How to choose a reserve parachute for paragliding

Tom de Dorlodot is well known as a professional adventure pilot and Red Bull X-Alps athlete. He’s flown everywhere from the beaches of France to the Karakoram in Pakistan. “Which reserve you fly with should depend on what you’re doing,” he says. “Where possible, I try to be as light as possible and take the lightest possible round parachute – around a kilo. When I’m doing hike-and-fly or bivvy flying, I usually know the area and I’m flying over landable terrain, so a round is fine. This will also be the case for most pilots in the Red Bull X-Alps when weight is a major consideration.”

In recent years square parachutes, not round, have come into vogue. Randi Eriksen has seen the development of these up close, as a member of the Air Turquoise test house; where equipment goes to get its EN certification. “Certainly everyone is now speaking about square reserves,” she says. “The sink rate and opening time is roughly the same as a round canopy, but they are super stable, which is a big advantage.”

Chris White is an instructor, guide and SIV expert. He works with SIV guru Jocky Sanderson and has helped hundreds of pilots successfully get through their SIV courses. “I suspect square reserves are more stable because they develop drive,” he says.

“They actually track across the ground – although not necessarily forwards. It could be backwards or sideways. Nevertheless, they are less likely to oscillate and aren’t much more complicated to repack.”


Reserves fall into a few categories:

Round Pulled-Down Apex (PDA) parachute

Round Pulled-Down Apex (PDA) parachute

Round Pulled-Down Apex (PDA) parachutes are the type most pilots will recognise. They descend vertically – although they will drift with the wind. They are the simplest, and cheapest, systems.

Square reserve

Square reserves (also called cruciform) deploy and descend like a round – although they do tend to track. They offer greater stability for a slightly higher price tag.

Hybrid square-round reserve

Hybrid square-round reserve

Hybrid square/round reserves marry elements of both round and square reserves. Some are steerable.

Rogallo-style reserve

Rogallo-style reserves are steerable. They are more complicated to pack and require a greater level of skill but, within reason, you can spot-land. They are pricier still.

Base systems can cut away the glider, leaving you with a fully-functioning, steerable ram-air parachute. On the downside, they are bulky, expensive and best left to those who really know how to use them – pro acro pilots or those with skydiving experience.

Should you get a steerable reserve?

Steerable reserves give you some autonomy over where you land, but you must know how to use them – and be prepared for a few surprises.

Tom: “If I’m flying in more remote, more technical areas, like Pakistan, then I fly with a steerable Beamer 3 Rogallo-type parachute. It’s 500g more, but you can steer it and that’s very important in areas like that. You can land them anywhere. I opened one in Organya and managed to land it on the take-off.

“But it’s worth remembering that these steerable parachutes quite often open with a twist. It’s not too big a problem. If it opens twisted, it will start off going down straight, so you just have to get the twist out and find the handles and you can fly it.

“There are also the Base system parachutes, and they are by far the best. But at the moment, they’re too heavy. That will change, though.”

Randi agrees that steerables are more complicated for the pilot. “They do quite often open twisted. The Rogallo system, for example, mostly opens into wind and so you may have to react quickly to correct its direction. This is fine for more experienced pilots, but less so for beginners, especially when you have to deal with the paraglider as well.”

Chris: “The main thing is that to use a steerable successfully, it makes sense to have some form of cutaway system. But that adds more potential problems. They’re more suitable perhaps if you’re likely to deploy your reserve at a higher altitude. But in my experience, people don’t.

“If you’re high, then people seem to use that height to try and recover their main. This means that most deployments happen relatively low. And if you’re using a steerable it can take some time to gather in the glider and get to the control handles to make the steerable actually steerable.

“There are advantages and disadvantages to all of the systems and in the right situation any one of them could have an advantage over another. Unless you have an idea what sort of incident you’re going to have, it’s very difficult to know which will be best.”

What does he use himself? “I changed my parachute last year and did quite a lot of research. In the end, I bought a very simple, straightforward, foolproof, lightweight, pulled-down apex. That was the best compromise.”

Mounting it – and being prepared to use it

You also need to choose whether you want your reserve out of the way in your harness, or in your lap, using a front-mounted system.

Tom: “When people start paragliding, I often advise them to fly with a front-mounted reserve. It’s easy to find as the handle is right in front of you. You can also deploy it with either hand.

“When I was 16 or 17, I was practising full stalls and I didn’t really know what I was doing. Anyway, it went very wrong and I had five twists and I was going down really fast. Trouble was, I never thought about the rescue. I was just trying to recover.

