Volcano surfing: sledding down steep lava slopes in Vanuatu | Photo: Johnsson/Vanuatu Tourism Office

It's fast, exhilarating, and dangerous. Some call it volcano surfing, while others prefer the terms ashboarding and volcano sledding. Discover one of the craziest outdoor activities you've ever seen.

Whatever you name it, volcano boarding is a unique adventure sport that involves riding down the slopes of an active or dormant volcano on a board or sled.

This exciting outdoor activity has become increasingly popular in recent years, drawing thrill-seekers from around the world to destinations such as Nicaragua, Indonesia, and Vanuatu.

It is a discipline within sandboarding that, as the name implies, involves a few risks that some are willing to take.

In the end, the adrenaline of riding an active volcano is similar to surfing a big wave or skiing away from an avalanche.

Drop in and let that smoke blow - lava's up.

Volcano sledding: riders can reach speeds of up 100 kilometers per hour | Photo: Sparkle Motion/Creative Commons

History of Volcano Boarding

Riding down volcanoes is not new.

He'e holua, or "sled surfing," has existed in Hawaii since around 2,000 years ago. It is one of the earliest types of volcano sledding.

Back in the day, people used a long, slim wooden sled (papa holua) to slide down a pathway of lava rocks, either created by people or already existing.

However, the sport was forbidden in 1825 by British missionaries.

Nowadays, people are trying to bring it back, and approximately one hundred Hawaiian riders are currently participating in the activity.

On May 12, 2002, French sportsman Éric Barone reached a speed of 101 miles per hour (163 kilometers per hour) while descending Nicaragua's Cerro Negro on a regular bike.

Later, he went down the slope on a prototype bike and rode 1,300 feet (400 meters) at a speed of 107 miles per hour (172 kilometers per hour).

Suddenly, the bike went into a part of the hill with a lower gradient, which caused the front fork to break off and the bike and rider to crash.

Barone's helmet saved his life, but he got away with broken ribs and other injuries.

Nevertheless, the true origins of volcano surfing can be traced back to 2004 in Nicaragua when an Australian adventurer named Darryn Webb first came up with the idea.

Webb was a backpacker who had been traveling through Central America when he stumbled upon Cerro Negro, the active volcano near the city of Leon.

In an interview, Webb said he decided to try boarding down the volcano after watching locals hiking up and sliding down the ash-covered slopes on pieces of cardboard.

He started experimenting with different materials to make a board that could withstand the rocky terrain and high speeds of the volcano slope.

Webb tried picnic tables, fridge doors, and mattresses until he eventually settled on a modified toboggan made of plywood, metal, and Formica, which could handle the rough terrain and provide a smooth ride.

The experience was so exhilarating that he decided to make it a commercial venture.

In 2005, he founded a company called Bigfoot Hostel, which offers volcano boarding tours and accommodation to tourists.

Webb's invention of the volcano board and establishment of the first ashboarding tour company helped to popularize the activity and bring it to a broader audience.

Today, ashboarding is a popular extreme sport, with several tour companies offering the experience in locations around the world.

However, Darryn's claim to have invented volcano sledding has been disputed by others involved in the activity before him.

American journalist and politician Zoltan Istvan credited himself with pioneering ashboarding on Vanuatu's Mount Yasur in 2002.

Ashboarding: an outdoor activity developed in the early 2000s | Photo: Bigfoot Hostel

Equipment

The equipment needed for volcano surfing is minimal but crucial.

The most important item is the board itself, which is typically made of plywood or fiberglass and has a metal bottom.

The board is designed to be both durable and lightweight, so it can easily slide down the slope.

Riders also wear protective gear, such as a helmet, goggles, and gloves, to protect them from the volcanic ash and rocks that can be kicked up during the ride.

It is also important to wear long-sleeved shirts and pants or thick overalls to prevent cuts and abrasions.

Useful Techniques

Volcano boarding requires a unique set of skills and techniques that are essential to a successful, painless ride.

The first step is to climb up to the top of the volcano, which can be an arduous task, as the slopes can be steep and slippery.

Once at the top, riders sit on the board and use their feet as brakes to control their speed.

The key to a good ride is to keep the board straight and centered and to lean back to maintain balance.

Some riders prefer to lie down on the board, while others prefer to sit or stand.

