Tips for Surviving and Thriving in Downhill Longboarding

Downhill longboarding

From the outside looking in, downhill longboarders seem insane. The average person thinks they all have a death wish, but the truth is more innocuous. Downhill riders are thrill seekers, true, but they seek those thrills with an excellent understanding of the requirements of going fast on a board. Here, we will provide you with downhill longboarding tips that you need to know to make your venture into hill bombing fun, exciting and injury-free. Take your time and always enjoy the ride!

Part One: Select the right equipment

The first step in learning to bomb hills is to acquire a longboard that can handle the demands you are about to place on it. Downhill riders use longboards that are specifically designed to remain stable at high speeds. There are many other types of longboards, including cruisers and freeride boards, but not all of them can handle the rigors of downhill riding. Let’s look at each component you’ll need and see how they can affect your riding.

Get the right deck

Longboard decks come in all shapes and sizes, but only a few are really able to handle downhill. Look for a board with a long wheel base – 25 inches or longer, but not more than 32 inches. Shorter wheelbases tend to produce twitchy turns that are unstable at higher speeds. Also look for a stiff board, which makes it easier to track into a turn with stability.

Be picky when it comes to concave and directionality. Unless you need your deck to double as a freeride setup, avoid drop-through and drop-deck styles. A directional top-mount board will lessen your need for adjustments to equipment and riding style, and a mild but noticeable concave will help keep your feet locked in place as you slide to check your speed. Also look for wheel wells or cutouts, which are sections that manufacturers grind out of the deck above the wheels to prevent rubbing during turns – called wheel bite.

Invest in quality trucks, wheels and bearings

Much has been written on this subject, but there is truthfully no best set of bearings for downhill. The important thing is to invest in a high quality set of bearings that are designed for high-speed riding. Ceramic bearings may be quiet and smooth, but they may not have the durability required for downhill. Steel bearings are more durable in general. And don’t get obsessed with ABEC ratings. These numbers are not official, so manufacturers can put whatever number they wish on their bearings.

The same holds true for trucks and wheels. There are definitely trucks that you should avoid in downhill riding. Skateboarding trucks are excellent for what they do, but they’re not stable enough for downhill. The small and hard skateboarding wheels are likewise unsuitable for high-speed riding. Stick to equipment (like reverse-kingpin trucks and tall, sharp-lipped wheels) that is designed to handle the tremendous speeds that downhill riders achieve. Check out our article on downhill trucks, wheels and bearings for more on these critical components.

Part 2: Staying safe

Having the right longboard setup is critical, but we must all accept that riding a longboard will entail falling. There’s a saying in skateboarding: If you’re not falling, you’re not learning. The same applies to downhill longboarding. Accepting the inevitability of falls doesn’t mean resigning yourself to getting hurt, though. The following gear will help you get back up and back on the board again.

Wear a helmet

Head injuries can be devastating at pretty much any speed. As hard as your skull may be, it is not harder than concrete. The faster you are going when you hit the pavement, the harder it will be to avoid hitting your head and the more damage you can do to it. So it is not only wise to protect your brain case, it is imperative. You will never see an experienced downhill longboarder riding without a skid lid.

Importantly, choose your helmet wisely. Recent studies show that helmets utilizing multi-directional impact protections systems (MIPS) provide the best protection. Avoid “skateboarding” helmets, which are designed for repeated, low-speed impacts but provide little protection at higher speeds. Single-use helmets use crushable EPS foam to slow the skull during an impact, but once the foam deforms the helmet must be replaced. It can get costly, but how much is your life worth to you? Look for CPSC (U.S.) and EN 1078 (Europe) certifications.

If you are still not sure whether you need a helmet, check out the video below. Keep in mind that speeds when going downhill are even higher so the impact might be even bigger. This guy was smart and lucky for wearing a helmet which saved his head and maybe his life:

 

Wear slide gloves

Unlike helmets, a good pair of slide gloves doesn’t only protect you in the event of a crash. To be sure, leather gloves will keep the flesh on your palms if you find yourself sliding down the pavement, but downhill gloves have uses besides protection. Properly outfitted, downhill gloves can also help you take turns faster and can keep you from crashing in the first place.

