Rappelling, Abseiling, Belaying & Climbing: What’s The Difference?

Rappelling Abseiling Belaying & Climbing

Maybe you want to get into climbing or rappelling and want to know all the ins and outs of the surrounding disciplines.

Or maybe you’ve heard about one or two of the terms in the title of this article, but don’t know how it compares and contrasts to the other terms.

So, what is the difference between all these activities?

Rappelling and abseiling are two words for the same thing, they both refer to the times when you’re steadily lowering yourself down some steep incline on a rope through a belay device of some sort. Belaying uses the same device to catch a falling climber by a belayer holding the other end of the rope on the ground.

Now, that is a very basic explanation, describing the broad strokes of these systems.

It’s enough to understand how they interact, but for a deeper understanding, we need to dissect each discipline individually to see how it works.


Woman Climbing On The Rock

Climbing I think is the most self-explanatory of the techniques in this article, so we’ll begin here.

It’s something that we humans do instinctively and were surprisingly good at it.

Probably inheriting some skills from our ancestors in combinations with our very human determination to do things we by all rights shouldn’t.

The trouble with climbing is that in order to get good at it, you have to fail. In the beginning, the failures will be muscular, your fingers just won’t be able to hold on any longer.

But as the body’s healing process takes its course, your muscles will get better and they will also get stronger.

Whereas before you might have been only able to get maybe 10 feet off the ground above a nice cushy crash pad; now you find yourself able to climb too much higher and more dangerous heights.

No matter how much practice a climber puts in, we all make mistakes. And a mistake 30 feet from the ground is a lot more costly than a mistake 10 feet from the ground. This is where the ropes come in.

Unless you’re practicing your technique bouldering, a type of climbing where you stay closer to the ground, typically practiced on boulders hence the name; you’ll find yourself strapped into a harness and tied to a rope.

This is your safety harness, and like its name implies it’s there to keep you safe.

The Climbing Harness

Wearing Climbing Harness

You’ll use the same type of harness whether you’re rappelling or belaying a climber or climbing yourself.

Your safety harness is what you are caught by when you’re up on the wall and you let go; it’s what catches you. So it’s important for it to fit properly and comfortably.

While you’re climbing you don’t want to be at all restricted by your harness. You’ll know that your harness is too small if it is at all uncomfortable when you’re just standing around.

You’ll know that it’s too big if you need to keep adjusting it, pulling it up or tugging it down. When it’s in the goldilocks zone, you won’t even need to think about it until you’re waiting for it to catch you.

A typical climbing harness is made of three loops: two leg loops and a waist buckle. Some more modern climbing harnesses have a larger waist loop instead of a buckle, but they both cinch up the same way.

To properly put on a climbing harness you’ll begin by making sure there are no twists in the leg straps or the waist belt. The straps can get uncomfortable if they’ve been twisted, and it puts more strain on the system that way.

Once you’ve sorted the straps so they’re straight, you’ll slip your feet through their respective leg loops. You’ll know which one is the left loop and which one the right by looking for the tie in points on the waist belt.

Orient the tie in points so that they’ll sit in front of you. In this position, the leg loops should be hanging side by side, the left one for your left leg, the right one for the right.

Most climbing harnesses have adjustable leg loops so that you can fit them to your specific leg thickness. You’ll want to cinch them snug but not tight enough to bite into your skin at all.

You should be able to comfortably fish a couple fingers in between the strap and your leg, but not more.

In this position, with your leg straps adjusted the waist belt should be hanging around your hips or waist. Pull it up until it sits around your waist and cinch it closed.

As mentioned above, some models of the climbing harness are always closed in a loop; in these instances, cinching it closed is just a matter of tightening the loop to suit your waist, again snug but not too tight.

More classic models of climbing harness do not have a waist loop that is closed, instead of having an open buckle on one end and a strap on the other.

You fasten these types of harnesses by feeding the strap through the rear end of the buckle, making sure that there are no twists in the belt.

Pull the belt comfortably closed around your waist high up on your hips and feed the strap through the other half of the buckle.

The most important step in fastening this type of climbing harness is to double back the strap and pass it through the first loop again in the other direction.

Without this vital third step, the harness can loosen as you climb, and if your harness is too loose you might fall out.


Showing How To Belay

If you’re not climbing the wall trying to get to the top, you’re probably using a belay device of some sort.

These are metal devices that guide climbing rope through a few carefully placed loops as to be able to stop the rope’s movements by adding a bit of friction to one side of the system.

This means that catching a falling climber or holding yourself up is as simple as holding the rope below the belay device, and all the tension you’d feel from the weight of the climber above, is held tightly by the device, and not by your hands.

The process works on a very basic principle of friction. A typical belay device will guide on or two ropes in through an opening and out again through the same opening, and a carabiner will be clipped through a loop in this rope.

The belay device also will have a wire loop that will be clipped through the carabiner, but this is intended to keep everything orderly as you’re feeding the rope through the system.

In this position, the climbing rope will go from the climber above, through any anchor points above that the climber has already clipped through, and down to you.

The rope will then enter the belaying system, loop around your carabiner and back out the belaying system.

When tension is put on the line and the belayer holds the descending rope below the belay device, all the weight of the climber will be pressed onto the carabiner.

And the ropes exiting the belay device in opposite directions gives the system enough friction for everything to just sit still with minimal effort.

