You’re a pretty active person, so when your buddy invited you to go rappelling this weekend, you figured you can handle it. Then you do a bit of research, maybe through our blog, and realize that rappelling is a little more involved than you had thought. How do you condition yourself for this activity?
Conditioning yourself for rappelling requires having moderate upper-body strength, especially in the arms. As for conditioning yourself mentally, that can be more challenging. You need to familiarize yourself with the equipment and do your best to conquer your fears.
We never recommend just jumping into rappelling, especially if you’re brand-new to it. While rappelling can be a very satisfying activity, preparing well in advance and conditioning yourself is the best way to have an enjoyable first rappelling experience. Keep reading to learn how!
Physically Conditioning Yourself for Rappelling
Training Your Upper Body
Let’s start with physical conditioning. Rappelling is descending a rock wall recreationally. The activity itself doesn’t demand much physicality out of you. If you’re in relatively good shape, you should be able to rappel.
Since you will hold onto a rope and use that as your guide as you make your way down a rocky surface, having some upper body strength will increase your stamina and endurance. Focusing on arm strength in particular is a good idea.
If your gym offers rope-climbing, this is a great way to train your upper half for what rappelling will be like. Yes, this sort of feels like you’re in PE class in middle school again, but once you get over that, you’ll realize what invaluable practice rope-climbing can be.
If you have yet to ever climb a rope before, then learning the proper way to do is your first step. There’s no one right way, but several variations. Considering that you’ll use the skills you learn now and apply them to real rappelling later, the basic wrap and lock technique is a good one to start with.
This variation keeps your body straight and narrow, which will condition you into maintaining that stance when sliding down the rappelling rope.
To do the basic wrap and lock rope-climbing technique, first, you want to put your hands over your head and reach high for the rope. Bend and tuck at the knees but don’t lift your feet from the ground quite yet. With one foot, ideally your most dominant, step on the rope. With the loose part of the rope, press your second foot up.
By pushing your feet close together, the rope locks, hence why this technique is called the wrap and lock. To ascend, continue to bend your knees and lock the rope, using your legs to push off and gain height.
It may take some attempts before you get to the top, but when you do, stay there. Then, mostly using your upper arms, practice sliding down the rope.
Practicing Your Climbing
You can rappel all over the country, from Steven’s Gap in Alabama to Jack’s Canyon in Arizona, Allamuchy Mountain State Park in New Jersey, Red River Gorge Geological Area in Kentucky, and Ferne Clyffe State Park in Illinois.
To reach any of these summits though, you have to climb first. No, no rope this time, but rocks.
Does your city or town have any climbing walls? If not, then perhaps your gym does. Although these rock walls don’t look and feel like climbing the real deal, they do serve as good proving grounds for determining your limitations.
For instance, if you’re struggling to climb, you might hit the gym and focus on exercises that strengthen your core as well as your arm and leg muscles. Pull-ups will sharpen your grip so holding onto each platform as you climb isn’t so difficult.
Once you feel like a climbing pro at your local rock wall, it’s time to go climbing for real. As a beginner, you never want to climb a tall rock cliff your first few times. Stick to easily climbable summits.
You also should always bring a buddy. Even if they act as your spotter rather than climb along with you, you won’t have to worry about anyone finding you–or in this case, not finding you–if you slipped, fell, and injured yourself.
When the time comes, you can choose to go single-rope or double-rope rappelling. As the names suggest, single-rope rappelling uses one rope strand and double-rope rappelling two. Both rappelling styles insist that you know basic rope threading and knotting techniques.
For example, can you tie a figure-eight into a rope? This prevents you from reaching the end of your rope (literally here, not figuratively!) when rappelling.
A figure-eight knot involves these steps:
- Take one piece of rope and extend it. At its end, measure two feet and then tie a knot there.
- The untied end of the rope should trace into the shape of an eight, creating a bottom loop.
- Take all four rope strands and tug on them to strengthen the center knot.
You’ll also have to tie a double fisherman’s knot when your rappel is greater than half the length of your rope. This knot allows you to double-rope rappel. Here are the steps for making a double fisherman’s knot:
- Take two pieces of rope and lay them flat so they’re parallel.
- With the end of one rope, wrap it around the second rope and then do that again. The first rope should be between the coils you made with the second rope.
- Then coil the second rope around the first, but following the direction opposite of the one you used before.
- Grab your free ends and give them a yank so the knots are all tight.
