The art of rappelling is defined as a “controlled descent off a vertical drop”, and is an incredibly important skill for all climbers and outdoor adventurers to learn to remain as safe as possible.
Sometimes also known as “abseiling” in other countries, rappelling is one of the more fun, but risky parts of climbing, so therefore requires a considerable amount of practice before being performed in an open environment.
There are lots of different methods of rappelling you can use, each with their own benefits, limitations, and risks.
In this guide, we’ll take an in-depth look at seven of the most important types of rappelling you need to keep in mind. We’ll also look to answer a number of the frequently asked questions.
A Closer Look At Rappelling Techniques
Before explaining more about the various types of rappelling, it’s a good idea to first provide some additional information on the practice.
As touched upon above, rappelling is the term used to describe the act of descending off a vertical drop such as a mountain. This is done using a rope that’s typically attached to an anchor point at the top.
Rappelling is a climbing technique that’s perfect for getting down a mountain or cliff in a quick and efficient manner, as opposed to taking the time and effort to climb back down a steep surface.
Despite the fact that rappelling is usually employed as the descent after a tough upward climb, it’s also become something of an adventure sport for adrenaline seekers in recent years.
Many attribute the invention of rappelling to Jean Charlet-Straton, who reportedly devised the practice in 1876 after getting stuck during a descent in the French Alps.
However, others claim that Edward Whymper – best known for the inaugural ascent of the Matterhorn – had already been using the method.
Irrespective of who first invented the idea of rappelling, it was an incredibly good one, and has since become one of the most popular ways to descend for climbers all over the world.
The first of the types of rappelling we’ll take a closer look at is a standard rappel. This is where you lower yourself down a vertical surface, with your feet pressed up against the wall and your back facing the ground.
- Easy to execute
- Simple to learn
- Useful in most situations
- Difficult and dangerous to do with a load
- Slower than most other techniques
- Requires a steady surface to brace against
As the name of this technique suggests, the standard rappel is by far the most common, and one which you’ll definitely need to perfect. Unsurprisingly, it’s also the easiest and the first type of rappel that most beginners learn with.
Despite the fact that standard rappels are relatively straightforward compared to many of the other types of rappelling we’ll go on to explain later in this guide,
it’s essential that you don’t take them lightly. After all, standard rappels are the area where most climbing accidents happen.
To use the standard rappelling technique correctly, connect the belay device around your pelvis via a harness. This type of rappel is extremely popular and ideal for simple situations where you just need to get down to the ground.
Standard rappelling is also great for beginners who are new to the art of rappelling. This is because the technique easily allows you to have full control of the speed of your descent.
So, for those new to rock climbing, or another similar activity, it’s highly recommended to familiarize yourself with a standard rappel.
Despite its clear benefits, it’s worth noting that standard rappels have their drawbacks. For example, if you’re trying to carry any type of load with you,
they can become incredibly difficult to execute. They’re also much slower than most other rappelling techniques.
As mentioned above, the vast majority of climbing accidents occur when climbers use a standard rappel.
This is mainly because climbers become overconfident in their abilities, and ignore many of the essential safety steps that are required from a standard rappel.
There are several ways this can happen, including forgetting to tie stopper knots at the end of the rope and failing to create a backup for a brake hand.
So, despite their simplicity, it’s important that you don’t take standard rappels lightly.
Hanging rappels are similar to standard rappels in a number of different ways, however instead of having a wall to brace your feet against, you have to hang freely in the open air, allowing gravity to do the work.
- Easy to perform
- Fun and adrenaline-fueled
- Can use it to descend from pretty much anywhere
- Technique isn’t reversible
- More challenging to learn than a standard rappel
If you want to have some fun while rappelling, hanging rappels or free rappels are an excellent choice. With this technique, the belay device and harness is connected as usual, while the brake hand is used to control the descent.
In other words, the only difference between hanging rappels and standard rappels is the fact that you don’t have a wall to brace against – instead you’re hanging in the open air while you descend down the rope.
There are plenty of situations when you can use a hanging rappel, with perhaps the most common being when you’re faced with an overhanging cliff.
Furthermore, people also go out of their way to seek hanging rappels, simply because they’re fun to perform.
As is the case with standard rappelling, everyone should learn the skill of a hanging rappel, as it’s a scenario that you’ll invariably find yourself if you’re climbing or canyoning.
Feeling comfortable rappelling when your feet don’t have a surface to brace against is essential for anyone venturing out into the mountains.