The way downhill gloves do this is with the use of urethane pucks placed strategically on the palm and/or fingers. Downhill riders may not use their gloves to the extent that freeriders do, but they definitely come in handy. Slide gloves enable riders to use the Coleman slide to stop in an emergency, and to lean further into a hairpin turn than would otherwise be possible. Check out this YouTube video for a quick slide glove tutorial:

Wear skate shoes

Sandals and flip flops may be fine for cruising the boardwalk or sea wall by the beach, but only a fool would wear such things when riding downhill. There are not really any shoes specifically designed for downhill, but most skateboard shoes will work just fine. These shoes have soles designed to stick to griptape while still allowing freedom of movement. They are also normally durable, being fortified in all the places that skaters and longboarders typically wear out.

Part 3: Learn the techniques

So you’ve got the right board and the right safety gear, and now you’re ready to hit the blacktop. Before you just head for the steepest, gnarliest hill around, spend some time honing your skills. Start small, and build the following skills slowly and steadily. With a little dedication, it won’t be long before you are ready for the biggest hills in your area.

I know I know I know, you want to bomb the hills and you want to do it now. But before you do, you must master the basics. If you are just starting out with longboarding, take some time to practice riding the longboard. And once you feel confident, go for the hills.

And the reason why you should pay attention and take your time with the basics is simple. Higher speeds mean higher risk. And you want to enjoy the learning process of downhill longboarding. To do that, you need to be confident riding on flat ground before taking on all the hills of the world.

Learn to turn

Anyone who wants to attack a serious hill should first acquire the ability to control their direction on a longboard. No one is born with the ability to balance and steer a board. These are skills that must be built – one brick at a time – on a solid foundation of experience. Start slow and gradually learn to go faster on your board.

Also remember that any equipment change can dramatically alter how your board responds to your inputs. The same lean angle can produce sharper or looser turns on different trucks. Even a slight kingpin nut adjustment can have a tremendous effect on turning response. Wheel changes can also affect performance. Take the time to break in new equipment before you take it downhill.

Learn to footbrake with your longboard

You always see all of these pro longboarders sliding and performing speed checks when trying to kill speed. But that’s not the only way to slow down. There is another one and it’s called a ‘footbreak’. It might not be as cool looking as sliding but it’s not less effective. It is even used by some pro’s in downhill races:

The thing is that it takes time to learn how to slide. And you will want to go out there and start going downhill. Here’s when footbraking comes in to play. You can use footbrake as your main way of killing speed but you have to practice it too. Footbraking on the flat ground is quite easy but you will need to adjust your balance to learn how to footbrake at higher speeds. It’s nothing too difficult, just takes some practice.

There are some situations and at some speeds sliding is more efficient than footbraking. But before you build your skills and reach that speed, footbraking is an awesome technique to use for a beginner downhill longboarder. Check out the video below to see footbraking in action when going downhill:

 

Learn to tuck

Our bodies are not aerodynamic. At slow cruising speeds, that fact does not really matter all that much. It is only when we are trying to eke out every bit of speed we can get out of our boards that it becomes important to reduce drag. To achieve a more streamlined shape, downhill riders crouch down. We call this the tuck.

To get into a proper tuck, turn both your feet in line with your direction of travel. Your front foot can remain flat on the board, just behind or directly above the front truck. You will need to get up on the balls of your back foot, however, to remain agile. If you wish to slow down, all you need to do is stand up out of your tuck.

Learn to pre-drift

Sliding is all fun and games for freeride longboarders, but in downhill it has a very specific purpose. If all hills were straight, sliding would not be necessary. But when you’re approaching a curve at Mach 2, you will inevitably need to scrub some of that speed. We call this pre-drifting, and it is the absolute most critical skill a downhill rider needs to stay safe.

