Reserves are an important part of our paragliding kit but it’s often the part we see the least often and know the least about. Flying without one often feels weird or uncomfortable but in many cases pilots don’t even know what’s in their harness. There are an almost infinite number of reserve systems, harnesses, container closure methods, and new ones come onto the market every day. This guide will help you determine how a system works, how to install it correctly, and how to extract it. This guide will also cover some of the common installation and usage errors.
There are 5 different types of reserves, with some variations on each.
•Conical - These are half-spherical reserves, like many old military style parachutes. They were used primarily in HG harnesses decades ago but have been phased out in favor of other designs that had less oscillation. They are typically well past their expiration date and should be taken out of service.
•PDA - Short for Pull Down Apex, these reserves look a lot like conical reserves, except for a line that runs up the center of the reserve, pulling it down, and they have a hole in the middle. The result is a toroid, and is considerably more stable than their predecessors. They are easy to pack, inexpensive, and proven designs. Sometimes also called Annular.
•Square (Also triangular, pentagonal, octagonal etc.) - These reserves borrow some of their design from PDA reserves, but have corners and usually forego the hole in the middle. They are anecdotally known for being more stable in descent than the PDA due to the vented corners, especially during long descents where an oscillation has more time to occur. They are slightly less intuitive to pack due to the unusual gore sizes at the corners, but are well tested and just as reliable as PDA reserves.
•Rogallo - Rogallo reserves are based of Francis Rogallo’s designs, and borrow heavily from triangular kites. They are triangular, and directional. This is the most common of the “steerable” designs with toggles on the risers for right and left input as well as flaring. They are considerably more complicated to pack, and often deploy with a riser twist. They also have one of the slowest descent rates and a 3:1 glide.
•BASE - BASE systems, often called Acro BASE, are typically found in acro harnesses alongside one or more PDA, square, or Rogallo systems. The BASE system is based off a skydiving MARD or Main Assisted Reserve Deployment system. The deployment bag is connected to the glider and when the glider is cut away via a handle, it extracts a BASE canopy. BASE canopies are known for opening very quickly, and are steerable. These systems are by far the most expensive, require specific harnesses, and due to their complexity, have the greatest potential for user error. They should also be packed by someone with BASE parachute packing experience. Their glide performance is on par with the Rogallo. Deployment time and altitude loss is considerably lower than other systems.
The conical, PDA and Square reserves can occasionally be found in “steerable” versions though less common than Rogallo styles. These steerable versions generally don’t get more than a 1:1 glide and in some cases are more directional than steerable. (You can change the scenery, but you aren’t going to get there.) Typically paraglider pilots throw low and by the time they are able to disable their glider or steer, they’re on the ground.
Note: Steerable reserves are a great idea. However, they may deploy with a riser twist, making them un-steerable. They may also be difficult to steer while the pilot’s hands are busy disabling the glider. The solution may be quick-out carabiners which release the glider and speed system with a button/chuck. Once the glider is released the pilot can fly the reserve unencumbered by the glider which drifts peacefully into the wilderness. Quick-out carabiners, like any system with lots of moving parts, are more susceptible to error, usually pilot induced, and as such should be taken care of and be a part of the pilot’s thorough pre-flight check.
Reserves are typically constructed of rip-stop nylon made by Porcher, Dominico, or a number of other manufacturers. The weight of the fabric, measured in g/m2, doesn’t vary much by manufacturer. Typically they’ve foregone the UV coating that most paraglider fabrics have, so they are more susceptible to damage. “Ultralite” reserves are typically lighter because they’re smaller, not because the materials are that much lighter. Like all nylon products, they degrade over time, regardless of exposure to heat, UV or moisture, though those will significantly accelerate degradation. Most manufacturers recommend retiring reserve fabric after 10 years.
Typically constructed of Edelrid, Cousin or other Aramid blends. Some line types may be more susceptible to “burning” during a high speed deployment. If lines rub across each other, they will generate friction and heat, which may damage or melt the lines.
The bridle is the webbing at the bottom of the reserve lines that attaches to the harness. Typically a reserve comes with either a single bridle with a single loop at the end, or in a split Y bridle with a smaller loop at each end. The single bridle version is appropriate if the harness already has bridles coming from the shoulders. The Y bridle version connects directly to the shoulders of the harness.
