When people watch downhill skate videos, they see skaters going down roads at 100kph (60mph), taking turns at high speeds, and doing risky-looking maneuvers – all this with fast-moving traffic coming up in the other lane! Personally, I wouldn’t blame them if they thought we were insane, had a death wish, or were on drugs. Fortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth!
Here is the reality. Most of us are safe in what we’re doing and have taken precautions to give ourselves the best chance of getting down the hill unscathed. This is always the case, even though it isn’t apparent in most videos.
So with that in mind, this week’s article will be a break-down of our safety methods. After reading, you’ll know what DH skaters do to keep safe. Check it out below.
This is the third in a series of articles and videos geared towards beginners. I’ll be discussing tips, gear, techniques, and other small things beginners need to know. Check out the others here:
- Skateboarding basics: How to balance on your skateboard and push
- How to tuck: Downhill skating basics
- How to setup your trucks for downhill
- Best wheels for learning to slide
- How to pick your first skateboard for downhill skating
Downhill skating basics: The guide to safe downhill skating
They use spotters
Spotters are people who stand at a corner and signal you if a car, bicycle, pedestrian or anything dangerous is coming up a given corner. They use hand signals, to let you know if the corner is clear or not.
To signal it is clear, they usually wave their hands in a big circle.
If it isn’t clear to skate, they place their hands in an X position. Some skaters also hold their boards up to signal that the corner isn’t good to skate.
If they get the signal that there is something coming up the corner, a skater can then decide if they want to skate the corner in their lane or to simply come to a complete stop, and not skate the corner at all.
This method is often used if a skater needs to break lane to skate a corner safely. It is also used if the corner is too dangerous and requires a slide that may or may not leave the skater in the other lane.
Inexperienced skaters also use spotters so they can safely practice taking dangerous, fast corners.
The below video presents a good example of what a spotter does. At about 1:04, you can see (although briefly), a spotter waving the car and the rider through. This corner is particularly tricky and narrow, and it would be difficult to otherwise skate it safely without a spotter.
They skate at the right times
Some roads are quiet enough that you can skate them at any time of day. Others are so busy you can only skate them early on a weekend morning. Some are always busy and are basically unskateable. And finally, with some roads, you can’t skate them around 9am or 5pm on weekdays – you have to skate them at off-peak periods to avoid traffic.
By choosing the time of day they skate a road, a skater can guarantee that they’ll encounter less traffic on the road. By doing this, they increase their safety and decrease the danger of having other road users on the road with them.
Early mornings are a particular favorite for downhill skaters.
They sometimes use Walkie-talkies
Skaters often use walkies to communicate if cars and other road uses are coming up a hill. This is a popular method for skaters to safely skate big mountain passes, especially those that have narrow roads.
If the hill is short enough and doesn’t have too many obstructive features, a spotter can sit at the bottom of the hill and communicate to a rider if the road is clear or busy.
Another way of using walkie’s, is having a car with a walkie talkie lead you down a run. This lead car communicates if a car, cyclist or motorbike is coming up. They communicate what color of the obstruction is and how many of them there are, all whilst constantly repeating “clear, clear, clear …”, so the rider knows something is up if they suddenly go silent. This method allows riders to use the WHOLE road and generally ensures their safety.
If the radio goes silent and the rider doesn’t know/notice, something like the below clip might happen.
In the above clip, the riders were using a lead car to spot the road, but didn’t realize that the walkie talkies disconnected. I’m certain they were not using the “clear, clear, clear ..” method, because they would have known something was up. Fortunately, nothing too bad happened and the rider was able to go off-road and avoid the bus.
Patrick Switzer wrote an excellent blog on this method (his website is unfortunately down) and also showcased it well in this video below.
In the video below, the Van seen at 0:45 is their lead car. Thanks to the walkie-communication, they were able to slow down early and set up appropriately for the corner at 2:00 – all whilst totally avoiding contact with the car.
Another excellent example of this is this clip below. It seems as though the riders know exactly what’s coming up the corner. They aren’t psychic or oracles, they just use a spotter and a lead vehicle.
They go back skating in their lane when there are cars coming up, and then go back to using the whole road again when it is clear. Also, a ton of board control and general great riding shown in the video below. Not every DH skater will be able to get down this road like these guys do.
