Tips for Constructing (and Enjoying) a Rope Swing Over Water

The dog days of summer are upon us, so there’s no better time to install something — ANYTHING! — that will help you cool off. Why not a rope swing over your favorite lake, pond, or lagoon? They’re cheap, easy-to-construct, and loads of fun. Of course, as Outside Magazine contributor Madison Kahn reminds us, rope swings are also quite dangerous and often illegal, so caution and common sense are definitely required. Still interested? Here are a few tips to help you get started.

Long before you buy the materials to set up your rope swing, the first step is to locate a suitable tree. “Pick a sturdy deciduous tree to hang your swing from,” Kahn recommends. “The whole tree, not just one branch, should lean out over the water”. Make sure the branch itself is at least a few inches thick, and scan it for spots that are hollow or soft. It’s also important to ensure the water is deep enough to support a plunging human body; for this reason, Men’s Health suggests hitching your rope over water that is at least 10 feet deep.

Now that you’ve got a good spot picked out, it’s time to buy some rope. The type you purchase should depend on one major factor: do you want to enjoy the swing for one fun-filled day, or create a permanent installation that you and your kids can return to year after year? If the latter, Kahn recommends a weatherproof tenex polyester rope; Samson is the nation’s leading provider of that particular make and model. But if the swing is intended for singular use, any sturdy rock-climbing or mountaineering rope will do the trick. Regardless of the type of material you use, make sure the rope itself is at least one inch thick; the length will depend on tree height and other geographical variables, but there should be a space of at least one foot between the ground and the bottom of the rope. While you’re at the hardware store, pick up a few feet of clothesline and a weighted object (Men’s Health suggests a padlock).

When it comes to rigging the rope, there are divergent schools of thought. According to Men’s Health, you should tie a figure-eight loop (demonstrated here), and then secure your initial knot with a double stopper knot (seen here); at the other end of the rope, tie a few, evenly spaced double knots to create hand and footholds for the swingers. Remember that clothesline you bought? Fasten it to the primary rope about three feet from the figure-eight, and then anchor the thinner line to the trunk of the tree near the launch point. You now have a retrieval line to help you return the rope to land after someone uses it. Finally, tie the padlock (or whichever weighted object you selected) to the retrieval line, toss it over the branch, and thread the main rope through the knot; once the swing feels nice and tight, you can remove the weight.

Kahn, on the other hand, doesn’t recommend tying the rope to the branch at all; instead, she urges swing-builders to “loop a webbing sling over [the branch] and tie the rope to a locking carabiner using a double bowline (shown here)”. Either method will yield a sturdy swing, provided your knot prevents the rope from sliding along the branch (if tied properly, this won’t be the case). However, it’s still smart to administer a strength test before anyone uses the swing. Kahn suggests having three people dangle from the rope at once, since centrifugal force produced by the pendulum-like motion will triple the swinger’s body weight. Also make sure to remove all large rocks, logs, and other obstructions in order to create a clear path.

If the line holds, then consider your swing open for business. However, there’s one final thing to discuss: the legality of your rope swing. There is (understandably) a great deal of liability when it comes to mechanisms that essentially launch people into the water, and many state parks and public recreation areas mitigate this risk by simply prohibiting members of the public from installing them in the first place. If you want to remain on the straight and narrow (and avoid a potentially steep fine, especially in the event that someone gets hurt), track down a park employee and pick their brain a little. There’s also this great thing called the Internet that’s positively boss when it comes to looking stuff up.

Be safe out there, guys and gals — and if there’s any doubt about your rope swing, there’s no shame in walking away. Your head, neck, and lower extremities will thank you.

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