Bridles can be Dyneema, Spectra, or Polypropylene blend. Each type has different characteristics, breaking strengths, and most importantly melting points if subjected to friction. Spectra melts at 147ºC, Dyneema melts at 140ºC, and polypropylene melts at 160ºC. They all have excellent UV, fatigue and abrasion resistance, but care should be taken to avoid heat sources or friction. Some bridles may be covered with other materials to further reduce wear.
Y bridles should not be connected to bridles coming from the harness, and single bridles should not be connected to one shoulder of the harness. Single bridle systems can be adapted with separate Y bridle systems to fit harnesses that don’t have bridles.
•Maillon Rapide - If the reserve has a Y bridle, the bridle should be attached to the shoulders of the harness with two 6mm (minimum) maillons. Rubber bands or O-rings should be used to prevent the bridle from cross-loading the maillon acros the gate. If a single short bridle is used, a 7mm (minimum) maillon should be used, similarly secured with O-rings to prevent cross-loading. The gate should never be tightened more than 1/4 turn past finger-tight to avoid stressing the metal.
Advantages - Easy to install, wear resistant. Can be disconnected after a deployment (hanging in a tree for example).
Disadvantages - Heavy, difficult/impossible to disconnect without tools.
•Soft Link - Soft links can be used anywhere a maillon is used, replacing both 6mm or 7mm maillons, being considerably stronger than the 7mm. There are two types of soft links. Some are meant for the connection between the harness and the glider, and some are meant for reserve connections. The two should not be interchanged! Ensure that the manufacturer has specified them for reserve use and follow the connection instructions carefully.
Advantages - Light, extremely strong, easy to connect/disconnect in the field without tools (in trees).
Disadvantages - Susceptible to installation error, not as durable as maillons.
•Girth Hitch - If the short reserve bridle or the harness bridle has a large enough loop to pass a packed reserve through, then the bridles can be girth hitched together. This makes for a very simple system with relatively few parts, and is lighter than other methods. However, as noted earlier, bridles tend to have low melting points and if the loops get loose in the harness, then zip together at speed during a deployment, enough heat may be generated to melt or weaken the bridle. A 4” section of bicycle inner tube may be placed over the hitch to prevent loosening. Never use tape, which contains solvents, to secure the hitch. Girth hitches can reduce the overall strength of a system but considerably less so than a knot. On the good side, a dyneema bridle’s strength is still more than necessary, even with a girth hitch.
Advantages - Light, fewer parts.
Disadvantages - Potential for friction, impossible to disconnect without passing the entire reserve through the loop and thus problematic if hanging in trees.
Harness reserve systems vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer and often from model to model.
•Under-seat - The most common location for open harnesses. The handle is easily visible, reachable, and easy to check pins during pre-flight. Typically only available on the right side.
•Side - Occasionally seen on older harnesses and PPG harnesses. Had many of the same advantages of the under-seat location, but added considerable weight to one side of the harness. PPG harnesses often have side-switchable options to place the reserve opposite the propeller torque or throttle hand.
•Dorsal - Positioned mid-back. The advantage was that the handle was often swappable between left and right sides. It is however nearly impossible to check the pins during pre-flight, the handle sits farther back on the harness making for an awkward pull angle, and if the handle became detached due to a bad pull or weak Velcro, it would be nearly impossible to find again.
•Shoulder - Mostly phased out decades ago, it had many of the same problems as the dorsal mount.
•Front - Typically found on harnesses that either don’t have a built in reserve container, or when the pilot wants a second reserve. Mounted on the chest strap between the two main carabiners, though not necessarily connected to them. These systems are easy to use, the handles are easy to find, and the pins are easy to check. However, they do require a little care when getting into or out of the harness. If the bridles are connected to the main carabiners, it can be thrown with either hand. If the bridles are routed to the shoulders of the harness it should ideally be thrown with the hand in the direction of the routing to avoid the bridle crossing ribs or neck. These systems are popular on PPG harnesses where an under-seat or side mount option is not available. There should always be enough slack in the bridles and bag suspension loops that no pressure is put on them when launching. Doing so may damage the bag, or pull the bridles from the bag.
With all reserve locations except front mount, the bridle is routed up the side of the harness under a Velcro or zippered channel. Velcro channels should be opened and re-closed regularly to avoid “Velcro lock” resulting in the channel not opening fully. Zippered channels should be checked to ensure they’re fully closed and returned to the starting position. The zippered channel is designed to blow out like a jacket with a bad zipper.