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“But then, just at the very last moment, I saw the reserve handle there, right under my nose and I threw it. Having that front-mounted reserve probably saved me from a very bad accident.

Chris: “I think it’s also a good policy to get a matching system, so that if you have a Gin harness, you also get a Gin reserve. Otherwise, it’s a bit like putting a Volkswagen engine in your Ford.

Tom: “Whatever type of parachute you fly with, test it. Go on an SIV course and ask to deploy it. Many people consider their reserve to be the Plan B, but they don’t know what it does and how it behaves.”

Chris: “Should you throw it on an SIV? I firmly believe that if you’ve already thrown it in a controlled environment, you’re more likely to throw it when you need it.” So that’s a yes.

Finally, consider the colour – if you want to be found after landing in a tree, ensure that you don’t have a green one. Yes, some manufacturers still use green fabric.

Testing a reserve

Reserve development can include testing from a plane with a dead-weight. Photo: Sky Paragliders


Any reserve parachute you buy should be EN certified. But how does a rescue make the grade? Randi Eriksen from test-house Air Turquoise explains.

“There are two kinds of test for the EN (European Norm) standard. We test in-flight and we perform a structural, strength test. In the flight test, we measure three things: opening time, the reserve’s stability and its descent rate.

“We do this by flying over the lake and deploying the parachute. Obviously this involves going in the lake a lot. Last year, we collectively ended up in the lake 80 times. We test them without a paraglider, so as soon as the reserve is deployed, we release the paraglider.

“The first thing we check is the reserve’s opening time. To do this, we attach a piece of whittling, which is set to snap at 20 decanewtons. We monitor the deployment with a camcorder and when the whittling breaks, we know the reserve is fully deployed.

“Releasing the paraglider also starts a pendulum effect. If the parachute is suitably stable, this effect should reduce over time. If the pilot feels like it doesn’t, it fails.

“We also have a ball hanging 30 metres below us. The time it takes between the ball hitting the lake and the pilots hitting the lake allows us to measure the descent rate.

“To get EN certification, the opening time should be under five seconds, the oscillations should reduce, and the descent rate should be under 5.5 m/s – steerables must come down no faster than 4m/s, largely because they also have forward speed. But these standards will soon change, meaning that to pass, reserves will have to open within four seconds.

“It’s worth remembering that 5.5m/s is still quite fast. Reserves are meant to save your life, not necessarily to prevent you from breaking an ankle. If the parachute is oscillating, you will also have a faster descent rate. We get the odd minor injury even landing in the lake.

“When a reserve is EN certified, it should be marked – usually on the risers. Be aware, though, that reserves can also be certified according to the [different] LTF standard, which allows for far faster descent rates – up to 6.8 m/s. They don’t test for stability either. Almost all reserve manufacturers will now go for the EN standard, but if you get an older, secondhand reserve, this might be a problem.”

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How to throw: Deploying a reserve parachute

If you have to throw your reserve parachute while flying then you want things to go without a hitch. Matt Warren asked some expert pilots for their advice on reserve deployment when paragliding, paramotoring and hang gliding

“First, you must be prepared to throw it – and early,” says Tom de Dorlodot, a Red Bull X-Alps veteran and professional pilot. “Many people leave it too late and break their back. In fact, when all goes to shit, it should be your first option.”

He adds: “If you’ve already tried it out on an SIV, you’ll understand how it works and be more prepared for that. Of course, sometimes, you’ll be in a right mess, throw your reserve, and all the twists in your glider will come out. That’s annoying, but at least you’ll be safe.”

You also need to think about how you’ll throw it – and this can start on the ground, not just in your pre-flight checks, but in understanding and being familiar with your harness.

“First, you need to know exactly where your handle is. Check it’s in place, on the right side for you – perhaps you’re using someone else’s harness, or it’s just been repacked and the handle’s been put on the wrong side – and that the pins are in: the handle can often drop out on the way to take-off. In the air, practise reaching for it. Know how to find the handle without thinking about it.

“How you throw it is also very important. You have to pop the pins, pull the reserve out strongly, look at what the glider is doing and then throw it hard away from your wing. If you’re in an auto-rotation, for example, don’t throw it in front of the glider or your reserve will get caught in the lines. You need to throw it behind the glider.

“And remember it’s not just a case of throwing your reserve and that’s it. You also need to get your paraglider in so it doesn’t fight against your rescue. Generally, I take one of the brakes, wrap the line around my hand and pull it all the way in until I can grab the wing tip. I then bunch the glider up between my legs. This also helps when you land.

