Skydiving is something any adventurer ought to do at least once. Outside of a motorcycle on a track (or breaking many laws), how else can you feel air rushing by as you go 120mph? And with tandem parachutes, it's pretty easy to do just one jump and get the full experience. Skydiving is a reasonably affordable sport to get into seriously, but it is one that requires a greater time commitment than most. If you're juggling several sports, it's probably better to do just once, or twice.
Required people: 1. However, this is a strange adventure to go off to do on your own. Who will you go to the bar with afterwards? You want a buddy or preferably a nice group, though mind you it's hard to plan a group as people have a tendency to say they're in until the moment of truth comes (paying you or the jump center). One good trick is to lie and say you've already paid for them. Anyone in healthy condition should be fine to go, but there is a weight limit ranging from 200-230 that could affect your jump zone selection. You can dress lightly, but don't try to lie about it. Chutes are rated for a given max weight, and they may weigh you anyhow to confirm.
Required gear: None required. Wear tennis shoes and loose, comfortable clothing. You may be donning a jumpsuit (overalls) on top. The jump center will also provide goggles (eyewear compatible, contacts fine) and perhaps a helmet. If you have long hair, either tie it back or expect the soft leather helmet. (not good if you want video/photos taken)
Required time commitment: Half day. Tandem jumping involves perhaps 30 minutes of prep time and then the plane ride up, but at a busy place it can take a while to get to that point.
Costs: start at about $150 for a simple tandem jump.
Jump choices: There are three types of jumps the new student can choose from: the tandem, the static line jump, and the accelerated free fall.
First, let me eliminate the SL option. This is where the chute's deploy line is attached to the plane. You jump off, it opens. While you get the fun of making that leap of faith, you get only a few seconds of free fall before the chute opens. What's the point?
The tandem jump is likely the best option for those who just want to try a jump. You do perhaps 30 minutes of prep, plus the time to sign all the legal documents, and you go. A jumpmaster attached to your back has the two chutes. Sometimes you can open the chute and steer it after the canopy opens, but most of the time you're just cargo. The pricing is generally in the 150-200 range, depending on location and altitude. You do want to pay the premium to go to 12.5-15k, but the additional to 18k doesn't add much.
There is a photographer option at all jumpzones - it's the primary way an avid jumper can make some money in the sport. They can do both video and film, with a bit of a bias towards video now. Prices are all over the map now, but 70-90 is typical for both. A few places now have digital SLRs replacing film - the best example is Byron where you end up receiving ~60 6MP shots off a Canon 300D or 10D. Well worth the extra bucks. Other places still only give ~24. DVD is another option, but usually not worth it in my opinion. Typically the video is just piped into a DVD recorder, sometimes from a VHS source. If you have a miniDV camcorder and know how to work with it, bring a tape for the video guy and ask that he use it so you can keep the original feed in full resolution.
The AFF program is directed to those who want to do jumping on their own someday, or who consider being merely 'cargo' beneath them. It's an 7-8 jump series - in the first couple two instructors jump with you. At the end you are cleared to jump alone, but are still on student status until you've done 25 jumps and certain skills requirements. AFF1 involves ~6 hours of classroom prep before you do your jump. There also now appears to be an AFP program that starts with 2 tandem jumps - even with the extra 2 jumps, the pricing looks to be similar in the end, so it might be better to start with the tandem. Still, many swear by the AFF experience. One friend got the full treatment - had her primary tangle up and had to cut it and go to the reserve chute. Typical pricing is $300 for AFF1. Once you have you completed the full FAA program, you can get a plane ride for as little as 18-20$, if you buy your own chute. Rental of equipment is 20-25 per jump. However, note that you can't casually engage in this sport and show up once a year. Unlike scuba diving, currency is enforced, and depending on your experience level you must be jumping as frequently as every 30-60 days.
There are more jumpzones, but here is a sampling. Note that great liberties are taken with names. Skydive SF is well north of The City and the Lake Tahoe JZ is north of Truckee. Another important note: deal directly with the dropzones. 1800-Skyride is a company that operates many ficticious business names such as SkydiveSacramento (and just about any other unclaimed city) but is merely a third party vendor. They will sell you vouchers for dropzones in their network, but you typically will pay a higher price and may have to go further to find a DZ that will accept you. And if they must turn you away for any reason, say you don't meet a physical requirement, getting a refund is very difficult. You will often see vouchers for sale on Ebay. From an more ethical standpoint, they have stolen entire web pages from actual DZs and use the images of planes and staff and claim them as their own. If the webpage doesn't list an actual address, it's probably a Skyride outfit. Dropzone.com is a fairly complete list of dropzones and is an excellentsite for the sport.
claims highest tandem jump at 18,000, but I think it was closer to 16k for
Byron (Altamont Pass)
Lodi - $100 tandems!
Santa Rosa (Sonoma)
My jumping section - pics and video
of me and my friends.
My AFF experience - my year long process to get my A license.