The flaps enclosing the reserve container usually have a number of grommets through which the closure loop is pulled. Some flaps may be numbered or lettered to ensure the correct closure order. The flaps are held closed by either a metal or nylon pin through the closure loop. The flap closure order and installation instructions are available in the harness manual which should be consulted prior to installing the reserve. Manuals can become outdated, or in some cases can be incorrect. Prior to releasing the harness into the wild the reserve system should be checked by extracting the reserve while in the harness.
Deployment bags typically consist of a nylon bag with 4 flaps and a grommet on each flap, with a bungee on one flap. There are a number of variations on that theme but most follow the same basic principles. The reserve is placed in the bag with the lines stowed (kept tidy with purpose-built rubber bands) at the bottom of the bag. The bungee is run through the grommets and a 1”-2” bite of line is passed through the bungee to keep the flaps closed. In some cases a bite of line is run through the bungee after only 3 flaps (double stow). Then the remaining line is stowed, and the 4th flap is closed, with another bite of line through the bungee above the 4th grommet. This method stages the reserve and ensures the reserve reaches line stretch before opening, avoiding tension knots and clearing glider wreckage, but may also take slightly longer to open. This may be preferable in an autorotation situation. If two stow loops are used care should be taken that they go through the bungee in opposite directions such that the loops from one don’t fall over the other, locking the bag shut.
Many modern harnesses use harness-specific deployment bags with handles already attached in order to avoid installation errors. If the harness has a specific bag/handle it MUST be used. Some harnesses provide only the handle, which is girth-hitched to the reserve manufacturer’s deployment bag. Most bags have 3 or more attachment points. The attachment point used depends on the installation location of the reserve. The attachment point for the handle onto the bag should be such that when the reserve is installed and the handle placed on the side of the harness, there is as much slack as possible between the handle and bag as possible. If the bridle between the handle and reserve does not have sufficient slack, it may be impossible to pull the pins out of the harness closure loops, resulting in a condition called “bag-lock”. Never girth hitch the handle to anything other than the provided loops on the deployment bag.
Hang glider deployment bags, which use large rubber bands and only open at one side like an envelope should not be used for paragliders. Envelope bags require a HG specific pack style, and need more time and airspeed to deploy than a paraglider typically has. These bags usually have an orange handle and 2 curved pins for a HG harness.
Drogue chutes attached to deployment bags have mostly gone out of fashion due to the risk of tangling and fouling the deployment.
Some deployment bags have installation instructions printed on them to avoid errors. They may also have markings on them which should ALWAYS align with corresponding markings inside the reserve compartment.
Most handles attach to the side of the harness either by being tucked under an elastic flap, slot, or Velcro. The release pins are attached to the handle, along with the handle bridle which is attached to the deployment bag. When the handle is pulled the first point of resistance should always be the pins which should extract fully before the pilot feels any resistance from the reserve itself.
Pack styles vary by reserve design, from the PDA with it’s symmetrical design, to the Rogallo or BASE, with considerably more steps and folds. You should always consult the manual for packing instructions. However, not all reserves have clear manuals, and in some cases the manuals are incorrect or outdated. Your job is to pack it so that it functions as intended. In most cases, the most important part is ensuring that the reserve is free of damage, no line-overs, and the lines are stowed cleanly to avoid tension knots. The reserve itself will open, even if the packing folds are not perfect. There are some variations in folding style, with anecdotal evidence for one opening faster than the other. The “super secret air chamber” method for example has been used by a number of manufacturers over the years.
There are some no-no folding styles that should be avoided on PG reserves. Large triangular folds at the bottom of the reserve that exceed half of the width of the gore/cell should always be avoided. Small triangular folds forced the reserve to fill from the top down, avoiding line-overs. This was often used in conjunction with the “super secret air chamber”. Large triangular folds led to slow openings times. These were common on HG reserves with different deployment scenarios.
Repacking and repairs should always be done with materials intended for use with paraglider reserve systems. For example: using thick skydiver style rubber bands for stowing reserve lines, or using hang glider style deployment bags instead of 4 leaf clover bags. The exception to this would be in the event that the manufacturer does not specify the materials, or if the materials originally supplied have been superseded by better ones. Additionally, as mentioned above, there are occasionally systems that, from the manufacturer, have been shown to have defects. If the problem can be remedied with a retrofit, it should be done so that the deployment process works as intended, not necessarily as designed. Careful thought should be put into any retrofit and it should be tested thoroughly in a simulated deployment.