- Stand the lines so the two knots slide into place.
These aren’t your basic knots, that’s for sure. If you were in the Boy Scouts or a similar organization, you might have learned how to tie these knots at some point. If not, then watch YouTube tutorials and keep practicing. Eventually, you’ll get it!
Mentally Conditioning Yourself for Rappelling
Learning the Equipment
Mentally readying yourself for a day of rappelling is arguably as hard if not harder than physically preparing yourself. Before you even climb a single step up a rock wall, make sure you’ve taken the time to familiarize yourself with the basic rappelling equipment. You should know this equipment inside and out.
We covered all rappelling equipment in our article on rappelling for beginners, so this list will be a quick refresher.
- Air Traffic Controller: This may sound like something you’d need when going to flight school, but no, the Air Traffic Controller is part of your rappelling setup. This belaying device allows you to control your rope, especially when descending. You’ll use an ATC for your own rope as well as that of your climbing and rappelling partner.
- Chalk bag: A chalk bag holds chalk, but not for writing on a blackboard. Instead, you coat your hands in chalk so sweat doesn’t moisten them and cause you to lose your grip. Carrying a chalk bag on your person ensures you always have chalk handy when you need it.
- Helmet: By far the most important piece of rappelling equipment is a helmet. If your friend or anyone you ever go rappelling with says you don’t need a helmet, this isn’t a person you want to hang out with. Although you hopefully will never need it, a helmet protects your head should you slip and fall. Debris such as flying rocks can sometimes come down too, so you’ll want something to safeguard your noggin from a possible traumatic brain injury.
- Climbing harness: The second most important piece of rappelling equipment is a climbing harness. The harness comes with a waist belt as well as leg loops and should fit close to your body, especially your legs and waist. If you can barely move, it means the harness is too snug, but a very loose one is equally as dangerous.
- Cords: Cords–and for that matter, cordettes–attach to various anchor points for static equalization. Have more cords than you think you’ll need and you’ll be good to go.
- Sling: You use a sling as a type of anchor when rappelling, which means your sling will have to be attached to something. Whether that’s part of the rock wall or even a tree is up to you, but always make sure you choose a point that’s very stable.
- Carabiners: A carabiner connects your rappelling devices, from slings to cords. Many carabiners lock in place for greater stability. The best rappelling carabiners are certified through the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation or UIAA.
- Rope bag: Tying ropes for rappelling can be a complex experience, as we mentioned. You only make it harder for yourself trying to tie these intricate ropes in the grass or on uneven terrain. Your rope bag gives you a smooth, flat surface to tie your ropes on, not to mention it can stash spare rope too.
- Static rope: The static rope is the single or double rappelling rope you’ll use on your rappelling adventures. As you climb up a rock, use a dynamic rope instead, as it’s a lot springier.
Completing Safety Checks
Once you’re rigged up, whether this is your first time rappelling or your thousandth, you should never go without a safety check. Rappelling can be a safe activity, but carelessness can lead to injury or even death.
Here’s what you want to check every time you rappel:
- When double-rope rappelling, know which rope you can pull and which you shouldn’t.
- Check around the rock wall or mountain for obstructions before your descent. You’re looking for trees that are in your way as well as strangely-shaped rocks.
- Drop your rope and ensure it’s long enough to hit the ground below you.
- Confirm that your carabiner is locked when your harness is all set up.
- Triple-check all your knots to be certain they’re secure and tied properly.
- Watch your rope threading, checking for accuracy here as well.
Listen, rappelling is scary, especially as a complete beginner. We wrote about how to overcome your rappelling fears, but it’s not necessarily an overnight process. The more you’ve done activities similar to climbing and rappelling, the easier you’ll find acclimating to be.
If your nervous thoughts trip you up to the point of intrusion, you can always try taking professional rappelling lessons. Knowing that you’re in the care of a pro can alleviate some of your anxieties.
On that note, only go rappelling with people whom you fully trust. They should know how to rappel safely, as it’s both your life and theirs on the line if they don’t. That said, you must be ready to pull your own weight too, so to speak.
The more you rappel, the greater your confidence will be. However, we don’t think a bit of fear is necessarily a bad thing. When you get those butterflies in your stomach, you take more precautions rather than barreling right ahead, something you really don’t want to do when rappelling!
To condition for rappelling, you need to be strong both mentally and physically. Training and preparing yourself, although it can be time-consuming, is worthwhile, as you’ll be much more confident in all things rappelling!