Skydiving is actually a sport
Skydiving is an activity that's almost synonymous with bucket lists. But before you enter the wonderful world of skydiving, understand that jumping out of a perfectly good airplane doesn’t have to be a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. “People think that with skydiving, you just go do one jump,” says Nancy Koreen, director of sport promotion at the United States Parachute Association. “They don’t realize that it’s a whole sport that people do every week as a hobby and a lifestyle.” The number of annual skydives in America has been growing steadily since 2007, with an estimated 4.2 million jumps last year alone. Advanced jumpers can even compete in all sorts of skydiving competitions. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Here's the basic skydiving lingo you should know
Drop zone: The skydiving center where you’ll make your jump. It may look like nothing more than a large grassy field with a random airplane hangar, but all USPA-affiliated drop zones are legit (there are 238 in America to choose from). Jumpsuit: The less-than-stylish full body suit you may wear over your clothes while skydiving. Jumpsuits can help control how fast you’re falling and protect you from the wind in colder months. If you jump in the summer, you may not need to wear one. Liability release: The form you sign before you jump that outlines potential risks and safety concerns. More on that later. Freefall: The best part of your jump, falling through the sky before your canopy opens. Canopy: A fancier name for your parachute.
Anyone can skydive
Are you a human being over 18 years old? Ta-da! You’re qualified to go skydiving. There are a few exceptions (pregnant women and people with heart problems should stay on the ground, and drop zones have certain weight restrictions), but your age, height, occupation, or any other demographic factor won’t hold you back. “There are ways to take people who are paralyzed, disabled, even who have lost limbs, just with special precautions and adjustments to the equipment,” Koreen says. Basically, you don’t have much of an excuse not to try skydiving.
You can jump wearing a parachute or without one
Okay, it’s not quite as extreme as that. Beginners can choose from two types of skydiving: accelerated freefall (AFF) or tandem freefall. In an AFF jump, you open the parachute by yourself and land by yourself. But before you even put on the parachute, you need to complete a ground course that can last several hours. While you’re in the air, two instructors hold onto your harness to give instructions and help with stability before you deploy. Most first-timers choose tandem, where you’re strapped to an instructor who opens the parachute and lands for both of you. There’s no extensive coursework or physical prep beforehand. All you have to do is enjoy the view. So technically, you really are jumping without wearing a parachute. You’re just attached to someone who is.
Your chances of getting hurt are ridiculously low
Horror stories of parachutes not opening are what keep most people from even considering skydiving, but they rarely know the stats behind those numbers. Out of the 4.2 million jumps in 2015, 21 were fatalities. That’s 0.005 fatalities per 1,000 jumps, and the rate of tandem fatalities is even lower. “Every skydiver has two parachutes,” Koreen explains. “If the first one malfunctions, there’s a backup, and skydivers go through a lot of training to learn how to handle emergency procedures. Ninety-nine percent of skydiving accidents are human error, where the skydiver does something wrong. It’s not necessarily an equipment failure.” Plus, tandem instructors go through extensive training and certification programs to give you the best—and safest—ride of your life. “It is in such a controlled environment with such close supervision,” she says. “Your chances of getting hurt or killed are way higher driving to the drop zone than they are jumping out of a plane.” These tips can help you conquer your fear of flying.
It’s a bit of an investment
Prices vary between drop zones, but tandem skydives tend to run from $200-$275, according to USPA, and AFF jumps are around $300, plus additional costs for photo and video packages. Some drop zones offer cheaper rates on weekdays and early morning jumps, for college students or military personnel, and for groups. The bigger the group, the bigger the discount. Always schedule jumps in advance, too. It costs less than paying full price the day of, and you’re guaranteed a spot on the plane.
You’ll get cozy on the plane ride up
After watching an informational video and signing waivers, you’ll meet your tandem instructor, put on your harness, and board the aircraft version of a clown car. On the ride up, your instructor will put goggles on you and strap your harness to his. It may feel little too close for comfort—you’re sitting in someone else’s lap—but at least you know there’s no way you two could be separated on the way down.
The most nerve-wracking part of skydiving? The anticipation
You’re falling out of a moving airplane. That’s not natural. That’s pretty terrifying. And you probably won’t be able to stop thinking about that during the 15 minutes it takes your plane to reach the proper altitude (typically between 10,000 and 13,000 feet from the ground). It might actually be concerning if you weren’t at least a little nervous. The scariest part is definitely the few seconds you spend sitting on the edge of the airplane. Thankfully, it doesn’t last longer than a few seconds. Here's how to outsmart your nerves and hide your body's most embarrassing nervous reactions.
The freefall isn’t like a roller coaster
I am no adrenaline junkie. I can’t cross a street without whipping my head back and forth looking for oncoming cars, even when the walk sign is on. But freefalling through the air is one of the most peaceful experiences I’ll ever have. There’s no stomach drop like on a roller coaster. Honestly, it just feels like a bunch of cold wind hitting your face while the ground slowly gets bigger beneath you. The speed at which you fall can vary anywhere between 100 and 200 miles per hour. Koreen says it all depends on your weight and size, what you’re wearing, and how you’re positioned in the air.
Make the most of your time in the air
Freefalls are only about 45 to 60 seconds long, and then your canopy opens. You are allowed to ask for a longer freefall beforehand, if you’re up for it. The entire jump—from the time you exit the plane to the moment you’ve reached the ground—only lasts about five minutes, so take in your surroundings as you coast to the ground. Some instructors will ask if you want a few tricks during the canopy flight, like spinning around or moving side to side. Say yes. You can always ask to stop if the sensations are too intense.