How To Rappel: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

If you are looking to start a sporting career in climbing, be it at your local climbing wall or on a mountainside, caving or canyoning,

How to Rappel: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

then knowing how to rappel is a crucial skill that should be learned. It is just as important to know what equipment is needed to rappel from a surface, along with the different techniques that could be used depending on the surface and type of activity.  

In this “How to Rappel” guide, the preparation needed to undertake a rappel as well as how to complete a rappel and the different types of techniques to use on different types of surfaces and activities is gone into great detail. 

Understanding Rappelling

First, before getting started, as a beginner, you will need to understand the principles of rappelling. Rappelling is the act of lowing yourself down a length of rope in a controlled manner which allows you to descend or go down a steep or high terrain safely and effectively. 

To rappel down a surface or piece of terrain, you will need to connect yourself to the rope via a mechanism that creates friction which will slow your descent down – optimizing for safety and control. 

The technique of rappelling as we know it today was first introduced in the 1800s when mountaineering and exploration of land were at their peak time in history.

It was used as an alternative technique to down climbing, as the alpinists at the time found some sections of their climb too dangerous to down-climb.

Thus was born a safer and more efficient way to climb down more treacherous sections of mountain faces. 

Rappelling is usually done or associated with activities such as rock climbing, alpineering or mountaineering as well as caving or canyoning type activities.

Additionally, rappelling can be done as a stand-alone activity, which is a great, safe and fun way to explore the outdoors or heights that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Rappelling allows you to slowly lower yourself down from a bit of terrain, independently, one piece at a time. Other techniques of lowering yourself down from a height are either very rapid and potentially dangerous,

or they require a partner at the bottom of the terrain that you have traversed to assist you going down. 

In contrast, when you are lowered by a partner at your local climbing wall or gym, it requires the second person to either stay at the bottom,

and you take turns climbing up or the other person needs to somehow make it down before you, which may involve some dangerous maneuvering. 

Another alternative to rappelling is down climbing. This is when you go back the way you came, provided the terrain can accommodate this, just without the support.

This means that there is a continuous risk of falling from great heights, and it is a much more time-consuming method as you will have to be extra cautious to not fall. 

Get Geared Up

To ensure your safety and that you are rappelling effectively, you need all the right gear or equipment to rappel like a pro. As a start, there are three essential pieces of equipment you need to rappel off a surface.

These include the right ropes for the activity, a sturdy harness, and a rappel device or what is known as a belay.

How to Rappel: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

Rappelling Ropes

The types of ropes used while rappelling depend greatly on the type of activity you are going to participate in. However, in general,

a trusty rope that is designed for climbing should suffice in most cases as they have enough strength to hold and support body weight and in all likelihood be compatible with your rappelling device or belay – most belays are designed to hold ropes that are between 0.31 – 0.43 inches (8-11 mm) wide. 

There are other specifications that your rope should have to be suitable for rappelling. For instance, a static rope is the preferred rope to use over a dynamic rope for rappelling.

This is because static ropes do not stretch as much as dynamic rope when holding a weight. A static rope is perfect for a more controlled, bounce-free descent and is suitable for many applications which include activities such as rappelling, abseiling, and fire rescue operations.

Static ropes are much cheaper when compared to dynamic ropes. In a contrast, dynamic ropes have a degree of stretch and give under a load which is why it should be used in lead climbing as using static ropes may result in serious injury.

As previously mentioned, if doing lead climbing, or similar activities, you may need both a static and dynamic rope in your rappelling kit.

If you are rappelling from a sport climb, you are going to belay your partner with dynamic ropes and use it on the descent. It is handy to practice rappelling with a dynamic rope as well so that you can get used to the motion of bouncing around. 

Something that needs to be considered is whether the ropes that you are going to be using will be getting wet or not. If you are one for caving or going out on the mountains in inclement weather, then you probably are going to struggle to keep your rope dry. During climbing, this can be a serious issue for grip, and although not as much of an issue when rappelling, having a dry-treated rope in your arsenal is a must, especially if you are going to continuously be exposing the ropes to the elements.

How to Rappel: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

Rappelling Harnesses

When thinking about harnesses, comfort should be at the forefront of your mind, along with safety, of course. There is nothing worse than having a harness on all day and feeling so uncomfortable, chaffed up, and covered in blisters after the fact. That is why selecting a good harness, for you and your body, is critical. 

Of course, this differs from person to person, but if you are a beginner, then there are some top pointers for you here.

