If you’ve recently gotten into longboarding, you may be intrigued about this downhill thing everyone is talking about when the subject of longboarding comes up.
If you’re an extreme sports kind of person, then downhill is probably for you. The goal of downhill longboarding is speed and nothing but speed. Downhill skaters zoom down steep hills at very high velocity, commonly reaching 50 to 65 mph with record speeds at over 80 mph.
For this reason, one might say downhill longboarding is hardcore. It requires making a big commitment and overcoming one’s fears, since going down this fast on asphalt can be potentially deadly.
In this post, we’ll take a look at key aspects of downhill longboarding, including mindset, techniques, gear, preparation, competition, and safety. My hope is that, after reading this, you’ll know what downhill really is, and whether or not it’s for you.
What is special about downhill longboarding?
Longboarders who are into downhill are in for the adrenaline. It’s similar to those surfers who constantly ride big ocean swells and snowboarders who like to shred unridden, steep rugged powdery mountains. All these riders have a common goal: live intense moments that are worth living and make them feel alive.
As a longboarder, however, you’ll typically go much faster than a surfer or snowboarder.
The rush you get from flying down a hill at high speed on a longboard is highly addictive. For some, beyond being a simple sport, downhill becomes a central point in their existence, a way of life.
Such shared passion, intense moments and emotions bring riders together in a close-knit community sometimes described as a family. As is the case for ocean surfers, longboard speed riders bind with each other across age groups, social status, cultural backgrounds. Speed is their common denominator.
Note that downhill differs from freeride in that freeriders are not so much focused on speed as on making fluid turns and technical, sophisticated slides as they ride down a hill. Find out more about freeriding here.
Who is downhill longboarding for?
Well, I’ll tell you who it is NOT for: it ain’t for the faint of heart! However, while downhill longboarding is often perceived as being for reckless hotheads with a death wish, it’s really not true.
Just like most big wave ocean surfers, serious downhill riders are highly committed, technical, and generally responsible sports enthusiasts who seek to push their limits without unnecessary risks.
Despite the risks, some beginner longboarders are drawn to downhill from the start. Although the discipline requires mastering some advanced techniques, getting into it as a new rider is possible. However, you’ll need to acquire certain prerequisite skills first (see next section).
If you’re the serious, committed, focused type, with control over your emotions, a drive for adrenaline, and are not afraid of a steep learning curve, then downhill may be your thing.
One last note: many downhill longboarders are “older” riders in their 30s and 40s who blend in seamlessly with the younger guys and gals when bombing down big hills. There are also lots of mid-aged riders who like to skate more mellow hills with their children on a regular basis.
Downhill longboarding prerequisites
Before getting on a hill for speed, you first need to acquire basic speed control skills on your longboard. Foot braking is an obvious technique you need to know, although it’s only useful at moderate speed. It involves dropping your back foot and dragging it onto the ground to slow yourself down through friction.
The second skill you’ll need to acquire before taking to the hills is simple turning, leaning onto one edge to make your board wheels, and thus your board, rotate to the left or right.
Carving involves making deep turns, through heavier leaning and weight shifting, to reduce velocity. It’s a crucial skill to prevent your board from reaching dangerous speeds when longboarding downhill. Click here for more about carving in general.
Finally, sliding is probably the most difficult skill to learn, pushing your longboard sideways across the slope while going fast to make your wheels skid, slowing you down dramatically. You should first practice sliding on flat surface and small slopes before attempting them on real hills. Read about sliding fundamentals here.
Once you have the basics down, let’s look at the more advanced techniques used in downhill longboarding.
Downhill longboarding techniques
Tucking is the first thing many people think about when they think about downhill riding. It is the art of making yourself as small as possible to reduce wind resistance as much as possible and maximize speed as you’re riding downhill.
The downhill tuck is a well-defined position – there are actually several variants – that downhill longboarders learn to master in order to reach high speed. In that position, everything is “tucked” for aerodynamics :
- Your front foot is placed on the front truck, toes pointing forward
- Your back foot is positioned behind your front foot, on its toes, slightly angled and close to the rail
- Both your knees are bent about 90º, with your back knee tucked against your front calf muscle
- Your upper body leans forward almost horizontally, chest tucked against your front thigh
- Your arms are tucked behind your back
This is a very efficient position speed wise, but it takes practice and resistance to hold it for the duration of a long downhill run (sometimes a few miles/minutes). Learn more about the tucking and other longboard stances.
