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Vol Bivy Commentary

Date: 31st July 2014

I’m on a paragliding expedition right now, I thought some people might be interested in the thinking that went into how we’re approaching the trip…

Some “Vol Bivy” personal history, kinda boring unless you’re really into flying paragliders and think that, “Style matters.” A description of the current trip is here.

The whole concept of “Vol Bivy” or fly-in camping with a praglider,  started with Pierre Bouilloux’s flights for me. But, like any outdoor sport the concept of “Vol Bivy: has changed over the years. It’s gone from “flying” and “bivy” to “flying some and walking a lot on paved roads while camping in a valley.” We’re going at this adventure in a different style than any one ever has as far as I know (Luc Armant did a very cool trip in the Himalaya a few years back that reportedly came close to this style). Maybe the closet recent trip to this style was Gavin’s “500 Miles to Nowhere” project, where the emphasis was on the flying more than hiking. Our “Flying style” focuses on the flying and the experience of the unique, wild landscape we’re in, not backpacking  a paraglider for distance. I did a lot of backpacking as a kid, and even then we knew to stay off the roads to have a good experience.  Today how I do a sport is as important as the end result to me.

In all my sports I’m always looking for what I think is the coolest way to practice them, and to create new ways of doing them. Style matters, as my friend Mark Twight famously said. Free climbing vs. aid climbing. Paddling all the drops on a river rather than walking around them all just to get down the river. Climbing the steep side of a mountain even walking up the back would be easier. Hitting the golf ball as many times as it takes to get it to the hole rather than picking it up and walking it to the hole. Riding as many sections of a mountain bike trail as I can, even if it’s slower than walking. These “rules” are in some ways arbitrary, but they feel right to me. Gavin and I have both had a lot of experience with Vol Bivy flying, and we’re both up for a style that’s more like alpine climbing than backpacking with a paraglider, or a simulated adventure race. Here are some of my experiences with adventure paragliding.

In 2001 or so I flew a paramotor across the USA with Jim Grossman and Othar Lawrence. Our rules were the same “flying style” rules we plan to use on our Rockies trip this year, and where the idea for “flying style” came from: we had to fly over the previous day’s track or landing place. We mainly used the motors to get into the air, then thermal along with the engines shut off. We couldn’t re-start them in the air, so each day had a logical ending point when we landed, and the experiences we had very much fit into the “vol bivy” concept of flying and adventurous landscape experiences. As I look at my life that was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had.

Around this time I was starting to be inspired by Pierre’s thinking, and also by the pilots flying in the Himalaya 10 to 15 years ago. Like the Alps there are generally people in the Himalya, but often no cars and no first-world infrastructure. Jon Silvestre, Robbie Whittal (and later Brad Sanders and others) were flying absolutely cross-country  trips in the Himalaya, and that seemed really cool to me. They were walking some to get to launch and explore their landing areas, but the idea was a cool paragliding traverse of wild landscapes; they weren’t walking along roads just to make distance. The Himalaya are ideal for alpine walking with good trails between villages, so this idea was closer to Pierre’s descriptions of “vol bivy” for me.

I was really inspired by those trips, so Othar Lawrence, Chris Santacroce and I tried to “vol bivy” the Andes from Chile to Argentina, and become the first pilots to fly over the continental divide. We walked for four or five days while the wind howled (it’s windy in the southern Andes!) from one side to the other while carrying our gliders, and never flew. Our backpacking trip was a great trip and one that hasn’t been done very much as far as I know, but it was a backpacking trip. By pushing for the defined geographic goal of crossing the Andes rather than a style based goal of flying them we “succeeded,” but it did not really seem that cool to me. It would have been cooler to wait for good conditions and then FLY over the Andes. Which was what we did a few days later, and that was magic.

In July of 2003 I raced the first Red Bull X Alps, an 800K adventure race across all of the European alps. The rules are that you can either walk or fly, and a supporter helps you with food and logistics, etc. It was a ton of fun to fly in the Alps, but we rapidly figured out that hiking in the alpine was dead slow. To make distance you had to hike the paved roads in the valley bottoms. Because you can’t get more than 10K from a paved road in the Alps 90 percent of the hiking is done on pavement, and most people hiked at least half the distance they flew. Which meant that far more time was spent hiking than flying… I enjoyed the flying, but walking on pavement with a paraglider made me want to hurl myself in front of one of the frequent semis. I love the X Alps and am blown away by the athleticism and amazing flying (the best pilot usually wins so flying is absolutely important) so don’t take this as an attack on the X Alps; it’s an adventure race, and damn cool.

