Ultimate Beginner Guide on How to Rappel


Think of the highest point you ever stood on. Have you ever just stopped and starred at the beauty of everything around you. The stunning views you take in whether on the top of a high peak in the midst of some majestic wilderness or at the edge of a skyscraper towering above fantastic edifices. These are amazing sites to see…unless you hate heights. But my intention of this tutorial is to help everyone experience these amazing highs by learning how to rappel. Not the fear of standing high above everything but rather taking in the breathtaking views of where you are and seeing the potential of where you can go.

This is what I love about peaks and canyons, walking to the edge. For many that is the end of the adventure but for those that Rappel it is only the beginning. There is nothing more exhilarating than descending what you have already ascended and conquered.

Rappelling allows you to lower down cliffs that are too steep and dangerous to descend otherwise. To conquer what is typically unconquerable. But rappelling is not all fun and games. There is so much more to rappelling than the scenery. You need the right techniques, training, and equipment to safely and successfully rappel.

How to Rappel: What is Rappelling?

Now to understand how to rappel you need to first understand what it is. Rappelling is much more than grabbing a strong cord and swinging down a sheer cliff, guns a blazin, and screaming, “Get to the Chopper” Arnold Swarzenagger style.

The idea of rappelling is somewhat similar to lowering which is performed in rock climbing. In Lowering, you reach the top of your climb and with the help of a belay partner to assist you (the climber) down the mountain in a controlled manner. Pushing off a surface with your legs, almost like you are slightly jumping down in a vertical fashion. The belay partner slowly and steadily releases rope so that you gradually come down. Now what I described is specific to rock climbing and is called lowering, not rappelling.

There are many similarities in rappelling and rock climbing. Many techniques and experiences can be used interchangeably between both sports as well as some of the equipment; however, in rappelling the climber (which is you) will lower themselves down a descent such as a cave, cliff, etc. without the support of another partner. The lowering will be done in a controlled manner while using a friction break device. The friction break device allows the rappelling individual to determine the speed of descent and provides greater control of the rappel.

That being said, as you learn how to rappel it will quickly becomes apparent that the bulk of the responsibility to rappel safely falls on your shoulders. This means that it is much more important to be 100% aware of your surroundings, to check your equipment thoroughly, and be confident in your abilities. A rock climber’s belay partner is physically backing up the support of the ascent and the descent of their buddies. In rappelling you are responsible for most of your actions and the overall outcome of the rappel.

Now don’t think that no one else can come with you on your trips or help coach you while you practice and learn how to rappel, of course they can. It is highly recommended that you take someone with you that can spot your descent. What I want to emphasize is that in rappelling you are controlling all of the equipment that will lower you to the base of your destination.

This is a HUGE responsibility and having the ability to rappel brings you into an elite group of individuals. Rappelling is trained and used recreationally when caving, climbing, and canyoneering but it is also used by emergency crews such as firefighters, SWAT teams, and search and rescue. Even the military uses rappelling for their Special Forces. Knowing how to rappel will enrich your life and open the doors to fantastic and breathtaking opportunities that were merely dreams before.

How to Rappel: Getting Started

Alright, the basics should be understood of what rappelling is and when it can be used. Now it is time to learn what equipment is recommended, what knowledge should be gained, and what techniques need to be practiced under professionally trained supervision. These are significant steps to take in learning how to rappel so your own stories can be created.

What Rappelling Equipment is Needed?

To be successful in rappelling you first need the right tools and equipment for the job that you will perform. Let me share a personal story.

When I moved into my first house I felt macho and wanted to fix what was broken and build furnishings that could fill this home to make my family comfortable. Well one of the first things that I decided to make was a decorative bench. Now I had some tools but they weren’t the right tools for the job. All I had was a plan old hand saw, a hammer, and some nails. I didn’t have a vice to hold the wood steady or any fancy woodworking tools. I didn’t even have a chop saw.