The good news is that hanging rappels are pretty straightforward to learn. The tying-in process, the attachment of the belay device, and all the safety checks are exactly the same as a standard rappel.
However, one of the major differences you’re going to have to accept is that once your rappel turns into a hanging rappel, you’ll lose a considerable amount of control over your body’s position. This usually results in your body spinning slowly in one direction.
Don’t worry too much about this as it’s completely normal. The best thing to do is to avoid fighting it, because struggling can actually make the spin worse, and potentially tangle the rope up.
Another difference to keep in mind is the fact that hanging rappels are much more committing. In other words, once you’re out on the rope, the only way to go is down.
Yes, you have the ability to stop your momentum, but once you do you’ll just be dangling in mid-air until you decide to finish the descent.
Most of the time this is fine, however, it’s essential that the ends of your rope are touching the ground before you commit.
If your rope is too short on a hanging rappel, there’s every chance that you’ll end up stuck dangling in the air, and be forced to wait until someone comes along to rescue you.
The next type of rappelling we’ll take a look at is the Australian rappel, where you descend face-first towards the ground and have your back pointing to the anchor point.
- Quicker than a standard rappel
- Doesn’t use specialized equipment
- More dangerous than a standard rappel
- Relatively unpopular among the climbing community
For climbers and adventurers who like to do things their own way, the Australian rappel is a good choice. In terms of the technique,
it isn’t for the faint-hearted, as you descend face-first with the rope attached to your waist, and your feet planted against the surface that you’re rappelling on.
The benefit of this rappelling method is that it allows you to gather considerably more speed than a standard rappel. In fact, you can even run down the surface of the wall with an Australian rappel.
There are two ways you can use this technique. The first one involves attaching a belay device as you would for a standard rappel, but then rotating your body 180 degrees so you’re facing down the wall towards the ground.
It’s worth noting that this can sometimes cause a few problems, especially because the rope will try to pull you back into a standard, unaltered belaying position.
The second method for using an Australian rappel is to attach the belay device to a harness that you’re wearing backward. While this is more comfortable than the first option, it can lead to potentially debilitating back injuries.
This is because climbing harnesses aren’t designed to be worn backward and wearing them in this manner renders all the safety features effectively useless.
So, in situations where you need to come to a sudden stop, you’ll be forced to put a huge amount of pressure on your lower back.
Another major issue related to Australian rappels is the fact that there’s very little equipment designed to perform them.
The vast majority of belay devices and climbing harnesses are designed for standard rappels, so if you want to perform an Australian rappel, you’ll have to modify the standard equipment.
With all this in mind, many members of the climbing community dislike using the Australian rappelling technique. Yes, they’re a solid option if you’re confident in your skills and looking for some fast-paced excitement, but when it comes to safety, there are much better types of rappelling.
Military rappels are effectively the Australian version of a hanging rappel. This advanced technique was originally developed to help the Australian military descend to the ground while firing, and can be a thrilling rappelling experience for anyone brave enough to attempt it.
- Excellent speed
- Good position for returning fire (not that you’ll need to engage in this)
- Plenty of risk and danger attached
- Limited practical use
For all you thrill-seekers out there, this is the perfect rappelling technique for you. Fast and dangerous by nature, military rappels allow you to dangle in the air while descending towards the ground in super quick time.
Lots of people tend to group military rappels and Australian rappels in the same category, but there are some notable ways you can distinguish between the two.
For example, Australian rappels are performed travelling face-first down a surface, whereas military rappels are performed without a surface to brace against.
It’s also worth noting that military rappels exhibit both the good and bad parts of an Australian rappel. If you’re focused on high speeds and excitement, military rappels are one of the very best rappelling techniques.
However, they’re a lot more difficult to perform and can be easier to lose control.
Much like the hanging rappel, military rappels could be something that you’re forced into doing in certain situations.
For instance, if you’re performing an Australian rappel to descend down an overhanging cliff, there’s every chance that you might have to turn it into a military rappel.
In situations such as these, it’s essential that you learn the technique of a military rappel beforehand just in case.
In terms of the dangers of a military rappel, they’re pretty much similar to the dangers associated with an Australian rappel – except considerably worse.
For example, the chances of something getting caught in your belay device are relatively high.
Furthermore, there’s a greater risk of coming to a jarring holt and injuring your back when performing a military rappel, while losing control of the technique is also a distinct possibility.