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“I was flying acro once when it all went wrong and I threw my round reserve. I came down really fast into a huge cattle trough, but the paraglider, which was stuffed between my legs, acted like another airbag.”


A round parachute, the Donut by AirDesign. Photo: AirDesign

Randi Eriksen has advice on what to do if you do end up in a horrible mess. “It depends on the circumstances. Certainly don’t take too long trying to fix the problem – depending on your height, of course – before throwing your rescue. In terms of getting the paraglider in after deployment, we have tried different methods. Certainly the longer you wait after deployment, the harder it is to get the glider in, so grab in as much of your glider as possible as soon as possible after throwing your reserve.

“What you grab depends on what you can reach. We have tried being asymmetrical and pulling in one wing tip, which worked really well one time, but was a catastrophe the next.

“We then tried only the brake lines, pulled in symmetrically. This also worked one time and was very messy the next. It really does depend on what is happening.

“Whatever you do, though, try and bring the paraglider into you as tightly as possible. Paragliders can really interfere with your reserve if you leave them flying.”

Chris White: “When deploying a reserve, the key thing to remember is that the parachute comes out of the harness in the opposite way to which it went in.

“In other words, if the reserve sits sideways on a shelf beneath the seat, then you must pull it out sideways. In this situation, if you pop the pins and then pull it up towards your chin, as if you were doing a bicep curl, then you’re trying to pull it out at 90 degrees from the angle it went in.

“The other thing is to swing it – and then let it go. A lot of people forget that.”

Tom: “You should also always fly with a hook knife [within easy reach]. Not many people do, but it means you can cut a paraglider line if it’s interfering with your reserve, or even cut away your whole paraglider.

“Even if everything works perfectly, though, you’ll find that you come down faster than you think on a reserve – especially if you pick a really light one. You can really easily break your legs.

“The rescue is one protection, the back protection is another, but you should also be ready to do a good parachute landing fall (PLF) – that’s another protection. Always land on your legs and be prepared to roll. I’ve broken my back, and you really don’t want to do that.”

Tom adds that you also need to think about what happens after you land. “Perhaps you’re in a tree or you’ve broken a leg. How do people find you? You can’t always rely on your phone. And it’s often very dangerous to try and get out of the tree.

“The best option is to have a device that can share your location without a phone signal. A tracking device, something like an inReach from Garmin, is essential. I had an accident when I was flying around the Adriatic with Paul Guschlbauer. I’d landed badly in a tree, pushed the button and the helicopter was there in just 16 minutes.”

Deploying a reserve parachute

In this deliberate SIV deployment the pulled-down apex round reserve has deployed after four seconds. The main wing stops flying and the pilot starts to gather it in – this allows the parachute to do its job without the main wing interfering. There is some penduluming apparent as the pilot descends and splashes down. Photos: Andy Busslinger


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Cross Country’s paramotoring columnist Jeff Goin on reserves and powered paragliding

How does flying a paramotor affect your reserve choice?
Two things come to mind: first, being lightweight is more important since motors are already heavy and pilots launch more frequently in the calm of morning or evening with no downhill to help. Second, most motor pilots fly in benign conditions, where reserve deployment is less likely. Consequently, you most likely fly with a small, lightweight ‘meat-saver’ for preserving life not limb.

How to deploy it?
A motor pilot’s mantra for reserve deployment is ‘Kill, Look, Pull, Clear, Throw.’ The primary complication is keeping the reserve out of the prop, thus the ‘Kill’ part – hit the kill-switch and turn off the engine. ‘Clear’ is shorthand for spotting the clear air that assures the best deployment, that is outwards and away from any fouling risks, namely the paraglider and motor. Avoiding throttle entanglement is another concern if you have to use that hand.

How do you pick a reserve?
Descent rate. Opening speed is critical, too, but they seem to all advertise quick opening times. Steerables seem like a great idea for those who fly over inhospitable landing options, but they have tradeoffs. It’s a personal choice that depends mostly on your planned activities. I favour front mounts as they’re less likely to deploy accidentally – a weirdly common phenomenon on motors, especially on side mounts.

What do you fly with?
The easily-mounted, lightweight Way Richly 24. I’m scrawny but the descent rate with the motor will still be 6m/s – equivalent to jumping from two metres. I’d be lucky to avoid breaking something.

Have you ever thrown while paramotoring?
No, thankfully. But weather surprises us, wings surprise us, friends surprise us. There’s good reason to have a little reserve up your sleeve.