I mentioned basic turning is a prerequisite skill you should have before starting downhill. Cornering, i.e. getting into sharp turns, at high speed, is an advanced technique and a fundamental part of downhill longboarding.
Your goal when you get into a corner while going fast is to find the optimal line into, through, and out of the turn, without getting ejected while losing as little speed as possible.
This is a highly technical challenge, some even say an art form.
In terms of posture, you need to squat down to lower your weight and keep your ankles moving freely. When getting into a corner you lean hard into your board’s edge as if you’re about to fall off (sort of like race bikers).
You’re relying on the centrifugal force to keep you balanced. You can also grab your opposite rail for more lean.
Downhillers generally break down a corner turn into these zones :
- A pre-drift zone: before you actually enter the turn.
- The apex : the actual “peak” or “summit” of the turn.
- A scrub zone : the zone past the apex in which you adjust your speed before exiting
- The exit : the exit part of the turn
To achieve a perfect cornering line, you need to apply the “outside, inside, out” principle, designed for gripping corners very fast without cutting your lane :
- Always enter the corner from the outside, that is, the outer edge of the road.
- Once into the turn, lean heavily to get as close to the Apex as possible (“kiss the apex”)
- After the apex, move back toward the outside for exiting.
Watch these impressive 13 seconds :
Easier said than done ! At least for me. You have to :
- Find your optimal entrance speed and trajectory by executing pre-drift slides.
- Carv hard into the corner: mastering deep carving towards the apex
- Scrub off speed while in the turn before or after the apex, without losing too much.
- Find the best line out of the corner at max speed.
Again, cornering is probably the most challenging and technical aspect of downhill longboarding. Mastering it can take years of practice.
By now, you probably know that sliding is also a fundamental technique in downhill riding. Downhill longboarders slide to control their speed but also their trajectory. Sliding allows you to go into a turn with much more speed than you would without the ability to slide out.
At high speed the most effective and secure way to slide is through crouching down and putting your hand down on the ground for more leverage and stability – you need to put the right amount of weight into your hand. To perform these slides you use solid sliding gloves (see below).
There are many different kinds of slides, used in many different situations – I’ve already mentioned pre-drifts and speed scrubs before and inside corners. Learn more about powersliding here.
Stand up slides are good for learning at low speed and are often used in freeriding at moderate speeds, but they are riskier at high downhill speed. Red Bull even holds an extreme “No Paws Down” (no-hands sliding) downhill longboard race in Slovenia.
As I mentioned earlier, carving is an important skill in downhill. You continuously use it for shaving off speed on a hill.
Advanced carving skills at high speed are also important for dealing with speed wobbles – when your board starts “shaking” and goes into unending and uncontrolled mini turns as your speed increases.
Experienced users successfully reduce wobbles by shifting more of their weight onto their front truck and relaxing their muscles (learn more about speed wobbles here).
As a beginner downhill rider, however, it’ll be easier for you to get rid of wobbles by carving big toeside and heelside turns to gain control back over your board’s trucks and trajectory.
Drafting is a racing specific technique which involves skating directly behind another rider at high speed and use them as a windbreaker, reducing your own air resistance and increasing your speed.
Once you’re in this “air vacuum”, you wait until the last moment after picking up enough speed to break out and pass the other rider.
So we’ve looked at the main techniques involved in downhill. An obvious question, however, is how dangerous is it?
Dangers of downhill longboarding
No matter what fans say, downhill longboarding is an extreme sport. Wiping out on asphalt at speeds of 40mph and up can certainly lead you to the ER.
Serious downhill riders, however, can reduce risk significantly by taking appropriate precautions – starting of course with wearing adequate protective equipment.
