Rappelling Basics

Rappelling Basics- 40 Essential Rappelling Principles For Beginners

The art form of rappelling takes time to master but the sport itself carries on a foundation of ascending and descending safely via a rope/line. Understanding the basics will get you far, but does not replace experience. You can’t just understand the basics and then go out there and rappel. You have to gradually put the lessons you learn into action, while using a guide to help along the way when you are stuck in situations that are new to you.

Again we advise to not just learn the basics. You need training and the best way to train is with an instructor who can give you feedback while you are rappelling. The guide will also be able to help you check your gear and give you a sense of route management. Also there is plenty of physics and heat dissipation in terms of the equipment being used and angles taken.  It will be difficult to apply these laws without hands on explanations. The idea is to never have to second guess yourself and this is accomplished with a second set of eyes and direction when you are a newbie in any new kind of journey.

rappel instruction

Pictured: Instructor explaining how to top belay

We will not discuss the physics or heat properties in this article but you will gain a very well rounded foundation about what mindset you need and what actions garner the most impactful, fun rappel journey that we’ve come to learn through experience. So clip in and lets get to the 40 most valuable principles in basic rappelling to take with you as a beginner.

A quick word before we begin..

We believe you should learn first, the art of the body rappel, followed by the mechanical methods of descension, knot creation and then everything else that encompasses rappelling before even thinking about going about rappelling a solo pitch! You will not last long in this planet if you don’t, let alone on this sport! Accidents do happen and the commitment to learn everything necessary to prevent catastrophe is paramount. You will also feel a sense of accomplishment when you can pitch on your own. A feat worth patiently waiting for.

Let’s begin! The following aren’t finite laws but they should honestly be understood that way..

Pictured: Group embarking on a rappel journey

0.9 Get in the mindset of strategic fun

You are about to embark on a journey that most people would deem a pliverage. Stay attentive to your instructors but never forget that the trials and attention to detail you will experience will only enhance the pleasure you will ultimately receive once you learn this wonderful sport. Stay positive and only good things will happen. In the sport of rappelling, the less risk the greater reward. On Rappel!

1.0 Begin training on low terrain

indoor wall rappel

Pictured: Rappel indoors to start

Always begin training on lower height terrain. We feel like this is overlooked by many newbies and instructors alike. We are talking a drop no higher than your height (keep it between 5ft to 7ft) . Learn all the basics from that height. When you practice rappelling from that height, start with a small incline and work your way to shorter angle inclines. The shorter the angle the harder the rappel. Even better, use an indoor wall to get comfortable. You can even get insight from other climbers at these facilities when you have any questions that need answering.

1.1 Stay cool calm and collected

Pictured: Rappeler in control

We do not mean drug yourself, we mean find your inner zen and train to overcome any hitches in decision making as well as any paranoia that will inevitably try to work its way in. A sense of danger can either kill, save or both. You may be the type that thrives on fear and pressure. Good for you, use it as a tool and you will more at ease edged over a cliff then others. Survival instincts can be invaluable if they are used for good. However, too much bravery can cost you your life and the lives of others…

Those that can accept moderate fear seem to be the ones that become successful rappellers. The fear is used for mistake prevention and will allow you to concentrate on the task at hand. The type of fear that needs to be kept at bay is the the overwhelming paralysis of the mind which can cause confusion and shock when action is needed most. You can shake off a cliff but be able to pull off a fantastic rappel.

So stay determined to learn, focused and excel at being patient, implementing little by little and you will be fine…which brings us to the next

1.2 Stay off the boozin n’ drugs

illegal drugs that is. If you think this is a sport where drinking and climbing could be fun, you are DEAD wrong. No narcotics or mind altering substances at any time before and during pitching. This really is self explanatory so if you do have a problem with this code then I suggest you try guinea pig clinical trial testing as a hobby.


1.3 Get in the habit of  triple-checking your setup

Unfortunately, your current rig will eventually need to be replaced. Your gear will age, break, tear and become unusable. The last thing you want is to realize this when it’s too late and you fall suddenly with no backup in place. Triple-check your lines to make sure the strands aren’t shredding. Check the anchors to make sure they are bomber grade and in perfect condition. Your descender gear should be free from burn marks or thick worn scratches/bruises that can affect the device.

