What is XC and vol-biv flying? Tandem vol biv?


What Is XC Flying?

Cross-country (XC) flying is a form of long distance paragliding, in which we are using thermals to climb upwards in the sky to get as much altitude as possible, and then setting off and gliding in the desired direction you want to go until you can find another thermal climb to continue the whole process again. Flights of 100-300 kilometers (60-180 miles) are not uncommon in some areas, and pilots can stay in the air up to 7-8 hours or more!

We use specialized paragliders and aerodynamic harnesses while XC flying to help facilitate covering long distances, by gliding quite quickly (about 25-30 mph) and at a relative glide ratio of about 10 to 1. We normally take off from a high location in the hills or mountains after the sun has heated the air enough to get it to start rising, and then use these rising thermals to gain our altitude. As the day heats up, the thermals get stronger and cloud base raises up. Our best days is when we have strong thermals but light winds. Since our gliders do not have a very high trim speed, we are at the mercy of the wind if it picks up.

Once you comfortable flying long XC routes, some pilots choose to kick it up another notch and start to take up the new and exciting sport of vol biv.


What Is Vol Biv?

Vol-biv paragliding is basically a combination of XC flying and backpacking/camping. The term vol-biv is french for ‘flight camping’, and it’s pretty much just that simple. You fly with all of your bivouac (camping) gear stowed away in your harness while flying XC, and try to fly as far as you can during the day’s flight. Then if possible towards then end of the day you try and top land for the night on a high peak, or continue down in the valley to cover more distance by hiking. Either way, you make your way to a peak top by the next morning, and the whole process starts over. With today’s lightweight high performance gear and top level pilots who are willing to push the extremes, this sport is currently catching on and evolving rapidly. The sport is quite new and only just now are many of the big vol-biv routes being pioneered. A big vol-biv route is usually between 300-1,000 km’s long and all the distance has to be covered by flying or hiking.


This drawing explains how the process works-



What Do You Take On A Vol Biv Trip?

Here is my vol biv kit, all packed up and ready to roll:


The gear weighs a total of 37.5 pounds (17kg) for everything you see here (including a full fuel canister). Add on top of this food and water, and that’s everything.



Items (clockwise from top right):


Glider: Ozone LM5 EN-D lightweight cross-country paraglider- Light and fast, and packs down very small. I am very happy with how this glider behaves, and it is the perfect blend of performance and safety for adventures like this. Thanks you Ozone!

Harness: Ozone Ozium lightweight pod harness- Very light and compact, while still retaining plenty of storage room for all the goodies. This sleek and elegant harness is at the cutting edge of the new breed of lighter pod harnesses, I’m very happy with it.

Reserve: High Adventure Beamer 3 Lite- Absolutely the best balance of sink rate, pack volume, weight, security, and maneuverability. Every mountain pilot should have this reserve, I am very glad to have it on these big vol biv adventures. Thank you High Adventure!

Pack: Ozone’s X-Alps lightweight pack- Nice and trim. Much lighter than the normal series of packs from Ozone.

Clothing: All of my clothing for this adventure is from Patagonia, as they produce the finest outdoor apparel in my opinion. For this trip I have chosen the Dragonfly jacket, a Fitz Roy down jacket, a R1 hoody, a wool/synthetic blend t-shirt, a collar t-shirt, zip-off pants, and three pairs of socks.

Shoes: Trail running shoes- very light, yet supportive.

Trekking Poles: Black Diamond Ultra Distance carbon fiber three-piece trekking poles. Best poles around, hands down.

Tent: Big Agnes Fly Creek Ultra Lite- Very light and compact, perfect for fitting int he harness while flying but being ten times more comfortable than a bivy sack.

Sleeping Pad: Thermarest NeoLite- Super small and lightweight, but still quite thick. Be careful with it, as it will pop on anything sharp! I take a tiny repair kit with me.

Sleeping bag: North Face ultralight down sleeping bag- I think it is a 20 degree F.

Helmet: Black Diamond climbing helmet.

Sun Hat: Patagonia’s Booney hat, very nice on hot days.

Water Storage: I have a 10 liter MSR bladder, as well as two 1 liter Platapus flexible water bottles.

Solar Panel: Goal Zero 7 with additional battery and cord.

Camera: GoPro Hero3+ with cord and 64gb card.

Headlamp: BD headlamp, light and bright.

Emergency Beacon/GPS Messenger: Delorme InReach SE- awesome. Able to send and receive texts and emails from anywhere, as well as other functions. It has bluetooth interface with the Iphone, complete with a do-everything app.

Vario: Sonic vario from FlyTec

Phone: Iphone 5s with cord and headphones

Stove kit: MSR butane stove, MSR non-stick pot and lit, pot gripper, fuel can, coffee filter, spoon, wind screen, stuff sack, food bag, coffee cup.

Toiletries: Toothbrush and paste, Dr Brommers soap, sunscreen, lip balm, toilet paper, deodorant, ibuprofen.