To emphasize this experience more, I really never made anything out of wood and didn’t read anything on how to make a bench. I thought it would be plain and simple like cutting some pieces here and there then slapping on a few nails and SHABAM! It would be perfect. I was dead WRONG! By the end of the excruciating experience I had made a bench but it took longer than it should have, the bench was uglier than I can describe, it was wobbly, and there was no way that anyone or anything could rest on it without the whole thing falling apart.

That being said I have learned from this experience that to do something great that one can be proud of it must be done with the right equipment, the right experience, and the right vision.

In Rappelling, you must have the right equipment, the right experience, and the right vision because your very life depends on it. The lives of your loved ones depends on it as well. That being said you don’t want a dinky hand saw, you need the best equipment to make sure that everyone is as safe as they can be. Rappelling is an extreme sport and can be dangerous, if not properly prepared. Plan it right and you will have an experience like you never have had before.

The Rappelling Equipment

Below are my recommendations on the equipment that should be used as you learn how to rappel. Each piece of equipment has a purpose that will create a more controlled descent and provide the needed protection and support.

  • Climbing Harness – A harness provides support and security. It includes two leg loops and a waist belt. Adjust the belts so that the harness is snug. When worn correctly the harness should fit tightly to your waist and legs and will not be loose. A harness will include additional gear loops to be used for carabiners, chalk bag, etc. There is a belay loop in the front of the harness where you will attach your carabiner and then tie the rope to the carabiner for rappelling. Read my harness recommendation here: Best Rappelling Harness for Beginners.
  • Static Rope – To rappel you need a static rope preferably. A dynamic rope can be used but static rope is made specifically for rappelling. This rope is intended for caving, industrial use, or rappelling down a mountain side. The static rope should not be used for normal rock climbing though. The recommended rope for rock climbing would be a dynamic rope, which provides great spring if you happen to fall. It is important to note this unique difference so you have the right rope for the right job. Who knew there would be different choices? Read my rope recommendation here: Choosing the Right Rappelling Rope.
  • Rope Bag (Available on Amazon) – A rope bag is equally important because it has a dual purpose: storing the rope and creating a simple tarp or mat where you can lay out your rope or tangle the loose ends above it once the rappel is setup. When used as a mat it keeps the rope out of the dirt or any other sediment. When in use the loose ends tangling down protected by this mat so no unnecessary abrasion takes place as the ends move around on the earth.
  • Carabiners (See on Amazon)– Carabiners are the butter to the bread. They are absolutely essential for the job and are multifunctional for rappelling. Carabiners are used to attach links, rappelling or other climbing devices, and even slings to ropes and cords. If you buy some, make sure that they are UIAA certified which is the most accepted climbing safety standard.
  • Slings (on Amazon) – Slings are used as anchors from which you can rappel from. The anchor is made on something that is attached, such as a live tree with vibrant roots or a pultruding rock from the structure, etc. Avoid loose rocks, boulders, or any other object that in itself is not anchored one way or another to avoid unexpected movement of the object that you have attached to.
  • Cord and Cordelettes (Available on Amazon)– Cords and Cordelettes are popularly used to create static equalization by connecting two or more anchor points. As you continue to learn and practice rappelling in areas with increased difficulty these pieces of equipment will become more and more important in your descents.
  • Helmet – ALWAYS wear a helmet when rappelling. Some of the most common injuries that occur in rappelling are from debris and rocks falling down and striking the climbers in the head. Debris can be loosened from the rope if swinging back and forth as the climber descends. Debris can also come loose from the climber pushing off the surface of the sheer rock cliff as they descend. In addition, a helmet can prevent serious injury if the climber rappelling falls or strikes against the surface of the rock. Read my helmet recommendation here: How to Choose a Climbing and Rappelling Helmet.
  • Chalk Bag (Amazon link) – A good chalk bag is highly recommended. You can attach one to your harness gear loop to use in the event that your hands become too moist. Chalk keeps your hands dry and allows you to have a firm grip while rappelling. Along with the chalk bag, you should get a chalk ball and chalk (both available on Amazon) to fill the ball.
  • Shoes (Men Shoes or Women Shoes) – Now it is important to wear the right shoes for the occasion. If you are playing basketball then wear basketball shoes, if you are hiking wear hiking shoes, and if you are rappelling use climbing shoes. Do not skimp on a good pair of shoes because it can make a significant difference whether someone is rock climbing up a mountain or rappelling down the mountain. I love a nice pair of rock climbing shoes because they are light weight, durable, and create a greater grip for any footholds when needed. Read my shoe recommendation here: How to Choose Rappelling Shoes.
  • Knife (on Amazon)– Now anyone that goes out into the great outdoors should always carry a knife for any emergency. It’s no different than for rappelling. This carabiner contains a knife in case it is needed to cut something that may get snagged or removing any old, frayed slings/cords left behind by previous climbers.
  • Shorts or Pants – Yes there are specialty shorts and pants for outdoor climbing and rappelling use. They are great because of their durability but I haven’t seen too great of a difference between any. I would recommend just navigating online or go to your local outdoor retail store, such as an REI, to pick some up for your personal use. Read my recommendations on rappelling apparel here: 7 Tips on What to Wear Rappelling.
  • ATC and Lock Carabiner (Amazon link)– The ATC, known as the Air Traffic Controller, is used to feed the rope through so that you can belay your rock climbing partner and be there to support them in case they slip or fall or to rappel yourself down in a controlled manner after you reach the peak. Hence the reason ATC stands for Air Traffic Controller because you are controlling your own descent is rappelling or you are in complete control of your partner’s ability to scale the mountain or when they descend if belaying. Sorry, this doesn’t mean you can work at an airport unless properly certified.
  • Sunglasses – A good pair of active sport sunglasses is recommended in case you are rappelling in an area where there is a lot of direct sunlight. You don’t want to overstrain your eyes if you plan to be rappelling for an extensive period of time. Not to mention that the position of the sun could impact your visibility as you rappel.