Intermediate to advanced volcano surfers snowboarding-type boards to descend the slopes while standing.

Ashboarding: riding down active volcanoes is dangerous | Illustration: SurferToday

Volcano Boarding Spots

There are several spots around the world that are popular for ashboarding. Here are a few of the top locations:

  • Cerro Negro, Nicaragua: This is considered to be the birthplace of volcano boarding, as it was the first place where the activity was commercialized. Cerro Negro is an active volcano that is about 728 meters high, and it is located near the city of Leon in Nicaragua. It is one of the most popular spots for volcano surfing, with tours and equipment rental available. It takes 45 minutes to get to the summit.
  • Mount Yasur, Vanuatu: This is one of the most active volcanoes on the planet, and it is located on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. Volcano sledding is possible on the ash slopes of the volcano, and it is considered to be one of the most exciting experiences in the world.
  • Mount Bromo, Indonesia: This is an active volcano that is located in East Java, Indonesia. It is famous for its stunning landscape and is also a popular destination. The slopes of the volcano are covered in volcanic sand, making it an ideal location for the activity.
  • Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica: Arenal is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Costa Rica and is known for its natural hot springs and stunning landscape. While it is not possible to volcano board directly on Arenal, there are several nearby locations where the activity is possible, including Cerro Chato and Rincon de la Vieja.

These are just a few of the top locations for volcano boarding.

It is important to remember that ashboarding can be dangerous, and it should only be attempted with an experienced and licensed guide.

Volcano surfing: always wear protective clothing and gear | Photo: Bigfoot Hostel

Risks and Safety Considerations

While volcano surfing can be a thrilling experience, it is important to remember that it is not without risks.

Volcanic ash and rocks can be dangerous, and riders can suffer cuts, bruises, or even serious injuries if they fall off the board.

It is essential to wear protective gear and follow the instructions of the tour guide to ensure a safe ride.

Additionally, riders should be aware of the potential risks associated with the volcano itself, such as lava flows or gas emissions.

Here are some of the main risks involved in volcano boarding:

  1. High speeds: When ashboarding, riders can reach speeds of up to 62 miles per hour (100 kilometers per hour), depending on the slope's steepness. This can lead to accidents and collisions with other riders, objects, or the terrain;
  2. Falling: Volcanic ash and rocks can be unstable, which increases the risk of falls and injuries. Riders must also wear protective clothing and gear such as helmets, goggles, and gloves to prevent injuries from falling;
  3. Burns: The volcanic ash can be extremely hot, and there is a risk of getting burned. Riders should wear long pants, long sleeves, and closed-toe shoes to protect their skin from burns;
  4. Breathing problems: The dust and ash from the volcano can irritate the lungs and cause respiratory problems, particularly for those with asthma or other respiratory issues. It's essential to wear a mask to prevent breathing problems;
  5. Volcanic activity: Volcanoes can be unpredictable and have sudden eruptions that can pose a risk to the safety of riders. It's paramount to check with local authorities and guides about the safety of the area before attempting volcano surfing;

To reduce the risk of injury or accidents, it's important to book a licensed and experienced guide who can provide safety instructions and necessary equipment.

By taking these precautions, you can minimize the risks and enjoy the experience safely.

Cerro Negro: The Volcano Surfing Mecca

As we've seen above, Nicaragua's Cerro Negro is often considered to be the best spot for volcano boarding because of a few key reasons.

Firstly, Cerro Negro is an active volcano with a relatively young age of only about 160 years.

This means the terrain comprises freshly formed volcanic ash and rocks, creating a unique experience for riders.

Secondly, Cerro Negro's slope is relatively steep, which allows for high speeds when volcano surfing.

The volcano's slope has a grade of around 41 degrees, providing an adrenaline rush for thrill-seekers.

Thirdly, Cerro Negro is conveniently located near the city of Leon, which makes it easily accessible to tourists who are interested in trying ashboarding.

There are several tour companies that offer volcano boarding tours and equipment rentals.

Finally, Cerro Negro's volcanic activity is closely monitored by the Nicaraguan authorities, ensuring that the area is safe for tourists to visit.

This means visitors can enjoy the thrill of volcano surfing while feeling assured that their safety is being taken seriously.

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