When the climber wants to come down, it’s as simple as lifting your bottom hand so that the top end is exiting the belay device at a closer angle.

This lets the rope slide with less friction and the climber should descend.

Proper Belaying Technique

Showing Belay Technique

When you’re on the ground tied into a climber heading up it’s your job to make sure that they have enough rope that they won’t be restricted in any of their movements.

At the same time, you don’t want to leave them too much rope, what climbers call slack, which would mean that if they fall they’d be falling for longer, building up more momentum.

You should always have an eye on your climber since their life is literally in your hands.

On long climbs it can be a strain on your neck, looking up to see what the climber is doing and when they might need assistance.

If this becomes a problem for you, there are sets of mirrored glasses that reflect upwards so that you can see what’s happening above you by looking straight ahead.

They take a little getting used to, but it helps to be able to easily keep an eye on your climber.

There are two main ways you might belay a rock climber.

First, Top Rope Climbing, where the rope is already fed through an anchor at the top of the wall, and you’d be taking the slack out of the system as the climber climbs.

And the second one, Lead Climbing, where the climber brings the rope up with them, clipping into different anchors as they climb, in which case you’d be giving the climber slack as they climbed, being careful not to hold them back.

No matter what type of climbing your belaying for the basic belaying technique is the same.

You’ll always want one hand on both ends of the rope; one going up to the climber and the other coiling in or uncoiling from, a pile behind you.

To take slack away from the climber:

  • Start with your right hand holding the bottom of the rope by your hip with six inches to a foot of rope between your hand and the belay device; and your left hand holding the section of the rope going up to the climber, ready to help guide the rope through the belay device.
  • When the climber goes higher, the slack will build up in the rope. Lift the rope in your right (bottom) hand up above the belay device, this essentially unlocks the system so the rope can move smoothly through the device.
  • In one fluid movement, pull the slack out of the rope by raising your right arm up, pulling the rope forward and then down and lower your bottom hand back below the belay device locking the system up again.
  • Lastly, reposition your hands to the starting position.

Always remember to return to this position before doing anything else. You need to be ready to take slack out of the rope at a moment’s notice or to catch a climber in a fall.

If you’re belaying a lead climber, on the other hand, there is a slightly different technique.

Instead of taking slack away from and the climber goes higher and higher, you must now give the climber slack as they climb so you don’t hold them back.

  • To begin, hold your left (top) hand on the rope leading up to the climber about six inches to a foot from the belay device.
  • Your right (bottom) arm will be holding the rope as far down as they can comfortably while still keeping a little bit of tension on the lower half of the belay device.
  • When you’re ready to give slack, the climber will often announce when they’re moving so you can give them enough slack, begin by lifting your right arm, taking tension out of the system.
  • Use your left hand to pull the rope through, keeping your right hand on the underside of the rope.
  • When your right hand gets close enough to the belay device, usually no less than six inches, you return your right hand to your hip, below  the device locking the system again.
  • Only when the system is in the locked position do you shift your hands down their respective lines and prepare for the next time you’ll need to give slack to the climber.
  • Remember to always return to the beginning position when you’re done feeding slack through. You may need to feed a lot of slack through all at once.

Rappelling/ Abseiling

Man Rappeling On The Rock

Understanding rappelling will be very easy now that we have a basic understanding of belaying.

Rappelling, also known as abseiling, uses a belay device like the one you’d use for belaying a climber, but in this case, you’re essentially belaying yourself.

The line you’ll be going down will be fed through your belay device just as it would normally.

This time instead of the top rope going up and connecting to a climber, it goes and attaches to your anchor, whether that be a sturdy tree, a heavy rock or an actual anchor.

The other end of the rope feeds through your belay device and heads down to the ground.

It’s important to note that when rappelling and abseiling your rope must reach the ground or at the very least close enough to the floor that your feet will touch.

Otherwise you’ll just be hanging there and have to find a way to climb back up the rope, or cut it and fall.

When rappelling you can choose to keep your belay device in one of two places.

You can have it clipped near to your tie in points; this would be helpful if you wanted to slowly descend the rope, carefully moving down in increments.

The other option is to have the belay device a few feet away from you on an extender.

Having the belay device a bit further away it’s recommended that you tie some sort of friction hitch around the line and clip it to your tie in points.

This is in case you accidentally let go of the line, it will catch the rope and hold you still.

In either method, you can slowly let the rope through the system in increments, or you can let the ropes slip through your fingers.

Many rappelers wear leather gloves so that they can let a lot of rope through very quickly, while not getting rope burn on their hands.

How are they all connected?

Woman Preparing To Climb On The Rock

While these disciplines are subtly nuanced, they are very similar to one another.

They all work with ropes and require good knowledge of a handful of different kinds of knots. They require you to know what a properly set up belaying system looks like.

And apart from beginning climbers who haven’t learned to belay yet, the other two disciplines require you to know how to feed the rope into and out of a belay device.

Both belaying and abseiling have the same components, an anchor, they both have a line coming down into a belay device and exiting the other side, and they both have the belay system in the locked position unless rope is moving through the system.

When you’re belaying a climber the anchor is above both of you, but when you’re rappelling the anchor is a static anchor, either a large rock or sturdy tree, and you are the weight that needs to be held up.

It may be handy to think of rappelling as if you were belaying yourself down something because that is essentially what you’re doing.

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