Other users of this walkie talkie method are Josh Neuman and Alex Ameen.
What the cameras don’t show
With some roads, you can see every inch of the road from the top to the bottom, and even see over most corners just before you go around them. Most videos filmed on these roads don’t show this. This is because when watching the video, the camera is fixed straight ahead and you can’t see much beyond what is presented on the camera. In short, you can’t see what a rider can or can’t see.
A good example of this is this hill in the picture below. This is a popular skate spot somewhere in the UK. You can see all the way to the bottom of the hill from the top – all the corners, and basically everything. You can see if any cars are coming up in the distance, long before they get to the hill. A skater can generally spot the hill for themselves and then skate down using both lanes, cutting deep inside on corners and still reach the bottom safely.
The image below shows what you can see when standing at the top.
However, on camera, you can’t see this – especially on follow runs. So when a rider uses the whole road, it kind of looks like they’re doing a madness, or have a death wish. If you want to see what I mean, check out my raw run from this hill in the clip below. I skated this hill for two days, spotting it for myself, and I had no issues.
Whilst not every hill is this way, some are. Some riders can skate top to bottom without worry because they can see over the corner and see that the road is clear.
What about else do riders do to ensure their safety?
They take baby steps
99% of skaters don’t show up on the hill and skate it to the max immediately. Most take it chill, skate the hill a couple of times, learn the corners, learn which lines are the most comfortable to take before filming a video of them going 100% and really sending it.
Most also warm-up, get familiar with their skateboard again and even change things around so they can skate the hill safer and better.
A really good example of this is shown in Dexter Mannings’s write up on the Landyachtz blog. Dex has one of the craziest raw runs down Tuna. Skating it balls to the walls, gripping corners that shouldn’t be gripped and tucking sections that are usually air-braked. Easily one of the greatest runs down tuna ever filmed. Check it out below.
In the write-up (which you can read here), Dex talks about how he broke down the hill corner by corner so he could skate it as fast as possible. As you can see, Dex just didn’t show up and try to skate it as fast as possible the first time. No. He took his time, analyzed the hill bit by bit, looked at where he could go fast, where he should start turning, how he should take certain corners, etc. It was really a whole process.
And the process is similar for most riders. We show up on a hill and take it easy the first few runs. We learn how we should take certain corners, which patches of road to avoid, which corners are too dangerous to take fast (aka, not worth the risk), and then we send it.
And it’s this kind of pussyfooting that helps keep us safe. By testing the road, we find out if it is too fast for us or above our skill level. We also note which parts of the road might put us at risk of falling.
Finally, we then act based on this test “information”. We can then decide to leave the hill for when we become better skaters, put spotters in certain corners, or even come back later with different gear that will help us get down safer.
I’ve shown up to certain hills and not skated them because they were so busy with cars. I’ve also left hills because they were too fast, rough or only skated them half-way because the remaining half was littered with sand. Safety is always our number one priority.
They often stick in their lane
Despite what goes on in the other lane – whether it is busy with huge trucks zipping about or completely empty. A rider can ensure their safety by skating entirely in their own lane.
This is easier said than done of course. It requires a lot of skill to ensure you’re able to do everything you need to do in one lane. By this I mean sliding, gripping corners etc.
Honestly speaking, if you can’t skate a road in your lane then I don’t recommend you go down it – especially if you don’t have a spotter on the more risky corners. If you’re a beginner, stick to corner sessions and build up your skills. I know the urge to skate big roads is great, but the risks outweigh the rewards at your current skill levels.
They have a properly setup skateboard
With most of the DH footage you see, riders are using high-quality gear. They aren’t riding a board they bought from Walmart or off Amazon. No. They have gear that is specialized for downhill and often customized to their particular weight, riding style, and tastes.
From the bushings they use to the griptape on their board, all these things are tailor-made so skaters can go fast safely. It allows them to set up their boards so they are super stable. This is a big part of safe downhill skating.
To put it into a standard of measurement, a Walmart/Amazon board costs around $70 on average. A well-tuned, low-end DH setup costs around $230. On the high-end of things, a setup can cost anywhere from $600-$1000.
This gear helps keeps skaters stable and safe.
