Rappelling can be a fantastically wonderful sport.
No where else can you find such gorgeous views and get to experience what it’s like to stand on the side of a cliff.
Unfortunately, we humans are tied to the earth by gravity, which means that if we want to experience the wondrous scenery and magical moments we need equipment.
There can be a lot of confusion around rappelling gear. It isn’t always clear what certain devices are to be used for, and which pieces of gear are for what discipline.
There is a lot of overlap between rappelling and neighboring disciplines like rock climbing and caving etc.
We’ll look at what are the absolute bare essentials when it comes to rappelling so that you can invest in the most important items first.
If you’d like to see a graphical breakdown of the rappelling gear, we got you covered:
- 1 Rappelling Gear
- 2 What do you need for rappelling?
- 3 Where to buy rappelling equipment?
- 4 On what to pay attention when buying rappelling gear?
When you’re on the side of a mountain, your life is hanging by the climbing rope you’re strapped into.
We can of course simply trust our guides that everything is exactly how it is supposed to be.
But if we spend a little bit of time trying to understand what each bit of gear is, and what it does, we can be more prepared in case something goes wrong. In this instance as in all instances, knowledge is power, is safety.
The harness is one of the most important pieces to a safe rappelling setup.
This is the part of the system that is literally holding on to your life, and will refuse to let go.
The harness used in rappelling is the exact same kind of harness you would use if you were a rock climber.
They consist of a waist belt with a reinforced tie in point; and to leg loops which are connected to the rest of the harness with strands of webbing.
Older models of climbing harness are designed with buckles which needed to be fastened before you went up or down the wall.
However, this design presented a problem in that unless you double-backed the strap through the buckle, there was a chance that it could come undone, letting you tumble out.
Doubling back through the buckle, may sound confusing but it’s handy to know how to do in case you find yourself needing to put one of these harnesses on.
You begin by threading the strap through the buckle as you would normally, through the nearest opening, up and over the buckle’s middle point and out through the opposite side.
Doubling back the strap means you bring the strap up and back through the first hole you fed the strap though.
This creates a friction lock in the buckle, so that for it to come undone, pressure would need to be totally off the system, and this final double-backed strap undone.
Most modern day harnesses have foregone this older buckling method for a closed system nowadays. This gets rid of the risk of the harness coming undone in the middle of a climb or rappel.
When purchasing a harness for rappelling, or indeed climbing, you need to make sure that it fits you properly.
That is, it will fit snugly around your waist and legs, tight enough that it won’t slip down or up as you climb, but not so tight that it bites into your skin.
A well fitting climbing harness should be able to be forgotten about when just standing around.
Any climbing set up is likely to use at least one, probably many more, carabiners.
It’s important to note that these are not just any old carabiners like the ones you’d find at a gas station with your name printed on them.
These should be good quality climbing carabiners.
These carabiners are strength tested to hold incredible amounts of weight, and great forces upwards of 25 kN. They also come with a few extra safety features that most other non-climbing carabiners do not have.
For instance, a good climbing carabiner will have a locking mechanism of some sort. Most locking carabiners are equipped with a threaded cylinder around the clipping mechanism.
When you clip the carabiner around or through whatever you’re clipping to, you spin this threaded cylinder and it spins up and around the carabiner’s opening, locking it closed.
This is incredibly handy when you’re up on the mountain’s edge. You don’t want to accidentally undo one of the carabiners that your life is attached to.
When you’re lowering yourself down the side of a cliff, or perhaps helping someone else lower themselves down, you’re going to be working with ropes.
When you let the ropes slip through your fingers fast you could burn yourself, but even if you let them slip through slowly, the ropeburn can build up over time.
You can of course, slowly lower yourself in increments by essentially climbing down the rope, hand over hand, but even this could be abrasive to your delicate skin.
A more sustainable solution would be the purchase of some rappelling gloves.
Rappelling gloves come in many different styles and shapes, but they all serve to protect your hands from rope burn. Many of these gloves are made of leather, and sometimes they are substituted by the classic gardener’s glove.
Rappelling specific gloves differ from an ordinary leather gardener’s glove in a couple distinct ways. Rappelling gloves should fit your hand well, and you should have a fair amount of flexibility while wearing them.
These gloves will often have reinforced material along the palm of the glove, extending up onto the material around the thumb.
This is so that you have the most amount of grip at the places you need it most. When the rope is sliding through your gloves, you want to be confident that you’ll be able to stop yourself.