The most obvious and common hazard is to crash due to going too fast into a turn or messing up a slide at fast speed. In the best case scenario you’ll get road rash, but of course things can get nastier. You should never ride downhill without good quality protective gear :
Helmet: you can start with a simple helmet such as the 187 Pro Skate for moderate hills. For serious downhill speed, however, get a full face, CPSC certified aerolid such as the famous Predator DH-6 (Amazon link, photo courtesy of Predator Designs)
Gloves: you’ll need very sturdy slide gloves with UHMW / Delrin plastic pucks from a quality brand such as Loaded – see these Loaded freeride gloves from Amazon – Gravity, Sector 9, or Lush.
Kneepads: when you fall it’s often on your hands and knees, so unless you prefer less padding for some reason, get heavy duty pads such as the 187 Killer pads (Amazon) – you can use them for practicing tricks on flat as well.
If you plan to reach record-breaking speeds and ride hairpin corners on big open roads in the future, your safest bet is to invest in a full leather suit. These are expensive but provide robust overall body protection.
One of the biggest hazards of downhill riding is oncoming cars. This is particularly true when riding blind corners, and hills with high traffic or running into high traffic streets.
Reducing this risk includes :
- Posting friends at corner exits or intersections to slow/down/stop/warn cars.
- Riding safely by avoiding cutting your lane, even if it means losing speed
- Racing only on roads that are closed to traffic, e.g. in planned events.
Road bumps and cracks, guard rails, gravel deposits etc, can send you flying in the air and into the hospital. Before dropping into a hill :
- Walk up the hill to inspect it and take note of the hazards
- Whenever possible, pick a clean section of the hill with a safe exit (e.g. ends on flat with no traffic)
Much of the danger of downhill is due to riders not knowing what they’re doing. So if you’re just getting started :
- Learn the basics first: how to brake and turn (see “prerequisites” section earlier)
- Increase your speed progressively: get comfortable at low and moderate speeds first
- Don’t just drop into a big hill from the top! Start at the bottom, do small runs, then go a bit higher
- Gear up ! See below
A board that fails can be the biggest hazard when riding downhill at extreme speeds. Just like kitesurfers and extreme snowboarders, you should inspect your board closely before dropping in a big hill :
- Check your truck bolts and kingpins
- Lubricate you bearings
- Check and adjust the tightness of bushing
- Check for any flat spots and overall wear and tear of your wheels
So in this section, we’ve reviewed the risks you face in downhill, and the safety gear you must wear have to help minimize them. In the following section, I go over the type of longboard you need to get started as a downhill skater.
Longboard gear for downhill
The main thing you need to know is that you will need a stiff enough deck for control at high speed – lots of flex is NOT good for speed, and it’s easier to get thrown off a bouncy board.
You also want a bit of concave to keep your feet in place, but not too much like on a freeride board (more tricks).
In terms of length, you want a deck no shorter than 37″ for stability, and no longer than say 42″ for agility and turnability. Depending on board type your wheelbase will be between 28″ and 35″.
Now, regarding the unending debate of drop-through vs topmount, here’s a quick lowdown :
- Drop-through decks are lower to the ground and hence more stable, which is good for a beginner downhill skater. BUT : they also have larger wheelbases, hence less leverage over the trucks and less control in tight turns.
- Topmounts (trucks are mounted under the deck) turn fast and are very responsive, with good control on the trucks – your feet sit directly over them. Also easier to control in slides. BUT: they are higher off the ground and so a bit less stable, although you canachieve stability with the right position.
In short, as a beginner, you’ll feel safer with a drop-through, but as your downhill skills improve the agility and responsiveness of a topmount may outweigh the stability of the DT. Oh, and topmounts are also much more durable.
You may also opt for a dropped platform (lower deck), which has the advantages of both topmount and drop-through. However, be aware that these offer a bit less grip in corners. Also, as mentioned earlier, dropped platforms often have freeride-oriented concaves which may be cumbersome for downhill.
In general, though, you can certainly use a freeride board for downhill. The main difference is that freeride boards are typically symmetrical (for doing 180 slides etc) vs directional for downhill decks. If you’re not sure what to get, check out the solid Rayne Genesis topmount speedboard, or for a drop-through, the Landyachtz Ten Two Four (Amazon page).
