If you are interested in climbing, then you probably know about rappelling. Chances are, you have even heard about how dangerous rappelling can be.
Unfortunately, many of the rumors about the safety of rappelling are true. Rappelling is an inherently dangerous activity. However, if you equip yourself with the correct rappelling gear and learn all the essential rappelling skills, you can significantly mitigate the risk involved in rappelling and even enjoy yourself while you do it.
Keep reading for all our best recommendations for rappelling gear.
Rappelling While Rock Climbing
You are probably rappelling if you are not hiking off the back of the rock formation after a multi-pitch adventure or being lowered by your belayer on a single-pitch sport climb.
Therefore, rappelling is one of the most common ways to get down a rock climb in rock climbing.
Simply speaking, rappelling is a technique of lowering oneself down a climbing rope using a rappel device and other equipment.
In this article, we will discuss the gear we recommend you equip yourself with to rappel safely. A few of the items we list below could be considered non-essential. Nonetheless, our list will suit you perfectly as you begin investing in rappelling gear.
Recommended Rappelling Gear
For our recommendations, the following gear starts at the head and moves down to the feet.
When it comes to helmets, we are strongly opinionated. If you are climbing outside, then we recommend wearing a helmet at all times.
There is even an argument for wearing a helmet indoors as well. But we won’t go there today.
Helmets are multi-functional– they serve many vital purposes as you climb outside.
- Helmets protect you from falling overhead hazards, such as falling rocks, dropped climbing gear, and cell phones. Really anything falling from the sky.
- Helmets protect your head in the event of a bad fall where you swing sideways or flip upside down and your head comes in contact with the wall or worse, the ground.
- Helmets make you look cool and set a good example for your friends and the other climbers in the area.
- Did we mention that helmets are important for safety?
A climbing harness is a necessity for rappelling. Your harness cradles your body in a comfortable seated position as you rappel.
A harness is more or less constructed of five important components.
- The waist strap on your harness wraps around snuggly to your waist, squeezing and catching your body in the event of a fall.
- The leg loops on your harness wrap around your thighs and support your legs so you can comfortably sit in your harness.
- The two tie-in points on your harness, or hardpoints, are where you tie into your climbing rope.
- The belay loop on your harness connects the waist strap and leg loops via the tie-in points and is where you secure your belay device.
- The gear loops on your harness serve as attachment points for holding your climbing gear, such as rappelling equipment, carabiners, quickdraws, and other important things.
Your harness needs to be the proper size and fit your body shape. The waist buckle on your harness needs to be properly tightened and double-backed.
Personal Tethering System
Back in the day, it was common for climbers to rappel straight off the belay loop on their harnesses. However, nowadays, it’s best practice to extend your rappel device off your harness using a personal tethering system.
Personal tethering systems serve two crucial functions.
- You use your tether to attach yourself to the rappel anchors.
- You use your tether to extend your rappel device off your harness.
Extending your rappel device off your harness is important because it creates a larger distance between the device itself and the friction hitch backing up your rappel. This provides you with more control and ensures the friction hitch functions properly.
A personal tethering system can be constructed in multiple ways. One option is you can tether yourself using a purpose-built tether, such as the Metolius Personal Anchor System (PAS) or Petzl Dual Connect Adjust.
Or you can construct an improvised tether using a loop of sewn webbing. If you choose to build your own tether, the preferred length is at least 120 centimeters.
It should be noted that building your own improvised tether requires additional steps and more attention to detail.
As you can imagine, the rappel device is the centerpiece of any rappel.
A rappel device is installed onto the rappelling rope and helps create friction as you descend down the ropes. The friction the rappel device creates on the rope allows you to control your speed and descend safely.
There are all kinds of rappel devices. Some are dual-purpose belay and rappel devices, like the Black Diamond ATC device. Other rappel devices, like the Petzl Pirana descender, are designed specifically for descending via rappelling.
For most rock climbers, a dual-purpose device is preferred. However, if you intend to only descend, like in the sport of canyoneering, then using a specialty descender device is preferred.
Rappelling is dangerous (1) In fact, it’s statistically one of the most dangerous activities that rock climbers perform. That is why safety is paramount. Therefore, we recommend backing up your rappel device with a friction hitch and wearing a helmet.
When correctly installed, a friction hitch grabs and brakes the rope for you. This allows you to completely let go of the rope with your brake hand, should you need to clean a piece of gear or manage the ropes.
This means that friction hitches will also brake your rappel if you become incapacitated while rappelling from a falling rock or some medical emergency.
There are three critical types of friction hitches.
- The autoblock
- The prussik
- The klemheist
All three are very helpful and serve important functions in rock climbing–such as tethering and hauling. However, a correctly installed autoblock is often the preferred friction hitch for rappelling.
