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I've heard many competing theories and opinions about how discs fly differently at altitude.  Many say discs tend to fly more overstable in thinner air (higher altitude) as compared to sea-level, while some others have said the opposite.  While this kind of competing (mis)information is common throughout our society, it does us little good when making informed decisions.  We need some way of sorting fact from BS/opinion. 

Because I'm planning a trip to (hopefully) play in the mountains soon, I'm in need of advice about what changes to make in my bag before leaving.  So, I'm starting this discussion with the hope of definitively answering this question:

How does an increase in altitude alter the flight characteristics of golf discs?

Of course, the question must assume a constant state where all other variables remain equal (ceteris paribus).  I'm particularly hoping for responses from those of you who have personal experience playing with the same discs at different altitudes, as well as from the many disc gurus abundant here on DGRUS.  Any other information/links on the subject would also be most welcome.

Tags: altitude, characteristics, disc, flight, golf

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Discs are most overstable at higher altitudes- it should have something to do with less air= less resistance where resistance= unstability. I have played from sea level to 12,500ft and I know at even 5,000ft elevation I had to get some more understable plastic in the bag just to throw straight and it became harder to turn things over.

Hey Steve! Which mountains are you planning to play?

The simple question is: yes--altitude affects a discs flight. Where I live in New Mexico, at 7,000 feet, my 171 Sidewinder might fly flat, helix a bit, and then fade reliably. If I were to throw it in you're neck of the woods, back in the STL, it would turn over straight into the ground and become nothing but a colorful paper weight.

I find throwing at altitude is more difficult than throwing at sea level. A few tips for altitude:

  1. Bring understable molds.
  2. If you don't like understable molds, bring lighter versions of your favorite molds (like a 164 destroyer vs a 172 destroyer).
  3. Expect less glide--everything will hyzer out faster than usual--particularly with your putters

If you come through Santa Fe, hit me up!

here is a Q & A on the topic I submitted to a Marshall Street contest a few months back:

Hoey!

Please enlighten me with you brilliant wisdom and insight. Can you explain to me why discs become so much more stable at higher altitudes and how players can prepare to deal with stability issues while traveling between sea level (Marshall Street) and high altitudes (my home in Santa Fe)? A physics lesson is in order…

Hoey's Answer:

Flava Flave!

Well, let me just say that I failed physics… but I did get a 4.0 in Visual Reconstruction: Applied Spatial Re-Creation.

The reason for a discs change in stability is relative to the air molecules which make up the space in which our objects travel. The denser the air is the less stable a disc will become. Conversely, less dense air will make a disc act more overstable.

While thinking of the best way to properly answer this pretty tough question, my exercises in VR: ASR were coming back to me.

If we were to, for a moment, think of the air surrounding us as a vacuum (empty space/nothing which thankfully, it's not)… In this case, air molecules could be best represented as the type of person who (now stay with me) decides its a good idea to flip over parked cars once their hometown teams wins the Championship, whichever sport it may be.

Here's why…

Ok. So your hometown team just won the championship. People are flooding the streets, the bars are still open, and common sense has just left with any sense of decency to go back to his place. The night is getting blurry, and the law needs to be broken in order for this buzz to keep going. Right now, there’s only a few knuckleheads (air molecules) out there, and they’re having a hard time flipping those parked cars. Think of this time of the night as being in a higher altitude (Santa Fe) throwing a disc. There’s less of these chumps (air molecules) with hands on a car, so it’s going to be harder for them to “flip” or “turn over” that car (your disc). This would make your disc appear more overstable than it would be at a lower altitude.

Now the bars are closed and I’m willing to bet there were a ton of Jaegerbombs ordered at last call. High on energy drinks and liquor, more boneheads flood the streets. And what better way to act as a concerned citizen, than to help his fellow man… tip over a parked car. So now there’s an overabundance of blockheads (air molecules) rocking these cars, and they are getting easier to flip. Think of this time of the night as being in a lower altitude (MSt) throwing a disc. There’s more of these dolts (air molecules) with hands on a car, so it’s going to be easier to “flip” or “turn over” that car (your disc). This would make your disc appear more understable than it would be at a higher altitude.

