hot air balloon

The Complete Guide to Hot Air Ballooning

If you’ve ever wanted a complete guide to hot air ballooning- look no further than this! From a distance, hot air balloons appear to be merely a colourful speck in the sky. But hot air balloons are so much more than the simplicity they infer. In reality, hot air balloons possess a rich history behind their construction. They involve complex thermodynamic control systems. Hundreds of years of development have come together to create an incredible kind of sky-bound adventure, just for your enjoyment.

hot air balloon

What is a hot air balloon?

Most people can recognize a hot air balloon- they consist of a bag (what might be referred to as the balloon part), called an envelope, which is where heated air collects. The envelope is usually made of nylon, and has several parts which include the following:

  • Parachute Valve- self sealing flap on top of the envelope which allows air to escape at a controlled rate. This controls ascent and descent of the balloon.
  • Gores and panels- sections of the envelope made of weather-resistant materials and stitched in specific shapes and patterns.
  • Skirt- A section of fabric that helps channel warm air into the envelope, and which is also helpful in shielding the flame from wind.

Below the envelope is a wicker basket, or a capsule. This is where passengers are carried.

The basket is also where the a heat source is. Usually, there will be a liquid propane tank, and open flame heating the air in order to keep the balloon in the sky. The heat source is known as the burner. The inlet of the balloon (closest to the burner flame) is made from fire resistant materials like Nomex.

It is not possible for hot air balloons to fly beyond the atmosphere.

hot air balloon burner

How does a hot air balloon work?

A hot air balloon is what is known as a lighter-than-air aircraft. These kinds of aircraft are able to rise into the sky by using a gas such as propane or another gas to hear air (and render it lighter), or lighter-than-air gases like Helium or Hydrogen (these are usually not used for hot air balloon passenger flights but more for research balloons). 

The envelope is usually made out of heat-resistant nylon or polyester. Hot air balloon envelopes are often over 24 meters tall when filled. Prior to flight the envelope is laid out on the ground and is partially filled with cold air. At this point, the burners are attached below and heat begins to increase the air temperature.

When air is heated, it rises into the envelope and creates buoyancy. This is because hot air has a lower density than that of the colder air in the atmosphere around it. Other lighter-than-air aircraft that work in this same way include the free balloons, moored balloons, and airships. 

Once the air has been sufficiently heated, the pilot can untie the balloon and, by operating the parachute valve to control ascent, begin lifting the balloon off the ground.

The envelope must be large enough for sufficient amounts of air to be thrust upwards. For example, to lift 455 kilograms, you would need 65,000 cubic feet of heated air.

historic hot air balloon

History of hot air balloons

Standard hot air balloons are known as Montgolfier balloons. This is because French brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier were the first to develop a hot air balloon which could carry passengers.

In 1783, the brothers publicly launched their first unmanned balloon in Annonay, Ardeche, France. Just two months later, on October 15, 1783, they launched another balloon, this time tethered, but carrying passengers: while they had spent the months prior experimenting with animal passengers, the first balloon manned flight was made this day by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine in Paris.

Today, you can see a model of the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon in the London Museum of Science.

Hot air balloons are widely used as a source of entertainment and adventure. They are a wonderful way to see landscapes from the air. But back in the 18th century, King Louis XVI had originally ordered that only condemned criminals would be the first pilots- a pretty nice punishment! But de Rozier, along with Marquis François d’Arlandes requested that they do the honour of the first piloting. 

The French also used their new prized invention for military use in 1794. During the battle of Fleurus, the French used the balloon for observation of the enemy.

You can also check out the National Museum of Hot Air Ballooning‘s website for more cool historical facts.

hot air balloon in the clouds

Who can ride in a hot air balloon?

Hot air balloons are safe for people of all ages, including dogs. The average commercial hot air balloon carries around eight people, pilot included. Other private, smaller balloons can carry up to two passengers.

The largest balloons can carry up to thirty people! If you’ve ever seen (or participated in) one of those photos of groups dining in the sky- they’re being held up by a pretty big balloon! The world’s largest passenger hot air balloon, the Cameron Z-750, can carry thirty-two passengers.

The best thing to do is to contact the provider with whom you wish to book a hot air balloon. This way, you will know how many of your friends to invite on the adventure.

Best times to take a hot air balloon ride

Hot air ballooning is best embarked in the morning or evening. This is because balloons fly better in cold air. During morning flights, the Earth’s surface is colder. However, once you have flown over 200 feet in the air, temperatures will feel slightly warmer. This is called temperature inversion, and it is always present in the morning. Wind speeds are often more predictable as well in the morning hours.

Flying in the morning or at sunset also makes it easier to take off, land and steer. There is less turbulence and ultimately leads to a very enjoyable ride.