Clothing while rappelling is an important thing to consider.
Perhaps not as important as the quality and strength of your other gear, but if you wear the wrong clothing, you might find yourself with your sleeve caught in your ropes.
Be sure when choosing what to wear on your rappelling trip to consider a few factors.
Wear enough clothing, and make sure that it fits; not too tight and not too loose. When you’re strapped into the harness, you don’t want the leg loops rubbing against your bare legs.
Make sure, if it’s warm weather, to wear shorts that will extend below the harness. Chafed legs are a surefire way to ruin a rappelling adventure.
You also want to make sure that your clothing isn’t too long or loose. Baggy pants and shirts may be comfortable but they also can get caught up in the mechanisms that are keeping you safe.
Make sure that your clothing fits close to the body with no hanging strings; nothing that can interfere with your ropes or rappelling devices.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you don’t want your clothing to be too constricting either. When you’re up on the wall, you want to make sure you have a full range of motion.
This means pants that have a little bit of stretch to them.
If you prefer your pants denim or some other less stretchy material, consider finding a pair a pants with a diamond crotch, otherwise known as a gusset, this is an extra bit of fabric down there allowing you a fuller range of motion.
The weather is important to your clothing choice as well, if you expect it to be chilly up there, make sure to bring a jacket; again one that fits well with no swinging strings or what have you.
A few additional things to consider bringing with you are a pair of sunglasses that fit well to your head without squeezing them too tightly, a good quality climbing helmet (covered below), and some sunscreen.
If you’re only planning on rappelling on your rappelling trip, you can wear whatever sturdy shoes you like.
You’ll want to make sure that they’re securely attached, so no flip flops. You can wear normal street shoes, but it’s a good idea to look at how much grip you’ll need when you’re rappelling.
Many street shoes aren’t built with good enough tread to keep you sturdy on your feet, especially if the route is at all wet.
There are specifically designed climbing and rappelling shoes. These are typically tight fitting shoes that either lace up or velcro tightly to your foot.
On the climbing end of the spectrum, you can expect your toes to be squished slightly as they form a point, this is on purpose. When you’re climbing you want control over where you place your weight.
By having the climbing shoes fashion down to a point and hold your toes together there, all your weight can sit on one small area, very useful for climbing difficult routes.
On the rappelling side of the spectrum you can expect the shoes to be a bit wider in the toes, but not so wide as to let your feet splay.
Rappelling specific shoes keep your toes together for the same reasons that climbing shoes do, but they don’t need to keep your toes so close together as to be uncomfortable.
When choosing your shoes, make sure to keep them tightly secured to your feet, with your laces tied tightly with double knots.
You don’t want them coming undone giving you another thing to not trip over on your way down to the bottom.
Climbing rope is the most essential bit of gear to a rock climber or rappeler.
Without it you would immediately fall to your death. In fact, you can rappel using only a length of good quality climbing rope with techniques like the Dülfersitz or the South African Abseil.
When choosing a rope to rappel with, you need to keep a couple factors in mind, as there are several different kinds of rope, and some of them should not be rappelled with.
Static ropes and dynamic ropes make up the majority of climbing ropes out there. Dynamic ropes have a bit of stretch to them, which is why they’re very useful for climbing.
If you fall while climbing and the rope you’re using has some stretch to it, it won’t hurt as much when you’re caught by the rope.
Static ropes on the other hand are not designed to have stretch to them. They are designed to hold strong when what you need is consistency.
This is why static ropes are used when lowering an injured hiker down a cliff, or used while rappelling.
You can use dynamic ropes while rappelling, and it can sometimes be more comfortable than sitting on a static line.
However, the stretch in a dynamic rope can lead to the feeling of not having as much control over your descent as you may want. By and large, static ropes are used for rappelling.
Do not use ropes that are not designed for climbing.
Climbing ropes are fashioned in a way that resists friction and fraying; they’re designed to go easily through a belay device and hold when they are needed to.
Other types of rope aren’t built to handle the specific stresses that climbing and rappelling put on a rope. Because of this, they might fray and break more easily.
When setting up your own anchor, you may want to find different ways to reduce friction.
The more friction there is in the system, the more danger you’re in of the rope fraying or something going wrong. This is where rappelling rings come in.
Rappelling rings are small circular metal rings. They are often rated to withstand the maximum amount of stress that rappelling gear is expected to experience; 25 kN.