That said, just because you have the gear it doesn’t ensure that you can do what they can. Skill is perhaps responsible for 70% of their ability to get down a hill safely.
They have the skill and confidence
Right, even with all the above methods, it is not recommended you go down a hill if you are unsure of how to stop and of how fast you can comfortably go. 99% of riders shown videos know their limits. They know their capabilities and know that the hill they’re tackling is well within their bounds of performance.
And they only tackle such hills after hundreds of hours of practice on smaller hills. This practice gives them the confidence and experience they need so that they can go fast on their skateboard safely.
Finally, most of these riders have years of skating experience under their belt. They aren’t novices who bought a board the day before and then managed to go 100kph. No. These are seasoned professionals who know what they are doing.
They know how to stop
Riders have at their disposal a few ways to stop and slow their speed – they can air brake, foot brake, and slide. So even if they go 100kph, they have a way of safely reducing their speed.
The most reliable of the 3 is foot braking. Foot braking allows you to come to a controlled stop in a straight line. It’s often used in emergency situations or when it isn’t a good idea to slide. It’s also easy to use, so if a rider isn’t feeling confident when going down a hill you’ll often see them foot braking to shave-off some speed.
Out of all the 3, sliding is the most effective and it will slow you down the most. It’s also the most popular method, and you’ll see most DH skaters using it. That said, it is quite difficult to do. It requires a lot of practice before a rider can do it reliably and safely. But if a rider can’t slide, they will simply revert to foot braking.
To become more consistent and confident with stopping at fast speeds, most riders practice it incrementally.
For eg., if they know they can slide at 30mph, they then try slide at 35mph. They try this again at 40mph, then 45mph, and so on and so forth. However, when speeds start exceeding 50-60mph, riders use air braking to slow them down to a slower speed (usually around 45mph), where it is easier and safer to slide at.
Another thing riders do is slide early for a corner. By reducing their speed long before the corner, the riders can set up to take the corner properly. They also use it as an extra safety measure, especially if they don’t feel particularly comfortable or confident about a given corner.
What if they do fall?
You skate within your limits so you can ‘ensure’ that you get to the bottom of a run without falling. But accidents do happen.
To prevent injuries, riders have high-quality protective longboard gear to keep them safe. They have things like certified helmets, back protectors, hip protectors, knee pads, slide gloves, etc. This equipment typically keeps them safe from serious injuries. So if a rider has the right gear on, they can fall without getting injured and just get back up and keep skating.
However, what happens if there is a car in the opposite lane? Using the above methods of skating safe, riders increase their chances of not getting hit by a car when they do fall.
For eg. by skating during off-peak traffic times, chances are you won’t hit/be hit by a car even if you fall into the opposite lane. By also listening to your lead car, you can choose to play it safe when cars are coming up in the other lane. Finally, by keeping spotters on dangerous corners, you can play it safe by sliding well early for a corner if there are cars, or foot braking to slow down safer. That is if you do fall at all.
Once they get good enough, skaters rarely fall. Some riders can count the number of times they’ve fallen over last few months, on one hand. It’s just not something they worry about anymore, especially if they’re basically skating the same hill over and over. You only start falling again when you’re trying a new style of skating, trying a different way to skate a corner, or are pushing your limits.
But that said, accidents do happen. Some riders have fallen under trucks and broken all-sorts of bones. It would be unrealistic to say that our sport is 100% safe.
A good health insurance cover is usually a good idea to have.
What riders can’t control
Realistically, there are some things you can’t control – aka other drivers’ behavior on the road. You might do everything right, but some idiot might just decide to swerve into your lane (because of cyclists, potholes, drugs idk).
Other things include weather, accidents on the road, animals etc. But these things rarely happen.
So a skater must always be on their toes when going down a hill.
What do you think? Is DH skating safe?
So whilst we do, do a lot to stay safe, our sport still has a high-risk factor. The reality is, a skater might one day go out for a skate and never come back home. I don’t want to sit here and lie that there isn’t a chance that might happen. But that said they’re more likely to walk away with a broken bone, road rash, a bum knee etc., than to ever leave the skate spot in a casket. Especially if they follow the above safety precautions.
Downhill skating isn’t 100% safe, but it is safe enough that skaters can do it over and over again without worry of serious injures or death.
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