What is BASE Jumping?

Base jumping on Bridge Day in New Creek, West Virginia
••• Base jumping on Bridge Day in New Creek, West Virginia. Photo by Jeff Swensen/Stringer, Getty Images

There has been a lot of discussion about BASE jumping in the mainstream media of late. But what exactly is it and what does it entail? We'll help you sort it all out. 

What is BASE Jumping?

BASE is an acronym for the four types of fixed objects that jumpers taking part in the sport might leap from, including buildings, antennas, spans (which includes bridge), and the Earth (such as the top of a cliff).

BASE jumpers wear a parachute, and sometimes a wingsuit, which is a specially designed outfit that allows them to slow their rate of descent and even make precision maneuvers through the sky. After leaping off a cliff, the jumper's wingsuit rapidly fills with air, so he or she can glide along until reaching an altitude where it becomes critical to open a parachute, which then allows them to descend safely back to the ground.

BASE jumping is an extreme sport and there have been many fatal accidents. Readers are encouraged to train with a certified skydiving instructor and spend many hours honing their skills before attempting a BASE jump of their own. While trained professionals make it look easy, there are many subtle nuances and techniques that are only learned over time and many jumps. As the sport has evolved, some skydivers have turned to base jumping to get their visceral rush of adrenaline on a regular basis, creating a great deal of crossover amongst the two extreme sports.



Some base jumpers leap off bridges, while others off buildings. Some extreme adventurers don "birdmen" or "flying squirrel" suits (AKA wingsuits) then jump off high cliffs or manmade structures. Others will even leap out of a plane and glide along at higher altitudes before deploying their parachutes.

During the first few seconds of free fall the wingsuits fill with air, then the birdman soars at up to 140 miles per hour, sometimes flying close to rock walls and towers (or even through caves) on their descent. The suits allow the "pilots" to pull off precision maneuvers, although those are best left to experienced BASE jumpers who know what they are doing. 


BASE jumping can trace its origins back to the 1970s when adrenaline seekers were looking for new sports to push their skills to the limit. In 1978, filmmaker Carl Boenish Jr. actually coined the term, when he and his wife Jean, along with Phil Smith, and Phil Mayfield, made the first jump off of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park using ram-air parachutes. They made an impressive free fall from that massive rock face, essentially creating a whole new sport in the process.

In the early years of BASE jumping, participants in this wild and dangerous new activity mostly employed the same gear that skydivers used when jumping out of airplanes. But over time, the equipment was refined and redesigned to meet the specific needs of the jumpers. The parachutes, jumpsuits, helmets, and other gear all evolved, becoming more compact and lighter, and turned into something that was far better suited for use in a more active sport.

Since BASE jumpers often have to carry their equipment with them to the point where they make their jump, these refinements were welcomed by the early pioneers of the sport.

In the mid-1990's, French skydiver and BASE jumper Patrick de Gayardon developed what would become the first modern wingsuit. He had hoped to use his designs to add more surface area to his body, allowing him to glide more easily through the air while adding maneuverability to his jumps as well. In the years that followed refinements were made to the initial design by a number of other skydivers, and the wingsuit concept went from a prototype used by just a few people to a full-fledged product that is commonly used today.

In 2003, the wingsuit made the leap from skydiving over to BASE jumping, giving rise to a technique known as proximity flying.

In this activity, the BASE jumper still leaps from a structure of some sort but glides back down to Earth while flying close to the ground, trees, buildings, cliffs, or other obstacles. A parachute is still required to make a safe landing however, as a wingsuit doesn't provide enough deceleration to allow for touch down. 

Today, wingsuit flying is considered an integral part of BASE jumping, with most participants choosing to wear the bat-like wingsuit while making their jumps. This has led to some incredible GoPro video footage of the pilots in action as they perform death-defying feats. 

BASE jumping is an incredibly dangerous sport that should only be attempted by those who have been properly trained. It is estimated that an accident is 43 times more likely to occur while taking part in this activity as opposed to simply skydiving from an aircraft. According to Blincmagazine.com – a website dedicated to the sport – more than 300 people have died while BASE jumping since 1981.