All things considered, it’s fair to say that the military rappel doesn’t provide the safest or most practical rappelling method for climbers.
Nevertheless, if you want to have some fun, and you’re fully confident in your ability to perform the technique correctly, the military rappel might be a reasonable option.
The fireman’s belay uses the same set-up as a standard rappel, however there’s someone on the ground to pull on the ends of the ropes to control the speed of your descent.
- Excellent safety in hazardous conditions
- Effective for teaching beginners to rappel
- Requires a partner on the ground, so they must be able to descend first
- The person on the ground might be at risk of rockfall
The fireman’s belay is a popular technique for inexperienced and less confident climbers. Using this rappelling method, the person on the ground has the same amount of control as the person rappelling. This is because all they need to do to bring the rappeler to a halt is to pull down on the ends of the ropes.
There are plenty of situations where the fireman’s belay is an incredibly useful rappelling option. For example, if your climbing partner is unable to safely get themselves down the rope for one reason or another, the fireman’s belay provides you with the ability to take the control out of their hands and lower them to safety.
Another situation that calls for the fireman’s belay is when you’re spotting someone who’s relatively new and inexperienced to the art of rappelling.
You can use the fireman’s technique to support them on their descent, which is especially useful if they’re traveling too quickly and you need to slow down their momentum.
It’s worth keeping in mind there are a couple of precautions you need to take into account before using the fireman’s belay.
The first one is the fact that the reaction period between the person pulling the rope on the ground and the rappeler coming to a halt isn’t always instantaneous.
So, if you’re working with a long rope, there’s a strong possibility that it could take as long as five seconds before the person descending the rope comes to a complete halt. This is particularly important to keep in mind in situations where you have to arrest a fall.
The second safety precaution to consider is the risk of falling rocks and debris. Therefore, the person on the ground controlling the ropes needs to be fully aware of everything that’s happening above them.
This next rappelling approach has two people descending from the same piece of rope or two pieces tied together. In other words, the weight of the two people is effectively used to balance and control the rappel.
- Descending narrow ridges where there are no anchor points
- Situations where you need to descend quickly, but don’t want to leave gear behind
- Requires a climbing partner that’s a similar size, weight, and skill level
- Complex technique that’s tricky to perform
Simul-rappelling is a dangerous and precarious practice where two people attach themselves to opposite ends of a climbing rope and then drape it over a central point. For example, this could be a spire that you’re looking to descend.
The aim of this advanced rappelling technique is to use the central anchor point as a fulcrum point of the rope, while both climbers lower themselves down on each side, and descend at the same time.
Despite the potential dangers associated with the simul-rappel, it’s great if you’re looking to descend in a rush. This is what makes it such a popular choice of rappel in certain areas like the Needles in South Dakota.
If you’re looking to try the simul-rappel, it’s essential that you learn from a certified guide and do plenty of practice in a controlled and safe environment beforehand.
It’s also vitally important that you trust your partner. They need to know exactly what they’re doing, and should also have experience of performing simul-rappels in a controlled environment before attempting one in stressful conditions.
The final key to an effective simul-rappel is communication. This is especially important when it comes to weighting and unweighting the rope, as the last thing you want to do is send your partner plummeting to the ground at a dangerously high speed.
The final rappelling method we’ll take a closer look at, and by certainly no means the least is the tandem rappel. As the name suggests, this is where you and your partner attach yourselves to the same belay device to perform a rappel.
- Helping an injured climber who may not be able to perform a suitable rappel themselves
- Carrying a load down a rappel
- Fast-paced descents
- Can place too much strain on the equipment
- Can be more difficult to control the rappel
The tandem rappel is a skill that all climbers should learn and perfect before heading out into the mountains, as it can often come in handy when performing rescues and moving heavy loads down the length of a rope.
There are lots of different uses for this type of rappel, with perhaps the most popular being the fact that it’s a good alternative to the fireman’s rappel.
This is because the tandem rappel allows you to help an injured partner if they’re unable to perform the rappel themselves.
Furthermore, a tandem rappel can take considerably less time than a fireman’s belay, and still gives you an increased amount of control over certain parts of the descent.
Another advantage of using a tandem rappel is if you’re trying to get down somewhere quickly.
You can almost cut your rappel time in half by attaching yourself and your partner into the same belay device – which could be the difference between life and death in certain dangerous situations.