Other items: money, ID, credit card, sunglasses, knife, 2 lighters, gloves.


I would like to thank Ozone Paragliders, High Adventure, Patagonia, and Black Diamond for their support. Having the best gear out there makes a difference!

The next two posts are from an excerpt from Paraglidingforum.com:

How to go from an XC pilot to a vol biv adventurer-

First step is to very comfortable with XC and mountain flying before moving on to vol biv. It might just seem like you’re tossing in some extra camping gear while going flying, but in all actuality it’s much more complicated than that. If you are not comfortable in turbulence, landing out, XC, lightweight camping, and being self-sufficient, best to start there without combining all at once. But if you’re ready…

Finding info on vol biv is actually kind of difficult, you have to look around and do some investigating. Once you get a plan and equipment sorted, best bet is to start small. Fly your local mountain areas (hopefully you have these) and land somewhere other than your LZ and camp out. Hike up the next day and try and fly back. I have found one to two night out-and-backs to be some of the best ways to test your systems. These do not need to be big outings, take Switzerland for example- Launch at Fiesch and fly west to Crans Montana. Land there, camp out, hike higher in the morning, and fly back to Fiesch. Bam, nice and easy. There are tens, if not hundreds, of these little routes that can be done without crossing high passes or convergence zones.

Another logical step would be to start going bigger once you get dialed in. Maybe something like a three to five day route, Like from Watles to Bruneck or Sand in Taufers to Slovenia or St Andre to Chamonix. All are great fun and have some passes to negotiate as well.

Then if five day trips are ok with you, might as well try and cross something larger. Taking half of the Alps is roughly 600km’s and might take about 8-16 days depending on speed and ability. And the whole pop is about 1,200 km’s, from Nice to Triglav.



How to ‘see’ valley winds while vol biv flying in new locations-

Valley winds seem to be my nemesis while flying vol biv and are not to be taken lightly. These are my highest concern while flying in new areas, and no matter how comfortable I feel in turbulence, tight landings, cliff launches, and new areas, strong valley winds have caused most of my scary moments. No matter how good the pilot, landing in 30-50 km/hr gusts is never fun.

Here are a few things that work for me.

First, I try and always have a good idea of the topography that I will be traveling through and study it well. Try to find out which in direction the valley wind is ‘normal’ direction. This is generally an up-valley flow as a general rule, and many valley winds will typically head up towards the passes. This is not always true, but is a good place to start.

Once I have an idea of what’s normal flow for the area, you have to cross reference that with the forecast and what impacts of speed and direction will be had by the upcoming weather patterns. Foehn winds are a great example of this, where different pressure gradients will cause abnormal flows, which are exacerbated by venturis and valley convergences. Read: very dangerous conditions can be found down in the valleys at times, even when there is not much wind up high during the flight. One of my worst Alps moments was when I was in very light wind up high while flying XC from Visp to Chur. As I descended from cloudbase to land in Chur, the valley wind converged and compressed, and I got pounded by turbulence. My big indicator for that day was not a strong wind forecasted, but a mild pressure difference that was compounded by two valleys converging through a tight zone and having to speed up to do so.

So there is no way to say how to forecast what the wind is doing in real time, but I have a method that kind of works for me personally. I imagine that me and my surroundings are in some kind of experiment, and somehow all of the air around me has been injected with smoke streams, almost like in a car wind tunnel test. I imaging thousands of little smoke signals around me, and try to imaging how and why they would mix as they do, and what that would mean for me and my paraglider. Obviously the air has to speed up to make it through passes and venturis, but what about everything else? How is that hill going to affect that potential landing field? What about top landing on this bald peak vs. the forested one? Will that high glacial valley be dumping its cold air as I fly past it? Will the GrimselSnake bite me if I pass it too low? Well, these are all very serious questions and if you can’t fully understand them, then take it mellow and learn slowly and safely. The way I imagine the air will probably seem weird to most who read this, but it works for me.

Honestly, I have not found any fool proof way to guard against strong valley winds, other than not flying on days where there might even be a small chance of them. But on a vol biv trip, you sometimes find yourself flying in potentially sketchy conditions, so be careful. If there is one thing that I can definitively recommend, that would be to be very comfortable in SIV and glider recovery/control, as trying to fly in only mellow conditions will only work most of the time. Take an SIV course, learn your glider, and try to build your SIV skills up before risking it all on a rough day over unfamiliar terrain, in an over loaded xc glider to boot!

Of course you can always try to follow rules like you pointed out, such as ‘don’t land mid day in a narrow valley’. But this won’t always happen. Fly enough days, and guaranteed you WILL land in a tight valley mid day. Its ok to hope for the best generally, but one must always be prepared (skills) for the worst as well. If landing mid day in a tight valley is a concern to you and you are capable of handling it, ok thats one thing. But if you are in fact scared to have to land the glider in said tight windy valley, then maybe you shouldnt be there in the first place. I feel like vol biv needs extra respect, because it is taking an already committing form of XC flying and throwing in even more variables. Be careful out there, and progress only at the pace which is safe for you and your skill set.



