Rappelling: Learn the Basics of This Essential Technique

Getting to the top of any route is a success, but it also means one thing: You’re only halfway there. To descend single- and multi-pitch routes, rappelling is an excellent option that gets you down quickly and puts minimal wear on fixed anchors. The process of rappelling is simple in concept, but it can seem complicated in practice, especially at first. Mistakes are easy to make; accidents happen all the time—and they’re often fatal. Here’s the step-by-step process of rappelling plus some tips to prevent mistakes.

The following instructions assume the rope or ropes are already set up, they will reach the next anchor, and the ends are knotted or touching the ground.

After the ropes are safely set up through the rappel anchor, you should be clipped directly into the anchor with a personal anchor tether and a backup, and untied from the rope. Clip the rappel device to your belay loop with a locking biner (don’t lock it yet), and then pull up a few feet of both strands of rope. It will be heavy, so have your partner hold the rope up, or step on it to create slack so it’s easier to clip in.

With that slack, create two small bights in each strand and push them through the openings in your device, keeping the brake end of the rope (the section that leads to the ground) coming out through the friction grooves—if your device has them. Orient the brake/friction-groove side so it’s on your dominant side. Keeping the biner on your belay loop, clip it through the device and both strands of rope. Now lock it.

Before letting the rope drop, pull the brake strands up and through the device as much as possible. Stand higher or pull up on the anchor to lift your body up; keep pulling until it’s clear that you’re fully weighting the rappel setup and not your tethers going directly to the anchor (they should be loose, not taut). If the rappel device is not set up correctly, it will not hold your weight, and you will have to set it up again.

Double-check that both strands of the rope are threaded through the device; the biner is clipped through the device, your belay loop, and both strands of rope; and the biner is locked. (Have your partner check, too, if he is around.)

Set up your auto-block (climbing.com/skill/rappel-to-ascend) so it’s wrapped around both strands of rope below your belay device, clipped to your leg loop, and the biner is locked. An auto-block is a rappel backup or a “third hand,” meaning if you get knocked unconscious or lose control of the rope, it will tighten up and keep you from plummeting downward. (It needs to be short enough so it can’t get caught in the belay device, which would render it useless.) Beware that if the leg loops have auto-doubled-back buckles, the auto-block could undo the buckle when weighted. If you do have those buckles, clip the biner to the inside of the leg loop-waist connector, near your crotch.

Once you’re fully clipped in, it’s time to start moving down. With one hand firmly on the brake strands in a locked-off position (like when belaying: down and behind your butt), undo the tethers connecting you to the anchor. Now put that second hand on the brake-side of the rope over the auto-block. With the lower hand, slowly feed the rope up through the belay device. Use the top hand to move the auto-block down the rope so it won’t tighten up.

As you start to move downward, you will be able to figure out the ratio of how fast you feed the rope to how quickly you move down the rope. Don’t go too fast or you might lose control. Once you’re safely clipped into the next anchors or on the ground, unclip the biner from the device and ropes, and then quickly clip just the device again, pulling it free from the ropes. Yell “Off rappel!” up to your partner.


  • Don’t walk backward unless it’s really slabby. Sit fully in the harness and have your hips bent at 90 degrees so your legs are straight and pushing you out from the wall.
  • Don’t wear a heavy pack—that will pull your upper body down. Instead, take off your pack and clip it to your belay loop with a sling so it hangs between your legs. Keep in mind the weight will cause you to move down the rope faster.
  • Be aware of branches, ledges, and anything you might rappel down onto.
  • Pay attention to where your rope is—above and below you. Ropes swinging side to side and loose ends tossed down can cause rockfall.
  • Stay light on your feet to maneuver through chimneys, gullies, slabs, and steep sections.
  • For more, visit climbing.com/rappel-tips.


Previous Comments

I usually extend my rappel. It's easier to rig an autoblock and it helps to maintain an upright position. When it's windy, I don't toss the rope. Instead, I create butterfly coils and bring down with me as I rappel.

Deling Ren - 09/08/2014 12:25:43

True. One more improvement is to then move the auto-block to the belay loop. There is still enough separation and this moves the back-up to the full strength belay loop which is a much better place if, in fact, the rappel was set up incorrectly. Additionally I like to attach the friction hitch to the ropes first. I am then able to pull some slack up through and above the hitch. The hitch holds the weight of the ropes that are down the cliff allowing you to easily attach the rappel device in the slack you've created. Once the device is attached slide the friction hitch up the ropes to just under the device and rappel as usual. No more wrapping the rope around your wrist or stepping on it to get enough slack to set up the rappel.

Carl - 09/07/2014 9:12:22

always tie knots at the end of your 2 ropes

alpinist - 09/07/2014 3:20:16

not a word about the ends of the rope upon which you are rapping--what is going on down there? are both ends anchored/knotted to avoid rapping off the end?

kira - 09/07/2014 10:01:23

If you choose to use an auto-block, I'd recommend extending the belay device away from your harness. To do so, put a double-length sling through your tie-in points with basket hitch and an overhand knot tied in the middle of it and attach the belay device to the end of the sling. This will avoid the chance of the auto-block getting caught up in the device.

Pete - 09/07/2014 3:24:08