Some rappelling rings are forged in a way that means they have no seams all along the surface. This means that they are equally strong no matter which direction force is put on them.
Rappelling rings are often used in the construction of anchors. Running your ropes through the stainless steel anchors that are drilled and hammered into the side of cliffs can wear them out overtime.
Instead of needing to replace these anchors every so often, which would be an ordeal to say the least, climbers and rappellers connect their own temporary anchors to these well established ones.
At the end of these temporary anchors may sit a rappelling ring. When searching for a rappelling ring, you’ll want to look for a model that doesn’t have a seam.
Some of the older models may have seams which would mean that the ring has a weakest point; and all climbing equipments strength is only as strong as its weakest link.
By finding a rappelling ring without any seams you’ll be ensuring that your system will be as safe as possible.
Rappelling is a sport that recognizes how hard it is to climb up and down a rope.
As such people have designed ways to make these processes easier. An ascender like its name suggests, is a device that makes it easier to climb a rope.
Ascenders will typically have a handle and a way to attach a carabiner or two to the ascender. An ascender will have a channel through which the rope will be passed through.
Next to the channel will be a lever with sharp teeth. When the device is pulled down, the teeth sink into the rope holding the ascender in place, allowing you to use it to climb up.
An ascender is often connected to some sort of foot strap. This lets you use your legs to lift yourself up instead of your arms, which would get tiring after a while.
Ascending with your legs can be exhausting too, but perhaps a little bit easier than muscling your way up with your arms.
When choosing an ascender, you’ll want to pay attention to a few things. Firstly you want to make sure that the rope you’ll be using will fit in the channel.
Each individual ascender will have printed on it, if not it will be somewhere on the packaging, what range of rope thicknesses it will accept.
In general ascenders usually accept ropes anywhere between 8mm to 12mm. Any smaller and the teeth won’t bite deep enough into the ropes, any thicker and the rope won’t wedge into the ascender at all.
Descender tools are very useful especially for people who spend a lot of time up on ropes, maybe doing window cleaning or some other time intensive work.
They’re different than a typical belay device because they have more complicated mechanisms that pinch and hold the rope in place, meaning that you can put the descender into a setting that holds you still, and doesn’t let you descend.
To use the descending device, you’ll start by feeding the rope through the system. Many descending devices are designed in such a way as to make it almost impossible to thread the rope wrongly.
There will also be a diagram of some sort etched into the metal of the device, taking all the guesswork out of preparing the system.
When you’re up at the top of the rope, ready to descend, you’ll pull the handle to the descend position. Many models of descender have varying levels of descent, from slow to fast.
No matter what speed you choose to descend at, a good descender device will, when let go, snap back to the locking position to hold you in place.
Before using a descender in a real life situation high above the ground, familiarize yourself with the system by reading the manual thoroughly, or perhaps consulting a climbing expert, who can show you how the machine works.
What do you need for rappelling?
More important than the gear itself, is the knowledge and experience that comes along with using the gear over and over.
In this section we’ll go over some of the bare essentials when it comes to gear, and how to properly use them.
A belay device is the thing that you use to control your descent.
It is one of the most important pieces to a properly functioning rappelling system, and understanding how it works will keep you safe when you’re up on the wall.
There are two common types of belay device: The ATC and the Grigri.
The Air Traffic Controller belay device is one of the most common belay devices.
It consists of a metal armature with one or two (typically two) openings. To thread this type of belay device:
- Begin by bending the rope at the point you would like to insert into the belay device. Make sure that the climber’s end is on top when inserting this loop into the belay device.
- Insert the loop into one of the openings in the belay device. The rope should then line up with the steel wire attached to the belay device.
- Clip your carabiner through this loop, and pull the lower end of the rope until the belay device cinches tight and the rope stops moving.
If done correctly, you should be able to hold your entire body weight with just the grip of your braking hand.
This type of belay device takes some of the guesswork out of belaying.
Many rock climbing gyms require for safety reasons that these belay devices be used instead of the ATC belay devices we just covered.
That’s because the Grigri belay device has an assisted braking feature. Meaning that if the rope is put under tension, the belay device will seize up stopping the rope from slipping through the system.
To thread this type of belay device, first look on the outside for the diagram. A grigri auto lock belay device will, when not clipped into a carabiner, slide open to allow you to thread the rope into the system.
