past disappear, this ancient mode of transportation remains as a historic novelty for modern explorers and adventurers.