Reserves should always be packed by someone familiar with packing paraglider reserves. Skydiving riggers are highly skilled and well trained at packing skydiving specific systems, but may be unfamiliar with the unique requirements of a paragliding system.
Most pilots never throw their reserves. For those that do it’s often a result of over controlling the glider after a minor event. If you have lost directional control of the glider, and you have already tried the usual tactics for regaining control, you may be over controlling. If you have the altitude, try doing nothing for a few seconds. If you do not have altitude, throw. Following the steps below will help improve your chances of a clean deployment.
•Look - Looking at the handle is the surest way to put your hand on it fast. It may not be where you expect it to be either. However, if you cannot see it, that doesn’t mean you should stop the process and wait for the planet to run into you. Grope around, slide your hand down known webbing that might point toward the handle and go from there.
•Pull/Throw - Pull the handle firmly out and away from the harness. Releasing the handle at full arm stretch. There may be initial resistance as the pins release and the reserve slides out of the harness. Pull hard, throw hard. Throwing in the direction of rotation during a spiral will help achieve full line stretch sooner, and avoid fouling in the glider lines. During an autorotation with line twists, throwing at the trailing edge of the glider appears to be the best way to avoid fouling. Always throw into clear airspace, especially during a mid-air situation.
•Retrieve - Grabbing the bridle and firmly yanking it toward you may aid in the locking stow releasing from the bungee on the top of the deployment bag. Do it even if you don’t think you need to. Failure of the locking stow to release will lead to a deployment failure. If the stow was too tight, the weight of the reserve itself may not be enough to pull the stow through the bungee. If yanking the bridle fails to release it, reel the reserve in by the bridle, and release it manually.
•Avoid - As the reserve opens up, the bridle will pull through the Velcro or zippered channel, up to your shoulders. If your arm is extended the bridle may wrap under your arm and at the very least lead to a very sore shoulder. Crossing your arms in front of your chest keeps the bridle from wrapping under your arm.
•Disable - Once the reserve has deployed, the glider/reserve combination may down-plane. The glider is trying to fly, and the reserve is trying pulling backward on the pilot. The result is a nose-down configuration with very little drag in the vertical axis. Disabling the glider by performing a B-Line stall, rear-riser stall, or choking up on the brake lines, will keep the glider from pitching forward into a down-plane configuration. Do not gather the glider into your lap. This may result in a rapidly rotating glider, that could foul the reserve. Additionally, if landing in water, it will be much more difficult to extract yourself from the harness/glider without tangling in the lines. Leaving the glider out and away from you also increases the drag and slows your descent.
•PLF - Parachute Landing Fall, is a technique for landing that allows the pilot to land safely without injury. It involves landing with your feet together, knees slightly bent. As you make contact with the ground you will crumble, allowing your body to absorb the impact, rolling to your calf, thigh, hip, and side of your back. Landing with feet apart or knees locked straight may result in injury.
•Don’t Give Up! - If things didn’t go your way, fix it! If the reserve tangled in your glider, reel it out and re-deploy. If you can’t find risers/lines to disable your glider with, keep looking. If you can’t see the handle, keep maneuvering to find it. Once you give up, you’re wasting precious seconds that might have saved your life.
•Fouling - A weak throw, or throwing in the wrong direction, may result in the reserve fouling into your paraglider. This is especially common during a SAT, autorotation, or twisted spiral. Throwing hard toward the pilot’s feet may help since the glider would have to complete a full rotation before “eating” your reserve. If the failure is serious and unrecoverable, throwing a secondary reserve, if you have one, may be your best solution. Otherwise, reeling the reserve in to clear it from the lines might work. Never stop working on it.
•Down-planing - See Disabling in Deployment Steps. Failing to stop the down-planing glider will result in a very fast descent.
•Bag-lock - See Bag Lock in Common Packing Errors below. If you are in a bag-lock situation, and pulling like your life depends on it is unsuccessful, either deploy a secondary reserve if available, or return to trying to fix your glider. You have nothing better to do.
Common Packing Errors
•Bag lock - If the bridle between the handle and the deployment bag is too short, or the deployment bag has been installed in the incorrect orientation, it may be impossible to pull the handle far enough away from the harness to extract the closure pins. If you’re not sure, check that it is possible to extract the reserve easily, then reinstall it in the same configuration. In some cases the factory supplied handle/harness configuration can be incorrect! If it feels like you’re pulling on the deployment bag before the pins release, the handle bridle is too short!