UPDATE: choice of trucks being so crucial in downhill, I have since published a new in-depth article on selecting the right trucks for downhill. Check it out here.
Reverse kingpin trucks provide better traction at speed than traditional kingpin trucks (those are better for tricks).
Truck width is dictated by your deck’s width, typically you’ll go for 180mm trucks for downhill.
Your truck’s baseplate angle determines your lean to turn ratio, that is how much turn you get for a given amount of lean – or how much lean you need for a given amount of turn (45º degree angle gives you a ratio of 1).
Thus truck angle affects responsiveness vs stability :
- higher angle = more response, turns faster with less lean, but turns less altogether. Better for traction.
- lower angle -> more stability, turns slower with more lean. Better for sliding and speed wobbles.
You can start with 50º trucks for a good balance between grip and stability, such as some reputable Caliber trucks (Amazon link). This kind of angle also gives enough deck height to avoid wheelbite. As you gain experience you may test with lower degrees.
Note that many experienced downhill longboarders set up their back truck to turn less than the front by tightening its kingpin or lowering its angle.
Downhill wheels and bearings
Your choice of wheels is important in downhill. You want wheels that are grippy yet slidable, and don’t wear out too fast with continuous sliding.
Wheels with good quality urethane, 70 or 72mm diameter, and sharp lip will give you the traction you need while having a decent lifetime. The Orangatangs 4President are an example of high-quality wheels suitable for downhill.
Durometer (hardness) also affects traction vs durability: softer wheels are grippier in turns, but wear out faster. 80A is a good middle ground for you to start with – if you’re over 180lb, go for 83A, as 80A may feel slow.
It’s very important to break in your wheels to wear off the outer layer, particularly for sharp lipped wheels which may intially grip up in weird ways.
Last thing is core placement, i.e. where the bearings are placed within the wheels (centerset, sideset, or offset). This affects the wheel’s behavior when you initiate and finish a slide. Centerset wheels are typically the best option for sliding.
For bearings, you can choose inexpensive ones and add speed rings / spacers to protect them from degradation from heavy sliding. Or, you can go for more expensive bearings with integrated spacers which will last longer, such as Bones Reds built-ins.
The last topic I want to mention about downhill is racing. Speed racing adds to the adrenaline rush a strong sense of community and camaraderie and the thrill of challenging riders with similar goals.
Skating and cornering at high speed in a pack requires a certain amount of trust in the other riders, bringing people closer together, sharing passion and lifestyle.
Today’s leading downhill racing organization is the International Downhill Federation, which holds and sanctions official longboard and luge races throughout the world across 4 rider categories (open, women, juniors, masters).
There are also a few city sanctioned races such as the Mount Jefferson longboard race in North Carolina. The race road is closed off to traffic on the day of the even.
Race organizers face the challenging task of selecting the best spots, generally winding, gradually inclined roads with decent quality pavement and ideally scenic views.
Some passionate skaters are constantly scouring the best downhill spots in the world – see this page for a good list of spots with photo and description.
If you’re attracted to the extreme world of downhill longboarding, buckle up your seat belt, gear up, and make sure you go in with a good dose of humility, open mindedness, and determination.
You’re on for an adventure full of bravery, good judgement, friendship and respect. Respect towards others, but also towards the plunging road you dream of dropping into some day, with the same mix of fear and awe surfers feel towards the ocean.
Only with this kind of mindset, and much intense preparation, will you some day perhaps learn to tame the beast.
Featured image “2009-06-26 Veko09 Longboard Skjervet 052” (CC BY 2.0) by eskedal (cropped and flipped horizontally from original)
Photo by Anton Zvyagintsev / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
“2009-06-26 Veko09 Longboard Skjervet 052” (CC BY 2.0) by eskedal
“2009-06-26 Veko09 Longboard Skjervet 031” (CC BY 2.0) by eskedal
“2009-06-26 Veko09 Longboard Skjervet 208” (CC BY 2.0) by eskedal
Predator DH-6 helmet (courtesy of Predator Helmets)
“Longboard gloves” (CC BY 2.0) by 99 Factory
“CGSA MČR – Slivenec” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Laqos