When you’ve ensured that the rope is going through the right direction, slide the mechanism closed and clip your carabiner through the provided hole. Doing this should lock the system closed so that the rope cannot come out.
You can double check that the system has been loaded correctly by tugging on the climber’s end of the rope, if it locks in place you’ve done it correctly.
How to tie a friction hitch: two methods
A friction hitch is often used by rappellers as a failsafe as they go down.
Using a loop of rope of a smaller diameter than the main line, the climber fashions a hitch that moves smoothly down the line when loose, but sinches tight and holds if tension is applied.
Below are two of the most popular methods of tying a friction hitch. They both are tied using a piece of rope about two feet in length tied in a loop using a fisherman’s knot (both ends tied in a half hitch to the other end.)
Both of these friction hitches will attach to a carabiner that is attached to a safe place on your harness.
You may want to choose a different location than your tie in points, as most of your rappelling gear will already be clipped into your main tie in points.
You may want to attach either one of these friction hitches somewhere else on your harness, being careful that its placement won’t undo any buckles in the process.
- With your loop of rope already clipped through your carabiner, begin wrapping it around the main line below the belay device.
- Your wraps should spiral down the line, moving closer to yourself.
- After a few wraps, (you can alter the amount of friction you have by increasing or decreasing the number of wraps) clip the other end of your loop back onto the same carabiner.
- At the end your loop should come from the carabiner, wrap downward around the main line, and clip back into the carabiner.
- Be sure to lock this carabiner to keep yourself safe.
An alternative to the Auto Block puts to work a similar principal, but in a slightly different way.
- You begin with your loop of rope, not clipped into a carabiner.
- Pass the loop under the main line and pass the knotted end of the loop through itself.
- Wrap the knotted end under the main line, and pass it through the loop again.
- Repeat the last step one more time until the knot is through the loop again.
- Gently take all the slack out of the knot by feeding the knotted end through.
- The knot should look clean with the knotted end of the loop exiting the knot in the middle, with nice parallel lines on either side.
This knot is tied correctly if, you can easily slide it in either direction by pushing on the knot with your finger tips, but will hold tightly if tension is put on the loop.
Where to buy rappelling equipment?
You can buy rappelling equipment at your local rock climbing supply store.
Alternatively these supplies can be acquired from many different places. REI is a popular choice and there are outlets in most major cities, but you can buy them online.
But beware, climbing and rappelling equipment needs to be in perfect condition to provide you with perfect performance.
Any frayed edges on a rope can lead to damaged nylon strands on the inside which can lead to a broken rope. Any damage on a harness would retire the harness immediately.
When buying used climbing equipment, especially used ropes harnesses and carabiners, you should inspect them very carefully.
If you do find any damage on a used piece of climbing equipment, do not purchase it. When inspecting climbing ropes, look for frayed spots,or areas that are significantly thinner or fatter than the rest of it.
Also look for any sun bleached or sun damaged areas, as this can shorten the life of a climbing rope drastically.
When inspecting a carabiner, look very closely for hairline fractures, they can be difficult to see at first glance, but these significantly weaken the carabiner to the point of being dangerous.
The same goes for a belay device with any broken parts.
A used helmet can have a few small dings and scrapes, but if there are any large dents, or if the plastic is coming away from the foam underneath in any place, it should have been retired immediately.
Luckily it is common practice for climbers and rappellers to destroy a damaged piece of climbing equipment when it’s been retired, lest an unsuspecting climber use it and get hurt.
On what to pay attention when buying rappelling gear?
When buying rappelling gear, you need to make sure to keep an eye out for a few things.
You’ll need to find gear that fits properly. A helmet needs to sit tightly on your head without being buckled, but not so tight that it gives you a headache to wear it.
A harness needs to be able to cinched to your waist and leg sizes. Shoes and gloves, should sit firmly attached to your body; no wiggling or shifting as you climb.
As mentioned before, you need to make sure that your equipment is in excellent health. This means that your ropes aren’t frayed, sun bleached or damaged in any way.
If you try to climb using damaged gear, you drastically increase the amount of danger you’ll be putting yourself in. Your harness should be equally pristine; no frays in the webbing, no cracks in the buckles.
All your climbing equipment should be rated to withstand the forces that climbing and rappelling put on them.
If any link in the chain is weakened, either by overuse or by not being prepared for these kinds of forces, your whole system becomes useless.
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