The first is to not be shy to splurge a bit, harnesses for beginners or introductory harnesses tend to be less comfortable and can result in blistering down the road.

It is also important to consider the type of activity you are going to take part in. if you are doing mountaineering, then harnesses are usually lightweight because they go over many layers of clothing, so comfort isn’t a real concern. However, for rappelling, it is best not to go too lightweight in general.

On the topic of clothing, what you wear on your bottom half will impact how comfortable you will be in the harness.

When looking to buy a harness, try it out over multiple types of bottoms-leggings, jeans, shorts, etc. this will show you which of the harnesses available is most comfortable no matter what you wear. 

Ultimately, though, deciding on a harness is down to your own personal preference. In the world of rappelling, most rappellers use a standard waist-and-leg climbing harness.

If you are in need of more security or if you are rappelling with your kids, then a chest harness is probably the better option for you as they are comfortable for longer periods of time.

How to Rappel: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

Belay

Belays or rappelling devices are an important piece of gear to correctly pick out before heading out on your various adventures.

Most belay devices will be suitable for rappelling, but if you are doing a more sophisticated or challenging rappel, it is recommended to use an abseiling-specific rappelling device. 

Sometimes, in specific situations you will have to improvise and utilize a belay loop if you are not a serious or extreme activity that involves rappelling such as canyoneering, then you are probably less likely to buy the most expensive or best belay out there. However, it may be worth your time to spend more effort and time choosing a belay that really works for you and suits your activity.

For example, there are some belays that come with automatic braking features for increased safety, others will allow you to add in additional friction to the setup mid-rappel which will give you extra control on your way down. 

Therefore, investing in a belay that suits your needs and wishes in terms of comfort and safety is essential for an enjoyable rappelling experience.

Other Gear

When going rappelling, there are additional pieces of equipment that you need to have a safe and comfortable, and by extension, an enjoyable time. 

Helmet

Technically, you don’t need a helmet to help with your rappelling. However, a helmet is an essential piece of safety gear and is a piece of equipment that you should always wear.

Helmets can protect your head and brain from injury from mishaps like rockfalls or any falls from a height, and are invaluable for keeping you safe. 

For rappelling, any climbing helmet will do the trick and other helmets you may have lying around the house like bicycle helmets or helmets for skiing won’t give you enough protection against the impact you can expect from a rockfall or falling from a substantial height- it is not recommended that you use those.

Clothes

Choosing the correct clothing for rappelling can make all the difference in making an enjoyable experience. Clothes worn need to optimize ease of movement, comfort, and practicality.

They should not be tight or loose-fitting as either one may make you feel uncomfortable and loose-fitting clothes may get in the way.

There are other factors to consider when choosing clothes including weather resistance – such as windproof or waterproof clothing, sun protection, and made out of absorbent materials to absorb moisture such as sweat. Most of all, the clothing needs to work for you and a long day’s worth of activities.

In terms of shoes, they should not be too tight and should have a good amount of traction and friction. Because feet swell up during climbing and rappelling,

the shoe should be snug but not tight, and it must promote grip and control – usually, a rubber outsole helps with the grip.

How to Rappel: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

Para Cord

Another item that is a great addition to your rappelling is a pair of para cord ropes. These are lightweight nylon kernmantle rope which was invented to use as suspension lines of parachutes.

Now it is used as utility cords for many purposes. A kernmantle rope is a strand of rope that is constructed with multiple strands of rope. Its interior core is protected by a woven exterior, which optimizes its strength and flexibility. 

The braided cord is typically made up of over thirty interwoven strands of rope, which gives it a smooth texture and a lot of elasticity. 

Spare Carabiners (2 Locking, 4 Non Locking, At A Minimum)

When rappelling, it is important to carry extra carabiners. These are also known as crabs or biners and are metal loops that come in many different forms but are generally oval and can be opened on one side by a gate.

There are locking and non-locking varieties. Locking carabiners have a locking feature that stops the gate from opening accidentally, which is useful for anchoring or using a belay.

The other variety, non-locking carabiners, which are mainly used in quickdraws or runners on a route. Locking types include D-shaped and oval shapes, which can have a screw lock or twist lock. Non-locking carabiners can have a solid, bent, or wire gate.

Depending on what kind of use or activity you are going to undertake, the carabiners will differ. When packing your rappelling kit, it is important to include a couple of locking and about four non-locking carabiners, just in case.