During the flight, the pilot steers the balloon through its ability to climb or descend into winds going different directions. This means it is important for the pilot to determine what direction the wind is blowing at altitudes other than the balloon’s altitude. To do this, the pilot uses a variety of techniques. 

The direction of flight depends on the wind, but the altitude of the balloon can be controlled by changing the temperature of the air inside the envelope. The pilot may open one or more burner blast valves to increase the temperature inside the envelope, thereby increasing lift, and thus ascend or slow or stop a descent. 

darth vadar hot air balloon

Fun facts about hot air balloons

  • Animals were the first hot air balloon passengers! Cute, right? The Montgolfiers sent up a sheep, a duck, and a rooster, while the king and queen (Marie Antoinette) of France watched. 130,000 other people watched the historic flight over Versailles, and thankfully, the animals landed safely!
  • The bigger the size, the steeper the price! Private, or small balloons cost up to $ 20,000 USD, not including the costs of fuel, pilot and maintenance.
  • Larger balloons tend to increase exponentially- a balloon that can hold four doubles in price.
  • The highest a hot air balloon has ever flown hot is 21,000 kilometres. That’s almost twice the cruising altitude of a commercial aeroplane. At those heights, the people in the basket need to wear oxygen masks.
  • One of the biggest events for hot air ballooners worldwide happens in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA at the International Hot Air Balloon Festival.
  • One of the coolest things about hot air balloon festivals is seeing the creations people come up with for their own personal hot air balloons! From balloons looking like Darth Vader to cute puppy dogs, to a pair of Levi’s, they’re all massive displays of creativity!
  • On January 17, 1991, entrepreneur Richard Branson and Swedish engineer Per Lindstrand lifted off from Japan in a hot air balloon. They sailed over 4,700 miles in 46 hours. But the amazing flight ended with an air rescue after they landed on the icy Lake Yukon in Canada.
  • Check out the London Museum of Science’s website for more cool information about hot air balloons!
  • The photo below is one of the world’s largest hot air balloon baskets! This double-decker was enjoyed back in the 1970s.

Will I need to bring anything?

Consider bringing your friends, family, or significant other, and a sense of adventure! Many people find it nice to bring a picnic-style lunch, and a bottle of champagne or wine. It’s also a good idea to bring a warm jacket, scarf and hat, plus a blanket if you or anyone else gets cold.

Amazing places to go hot air ballooning

Obviously one of the best things about enjoying a hot air balloon ride is the spectacular opportunity to see vast landscapes from the air. Sure you could take a plane and look out a tiny window at the ground below, but it in no way compares to a hot air balloon. From the basket, you can feel the warmth of the fire above, the gentle breeze in your face and entire panoramic views. So make sure to choose a special place to experience it fully. Check out the three spots highlighted below.

Hot air balloon Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe, California, USA

Tahoe is simply a gorgeous place to take a hot air balloon ride. You can see the entire lake, and surrounding impressive mountain ranges.

Lake Tahoe itself is a stunning Lake in the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, in California. The lake is over 496.2 km², and is one of the best summer and winter destinations in the whole state. Lake Tahoe is known for Emerald Bay State Park, and multiple famous ski resorts like Squaw Valley and Kirkwood.

In the winter Tahoe overflows with fresh powder to ride on ski or snowboard. Summers bring sparkling clear, emerald waters and epic mountain biking.

Vacationers come here to go stand-up paddleboarding, boating, swimming, and to just downright party. There are plenty of beaches to relax on, oodles of hiking trails (like the Tahoe Rim Trail). Hot air ballooning here is icing on the cake!

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat is known worldwide as a hot air ballooners paradise. It’s one of the best ways to see the entire span of beautiful religious structures in this sacred Cambodian destination.

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, not to mention Cambodia’s most famous landmark.

The temples of the former Khmer Empire capital were constructed in the 12th century. Angkor Wat covers covers over 500 acres, of land, so taking a hot air balloon ride here is probably the most efficient, not to mention exciting way to see all of the complex. You can even take a flight during sunrise and sunset, for a romantic and awe-inspiring  adventure.

Lake District, England

Lake District, England

With an area of ​​over 2,000 square kilometers, Lake District is a beautiful place in England where you can take a hot air balloon ride.

Considered one of Englands most picturesque destinations, the Lake District National Park has quite a few stunning things to see. England’s tallest peak, Scafell Pike, is here, as well as grassy pastures and valleys in between the peaks. You can see steam trains tooting their horns, newby Bridge, and more from the air. You know the airline Virgin, they actually offer Balloon Flights  here!

If you want more ideas for vacation spots that double as superb locations for going hot air ballooning, check out this list of the best places in the world to go hot air ballooning! Also, be sure to check out our website for many more cool destinations to see the sights by hot air balloon.