Locking carabiners are used as linkage devices between critical points. A linkage is deemed critical if a linkage failure denotes a catastrophic accident. Therefore, you use a locking carabiner to add more security and prevent unclipping.
Typically, when it comes to rappelling gear, the more locking carabiners, the better.
- A locking carabiner should be used to connect your personal tethering system to the rappel anchors.
- A locking carabiner is mandatory for connecting rappel devices to the tethering system.
- A locking carabiner is recommended for attaching your friction hitch to the rappelling rope.
There are various shapes and sizes of locking carabiners. There are also different types of closure systems. We recommend taking your time to figure out which locking carabiner you prefer the most.
For some climbers, rappelling gloves are an optional piece of equipment. However, we recommend learning to rappel with gloves.
We recommend gloves for rappelling for two reasons.
- They protect your hands. The friction during a rappel heats up rappelling devices to surprisingly hot temperatures that can burn your skin. This is especially true for long rappels and multi-pitch routes with multiple rappels. Also, if you are not careful, you can also injure your hand on sharp rock edges as you work with ropes at the anchors and descend.
- Rappel gloves provide you with more control. Ropes come in different diameter sizes. Smaller diameters, or skinnier ropes, make less friction and therefore rappel much faster, even for an experienced climber. So gloves allow you to remain more in control.
You cannot rappel without ropes.
In most cases, you will be climbing on and rappelling with dynamic ropes, especially for sport climbing and multi-pitch climbing. Dynamic ropes stretch to help absorb the shock of falling climber and soften the catch.
However, if you are strictly learning the skill of rappelling, you might be working with static ropes. Static ropes are designed not to stretch and are typically used for non-climbing tasks such as rappelling and building anchors.
You may need to rappel with two ropes depending on your rappelling scenario.
Rappelling with two ropes allows you to rappel the full length of the ropes instead of only half. You can reach the ground much faster with two ropes. This is most common for descending in mountaineering and long multi-pitches where a fast descent is preferred.
It should be noted that rappelling with two ropes is an advanced rappelling technique that requires extra knowledge of knot tying and rope management to make it safe.
Rappelling with a tagline is similar to rappelling with two ropes. Using a tagline allows you to rappel the full length of the climbing rope instead of only half.
After descending the full length of the rope, you can then use the tagline to pull down the rope and retrieve it for another rappel.
Like rappelling with two ropes, rappelling with a tagline is an advanced technique that requires extra knowledge of knot tying and rope management.
An anchor kit is a critical piece of rappelling gear. An anchor kit is an assortment of locking and non-locking carabiners and cord or sewn slings that allow you to create anchors.
For most rappel routes, you can assume there will be at least two bolts with rappel rings. To stay safe, it’s best practice to use an anchor kit to construct an anchor that connects the two bolts into a single, almost equalized master point. You then would attach your personal tethering system to the master point instead of one of the two bolts.
Building an anchor provides extra protection because you are attached to two points of protection instead of just one in case of bolt failure.
Maintaining Your Rappelling Gear
Over time, your rappelling gear will show signs of wear and tear. Therefore, maintaining and routinely examining your equipment is vital.
When a piece of rappelling equipment is getting old, such as a belay device with grooves and sharp edges from repeated use, it should be retired.
- Check the action of your carabiners and add lubricant if the gates are becoming sticky.
- Periodically review your helmet for any cracks or defects.
- Examine your cord, personal anchor system, and other soft materials for signs of wear and tear– such as core shots, cuts, tears, and general fuzziness.
- Check your rappelling device and belay devices for any sharp edges created by overuse.
- Routinely double-check that the closure systems on your harness remain double-backed and that the belay loop and tie-in points are in good condition.
Tips for Gearing Up for Rappelling
Equipping yourself with the appropriate rappelling before going out and rappelling is vital. The process of selecting the correct gear can take some time. Here are some tips to consider that may help you in the process.
Do your research and ask questions
Good news, you already are! Articles like this are super helpful, but so is talking with more experienced climbing mentors and your local gear shop. Maybe even watch a video or two from a trusted source like an International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) certified guide.
Try new equipment and make adjustments
There are many pieces of essential climbing equipment. But that doesn’t mean you should get stuck in your ways.
Climbing equipment is constantly evolving, and so should you. Make the change if you find a belay device, cord, or a good pair of climbing shoes that suit you better.
Safety is the most important thing
Don’t take any shortcuts as you gear up and learn to rappel. Unfortunately, many climbers do not do this.
Investing in quality equipment, learning all the best habits, wearing a helmet, and always checking your knot are essential.
Know the Ropes: Rappelling. Fundamentals to Save Your Life.
American Alpine Club (2012). Retrieved on 11/10/2022.