How to Rappel: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

A PAS (Personal Anchoring System)

A personal anchor system or PAS is a piece of equipment that can be used in your rappelling to secure yourself directly to the anchors of a route.

This rappel anchor are sewn slings that are linked to quick draws. Using these as part of a belay system will add in extra strength to the system.

Each link can be clipped into with locking carabiners and can provide a variety of solutions. For example, you can tie one around a tree and clip yourself into it and rappel down. 

A knife

One of the handiest and underrated pieces of equipment in your rappel kit is a knife and should be considered essential gear. It can be used in a variety of instances and can really help get you out of a pickle. A knife on a lanyard that is attached to you can really be a lifesaver, especially when things go wrong. 

The lanyard prevents you from dropping the knife, and it makes accessing the blade much easier than grabbing it from your pockets. Most lanyards get attached to people’s belts or around their necks.

It is advised against wearing the lanyard around your wrist as this would get in the way of your rappelling. Knives should be small or pocket-sized so that it doesn’t add too much weight or get in the way of your rappelling in any way. 

Backpack

The last piece of kit that is probably the most essential for any outdoor activity is a backpack. A backpack can be used to carry all kinds of things that you may need on your outdoor activity such as sunscreen, water, snacks, rappel rope, items for an emergency situation, and extra layers of clothing for when it gets cold on the mountain. 

How To Rappel

Now that you have an idea of what rappelling is and when you will do it and what equipment you require, we can dive into the mechanics of how to perform a rappel.

For starters, try to imagine yourself standing on the edge of a short cliff, and you have all the equipment you need to rappel. Next, you will need to attach the rope to an anchor at the top of the cliff, these would be a rappel anchor drilled into the rock as an example, and the rope will hang down the edge of the cliff. This piece of rope is what you will be rappelling down from.

Then, you will attach the harness around your waist and legs (and chest, if applicable). Make sure that this is secure around your body, as this is what will hold you in place midair when you are traveling down the rope. 

Lastly, the rappel device or belay is attached to the rope in such a way that creates friction (this will differ depending on the type of device you are using). The belay will then attach to your harness so that you are connected to the rope. 

If this visualization does not work for you, imagine the rope is like a road, with the two ends the start and end of your journey.

The belay is like the car that takes you from the start to the finish, and it controls the speed of your travel or in this case, your descent. Then the harness acts like a seatbelt which allows you to be secured in the car (the rappel device), safely. 

To summarize, the rope that hangs over the edge of the cliff will create a pathway for you to journey to the bottom.

The belay or rappel device will attach to the rope and give you the power of controlling the speed at which the rope gets passed through the belay. In other words, the speed at which you descend down the cliff. 

Next, you will attach your harness to the belay, and you attach yourself to the harness to lower yourself down along the length of the rope. 

In case you are after a step-by-step guide, here is a list of simplified steps on how to rappel, followed by steps following a more technical approach. 

Step 1: The rope needs to be attached to the anchor that you are using.
Step 2: Attach the harness onto the rope and yourself. Make sure that this is secure.
Step 3: Attach your belay or rappel device to the rope
Step 4: Attach yourself to the belay or rappel device with the harness
Step 5: Hold tightly onto the rope and increase it to its maximum friction. What this means is that the rope should not be able to pass through the belay at all yet.
Step 6: Carefully readjust the rope to decrease the friction so that you begin to slowly move down the rope.
Step 7: While doing this, adjust your grip or the friction on the rope until you reach a decent speed that you are comfortable with.

This process is quite simple, and it is, once you get a hang of it. If you are a bit of a buff for the technical side of things, here is a more technical step-by-step approach to rappelling. 

Step 1: Make sure that you have secured yourself to the anchors using a PAS (Personal Anchor System) and tie an overhand knot (a fundamental knot which is also known as a knot and half knot) and attach it to your harness with a carabiner.
Step 2: Pull an end of the rope through the rappel rings until the middle of the rope is centered between the twp rappel rings.
Step 3: Tie a stopper knot – which is a knot that ensures that there is a thicker part along the rope with the sole purpose of stopping or preventing the unraveling of the rope at the point of the knot, onto both ends of the rope.
Step 4: Attach the rappel device to the rope and the rappel device to the harness with a locking carabiner.
Step 5: Unclip and untie the overhand knot and throw the rope down from where you are
Step 6: it is important to ensure that both ends of the rope are touching the ground, tie a backup knot, and secure it to your harness.
Step 7: Weigh the rope while your PAS is still attached to the anchors.
Step 8: Once that is done, check that the rope is centered, carabiners are locked, the knots are secure and both ends of the rope are on the ground.
Step 9: Check your stopper knots are secure.
Step 10: Unclip from the anchors and slowly release the belay until you start to move and lower yourself to the ground.
Step 11: Once on the ground, disconnect the belay from the rope and your backup knot, as well as untie your stopper knots to pull the rope down to the ground from the anchors.