To summarize and to use the real boring answer, the higher you go the more overstable you get… get low, and get understable.

Thanks Ben.  I was 90+% sure this was the case, but its nice to hear it from someone definitively.  Hopefully yours and Ryan's answers will be useful to others as well.

Hey Ryan!  Thanks for the response.  I was actually hoping/expecting to heard from you, so your input is much appreciated. 

The mountains my discs will be slamming into faster are the Rockies...I'll be in Colorado next month and I'm planning a trip up to Vail to play a mountain course there.  I may play a course near Denver as well. 

All three of your suggestions above are great, and I will definitely heed them.  And your (below) description for Marshall Street is also awesome!

Thanks again for your input and hope we cross disc golf paths again soon!

I live in Utah and play mountain courses all the time. Im not sure what's in your bag now but don't think you have to make a huge change. I throw valks , Wraiths , destroyers, katanas ect up there all the time. At least the courses I've played have a variety of shots that will require it all. They will be more stable if your used to sea level but I wouldn't run out and buy anything special just for the trip. If its like solitude Utah where youre going you'll probably throw a lot of mids or putters anyway because your throwing down hill. Its funny to look at a 300+ hole and think that's short and park it with a mako or ROC.

The closest to sea level I've thrown lately was the buffalo area in new York. I did notice my discs were noticeable more under stable.

what about the other factors- glide speed fade- how do they vary at different levels?

 

Ben is very right. Ive thrown at 6250 for years and had to adjust goin to sea level. In altitude your discs will go farther and come back with more predictability. Also in high altitiude you can throw HARD as it will be more forgiving to perfect form. When I played at sea level I would turn discs into the ground way to easy and had to concentrate on form over power. I throw Lefty Forehand primarily.

I would really recommend playing Aspen while you are here. If you can't make it over there Beaver Creek has a course too, right next to Vail. Winter Park has a fantastic course as well. 

As for the stability, I just got back from Worlds where I had to switch out a whole lot of plastic from the bag I normally carry here. I think the humidity played a role too but discs that are stable to overstable here flipped so bad they were out of the bag. Also, when playing in the mountains really over exaggerate throwing down the mountain. If you get the nose up at all it will hyzer fast and you will spend a long day looking for discs in heavy trees lining the ski runs. I know a lot of people stay with mids and putters on the really steep downhill holes but I throw high speed drivers making sure to really snap them and keep them LOW with the nose down.

David, there is an enormous difference in glide also.  Especially with putting and max distance.  At elevation, I have found that things drop a lot more.  I am not sure if it is due to more gravity or thinner air or any particular factor.  I know that push putting works very well here in NM.  I live at 5000 and regularly play at 5-10k.  most good putters here utilize the push because they DROP hard here at a prescribed point.  As soon as they slow a little, they tank.  I went to a tourney in TX this year and upon a few practice putts, switched solely back to spinning, because they would glide right into the basket on the same line without much drop.  ALL my push putts were normal for me but ALL of them flew clear over the basket by 5 inches.  even a 15 footer had No Drop.  The elevation for in regards to max distance does help bad form and also helps discs turn less, or (due to the drop) appear more overstable, although that may not be the case.  They Do want to land sooner, which means hyzer out and die but, I can throw a beat up roc here and make it not come back and at the TX tourney, the same roc in the same general wind would helix.  So that disc would appear to be MORE over stable at lower elevation.  I thnk the truth is that they are more overstable but it doesn't turn a leopard into a Flick and it doesn't turn a Valk into a Boss.  You have to throw harder and faster here to get distance.  The air is thinner, so they do fly faster.  But they do want to land faster too.  So you have to get it out faster from you so it will fly farther.  Distance here= a frozen rope line, while distance at lower elevation=huge anny lines, high up in the air.  

My advice is to bring a bunch of beat up stuff and also your regular stuff.  If you are competing in a tourney go get feild practice to get confidence.  If you have no confidence and are learning the course you will compete on, you will only learn the lay out of the course and that you don't throw confidently there otherwise  :)

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