In 2010 a friend raced the Great Divide Mountain Bike Race, and I was really inspired by that concept of moving fast with ultra-minimal gear. It seemed like true Vol Bivy with a bicycle.  In 2011 I took a Greyhound bus to Vernon, 400K to the west of me, hiked up a hill and flew home. Three epic flights in absolutely rocking conditions, two days stuck in a logging cut, just an amazing trip. I didn’t achieve “flying style” on this trip as I got sick of hiking down a logging road and called a friend to get a lift and used rides to launches when I could get them, but I really liked bivouacking high in remote areas and just going for it in the air with no regard for roads or retrieve, just the sky. I vowed to do more of this type of flying, and soon I’ll get the chance

Today there is definitely a push toward completing big geographic distances in “walking vol bivy” style. Two guys are walking and flying a lap around the Adriatic, which I think is a really cool idea. But so far they have walked more than half of the trip on paved roads, which I know would cause me to shoot myself in the head. The fact that I have a paraglider on my back does not make walking on a road any cooler. Dave Turner has done some really cool flights in the Sierra and elsewhere, and is currently rough doing the X Alps route twice, from Monaco to the mediterranean and then back again with his girlfriend on a tandem. The alps are idea for the, “Walking Vol Bivy” tours; lots of cow pastures in the alpine, good infrastructure support, tons of trails, so  in this environment it makes sense. But it’s a lot of walking…

Many of these trips are claiming to be, “unsupported,” meaning no one is chasing them. The concept of “unsupported” means  something on Greenland or Antarctic crossings where you have to carry all your food instead of leaving caches, but it is unclear to me what that means in the Alps, where one can buy a Pain Au Chocolat or strudel roughly ever four kilometres (ten in tough conditions). At the same time two psyched French guys are nearing the end of a “Rockies” traverse, where they have skied, bicycled, walked, and flown a lot of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico. With a few exceptions such as the Icefields Parkway, which they hitchhiked for 150K, they will have done the whole Rockies under human power. The only one person I know of to do a complete Rockies traverse by human power is Chris Townsend. I like the “human power” concept, but if you say you’re doing that then don’t make forward progress in a car, or claim that all travel is done “human powered” on your web site. Because to me it doesn’t really matter how someone does something, but you gotta be honest about what you’re doing or it taints the entire effort.

To me Pierre Bouilloux’s efforts and flying-focused expeditions done in the Himalaya and Sierra seem to be moving this game of “Vol Bivy” in the right direction. Pierre Bouillox would not have walked 500K of a 1000K route along valley roads just to make an arbitrary goal. I won’t race the X Alps again for this reason, walking along roads makes me want to jump in front of a semi truck, it’s lethally boring (plus those pilots are in a different league now, incredible!).  We all have to find a style we like. Here are my definitions of current “Vol Bivy” styles:

Vol Bivy: Take the lifts or car up to launch, have a nice flight, camp high for a day or more, hike a bit, land high, have fun, repeat for 10K or 2,000K. Common in Canada, the Himalaya, Alps and other areas, about the flying and experience more than the absolute goal. No real “rules.” I think I like this one the best.

Adventure Racer: X Alps sort of stuff. The goal matters most, and there’s a sense that speed matters too. Human powered, hike or fly only. “Unsupported” or not, doesn’t matter in the Alps or anywhere there are people. A lot of hiking with a paraglider, which as we have already covered does not make hiking cooler.

Flying Style: Continuous  GPS trace of a series of flights. Best style is getting to launch/retrieve under human power, but the main thing is the flying. Who knows how this is going to work out…

Human Powered Traverse: Bike, fly, ski, kayak, cover a geographical area under human power. I put really cool races like the Great Divide Race in this category. Paragliding is only one mode of transport; carrying a paraglider does not make walking cooler.

Posted in: Blog


  1. Marin   May 10, 2015 3:24 am

    Hey !
    I’m bit late for a comment, but I’m training for my own flying adventure. I ve trouble fitting a tent and 4 days food in my harness. Can I ask what harness do you use ? Thanks a lot for your help, enjoy the freedom of flying !

  2. Will Gadd   May 13, 2015 2:39 pm

    Hi Marina, I’ve used a Gin Lite Cocoon, and an Ozium, depends. A BD First Light fits in there with jet boil, four days food and a sleeping bag. Key is to radically cut down on stuff you “need….”

  3. Will Gadd, The Renaissance Adventurer | Jimmy Chin's Blog   June 3, 2015 7:01 am

    […] talked on your blog about being honest about the effort. Can you dig into that a little […]

  4. Peter Rasmussen   June 22, 2016 11:51 pm

    Hey there Will.
    Hope you are well
    What glider are you flying these days and what would you recommend for an old guy like like me who still wants to fly high and go far but looking for something super safe ?
    Cheers man

  5. Will Gadd   July 27, 2016 4:20 pm

    Hey Peter, any of the modern “B” gliders are ridiculously fun and glide better than our comp gliders from 10 years ago. I need to come fly with you amigo!

  6. Serge   May 17, 2018 4:24 pm

    Hi Will, I so agree with you, walking with the glider is not the cool thing. Sucks, really. I didn’t even know the x-alp was won by walking that much. I wonder if a x-rockies only flying would be possible. Maybe shorter and with days stretch of good weather.

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