•Small Maillon - An appropriately sized Maillon Rapide should always be used between the reserve and the harness bridle, and/or between the bridle and the shoulder attachment points. 6mm minimum should be used in pairs at the shoulders, and 7mm minimum between the reserve bridle and harness bridle.
•Inappropriate Connection Method - If a Maillon Rapide, soft shackle, or girth hitch isn’t used for the reserve connection, the bridles should never be tied together with a knot. Knots reduce strength by as much as 50%.
•Locked Double Stow - If using a double-stow system, and the closing stows are too large, it may be possible for the lines of the top stow to fall over the lower stow, or vise versa, and lock the bag shut.
•Tight Locking Stow - If the deployment bag is too small for the reserve, the locking stow may be held too tightly in the closure bungee. This can results in a failed, or delayed deployment. You can check for a tight bungee by placing the reserve on a table and attempting to lift it by the bridle/lines. If the bungee releases the locking stow under the weight of the reserve, the tension is correct. If you can lift the reserve off the surface without the locking stow releasing, either lengthen the bungee, pack the reserve smaller, or replace the bag with a larger one.
•Incorrect Orientation - If the deployment bag is placed in the harness in the wrong orientation, it may result in a hard-pull or bag-lock situation. Many modern harnesses place symbols on the deployment bag and/or inside the harness to indicate the installation direction. If they do not, check the manual.
•RNP - Reserve Not Present. A shockingly common error where the deployment handle is placed onto the harness without being attached to a reserve. If your harness feels considerably lighter than that of pilots around you, check! In fact, check anyway. In some cases reserve handles have been found attached to sleeping bags, jackets, first aid kits, etc.
•Incorrect Size - Manufacturers supply most reserves with a recommended weight range. That range is determined by the max load before the reserve exceeds 5.5m/s descent rate, or becomes unstable. If a reserve is too small it may be more likely to down-plane after deployment, and the descent rate will be very high. If the reserve is too large it may be unstable and result in a swinging descent. It should always be EN certified and your all-up weight should be no more than 90% of the recommended max weight range. General rule of thumb is to go up 1 to 2 sizes larger than you think you need. Looking at the surface area of a reserve may be a better indicator of expected descent rate. For example, a pilot at 95kg all-up weight on an LTF “certified” ultralight reserve with a max load of 105kg and 24.5m2, had a descent rate of over 10m/s. That same pilot on a 140kg max load EN certified reserve with 37m2 had a descent rate of 4.3m/s. The pilot was within the weight range of both reserves. The exception to the sizing rule is the Rogallo style reserves, or BASE canopy. Keep in mind that expected/tested descent rates do not take into account density altitude. If you plan to be flying in high, mountainous terrain, where air density is lower, your descent rate will be higher on a given reserve. You may want to size up.
•Incorrect Line Stows - If the line stows, held by small rubber bands are uneven, slack, or messy, it may result in a tension knot on deployment. Stows should be even, tidy, and no more than 1-2” through the rubber bands.
•Incorrect Rubber bands - Not all rubber bands are created equal. Rubber bands can become sticky and deteriorate with age. In some cases the rubber band can “melt” into the lines, and become hardened, holding the lines together, considerably delaying a deployment. Most manufacturers supply their reserves with purpose made elastics that do not become sticky or rotten. Use them.
•Inadequate Bridle Length - There should be ~3 feet of bridle/lines between the reserve and harness, before it puts tension on the zipper/Velcro channel. Too little may result in the locking stow opening early, and dumping line/fabric close to the pilot which may foul the deployment.
•Double Bagging - The reserve should be in ONE deployment bag. If packing the reserve into a harness that has a specific bag/handle configuration, the reserve must be packed into the harness manufacturer’s deployment bag and the reserve manufacturer’s bag should be removed entirely.
It is the duty of a reserve packer/rigger/instructor to determine if a system is suitable for the pilot, out of date, or otherwise un-airworthy. If presented with a system that is 20 years old, outdated technology, is showing signs of wear that poses a risk, or is the wrong size, they would be expected to take it out of service and/or suggest that the pilot replace it before flying. It is within their right to refuse to repack it. Doing so would be a legal liability for them and the sport. Additionally, it is the responsibility of the packer to be familiar with the reserve system they are working with, and be able to pack it as per the manual. Not all packers are familiar with AcroBASE, steerable, or Rogallo style reserves, which have very different packing styles to PDA or square reserves. Do not pack a reserve system that you are not familiar with. If there are questions, find someone who knows!