Video: C2Sky at a hang gliding reserve re-pack day

British team pilot Gordon Rigg explains reserve parachutes from a hang glider pilot’s point of view

“In hang gliding we might go our whole career without ever meeting anyone who has thrown their reserve. But that doesn’t make a reserve less important – if you do need one, there’s little chance that anything else is going to save you. The main risks are the sort of extreme turbulence that you might encounter very, very rarely, or a mid-air collision.

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“Hang gliding chutes are designed with a long bridle that should be long enough to clear the wingtip of the glider – so that means a longer bridle for a rigid wing compared to a standard flexwing one.

“Now, parachutes are generally mounted on the pilot’s side – it’s the pilot’s choice if it is on the left or the right. Some pilots, particularly those flying aerobatics or who want to be a bit heavier on their wing fly with one on each side.

“We have regular debates over chute size, mainly because we always carry it but seldom use it. Very small chutes were fashionable in the 1980s but that’s now regarded as a bad idea. Usually, we use similarly-sized chutes to paragliders, sized for the pilot’s weight. On flexwings, the glider weight is usually disregarded – but many rigid wing pilots choose a larger chute to include the glider weight. It’s the individual’s decision.

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“The most important thing for us is a quick deployment. If something goes badly wrong and the chute isn’t thrown straight away, there is a good chance the wreckage will start to spin violently. Then there can be so much G that a deployment could be very difficult or impossible. After deployment, that spin can still occur, or continue – but with reduced violence. For that reason, many pilots choose to have a swivel sewn into the bridle to try and prevent the lines winding up and gradually closing the chute.

“The chute is not normally rated for a full-speed deployment as that would add a lot of weight to its construction. What we have is something with a ‘good chance’ of structural integrity in a freefall situation, but we do wonder about full-speed deployment – with the glider already going 140km/h plus. Some pilots have a Z sewn-section in the bridle designed to minimise the deployment shock, known as a screamer.

“I deployed my chute once. There was a dust devil and at 180m the glider suddenly stood up vertical, tail slid and tumbled. I threw the chute well, it opened in a few seconds and I landed gently. The glider was only slightly bent, but my harness was significantly damaged.

“In fact, I was able to launch again half an hour later on a different glider and harness and flew to goal – I didn’t even slip one place in the competition ranking!”

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How to pack a reserve parachute?

Gin Yeti UL Reserve Parachute

The reserve parachute is a piece of paragliding equipment that can be easy to forget about. While it’s definitely a major piece of your gear, your reserve parachute is gathering dust and doesn’t like humidity, or long extended periods without repack.

It’s very important to take it out regularly for a repack to make sure it works. In fact, as a reference, the FAA requires that a reserve parachute be inspected and repacked every 180 days, or every 6 months, to ensure that it meets all safety regulations. It also ensures a faster smoother opening when you need it.

If you’ve never repacked your reserve parachute, then you’ll probably need some guidance to get started. Let’s look at what you’ll need and how to pack a reserve parachute.

Before You Start

Even if videos are usually very well done by the manufacturer we highly recommend that you go to a “Reserve repack clinic”. You will learn directly from a professional and learn a lot more than from a video. Some places even have systems for you to perform throwing the reserve out of your harness and see the reserve opening and evaluate your packing. You can not get that kind of service from videos.

The first and most important thing you’ll need to do before packing your reserve parachute is reading the manufacturer instructions. This is where you’ll find all of the essential information you need for your specific parachute. Reading the manufacturer’s instructions is important before using any piece of paragliding equipment.

Also if you install the reserve yourself in your harness, any harnesses have specific steps to follow. Usually they are clearly explained in the manufacturer manual.

Things You’ll Need:

  • A clear open space to lay out the parachute and paragliding equipment
  • Strings and cords for holding the tabs found on the seams
  • Pieces of non-abrasive line for closing the elastics about 30-40cm long
  • 3-4 heavy books or sandbags to weight down the edges of the parachute
  • Packing board
  • Extra rubber band to replace any that are broken
  • Spare bungees to replace loose closures on deployment bags

But again every professional has their own little habits and it is really a benefit to meet these professionals during “Repack clinic”

Inspecting and Packing the Reserve Parachute

After you’ve gathered your supplies, it’s time to inspect and repack. Typically, you can find videos as an example, we added a great video done by Supair on how to repack this specific reserve parachute. (But remember that reserves now have different shapes so this video does not apply to all reserves or all brands. This video is for the Fluid square shape so the technique will be different for a round shape, octagonal, or the Rogallo one for example )




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