Bonus Gear:

If you plan to do rock climbing as well, because practically all of your rappelling equipment is meant for both sports, there is one additional piece of equipment that I would highly recommend..

  • Dynamic Rope – Like I stated before dynamic rope is the type highly recommended for rock climbing to provide the best support for a climber in the chance that they slip and fall when climbing. Dynamic rope is intended for heavy use and has more elasticity than static rope. Read my dynamic rope recommendation here: Choosing the Right Rappelling Rope.

How to Rappel: How to Tie Knots, Hitches, and Bends

When learning how to rappel one of the most important steps to know is how to properly tie knots, hitches, and bends. Your life really does hinge on how well these have been tied.

he following are specific knots, hitches, and bends that you will need to become familiar with for Rappelling. Each of their purposes are extremely imperative to rappel efficiently and safely. This is just a brief overview of the types of Knots, Hitches, and Bends available. Their uses will be specified below in the segment titled The Rappel. For step-by-step instructions on tying these knots, hitches, and bends visit How to Tie 11 Rappelling Knots, Hitches, and Bends.

Knots

  • Overhand Loop – The simplest knot that can be tied to form a loop.
  • Bowline – This knot is typically used to tie the rope around objects such as a rock or tree.
  • Figure Eight Loop – This is a standard climbers knot and is universally used to tie off the end of a rope or the bight, middle, of a rope.
  • Figure Eight Follow-Through – This is a standard climbers knot and is universally used to tie the rope to their harness. This knot can also be used to tie a rope around objects such as a rock or tree.

Hitches

A hitch is defined as a knot tied around another object like a rope or carabiner. The following are types of hitches to become familiar with in rappelling.

