What Is BASE Jumping?

By Meg Jernigan; Updated September 26, 2017

Taking the plunge with a ‘chute or wingsuit

What Is BASE Jumping?

BASE jumping occupies a spot near the top, if not at the top, of the list of extreme sports. Leaping off a tall building or a cliff requires a mix of courage – and some would say, foolhardiness – rare among humans. The activity is largely illegal in the United States. If you decide to try the sport, train well, respect your equipment’s lifesaving properties and make sure you’re not in danger of breaking the law.

What is BASE jumping?

BASE is an acronym for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth. BASE jumping, considered among the most extreme of extreme sports, involves leaping from tall man-made objects or high spots like cliffs and mountains with a parachute that quickly deploys or while wearing a wingsuit. Wingsuits, full body suits with solid fabric stretched between the arms and legs, allow jumpers to swoop and fly from heights. Once jumpers have leapt from each of the four bases, they can apply for one of the BASE numbers awarded in the order they’re earned. No. 1 belongs to Phil Smith, who took his final qualifying leap in 1981.

Is BASE jumping safe?

While exact statistics on injuries are hard to find because BASE jumping is frequently practiced in secret, at least 200 people have died and many more have been injured. The sport lacks regulation and a governing body, so many injuries go unrecorded. Deaths most frequently occur when a parachute doesn’t deploy or when a jumper strikes a fixed object, such as a cliff wall. A small percentage of BASE-jumping deaths occur when the jumper lands in water and drowns. BASE jumpers have a 5 to 8 percent greater risk of death or injury than skydivers. Injuries include sprains, broken bones and concussions.

How did the sport begin?

When Louis-Sebastien Lenormand jumped off an observatory tower with a parachute strapped to his body in 1783, the sport of BASE jumping was conceived. In 1912, Frederick Law jumped off the Statue of Liberty, and in 1975, a construction worker jumped off the CN Tower in Ontario. Another leapt off the World Trade Center the same year. Many consider the 1966 jump Brian Schubert and Michael Pelkey made from El Capitan in Yosemite the birth of the activity as a sport. Both were injured on landing. Schubert broke both of his legs and would later die jumping from the New River Gorge Bridge.

The acronym BASE was coined by cinematographer Carl Boenish in 1981, who later died in a jump in Norway.

Before you jump

BASE jumping is illegal in most places in the U.S. Look for an established BASE jumping club in your area. Members should be able to lend their expertise to a novice, training you on how to pack your chute or maintain a wingsuit, taking you through practice runs and showing you legal places to hone your skills.

Spend a day at an organized BASE-jumping event to get a feel for the sport. Every October, the National Park Service opens the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia for Bridge Day. The first jumpers leapt off the bridge in 1979. Now, more than 800 people participate in the event while 80,000 spectators watch. To qualify to participate on Bridge Day, you’ll have to have at least 100 jumps under your belt.

About the Author

Meg Jernigan