Tandem Vol Biv

Recently, a pilot on the Paragliding Forum asked about tandem vol biv, and the logical progression into this even more complex form of vol biv flying. Here was my response-

Hi David.

Just like Stan said, I too think it’s great that you are trying to take a slow, informed approach to tandem vol biv. But there are many variables in the process.

Do you already fly big XC? Solo vol biv? Moderate tandem XC? Best to be up to par on all three before lumping them together. There is a much higher level of responsibility when taking on a passenger while flying tandem, and going vol biv even multiplies that. Vol biv in the mountains is already a big chunk to bite off, and taking some one along for the tande ‘ride’ can be a great experience or it could be a bad idea- depends on where you are coming from and what you want to do with it.


I have been flying for almost 10 years now. However, I only started with tandems a few years ago. My hours on tandems are pretty low still and i have probably only flow with a total of 10 different passengers. Overall, i would class myself as still very much a ‘beginner’ tandem pilot. As such, i like to take conservative approach at all times on the tandem. For example, when traveling thought the US 2 years ago, i flew the solo during the day, then landed, took a break and flew the tandem towards the end of the thermic period and into glass off period.


I would get your tandem hours up first, then try for tandem vol biv.

Or do more ‘hike-and-flys’ tandem with a bivy kit- the main difference being that you are not looking to thermal or XC on these flights (and assume those extra hazards), rather just make a few days of top to bottoms with the bivy kit in tow. After this, you will have a better taste of what normal tandem vol biv might be like, and have your foot in the door for further development.


My wife and i would like to start flying on the tandem a little more and would like to kick off with a trip somewhere that is suitable to doing a few small bivouac in moderate, but consistent conditions.Ideally it would be somewhere that has a nice ‘base location’, but allows for many variations on 2 – 4 day trips in the 50km – 300km range. This would allow a small bivouac, followed by a small break, then repeat a few times. Otherwise, a start and destination not too far apart, say 500km but with a few places along the way to break up the trip / ensure the trip is an easy start to bivouac.


Once you’re ready to roll, there are many great locations to start off from. Some mentioned maybe Annecy to St Hillare, or heading towards Chamonix would be a nice option as well. One of my favorite sections of the Alps is from around Crans Montana or Fiesch, heading east through the Rhone and Rhine valleys, and making it to Chur. Amazing. But all of these are still fairly big and committing, best to start even smaller.

Some smaller ideas might be the Slovenia option- Launch above Tolmin at the Kobala launch, and fly west towards Stol. Either top land there, or down below, and fly back east to Kobala the next day. And of course you could extend the flight as far west as Italy before turning back, or as far east as Sorica- but both of these increase the value of the adventure and have less landing options.

And just so you know, as you stated above, 500 km vol biv is not such a small or easy way to get into tandem vol biv. 500 km vol biv routes are BIG! That distance on a fairly straight course line is almost half of the entire Alps, and will involve many hazards such as valley winds, high passes, possible bad weather, possible strong pressure gradients, tight valleys, venturis, etc. So maybe set the bar a little lower at first, and then build up to going bigger and bigger? Just my opinion.

Last summer I took my girlfriend (rated PG pilot) across the Alps in the tandem. We started in Slovenia, and finished in Nice. It was not easy (!) and was much more difficult than my previous two solo Alps crossings. For many reasons:

*In 2013 I used a comp wing to cross the Alps, and earlier in 2014 I used my LM5 solo glider for another crossing. Both wings had great performance, much more than my tandem (which is a great tandem). For a huge crossing like the Alps, its apples vs oranges when it comes to high performance solo gliders against tandems. Do not expect such huge flights when you switch from your solo glider to the tandem.

*I was responsible for the safety of two people, not just myself. Everything becomes more important to execute perfectly and safely, as the passenger has little to no control over whats going on with the toggles. Be aware.

*Both the kit and logistics are more complicated than solo wing vol biv. You have twice as much going on with tandem, and everything takes a little longer.

*The wing requires longer take offs and slightly larger LZ’s than a solo wing.

*The tandem wing is slower, so you can get pinned back in valleys, sink on transitions, and head wind is a pain in the ass. This is mostly just annoying, but sometimes a lack of speed can be dangerous in the deep mountains. Above a forest, facing a headwind, trimmers out in turbulence, and responsible for two is not where you want to be when the conditions pick up. And if so, you better have the skills to get out of these situations unscathed.

I’m not actually sure how many pilots go tandem vol biv. I know of John Sylvester who has pushed hard in the Himalaya on the tandem, and as well as Francois Le Hen and Aureliane who have crossed the Alps as well. Hats off to these two crews, as adventures like these are not easy and I know that.

Safe flights David, wishing you the best. See you in the air.