Always pre-drift in the same direction as the approaching curve. For regular-footed riders, that means sliding toeside for right-hand turns and heelside for left handers. Otherwise you may throw yourself off balance and incur the dreaded speed wobbles. Again, learn these slides at slower speeds on modest hills before you call on them on more advanced roads.

Start at the slow speed

Let’s talk speed. Before you go down the steepest and longest hill there is, learn to go down a smaller hill at a lower speed. Sure, it’s fun to go at blazing high speeds but it all comes gradually. You start slow and low and then go up in both speed and hills as you develop your skills. And trust me, you can learn and practice all of the above techniques at lower speed too. And that’s the way you should do it.

Hit the Apex

To maintain maximum speed through a curve and exit with the most possible speed, it is necessary to hit the appropriate place in the turn. You will need to swing out wide just a bit in the middle of the curve, but not so wide that you move into the oncoming lane. We do this the same way that a motorcycle racer does on a race track.

First, find the straightest line you can through the curve. Take an inside track as you enter the turn, then allow your board to drift toward the outside as you travel through the curve. Try to exit on as straight a line as possible, which will necessitate straightening your line before the curve straightens out.

Part 4: Survival

Falling is a necessary evil in any form of skating, but is always one that is best avoided. The following suggestions were borne out of painful experience. Keep each one in mind as you learn the artform of downhill, and live to see the next road.

Find the perfect hill

Road for downhill longboardingOne person’s idea of perfection may be the next person’s death trap. The height of the hill is important, but the steepness of the grade is critical. Start out on mellow hills and work on your skills gradually. Don’t feel like there is something to prove or gain by taking on a hill that is beyond your current skill set. That mountain road will still be there when your skills improve.

 

Scout the hill

When you find a hill that looks suitable, take a trip all the way to the bottom in a car before you take it on with your board. Look for imperfections in the surface that might cause you problems on your way down. Make mental note of the locations of every curve. Visualize yourself entering and exiting the turns, so that you already know what to expect when you’re riding.

Respect your limitations

Riding is all about progressing. It is a constant journey of self-discovery and improvement. The problem for downhill riders is in finding our limitations without exceeding them. The way to do that is to start on mellow hills and to scrub more speed than seems necessary. Build on exit speeds gradually, and ditto for drifting. Never get yourself in a situation where you need to perform a maneuver you’ve never done before or risk serious injury. Downhill riders only appear to be riding on the edge of death. Most of them are riding well within their skillset.

Beware traffic

People do suffer serious injuries (or worse) on longboards, but typically they are the result of impact with a vehicle. Helmet use will prevent most serious head injuries, but avoiding cars is of paramount importance. To stay safe on open roads, stay in your lane just as you would if you were riding a motorcycle. Watch Zak Maytum conquer this mountain road at 70 mph. He approaches the center line, but he never crosses it. He also follows every other suggestion on this list, so this is a good video to study before attempting downhill riding in general.

Consider a spotter

Before going down the hill, consider having a friend or a fellow rider to spot you. Spotting means that you will have someone signaling you if the road is clear or if there is traffic or other obstacles on the road. This really helps in a situation when you cannot see the whole road.

If you are going to have someone spotting, make sure that the spotter stands in a place where you can see him and he can see far enough down the road or around the corner.

Also agree on signs how the spotter will tell you if the road is clear or if you should stop your board. I prefer using hand signals for this as sometimes you cannot clearly hear when someone is shouting or what they are actually shouting.

Conclusion

Longboarding is an adventure, no matter what level you decide to take it to. However, there is no level more extreme than downhill. The danger and the excitement go hand in hand, though there are many steps you can take to reduce the chance of injury. As long as you take it slow, equip yourself properly and select your terrain wisely, there really isn’t that much that can go wrong. The greatest excitement comes from nudging our limitations and finding out that we are more capable than we thought. That is about as good as it gets in any endeavor.

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