How to Rappel for Beginners

By Brenna Swanston

Tips to make your next rock climbing vacation a success

How to Rappel for Beginners

Climbing is one thing; coming down from the climb is quite another. In rappelling, climbers quickly zip to the ground without the help of a partner. Don't try this if you're a brand-new climber, but as you gain experience, you'll want this essential skill under your belt. It's critical to learn to rappel correctly and safely, since that's when a large portion of climbing accidents happen. Only experienced climbers who have mastered the art of rappelling should attempt it on their own. Otherwise, rappel only under expert supervision. Here are the basic steps for a safe and successful rappel.

1. Check your gear

Climbers need only a few additions to their essential gear to prepare for a rappel:

  • Personal anchor system, attached to the harness by a girth hitch through both tie-in points. This works well for climbing areas with two bolts at the top, a common rappelling scenario.
  • Belay device, which climbers should ensure is approved for rappel. Most tubular-style and all figure-eight belay devices are.
  • Cord, 2 to 3 feet that's at least 5 mm thick, for the rappel device's auto-block hitch. Use a double fisherman's knot to tie the cord into a loop.
  • Rappel gloves, especially for multiple rappels.

2. Set up the ropes

At the top of the route, set up for safety. Clip a quickdraw to an acceptable point at the top and clip the rope into the draw. Tell your belayer to take in slack, to back up the personal anchor system in case something goes wrong, then continue preparing.

Clip a loop of the personal anchor system to the same point as the draw with a locking carabiner. Put another loop in the personal anchor system (one that will keep slack out of the system) to another acceptable point at the route's top. Clean the top anchor and rack it.

Ask your belayer for slack and pull up the rope – about 30 feet of it. Use a clove hitch to tie off the slack and clip it to the belay loop to prevent a fumble from causing the rope to drop to the ground. Untie the figure eight attaching the rope to the harness, and thread the rope through both chains' bottom link. Tie a stopper knot in the end of the rope to close the system. There should already be a stopper knot on the rope's ground end; together, the two knots can keep a climber from rappelling off either end of the rope.

Feed the rope until reaching the clove hitch, untie it, and keep feeding the rope until its middle mark hits the top of the rappel. Check with your belayer to ensure both ends of the rope are touching the ground.

3. Set up the rappel

At this point, you should be clipped into the personal anchor system and untied from the rope. Use a locking carabiner to clip the rappel device to the belay loop, and pull up a few feet of both strands of rope. Create two small bights in each rope strand and push them through the openings in the rappel device. Clip the carabiner through the device and both strands of rope. Lock the carabiner. Pull as much of the brake strands through the rappel device as possible.

Double-check everything. Set up the auto-block by wrapping the loop of cord around both strands of rope below the belay device. Clip the cord to the leg loop with a locking carabiner. This keeps you from falling should you lose control of the rope.

4. Make the descent

It's time to start moving toward the ground. Sit fully in the harness with your hips bent at a 90-degree angle and your legs straight, pushing out from the wall. Pay attention to surroundings and stay light on your feet.

Double-check everything again, and if it's all good, call "On rappel" to your belaying partner. Keep one hand on the brake strands and undo the tethers connecting to the anchor. Keep the other hand over the auto-block, on the brake side of the rope. Use the lower hand to feed the rope up through the belay device, while the top hand moves the auto-block down the rope so it doesn't tighten. At the bottom (or the next anchor), call "Off rappel" to your belayer.

Basics to keep in mind

For those just starting with any type of rock climbing, including rappelling, remember the following basics:

  • Practice as often as possible and find more experienced mentors to provide guidance and help set goals.
  • Maintain strength in your shoulders and lower core to keep growing in climbing skill. Many climbers recommend getting into yoga to help develop that strength.
  • Warm up with light cardio and dynamic stretching before starting a climb to prevent injury.
  • When mid-climb, remember to breathe and focus. In climbing, the mental is just as important as the physical. Keep a clear mind.