1.4 Go by manufacturers minimum strengthsstrength rating, rappel strength rating, carabiner strength rating

It takes time to really understand your equipment such as your rope, carabiner strength ratings and anchor configurations to get a feel for which products work best for every given use. Even more, products are assigned breaking thresholds that may or may not be a definitive and accurate rating. The best way to approach this is to err on the side of caution. Apply the minimum strengths given by these manufacturers to your analysis. Take the Maximum strength ratings given with a grain of salt. Research how the company comes up with it’s data for its products.

1.5 Strap in to an anchor point while rigging

While rigging yourself (harness setup, clipping, knotting) it is a good idea to play it safe and affix yourself to an existing anchor so you can focus on the rig and not on any external elements (wind gusts that throw you over, slipping over a sloped edge). If you are dealing with icy conditions it can be real easy to take a fall.

1.6 Avoid kicking around your line

Your ropes are what keep you alive! Take good care of them. If they tear you are going to be in really bad shape. When you press down on the ropes by stepping on them, you essentially create grit in the strands of fiber. The rope may seem indestructible, but can easily be severed by a sharp rock formation in the cliff, mountain, etc. Even broken glass bottles have been known to inadvertently cut through line with high girth properties.

1.7 Double-line is always safer then single rope

If it is safe for our military to rappel on double rope,  then so should you. The US military (specifically the Army) have the safest instructional rap sheet of all instructor systems to date. Sometimes it is actually non-practical to double line an extremely long rappel, but whenever you can double-line your pitches. The more double-lines you rappel the safer it is.

1.8 Do the math to make certain it reaches the next station

This may be common sense and so obvious but it actually more frequent than not to hear about an instance where climbers rappel off the line and plummet down to the ground with an injury or worse. At night, depth perception can be very tricky so you may think you are closer than you are. Also, if you are unable to see the end of your line, pull it back up to you and fasten the end of the line onto your harness with a carabiner or biner for short. If this seems to tough for you then you will need to climb back up (easiest with an ascender mechanism) . Do not just say “oh well, gotta jump.”

1.9 Use a rope protector on the ledges

rope protector rappel,

Pictured: Rope Edge Protector

You may think fibers  in your line are abrasion-proof. They are not. They do tear even if you are using the highest quality in rope. We suggest you use a rope protector mechanism on the edges of cliffs while you rappel down. These protectors should always be utilized, whether you are a newbie or not. You can also grab a few pads and install them on segments of the rope for additional protection.

2.0 Don’t forget to wear a helmet and gloves

Pictured: Rappeler wearing complete gear

You want quality over quality here and you want to make sure you are using leather gloves and a  light and breathable helmet. Don’t use old baseball batting gloves. A helmet that fits snug and leather padded gloves can be life savers. You will learn quickly that big rocks that drop over your head are not to be taken lightly. Avoid putting your hands over your helmet or you run the risk of cutting/dismembering your fingers.

2.1  Be aware of what you are stepping on

The boulders/rocks/stones you accidentally dislodge can quickly turn into weapons for those below you. Be keen on avoiding to swipe your feet on them. Naturally, dislodging rocks will be too easy and unpredictable so if the rock looks suspiciously loose, try stepping down on some other platform in the vicinity.

2.2 Pass the line through your harness

When you pass the braking end of a line through your harness (locking in with a biner) you will be able to retain control if your descender mechanism malfunctions or detaches off the rope. Make certain that the line doesn’t run across the rappel device to ultimately tear the fibers. Keep everything running as even and as straight as  you can.

2.3 Ample friction will save your life

Make sure your setup gives way to frictional resistance. That way you will not need to save your life by gripping so hard on your brake hand and backups if necessary. You should be able to, when the time permits, grab down just using your forefinger and thumb to brake. If you aren’t able to do this then you need to check your setup including your knots to make sure everything is done properly.

2.4 Never let go of braking rope

rappel brake hand, rappel no hands, rappel

Pictured: Avoid letting go of brake hand rope.

