Repelling is a means of lowering a person from an anchor to the ground using a rope and belay device. Typically, the person being lowered is also the one controlling the gear and thus, how fast they lower off the rope. Repelling is most often used in canyoneering as well as outdoor climbing. However, the way that climbers set up a repel is often different than the way that a cannoneer sets up a repel.
Types of Rappeling
The biggest distinction between the types of rappelling is the purpose of the rappel. For example, the way you rappel when your intent is to climb back up is different than if you are canyoneering and are rappeling just to move on to the next rappel. After that distinction is made, the other differences are related to your body orientation to the anchor. For example, the standard rappel has you in a sitting position with your feet planted against the wall. In comparison, the Australian rappel has you standing with your feet against the wall and your body is facing the ground.
- Standard Rappel: This is the most common and recommended type of rappel. It is recommended for recreational rappeling for canyoneering and climbing. The biggest difference between this type of rappel and other rappels is that you are in a sitting position and your feet make contact with the cliff-side. In addition, your belay device and the rope orientation are in front of your face with your broken hand behind your body.
- Australian Rappel: This rappel is typically used for fast descents and isn’t recommended for beginner rappelers. Compared to other types of rappelling techniques, your body orientation is facing the ground and you are standing against the wall. Due to the body orientation and speed of descent, it is typically more dangerous.
- Tandem Rappel: This rappel is different from other types of rappels because you are rappeling with another person at the same time. It is typically only used for helping younger rappelers or rappelers that aren’t able to rappel safely on their own. When it comes to body orientation and lowering technique, it’s similar to a free rappel.
- Free Rappel: This is a type of rappel that is typically used when you are lowering yourself over a steep overhang so your feet don’t touch the wall. Instead, you are hanging free in the air. It is typically for more advanced rappelers since you will have to control your body position while managing the belay device and the rope.
Gear for Safe Rapelling
Rappelling has two main pieces of gear and then many prefer rappeling with gloves as that seems to help prevent friction burns and is more comfortable, which is why I’ve included it in the list below.
Your harness is the way that you will connect the rope and belay device to yourself. You can get harnesses as cheap as $30 but I would consider getting a harness that at least has padded leg loops. If you are primarily rappeling on your harness and not climbing, then I’d actually recommend getting a harness with a bit more support for sitting down for added comfort.
There are two main types of rope; static and dynamic rope. Not considering climbing, the best type of rope for rappelling is a static rope. Static rope doesn’t flex and is therefore good at keeping a tight rappel.
In addition to the type of rope, you should also consider the thickness of the rope. Typically rappelling rope is 9mm or thicker, often getting into the 11mm size. The thicker the rope is, the heavier it is. However, the thicker the rope is, the longer it tends to last. That being said, your belay device and how heavy you are will also dictate how thick your rope should be.
For example, Grigri’s, which is my preferred belay device, has a manufacturing recommended rope thickness of 8.9mm-10.7mm. Figure 8’s on the other hand, don’t tend to have a recommended rope size as it has a large opening and can accommodate many sizes.
When it comes to your weight, the larger you are, the thicker you will want the rope so there is added friction. When I was young and weighed less than 100lbs, I often found that thicker ropes made it practically impossible for me to rappel without feeding the rope into the device manually so keep that in mind.
I come from a climbing background so I’ve had the opportunity to test and evaluate belay devices from multiple perspectives, not just for rappelling. With that being the case, my overall favorite belay device is the Grigri.
However, if your belay device is only for rappelling or canyoneering and you never intend on climbing with it, then a light, but still safe device, is the CRITR.
I’ve done a lot of rappeling with a Figure 8 and I like that a Figure 8 is easy to set up but it doesn’t have any way of locking off the rope and is pretty limited with how you can add friction, which is not ideal.
I have considered getting the Totem because a first responder who frequently rescues stranded climbers and cannoneers recommended it to me. However, after talking to many guides and professional cannoneers, I realized that for canyoneering specifically, the CRITR may be a better option.
► The Best Rappelling Device For Canyoneering
Though gloves aren’t necessary for your life safety, they can help prevent skin irritation or, in some circumstances, burns from the rope running through your hand quickly.
Many beginner rappellers use garden gloves or construction work gloves as they are cheap and get the job done, for the most part. However, if you want to get gloves specifically for rappelling, then I’d recommend getting some that are built specifically for rappelling and belaying. They have extra padding where the rope runs through your hands and often have breathable material everywhere else so you don’t have to worry about excessive sweat.
The pair that I’ve tended to lean toward is from Black Diamond as they have a fingerless option.
► The Best Rappelling Gloves For Each Budget
In addition to the three main items above, there are a few other pieces of gear that you should consider for rappelling.