The scenario above is called a single-pitch, two-strand rappel, which is the simplest and most commonly performed rappel used. However, different instances may require you to use different techniques and maneuvers to rappel from a terrain.

Techniques

When rappelling, there are several techniques that you can use to get from point A down to point B. What you decide to use will depend on the activity and the unique, case-by-case scenario. 

Double Strand Rappels

The most commonly used and the easiest method or technique to use when you are rappelling is the Double-Strand or double-rope rappelling technique.

With this technique, you will have two pieces of rope that are in parallel that get passed through the belay that you are attached to. Both ropes are held simultaneously while lowering yourself down to the ground with you in an upright position. 

The benefits to this type of technique of rappelling is that, firstly, pulling down your rope after reaching the ground is super easy as it is threaded through the anchor and there are, therefore, no knots or stopping mechanisms.

Secondly, holding on to two ropes is much easier to do, which makes the rappelling process streamlined and easier to undertake.

The only real downside to double-rope rappels is that not all rappel devices are big enough to fit a double strand.

Additionally, there may also be some cases where the doubling up of the rope may cause the rope to be too short for you to reach the ground and so may not be suitable for longer journeys.

Single Strand Rappels

This technique is almost exactly the same as the double-strand, but you would of course only need one piece of rope, which is then threaded through the belay.

Having only one strand will create less friction in the system and so the rappel down may be difficult to control, and it is important to be mindful of this when lowering yourself down. 

It is a good technique to use as it can actually be used with any belay or rappel device and so will be able to get you out of any awkward situations.

It also means that there is a lot more length to your rappel, and you won’t need additional anchors on your descent. However, it is more difficult to attach a single strand rope to anchors in such a way that you will be able to retrieve the anchors.

This is why another technique called blocking, or a tagline rappel, is used to retrieve the anchors. This comes at a massive safety risk, though, as your rope becomes more likely to come loose from the anchor. 

Australian Rappel

Hailing from down under, the Australian rappel is different from the rest because you go face-first into your descent towards the ground.

In this technique, your rope is anchored to your waist, and you have your feet against the surface you are rappelling on. The Australian rappel will allow you to gather a lot of speed, and you can run down the wall of a cliff or mountain, whilst allowing the rope to play out as it pleases you. 

It can be performed in one of two ways. First, you can attach the belay device as per usual to the rope and harness and then rotate your body around.

This option requires a lot of core and foot strength to keep you in place. Alternatively, you can put your harness on back to front and then perform the rappel face-first.

Performing the second approach is not recommended as it can lead to back injuries and additional wear and tear on your equipment.

Out of all the rappel techniques, this technique is the least popular as it is not a very safety-oriented technique to use as it has a lot of risks associated with it.

However, if you get to the level of experience where you feel comfortable doing so, give it a try as they can be fun and are also great if you need to get down from the surface quickly. 

Simul-Rappels

This technique is only for the elite and extremely expert climber. It is incredibly risky and difficult to master. They are mainly used to cut out the time it takes to descend a multi-pitch route. 

With this technique, the rope is set up like a double-strand rappel, but it is only connected to the belay with one strand.

Then, this technique must be done with a partner, your partner connects to the other strand, and you descend simultaneously, acting as counterweights to one another to keep the system balanced. 

This saves a massive amount of time making the descend down. However, there are massive risks involved when performing this technique.

If there is any kind of mishap along the way, the consequences could be dire. Although it is a time-saver and is much easier than setting up blocking or tagline rappels,

both parties involved should make sure that they know what they are doing before attempting a Simul-rappel. 

Rappelling Without A Device (Friction Rappels)

Sometimes, you may find yourself not being able to rappel with a device. Back when the sport of mountaineering was first discovered, this is how rappels were performed.

What would be done is that the rope would be tied around their bodies, which created friction and keeps you attached long enough to get to the ground.

The most common form of rappelling without a device is to wrap the rope across your hip, around your leg and around your chest to lower yourself whilst staying secure in the rope. 

