How Do Hot Air Balloons Work? (Beginner Friendly Guide)

If you’ve ever wondered how hot air balloons work, Napa Valley Aloft has you covered. Let’s go over all the different parts and scientific principles that go into how hot air balloons work and even fly.

The Different Parts Of Hot Air Balloons

Hot Air Balloons are simple vehicles comprised of 3 key parts, a balloon (envelope), a basket, and burners. All of these are held together using remarkably strong metal cables, ensuring nothing comes loose.

Balloons or Envelopes

The balloon, or envelope, is typically made out of light yet durable nylon. Because hot air balloons rely on heated air to fly, cutting unnecessary weight is critical. Nylon allows balloons to hold their shape, even in rough wind, historically outperforming other materials.

These balloons are typically made from several parts, including panels, parachute valves, gores, and a skirt. The parachute valve allows the pilot to release hot are, allowing the balloon to gradually lose altitude or land. In comparison, the skirt is positioned right above the burners, where the air inside the balloon is heated to gain or maintain altitude.


Ballooning baskets are primarily made of wicker, lightweight yet durable and flexible material. Wicker is used partially because of how little it weighs, which helps save fuel, but it is strong enough to withstand landings. 

The basket is responsible for safely carrying passengers, fuel, burners, and other necessities while securely attaching to the balloon. A tough job for any material.


Most modern hot air balloons rely on a mixture of propane and oxygen for fuel, mixing and igniting the two gases together to generate lift. The hot air inside the envelope gradually inflates it until there’s enough lift for the balloon to take flight.

The burners are positioned directly above the basket’s center and mounted via sturdy metal tubing. The burners are fed fuel through a series of gas lines from the fuel tanks attached to the basket’s exterior side.

How Do Hot Air Balloons Fly?

Hot Air Balloons are able to fly by generating lift through heated air. Hot air weighs less than cold air and generates roughly 7 grams of lift per cubic foot. With enough superheat air, typically 77,000 to 600,000 cubic feet, the balloon and its passengers can take off.

Balloons aren’t steered the same way as other vehicles; pilots instead rely on various air streams found at different altitudes to navigate. Gradually heating or releasing hot air to gently surf the vast blue skies.

How Do Hot Air Balloons Stay In The Air?

Hot air balloons are able to stay airborne thanks to their burners. Gradually heating, or even releasing hot air through the parachute valve, to stay in the air.

How Do You Steer A Hot Air Balloon?

Balloons aren’t steered with a wheel or rudder like cars or boats; they instead navigate in a similar way to surfing. Adjusting altitude to gently ride the wide array of air streams found between 1,000 to 3,000 feet above the ground.

RELATED: How To Prepare For Your First Hot Air Balloon Ride

How Does A Hot Air Balloon Land?

Once a hot air balloon pilot finds a suitable place to land, they’ll open the parachute valve to release hot air, reducing altitude. This process is repeated at varying speeds until the pilot is confident with the landing. Finally, releasing the last of the hot air to finish landing.

What Happens If A Hot Air Balloon Runs Out Of Gas?

If a hot air balloon runs out of gas, it’ll slowly begin descending. That’s because the balloon only generates lift through burning fuel to heat the air in the envelope. The lack of regular heating leads the air inside the balloon to gradually cool, reducing altitude in the process.

Conclusion: How Do Hot Air Balloons Work?

Hot air balloons work by burning fuel underneath the balloon, filling it with hot air. That hot air generates lift, thanks to hot air being lighter than cold air, allowing the balloon to take flight.

The pilot uses the ever-changing temperature in the balloon to adjust altitude, typically between 1,000 to 3,000 feet above the surface, to surf across different air streams. Those differing air streams allow the pilot to steer the balloon over the course of the flight and even control where they land.