  • Stopper Knot – This knot is highly recommended for rappelling and is a simple way to protect oneself from potential danger. It is a knot placed at the end of the rope to STOP one from rappelling off the end of the rope if they do not have enough length to complete the descent.
  • Klemheist Knot – This is a friction knot and can be used to ascend a rope. It is quick and simple to tie but recommended to be used with a sling if there is no other cord to use.
  • Autoblock – Much like the name, this knot is meant as a backup to your brake hand.
  • Prusik Knot – Commonly used for ascending a rope. Think cave rappelling, you get in a cave but now you need to get back out of it.

Bends

A bend is defined as two separate ropes or cords joined together by their ends. The following are types of bends to become familiar with in rappelling.

  • Double Fisherman’s Knot – This knot is commonly used to join nylon cord into a loop to make a cordelette (cordelette is a large sling that uses accessory cord and is created using the Double or Triple Fisherman’s Knot). This knot can also be used to securely join two ropes together in a double-rope rappel.
  • Triple Fisherman’s Knot – This knot has similar functionality to the Double Fisherman’s knot but has been tested to be slightly stronger.
  • Figure Eight Bend – This knot is commonly used to tie two separate ropes together because of its superior strength and ease to untie after use.

How to Rappel: Setting Up and Rappelling

Checking Your Rappel Equipment

Prior to leaving for the planned rappel site the first thing you need to do is check your equipment. There is an old saying, “Take care of your equipment and your equipment will take care of you.” I’m not entirely sure who said it…probably that person named Anonymous because they are always referenced for some of the best quotes. This statement is completely accurate especially when learning how to rappel. When you sharpen a knife it cuts better, when you tune up your car it works more efficiently, and when you take care of your rappel equipment while looking for any visible signs of distress you will have a more successful rappel.

Don’t wait to check on your equipment once you arrive at your destination and do a quick scan. This could be putting yourself in danger, especially where you are just learning how to rappel.

It is always best to do a thorough scan in advanced. If anything looks frayed, extensively worn, or questionable then stay on the safe side and buy a new replacement. As you learn how to rappel it will quickly become apparent that this is not an activity where you want to wear your equipment to the bone. For obvious reasons, it is putting your life or the life of others at risk. So play it smart and plan accordingly.

Finding Locations to Rappel

Here you have choice to select a route that has already been mapped or to create your own route to rappel. If you need help finding some rappel recommendations read: 50 Best Places to Rappel in the USA.

Additional research can be made to see what other options are available that may be more local to you. To identify other rappelling sites you can seek guidance at your local climbing gym or from other professionally trained rappellers. This is an important step to research as you learn how to rappel so the right route is picked based off experience and skill level. There are many routes to choose from that include a level of difficulty because they have been tried, tested, and mapped. This can help a beginner or professional climber decide what would best suit their rappelling needs.

Setting up the Rappel

These instructions are not a one-size fits all. With each rappel the scenario, equipment, and techniques will be different. This is just a broad level overview to help build confidence, gain knowledge, and know how to rappel for a general descent. Take every measure to properly train and prepare for your rappel.

From the point of the rappel you will need to find a good anchor to use. This could be a strong, adult tree (never rappel from a dead tree), a large rock mass that is still attached to the rest of the formation (never rappel from a rock mass that is broken free and appears to be loose), or something man made (anchor bolted into the cliff wall). There are many routes that have bolt hangers and chains already set that make your job easier, these steps will address these bolted and mapped routes.