Your descender is made to function as a drop mechanism. So, if you release the rope from your brake hand the descender will do its job and you will begin to roll down as if your car (parked on downward slope) is in neutral and the brakes are no longer in play.

Nothing will be able to stop it unless you have backups or if you get lucky and are quick enough retrieve the rope to brake down on it. So if an incident occurs, don’t get flustered and toss the rope from your brake hand. You will need to learn to grip even stronger on it to collect yourself and assess the situation.

2.5 Be aware of your gear catching on fire

Be weary of your rope catching on fire and if you are using a headlamp on your helmet, make sure to be cautious of any funny smells( especially burning ones) while wearing!

helmet headlamp, rappel headlamp

Pictured:  headlamp for nightvision

2.6 Belays are always a good idea

When your starting out, belays are really essential pieces of your rig. Belay whenever possible. They have come in handy and saved lives time and time again. We love jaw belays to kick off your rappel journey. Use them whenever you can.

2.7 Try not to get cocky

If it is your first dozen rappels, don’t let it get to your head if you succeed on your first go. Bounces and crazy rappels are done at the expert level. Focus on fluidity of  your rappels, and go slow all the time. Bouncing off the wall as you descend can be a lot of fun but plummeting to your death is not fun. The more you bounce the larger the chances of ripping open the line.

The more speed you pickup the more heat friction your rope will experience. If you go too fast the rope will literally melt at a point and will cause the threads to expand and come loose causing catastrophe. Be mindful of the  physical science behind your gear .

2.8 Always use your own gear. No loaners

You want to guarantee that you and only you has taken in full knowledge of the state of your gear at any given point. If you give your gear to someone else to use and they use it improperly, chances are you will need to inspect at extreme levels,  the gear if you are to use it again. Also, if the worst happens and your buddy uses your gear and it fails, that opens up a large can of worms for liabilities sake. To conclude, it is best to just have each rappeler use their own gear so if you need to loan out gear make sure it is for a good reason and you really make sure the gear is bomber proof before reusing.

2.9 Avoid waterfalls at firstrappel waterfall, rappel waterfalls

There is an obvious joy to rappelling down a waterfall. It also is very scenic and can make for a very an amazing story to have in your back pocket. However, the flow of waterfalls are unpredictable. They can pick up quickly, before you have a chance to think/regroup. You may not have a chance to swing out and can be thrown down within seconds. Also, you would need to utilize an even slower pace descending down waterfalls. Trying to rappel to quickly to the base can be catastrophic. When your line dampens you lose friction. You have to account for your gear to have a greater chance of ceasing up and really becoming a nuisance to fix in real time with water splashing down on you.

3.0 Always use same diameter cords

rappel rope with same girth

Pictured: Rappel rope with similar dimensions

If you fasten a wider rope to a thinner one for double-rope pitches you run the risk of causing a “saw” effect if you are using a sling. Generally, thinner ropes tend to stretch out more than thicker rope (material also plays a part). It also has a greater chance of ripping apart from one another. So, use the same size ropes when attaching them together and play it safe and install a descender ring onto the sling for a smoother rappel.

3.1 The thicker the rope the safer the play

You are in safer shape the thicker the rope (generally speaking) but don’t go too large as to increase the load that you will be carrying around all day. However, the thicker they are the stronger they will be and will lead to less accidents. Too much of stretchy line is counterproductive and can lead to problems.

3.2 When its worn, toss it out

We don’t keep any of our gear that is 4 years old. Tried and true will eventually fade and equipment will need to be replaced. You will sleep better at night. Biners and descenders that have been utilized in long distance multi-pitch rappels get worn down and will need to be replaced. Weight impact will cause stress cracks and the metal gets bruised. Don’t skimp and buy new gear when needed. It can be a matter of life or death.

3.3 Keep a notebook handy

Just like any hobby worth mastering, a journal that is not only used as a memento of feats but as a learning tool, is an essential piece of the puzzle, especially for any newbs out there! Keep record of how you utilized the equipment and on which terrain you used it on and what the duration was from start to finish. This can propel you to become an excellent rappeler in no time.

