Trip Report: Vol Bivouac Paragliding

Trip Report: Vol Bivouac Paragliding

By Michael Vergalla

Vol Biv originates from two French words for Fly and Camp, while on its surface this concept is straightforward and elegant in its simplicity, there is a significant amount of effort, persistence, training, and dialing gear that is required for all of the stars to align on this kind of trip. Paragliding is a fairly fringe sport in the United States, but in the last 5-10 years its popularity is literally soaring. Inspired by professional athletes competing in hike and fly races the gear has been trending in the Ultra-Light direction.

Vol Biv

High above the Columbia Valley, Mount Seven, Golden British Columbia.

With flying there are three main things to manage. The weather, your gear, and your mind. If any of the three are out of balance, you may find yourself in a situation you would rather not be in. When you are in balance one is able to experience some of the most pure magic on Earth, sure that sounds bold, or like someone who chases big swells around the world, but that statement is made in all seriousness. The sun heats the Earth, the Earth heats the sky and rising invisible bubbles of air are capable of carrying a human as far as the day and the pilot allows. It's a true ballet with nature. Without lightweight materials and development primarily in the outdoor equipment industry for 3+ decades, none of this would be possible. It is true that ripstop nylon first replaced silk parachutes in World War II, but it took significant time for the design, construction, testing to get to where it is now.

Skyscape Trekker Vol Biv

Skyscape Trekker is the perfect tent for vol biv adventures wherever you end up. 

Ultralight paragliders and ultralight camping gear go hand in hand as they are siblings when it comes to the use of materials and construction. Lightweight ripstop nylon and a combination of Kevlar, and Dyneema lines are all that goes into our magic aircraft.

Typical wings will range from 3-5kg in weight, harnesses in the 2-4kg range, and reserve, helmet and electronics in the 1-3kg range.

Vol Biv Gear Layout

Multi-day adventure all sized to fit in the harness while flying. Leaving very little space for camping gear. Six Moon Designs saves the day, with lightweight gear pods and ultra compact tents. 

While it is quite impressive to have an aircraft capable of flying a human for 100s of kilometers and many hours that is 10% or so of the weight of the pilot, it doesn't leave a ton of room for tents, sleeping bags, and other camping gear. Whatever fits in the large bag hiking up to launch, must be able to pack down small enough to fit in the limited cargo spots of the paragliding harness.

Vol Biv Ready to Go

All gear packed into the harness, almost bursting at the seams. Week long adventure.

Only in the last year have harnesses been designed with more storage for this type of adventure. My very first exposure to Six Moons Designs was on a vol-peso trip (staying in barns, houses for small amounts of money) where I came across a pilot who was flying with their Skyscape Trekker tent. I was amazed at the construction, the use of hiking poles as tent poles, and most importantly the potential for this tent to be a major puzzle piece found in enabling my dreams of vol biv. Basically I found out it fit in my harness, I ordered one immediately and I became a huge Six Moons fan. Previous to that just would sleep outside like a baby deer on the ground. The tent has become permanently integrated into my adventure kit.

There is a large spectrum of the kinds of vol biv adventures that can be had from multi week solo trekking in the Himalayas or Alaska, to finding a site locally that has camping options, and take off options for the next day. In all cases if you were able to move your wing, camping gear and self up the mountain, camp, and fly you have hit the vol biv criteria. There are a couple of adventures in California that I particularly like to do as training exercises for bigger adventures. One of them involves going to Big Sur, along the California coast. The spot is actually in the Los Padres National Forest, very close to sand dollar beach and plaskett creek campground. My preference is to arrive around sunset and start the hike in the dark. I do this for two reasons, the first is that there is no light pollution, so the stars become your guide and light the way, the second is a more practical one, as it is much cooler, and the hike feels much easier when carrying approximately 15kg of gear. If you time the hike properly, the moon will rise mid ascent, in an almost offensive way, I only joke, but your eyes have adjusted so well to the stars that the moon feels like a giant spot light that you can easily make shadow puppets in. The hike is about 3200ft in vertical gain, and about 8km distance on the trail depending on which way you go.

Mike Vergalla Vol Biv

Packing up the Skyscape Trekker, that we used for two people, quickly so that we can hit our weather window. Tandem vol biv adventure in Big Sur.

There are a couple days a year when it's possible to thermal high above launch and play around, on one rare occasion my friends and I ended up flying with 12 wild California Condors. Many times this flying location has challenges related to the marine layer, which is the air that is the first few hundred feet over the ocean.

Vol Biv

Being prepared to fly and time the weather window. 

At times it has a thick fog bank that limits your view of the landing zone, while providing an awe inspiring ocean of clouds, it prevents pilots from flying. This morning was one of those thick fog mornings. The only thing to do is pack up, get ready and wait. There is a breathing of the day that occurs as the sun rises and the fog layer sloshs in and out of the canyons and coast line. The sloshing looks like slow moving waves in a time lapse, and sometimes provide a window of opportunity to fly. The pilot must be ready.

 Vol-Biv Magic

Pure Magic a la vol-biv adventure.

We saw a window and took off, the clouds were broken along the coast line and created a mystical scene with light rays hitting the blue/green water and life beneath. As we silently glided along our eyes searched the landscape to ensure our landing was visible all while enjoying our perch in the sky slaloming through puffs of clouds. Above the marine layer it is quite warm, and dry, but something surprising happens when flying in Big Sur. The moment you descend into the marine layer the temperature changes drastically, becoming very cool, and the air is very humid. It is almost as if you jumped into a pool of water. It's a funny, surprising moment that feels quite special. As I continue these adventures and tuning what equipment, pack, and supplies are taken, the constraints of lightweight vol biv hike and fly will be satisfied by design methodologies and product developments from groups like Six Moon Designs. 

When the gear, weather, and mind are aligned, magic happens.

 Vol Biv Ready to Go

All packed up, camping and flying gear, onwards and forwards!

About the Author

Michael Vergalla - Six Moon Designs AmbassadorMichael Vergalla is the founder of Free Flight Research Lab, a non-profit dedicated to utilizing paraglider platforms for climate science, conservation and pilot safety. A former Airbus Innovation Center Executive for Project Monark, he demonstrated commercial aircraft based GNSS radio occultation for the first time in 2020. With both an undergraduate and masters degree in aerospace engineering and a professional stint giving C-suite technology innovation lectures his work focuses on finding capability boundaries for propulsion, sensing, flight operations, and manufacturing. To this end, Michael is dedicated to unlocking multiplatform flocks for advancing knowledge of Earth systems and processes.