Words + Images by Zanne Merkel
Honestly, I didn't know what to expect for my first hot-air balloon ride. I do not like heights, but I do like adventure. I find so much joy in looking out of the window when riding in a plane and watching the landscape change beneath me. What would it be like to have that same scene, but without a window? To have a totally unobstructed view of the landscape below?
WhereGalsWander, my travel and adventure blog, was invited by Carson Valley's Visitor Center and Lake Tahoe Hot-Air Balloons to explore their corner of Nevada from above. We drove about 8 hours from Los Angeles to Minden, Nevaday to where we would embark on what was my first hot-air balloon ride. I was beyond excited to see what the landscapes I frequent by foot- forests, mountains, and hills- would look like from the air!
Watching the hot-air balloon get set up.
We arrived the night before, ready for a meeting time at 6:30 am the next morning. Hot-air balloons typically fly in the morning and evening. According to Skydrifters, this is because "winds are generally calm and favorable the first hours after sunrise and the last hours before sunset. The sun’s uneven heating of the earth’s surface causes strong, variable winds making afternoon flights unpredictable. In the morning, it takes a few hours to heat the earth’s surface enough to generate the thermal activity that creates wind." It's amazing that there can be so much changing even though we can't see it.
In total, there were about 10 riders, and we boarded a passenger van to take us to the balloon airfield. In our case, the balloon was already spread out and being filled with air. Sometimes, part of the "experience" is having the group unroll the heavy balloon or "envelope" which often weighs in at around 240lbs. The passenger basket is then tipped on its side and braced so the balloon will not take flight prematurely.
When There Aren't Doors...Climb!
After the balloon is full of hot air, (that fire to fill it is not joke) each passenger climbs into the basket. Easy, right? If you're like me, you assumed that there would be some sort of door. I'm 5'6", and the basket came up to my elbows when in it, so safe to say, it's high. There are usually small footholds that you can step into to help climb over, and then you swing your feet over the side of the basket like getting onto a horse. Easier said than done, especially after driving eight hours the day before. Thankfully, our pilot Sheldon and his crew had a small step stool to help us over.
The fire inside is no joke!
So, after some clambering, we've made it into the basket! First, the crew is holding onto the tethers, and then all of a sudden, they aren't. A loud blast and the fire slowly pushes us up. It felt more like a slow rise, like a gentle crescendo, like a soap bubble leaving the earth. Our pilot put on some music and we were off to the song "Up, Up, and Away!"
The entire ride was smooth, I barely felt us moving. It looked like the earth was gently gliding beneath us while we were frozen in time. When the music stopped, it was absolutely silent. I remember feeling completely at peace. There was no fear of heights at all.
The view from the air.
Public Lands From the Air
We continued to climb until we reached about 10 miles above sea level, and I have never had that kind of untouched view. I could see Lake Tahoe peeking out from the mountains. This is a one-of-a-kind view you could not get any other way, in full 360 degrees. I've hiked and biked through our public lands, but it was incredible to view them in a way that I had never experienced before.
The question everyone asks is: what is it like when you land? Well, I'm sure that the landing procedure for passengers may vary in different hot-air balloons. That said, this was my experience. There are rope handles inside the basket that you can hold onto. Then, you squat, bending your knees until your head sinks below the top of the basket within your divided compartment. You brace your back against the small compartment, and hold the handles.
We landed in a field, and it was a bit like skipping rocks. We would briefly glide across the grass, take a little bump, and repeat until the balloon came to a stop. Then, it's another fun climb over the edge of the basket, touching back down to the ground with your own two feet, and voilá! You've completed your first hot-air balloon ride.
In the hot-air balloon in my Wild Tribute Smokey Groovy Bear Hoodie!
Tips for Riding in a Hot-Air Balloon
1. Wear comfortable shoes with good tread! You'll want to make sure you're able to make it to the balloon, which is most likely on an uneven field. In addition, you'll probably be standing in the basket of the hot-air balloon for the entire ride.
2. Wear sunscreen and bring sunglasses, especially given how high up you'll be. Sometimes, it's hard to remember this very important step when leaving early in the morning because it may not be bright yet.
3. Dress in warm layers. Hot-air balloons go out early morning and early evening when the temperatures change. Wear comfortable clothing that allows you to bend, climb, and stretch.
4. Bring a hat, not just for warmth but for standing under the fire that heaths the basket-- it can be quite warm on your head!
5. Bring only the essentials-- no large bags, purses, or backpacks.
Seeing the landscape from the air with a view unhindered by window panes was like nothing I had ever experienced. My first hot-air balloon experience was amazing, and it definitely won't be my last!
Zanne Merkel is a Wild Tribute Ambassador. She is also the founder, host and chief-trouble-maker at WhereGalswander.com and Wander To The Edge podcast.