This is probably one of the most, if not the most, dangerous rappel and climbing techniques out there. It will also give you rope burn, it’s more difficult to control and there are hardly any situations where this would be used. It would be a better idea to carry a paracord and a lightweight belay or rap device, than to try this method of rappelling down. 

Applications 

As mentioned earlier in this guide, rappelling can be used in a number of different activities, or it can be done as a standalone sport. Below are a few examples of instances where rappelling can be used. 

Before going on these types of adventures, you must make sure that you have all the correct equipment needed, depending on the activity, as well as the correct training to do so.

How to Rappel: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

Climbing

The most commonly associated activity with rappelling is climbing. Climbers climb up a surface and once at the top, instead of getting lowered down by a partner or walking down from the height, you rappel. Most of the time, there is no option to walk down the way you came and if you are climbing alone, being lowered is not an option. 

Deciding to rappel (which you can do alone) or being lowered depends. If you are doing single-pitch climbs, then it makes more sense to have your partner lower you down once you have reached the top of the climb.

However, if you are attempting to climb a multi-pitch climb, then rappelling may be the only option that you will have. Oftentimes, there may be pre-set rappel stations that will help you navigate your way down the terrain. 

Mountaineering

When mountaineering, rappelling is used in the same way as it would be for rock climbing and occurs when you have climbed to the top of the mountain top, or you are in need of turning back.

The difference between mountaineering and regular climbing is that there are generally no defined anchor points to which you can tie yourself into, which makes the process of rappelling down more difficult. 

There are also the elements that need to be contented with, which can make your climb and rappel down treacherous and slippery and potentially create a climbing accident.

Canyoneering

Canyoning is when you use a variety of different activities or techniques such as climbing, jumping, scrambling, hiking, swimming, and rappelling to traverse the canyon from one point to another.

Canyoneering is a subset of canyoning, which will involve rappelling, as it is a more technical descent. 

When you are descending a canyon, there will be instances where the ground is too steep to climb or walk down, and so rappelling is used to mitigate risk down these more intense or technical parts of the canyon.

In some of the more well-known routes, there will be bolts in the walls of the canyon to descend from, but usually, you will have to create your own anchors from the walls. 

Rappelling from canyons is more difficult to navigate than usual rappels as, just like with mountaineering, you will need to deal with a lot of what the elements of nature throw at you such as waterfalls, wet weather, snow, and differences in terrain. 

Caving

Caving hosts similar hazards to canyoneering as it will have sections of the descent that are steep and are wet and slippery; additionally, you will probably have to create your own anchors along the route. What makes rappelling while caving more challenging is the fact that it is always pitch black dark, and you will need to have headlamps to light the way down to see where you are headed. 

Furthermore, the rock can get really wet and porous from all the condensation and mud everywhere. This makes controlling a rope a challenge, and so it is recommended that you acquire specialized equipment before attempting a caving rappel. 

Rappelling

Rappelling on its own is a great outdoor activity, and it is versatile. It doesn’t need to occur off the cliff of a mountain top, it can be from high buildings or skyscrapers in the city too.

There are loads of cities all over the world that boast rappelling as a fun outdoor activity for tourists to see the city from up high and then rappel down with the help of an experienced company that specializes in rappelling.

What’s more, the rap gear will all be provided for you to perform the rappel, and you may also have the opportunity to incorporate hikes or picnics or travel to beautiful places into the rappelling activity that is done in a safe and professional manner. 

The End Of The Line

It is really important to note that this guide is just the beginning and should use it as a resource or an educational tool to help you become familiar with the concept of rappelling,

the mechanisms of rappelling, how to perform it, what equipment you need, and the scenarios in which rappelling would be done. 

It is not the only resource you should use, and you should get proper training and instruction from professionals in the industry to safeguard your health and safety.

Then, you also need to practice and properly learn to rappel in a safe environment, and then when you are more comfortable, it is always a good idea to go with an experienced partner. 

To get to this stage, you should go through the motions, even on the ground, then move on to an indoor gym or climbing wall and build up your skill level slowly and steadily to ensure your safety.

It is also a good idea to get one-on-one instruction and seek expert guidance and advice from the climbing community, which is much more comprehensive than an online guide such as this one. 

It is crucial to remember that rappelling is a dangerous activity and should always be done with caution, and you also should always be prepared for the worst.

There are of course external factors that can result in injury or death, even if all the correct and proper steps have been taken to ensure your safety.

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Kevin Macey
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