- Rope Bag – Unless you want to cary the rope on your shoulders, then a rope bag is essential for comfortable hiking to the rappel spot.
- First Aid Kit – This is an essential item for every outdoor adventure, including rappelling.
- Carabiners – If you are rapelling on one line or if the anchors only have a bolt, then you will need a carabiner to safely rappel. I recommend that you bring a few of these on your harness.
Set Up The Rappel
Setting up an anchor:
The anchor is a point at the top of the cliff that is used to hold the rope in place. It is the main safety point for canyoneering and climbers.
Typically, when you repel for climbing, you set up a rope that will later be used for climbers to get back up to the anchor. In canyoneering, it’s ideal to have double lines but if your rope isn’t long enough to reach the bottom with two lines, then there is typically only one rope line and it is removed from the anchor after lowering.
Using chains for the anchor:
If you’re lucky, there will be chains that you can use to run the rope through, at which point you can just run your rope through the bottom link of the chains. If you have a long enough rope, then you’ll run an equal amount of rope on either side of the chains.
If your rope is too short for a double line, then you’ll tie a knot on one side of the rope and connect a carabiner to it so that it doesn’t run through the end of the chain link.
To retrieve the rope after the rappel, you will also need either a second rope or some sort of line that is attached to the carabiner that you can use to pull down on that end of the rope after descending. With that being the case, you need to set that up at the time of setting up the anchors.
Anchors off of bolts:
The most common way for setting up climbing anchors is via bolts and quickdraws (2 carabiners attached with webbing in the middle). With two bolts, you will place the quickdraws so the gates of the carabiners are facing the opposite direction. That way if you somehow maneuver the rope out of one of the carabiners, the rope will remain inside the other carabiner.
Once your anchor is in place, you’ll need to either set up a self-belay or have another person belay you.
Setting up your belay/rapel:
To belay, you will need a proper belay device. I prefer the Grigri as it has an assisted-breaking device, which means that if something happens to me such as being knocked unconscious, the device will lock me in place and prevent me from falling to the ground (See gear section above). Many rappellers, however, use basic ATC’s or Figure 8’s as those are cheap and quick solutions.
To set up the belay, you need to load the rope into the belay device. Loading the rope into the device is dependent on your belay device. In addition to using manufacturing recommendations for your device, I recommend consulting a professional to ensure safety.
Setting Up the Ropes:
Besides needing the correct type of ropes (see gear section of this guide), you also need to make sure that you add stopper knots to the end of the rope. This will ensure that if you miss-calculate the distance your rope goes, that you won’t rappel off the end of it.
Check 1: Harness and helmet
Before lowering yourself off the edge, you need to go through several safety checks to make sure everything is in place.
Take a second to review your harness and helmet to make sure they are on your head correctly.
Check 2: Rope and anchor
Your rope needs to be properly anchored before you can even consider looking at your belay device. Make sure that the rope is properly fed or anchored to bolts or a tree. Also, are your stopper knots tied at the end of each line? This is an essential check to prevent rappelling off the end of a line.
Check 3: Belay device set up
The last check to make before you send yourself off the edge of the cliff is the belay device. Not only do you need to ensure it is loaded with the rope correctly, but you also need to ensure that you know how to use the device.
This is considered the most fun of rappelling but it is also the most dangerous. When I was young, I would lower myself as quickly as I could – it was a race to the bottom. Now, I tend to lower myself a bit slower and enjoy the descent.
To lower yourself, you have to lean back and straighten your legs so it’s like your feet are perfectly perpendicular to the cliffside. This position is similar to the sitting position in that if you were on the ground, you’d be sitting on the dirt with your feet against the wall. This will prevent you from scraping up your knees or hitting your elbows on rocks on the way down.
Walking vs Jumping:
If you want a slower descent, then you will simply lower yourself at the same time as taking steps down the cliffside. This is ideal for beginner rappellers and for repelling down a slope or edge that isn’t quite 90-degrees.
If the rock face is relatively flat and closer to 90-degrees, then you may enjoy jumping. This is when you jump away from the wall at the same time as lowering yourself. If you haven’t jumped before, then start by doing a little hop and working your way up to longer jumps.
One of my favorite things about rappelling is that when you jump, it feels like you don’t have any gravity (because you are anchored from above and not to the ground).
Retrieving the rope after repelling
Depending on if you had 1 line or 2 lines, your means of retrieving the rope is different.
Retrieving rope using 2 lines:
If your rappels were short enough that you could use double lines, then all you have to do is pull on one end of the rope until the other end goes through the chain loops and comes down.
Retrieving rope with 1 line:
If you only used one line, then hopefully you followed my recommendations when setting up the anchor and tied an extra line on the opposite side of the knot on the carabiner so you can pull on that line to pull the rope down.