It’s worth noting that tandem rappels don’t always have to be performed with another person. For example, if you’re rappelling with a heavy load that you don’t feel comfortable attaching to your own harness, you can set it up on a tandem rappel so it doesn’t get in the way.
This strategy is particularly useful if you’re having to navigate a long and treacherous route with backpacks and haul bags that are too bulky to wear while rappelling.
As is the case with all the rappelling methods on this list, there are some risks associated with a tandem rappel, with the main one being that you’re doubling the amount of weight you put on the belay device.
This effectively means that the person tasked with controlling the rope is going to have to deal with substantially more weight in the system, making it even tougher to lower or brake at a safe speed.
A further issue related to tandem rappelling is that the technique places a lot more strain on your equipment.
So, if you’re forced into creating an anchor, you’d need to make sure that your gear, slings, and webbing are all able to support twice as much weight as they normally would have to.
Needless to say, performing tandem rappels on a regular basis will decrease the longevity of your climbing equipment.
Finally, it’s much more difficult to navigate using a tandem rappel because moving side-to-side is significantly harder when strapped in with another person.
While this isn’t too much of a safety concern, it can make rappelling really difficult if your next anchor point isn’t directly below you.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Do You Need For Rappelling?
To start rappelling safely, you’ll need to have professional and experienced instruction in how to tie knots properly and feed the rope through your belay device. It’s also essential to have access to all the required climbing gear.
The gear that’s needed for rappelling will typically be part of your climbing kit as it helps you to climb in the first place. Listed below are some of the basic equipment every climber needs for a safe rappel.
- Belay device
- Top anchor
What’s The Difference Between Rappelling And Abseiling?
There’s absolutely no difference between rappelling or abseiling. Both terms are used to describe the process of descending a cliff face or vertical wall using rope and a belay device.
In fact, there are many nations around the world such as Canada and New Zealand which use the terms “rappel” and “abseil” interchangeably, further demonstrating the similarity between the two practices.
How Can You Make Sure You Rappel Safely?
There are a number of things you can do every time you rappel to prevent the risk of an accident. Listed below are four of the most important.
- Choose a climbing partner who you trust completely so that neither of you is likely to become distracted when tying off your respective belay devices
- Communicate as clearly as you can with your partner
- Be sure to tie knots at the ends of all your ropes so you don’t slide off the end
- It’s a good idea to tie an additional knot to form a brake, also known as a “prussik knot”
It’s worth keeping in mind that the four tips explained above are by no means a direct replacement for proper professional training. They’re just useful reminders to make sure you remain as safe as possible.
Is Rappelling The Same As Rock Climbing?
While the two aren’t necessarily the same, rappelling is an important part of rock climbing. Rock climbing is a sport focused on climbing natural rock formations without rope, however, rock climbers often use rappelling to descend a steep drop.
So, despite the fact that rappelling isn’t the same as rock climbing, the two are very much linked to one another.
Is Rappelling A Good Workout?
Yes, the outdoor activity of rappelling is a good total-body workout that targets your shoulders, lats, forearms, quads, and glutes. It’s also a great way to quickly burn some calories and improve your grip strength.
How Do You Rappel Without A Belay Device?
There are several different ways you can rappel without a traditional belay device. Three of the most popular methods are listed below:
- Using a single rope rappel with your partner, using just one belay device
- Using a double carabiner brake rappel with four different carabiners
- Using a munter hitch, with a single locking carabiner and the climbing rope
Is Rappelling A Popular Hobby?
Yes, rappelling is a hobby that’s particularly popular among climbers and agile hikers who are keen to explore the outdoors and test their limits.
If you’re new to the art of rappelling, climbing gyms are the ideal place to learn the key skills of rappelling in a controlled environment.
What’s The Difference Between A Belay And A Rappel?
A belay is an action where you catch someone else who’s attached to the same rope as you, whereas rappelling is when you lower yourself down the rope.
Belaying is mainly used for climbing expeditions or alpine trips, while rappelling is a better-suited option for canyoneering or caving.
The Bottom Line
To conclude, there are several different types of rappelling techniques you can use to safely and effectively descend from a vertical drop.
Each of the rappelling methods we’ve explained in our guide has its own benefits and drawbacks, so it’s essential that you use the best-suited technique for each individual situation you’re faced with.
Whether you decide to use a standard rappel or a military rappel, making sure you learn and practice them in a safe, controlled environment first of all is vitally important.
With all this in mind, stay safe and happy rappelling!