3.4 Spot the obstacles before rappelling into them

Rappel, rappel terrain, rappel

Pictured: Rappeler pointing out hazardous terrain

The last thing you want happen is to get one of your limbs stuck in a crevice, only struggling to dislodge it and causing massive amounts of delay and stress. Be keen on avoiding vacuum spots on your descent.

3.5 Be communicative!

Whether you are rappelling with a group or alone (not recommended for beginners), let someone know you are headed out to rappel. It can save your life, as it did our friend Gus who was caught in a rock sandwich only to be rescued by a family member of his the next day when the family member began to worry and then took it upon himself to go looking for Gus. Let someone know the location and time of your rappel.

3.6 Be careful when belaying

Belaying is a very safe measure when rappelling (especially top belays) but they do have their downfalls. They are bulgey and get knock into loose rocks, causing them to fall below you.  The less agitation of the terrain the safer the rappel. Be on the lookout and belay in space, away from obstacles whenever possible.



3.7  Avoid bad weather


Pictured: Low rappel anchor point

When it rains and your lines dampen, they become hazardous. If you are stucking in a lightning storm, the lines conducive to lightning shock, which will spell disaster, especially when you are a few hundred feet away from the next station.

3.8 Fasten your anchors at low points

Hypothetically, whether you are using an anchor device over a cliff or fastening a tree anchor, keep the anchor rig as low to the ground as possible so that you avoid plummeting!

3.9 Keep all devices away from children

This is self explanatory. Rule of thumb: If the climber isn’t cognisant enough to rappel without playing  an imagination game with the equipment, then they are too small to handle the equipment! We love our little buggers but they can’t wait a few years before coming along on the journey.

4.0 When replacing equipment, label/destroy the old

rappel equipment that needs fixing, damaged rappel belay

Pictured: Damaged Petzl Reverso Biner

When it is time to hang up a pair of shoes, do you keep them or throw them out? Not only do you want to keep your new equipment together but you never want to mix the old equipment together with the new equipment. Label all your equipment with a label maker . We would label “destroy” on any equipment you forego so you can always track what is new and what is old without paying for it dearly.

4.1 Stay in Control

Whether you are belaying or your using a GriGri as part of your harness device, always be mindful to breathe and think about your next move. When at all possible, make sure to be linked to a safe anchor.

4.2 Tie off your ponytail and avoid baggy clothing

It is ideal to keep your hair and clothes at bay when rappelling. You can easily get caught when using a descender which can lead to lynching! So keep your devices away from objects that can pull into them.

4.3 Triple-Check all knots

rappel knot, triple check rappel knots

Pictured: Secure knot at anchor point

You will notice that knots start to undo themselves easier the more you use them. It is important to make sure you are fastening the knots properly to avoid any getting loose.

4.4 Think Think Think

Hypothetically, if somehow your harness was lost while rappelling, don’t feel stuck. There is always a way to safety. You can take the end of the rope and create a rappel device out of it. You can also create a makeshift sling out of a piece of the rope. Just make sure you have enough length to reach the next station or floor level.

4.5 You are human, not perfect

If you choose to wash your ropes using a machine and they tear, that is ok. Just buy a new rope and don’t beat yourself up over it. If your anchor breaks, sometimes it’s not because of your rappelling skills, the device may fail. Stay mindful

tug of war rappel, tug war rappel4.6 Do not play tug war

When you are pulling on line, make sure you pull  in one direction and not violently. Make sure to not twist and tangle the lines in the process of directing them. Avoid getting kinks in your rope whenever possible.

4.8 Hire an instructor

Take it from experience, there is no shame in getting help from the outset. You are saving yourself tons of painstaking hours in the process. Learn the right way and then you will never have to worry about relearning what you shoud’ve learned from the beginning. If your budget is tight then we suggest looking on forums to find someone to rappel with that has experience and that is willing to help.

4.9 Avoid rappelling during shooting season in certain areas

You do not want to be someones target. Deer hunters may mistake you for game and that make for a terrible day 🙂 Check to see where you can rappel without being shot at and you serve a better chance avoiding buck shot in your tush!









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