Do a thorough check of the bolt hangers by looking for rusting. Attempt to wiggle it to see if the bolt hanger moves and check the links for extensive wear. Climbers will sometimes run their ropes directly through these links which I recommend YOU SHOULD NEVER DO! These components are not meant to have rope run through them and are unable to endure ongoing friction caused by a moving rope. These are the steps you will follow instead:

  • Make sure there are at least two anchors (bolt hangers), preferably three. The third may be another anchor that you would set using a spider sling, etc.
  • Connect two quickdraws, one to each bolt hanger. Both quickdraws must face opposite directions to provide optimal safety when the rope is added.
  • Now place the rope through the opposite end of the bolt hangers on the quickdraws. Prior to adding the rope it is highly recommended to look over the rope and check for any abrasions, strings, knots etc. If it’s all good proceed to add the rope.
  • Run the rope all the way through the quickdraws until you get to the middle mark of the rope.
  • Now tie a Stopper Knot to each end of the rope. This makes sure that you STOP and don’t rappel off the rope ends.
  • Now shout “ROPE!” and toss the ends of the rope down the descent. This is to make any other climbers aware that a rope is coming over the edge so they can move if needed. This is very similar to the golf term “FORE!” when you hit a ball close to other golfers. No one wants to get hurt and you don’t want to cause the injury.
  • Attach a locking carabiner to your belay loop and clip in the ATC, if you haven’t done so already.
  • Grab both strands of the rope and double it over. Slide it through the ATC and clip the loop that you slid through the ATC with your locking carabiner.
  • Lock the carabiner.
  • DOUBLE CHECK EVERYTHING. Check your locking carabiner, the knots, and hitches to make sure that everything is secure prior to your descent. Check that both ends of the rope are on the ground and that they are in fact knotted at each end.
  • Now examine that the rope is not running over any sharp or obtrusive edges that may cut into the rope as you rappel.

How to Rappel

  • It is highly recommended to have a spotter as your rappel buddy on the ground. This spotter can guide you down and around any unforeseen obstacles.
  • With your right hand, grab the loose rope leading to the ground. This will be the break and is supported by the ATC. Never ever let go of the rope with the break hand. To break as you descend lower the right hand below the waist while holding the rope, it will stop the rope from running through the ATC. If the right hand is raised slightly up the rope will begin to run freely allowing you to descend. Never raise the right hand straight up entirely as the rope will begin to run freely and place you in grave danger of free falling. Maintain control by keeping the right hand close to the hip with slight movements up and down to control the speed of the descent based of your experience.
  • Your left hand will be the guide hand and will hold on the other end of the rope that has been secured to the anchors.
  • As you descend shout “On Rappel!”
  • Start to rappel, use your guide hand to feed the rope through the ATC.
  • While lowering yourself, keep your legs perpendicular to the wall you are descending. This will allow you to use your feet to slowly walk or hop down the wall.
  • Go at your own speed and turn your head to check for any obstacles.
  • Going at your own pace, it may feel robotic and tense at first but the more you rappel the easier it will be. The important thing is to control a steady pace as you descend.
  • Once you reach the ground pull the ropes out of the ATC. As a formality tell your spotter “Off Rappel.” You have now officially rappelled all by yourself
  • Now hike back to the top and continue to rappel. Practice makes perfect.
  • The final step will be to untie the end knots on your rope and pull one strand all the way out until the rope is free from the quickdraws at the top.

How to Rappel Conclusion

After reading this, if you are ready to take on this extreme sport I would like to give you a few final words of advice. You may feel confidence and think that you now know how to rappel. You have just learned the basics but need to put these lessons to practice. Seek professional help to instruct you on rappelling and refine your skills. This could be a friend who is well versed in the sport and if you don’t know anyone with advanced experience I would do a general search online to locate either a clinic or certified instructor that can assist training you the basics of rappelling or perfecting the proper techniques needed to rappel.

It is always better to take time to train and practice how to rappel. This will increase your ability to be prepared and confident in your abilities. Proper preparation will allow you to completely soak in the experience as you descend natural beauty and enjoy the great outdoors.

Good luck on your new adventure and HAPPY RAPPELLING!

Jacob

I love the great outdoors. I've tried to write the go-to info for all the Rappelling enthusiasts out there. Whether you finished your climb or hiked and rappelled down you will find tips, tutorials, and additional resources to help you. I live in Idaho with my wife and three kids and the great outdoors is our playground.

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