When I learned how to skydive, I wondered what the lowest possible altitude was to open a parachute and still land safely – because the lower I would open my parachute, the longer I could enjoy the free fall. When I researched it, I was surprised by what I found out.
The lowest recorded altitude to open a parachute is 95ft for someone who falls at below terminal velocity (182 ft/s) and 800ft for someone who falls at terminal velocity. In theory, skydivers could open their parachute as low as 600ft when falling at terminal velocity, which, in practice, not even extreme athletes have tried to achieve so far.
Besides the falling speed, the lowest possible altitude to open a parachute depends on the jumping height, the experience of the skydiver, and the material of the canopy. To understand how these factors work together, we can best look at the type of jump performed.
Lowest Possible Altitude To Open The Parachute
As the type of jump is crucial for the deployment height of a parachute, I summarized the official recommended minimum height and the lowest recorded height by type of jump in the following table below:
|Type Of Jump
|Lowest Recommended Height
|Lowest Recorded Height
|Skydive Solo Jump
|2,500 – 4,000ft (762 – 1,220m)
|800 – 1,000ft (244 – 305m)
(Below Terminal Velocity)
(Below Terminal Velocity)
|No One Really Knows
How The Minimum Altitude Depends On The Type Of Jump
The type of jump is essential for the minimum altitude to deploy the parachute because of different jumping heights, canopy sizes, and packing techniques.
Base rigs, for example, are normally bigger than skydiving canopies and are designed to open much faster. They can inflate below terminal velocity which makes it safe to jump from lower heights and to open the parachute at around 450ft. Base rigs used to be very similar to backup parachutes (and were even developed from it) but nowadays have become very specialized with some base jumpers even designing their own parachute.
In contrast, tandem rigs are normally even bigger because they have to carry more weight. They are also designed for softer landings and are packed differently. Due to this, they take longer to inflate and break very smoothly. It is generally advised to deploy them at 4,000ft although the lowest recorded altitude is around 1,200ft.
You would expect military canopies to be very small and fast so that you can drop quite quickly in enemy territory. In fact, the opposite is true. Similar to tandem canopies, military canopies are bigger because soldiers are often heavily loaded for combat so the canopy needs to carry extra weight. However, they are made of different materials and are packed differently, so that they inflate much faster and below terminal velocity. As a result, soldiers can generally jump from lower heights and reach the ground much faster – which might be essential for not being detected by the enemy. It is considered safe to open military parachutes at 400ft. Obviously, it is quite difficult to know what the lowest recorded height for military jumps is.
There is a broad range of different sport canopies that differ in terms of size, packaging, and material. The minimum advised opening height depends on the experience level of the skydiver. While it can be as low as 2,500ft for experienced skydivers, it is usually around 4,000ft for beginners.
The level of experience matters because more experienced skydivers will be able to deal with unexpected issues such as line twist much faster than beginners. A typical sport parachute takes between 400 – 800ft to open so skydivers need to resolve any issue that might appear at 1,000ft deployment height in matters of seconds – otherwise, they would crash. As experienced skydivers usually react more quickly than beginners, they can wait longer to deploy the parachute.
The lowest recorded altitude is around 800 – 1,000ft on a reserve parachute system (reserve parachutes are very similar in their design to base jump canopies i.e. they open faster and below terminal velocity).
Why Extreme Athletes Can Not Chase After The World Record
The minimum altitude to open a parachute is also one of the very few things where skydivers do not try to beat each other on and to set up another world record. Although professional skydivers are used to performing quite incredible jumps and, in theory, they could open their parachutes around 600ft (when jumping from 10,000ft), it’s not a record worth chasing after.
Extreme athletes are usually looking either for an intense adrenaline kick or for awareness and marketing when performing an incredible jump. However, as the human body loses the perspective for distances at the usual jumping heights and as everything moves so quickly, skydivers will not feel any difference in the adrenaline kick between deploying the parachute at 600ft and 1,000ft or even 1,500ft. As a result, waiting too long to open the parachute is not worth the risk from an adrenaline perspective.
Secondly, even if an extreme athlete performed such a jump, he probably will not receive the awareness and marketing he is looking for. This is mainly because other – and easier to market – records have already been set.
In 2016, for example, Luke Aikins jumped from 25,000ft without a parachute and still managed to land safely. He did so by landing in a special net that absorbed his speed. With such records set, deploying the parachute at a minimum altitude will not sound so impressive – even though it might be even riskier than jumping in a special net without a parachute.
In my personal opinion, deploying the parachute at a minimum possible height is one of the most dangerous stunts skydivers can perform.
One Of The Most Dangerous Stunts – And Definitely One Of The Most Unnecessary Ones
If a skydiver tries to set the record for the lowest possible altitude, he will jump on a reserve system which – as already mentioned – only takes around 400ft to inflate. In theory, he could then deploy the parachute around 600ft to still have enough breaking time before reaching the ground.
In practice, however, the parachute might malfunction and some opening problems might occur. If the skydiver has reached terminal velocity and falls to the ground with 200km/h (180ft per second), he has very limited time to react. For example, if a problem occurs at 1,000ft deployment height, the skydiver has between 2 – 2.5 seconds to resolve the problem before reaching the theoretical minimum altitude of 600ft.
Now imagine an extreme athlete who wants to deploy his parachute at 600ft and a problem occurs. Even if it takes him only 1 second to resolve the problem or to deploy his backup parachute, he will be already at 420ft once the parachute starts to inflate. As it usually takes between 200-400ft for the parachute to open, the extreme athlete will not have enough braking time before landing – which will most likely have deadly consequences.
This limited reaction time is also one of the reasons why base jumpers often jump without a back-up parachute – they know that they won’t have the time to deploy it anyway.
Opening Height When You Jump Tandem
If you are currently thinking about performing a tandem jump, the minimum altitude is nothing to worry about. Tandem instructors usually open the parachute at around 4,000ft – which is around 3,000ft higher than the theoretical minimum. It also gives the tandem instructor more than 16s to react in case of any turbulences. Although this might not sound like a lot – time flows differently when you are in the air. In addition, the tandem instructors are usually quite experienced and will be able to resolve any malfunctions in a matter of seconds.
That being said, enjoy your free fall!