Abseiling: 5 ways to improve

Abseiling: 5 ways to improve.

Lessons learnt from abseiling in a canyon.

When I first started canyoning several years ago I had to adapt my abseiling (rappelling) technique to this environment. A few things were the same and many things were different (or as is often said ‘same-same but different’).

I had come from a background of climbing and caving where the environment was usually dry. When it was snow and ice you had some crampons on your boots to help you stick. In canyoning, the environment is often wet and slippery with some added sensory stimulation from the noise of the rushing water.

One of the main differences is the primary objective of canyoning, is descending (rather than climbing). So there is a change of focus. Descending is one of the key aspects that need to be refined or improved. Additionally, when instructing or guiding, you need to have a clear method of teaching people who have not abseiled before.

Here are the 5 things that I have learnt from abseiling in a canyon that will improve your performance, confidence, and enjoyment:

1. The right amount of friction

The goal is to have the right amount of friction to effectively control speed. It is important to have the ability to go faster or slower depending on the situation, with small changes in grip, technique or rope entry angle into your device.

Variables to take into account

  • How much you weigh and how much gear are you carrying?
  • What type of device are you using?
  • How have you rigged the device?
  • What is the rope configuration – single or double rope?
  • What the type, diameter, and age of the rope e.g. stiff vs flexible, new vs old, 9mm vs 10mm?

Key takeaways

  1. Know your device – have multiple ways to rig for different amounts of friction.
  2. Practice – find yourself a safe, short abseil and practice with the different friction variations and rope types.

abseiling-friction-types Figure 1: Friction variations for Figure-8 abseil device

2. Place and use your hands


This is a method to get your clients smiling and focused on what you’re saying. What it means is your dominant hand is holding the rope back and extended around your rear end. This is a comfortable place for your hand and allows you to apply more friction on your hip if needed. Often you will see beginners with their hands crowding the device which then tends to be where their focus goes as well.

What to do with the other hand – above or below?

When teaching beginners the second hand is on the rope just underneath the device. This allows more confidence and control. However, with more experience, this second hand can be moved above the device on the rope or to fend off objects. This allows more balance, especially with tricky abseils.

Key takeaways

  1. Your dominant hand is used in the position thumb-up-bum.
  2. Your other hand is recommended on the rope just below the device.
  3. Once more experience is gained you can use your other hand in other places in order to assist with balance.

figure 8 abseiling hand positions Figure 2: Both hands below vs one hand above and one hand below

3. Get the right stance

I see this quite often with people tiptoeing down an abseil. Maybe lacking in confidence the thought is to keep close to the rock which seems safer. It’s actually really hard to do and takes a lot of energy. It also means the person travels down the rope slowly and often their feet slip. The best thing is to have your legs at right angles (90 degrees) to the rock or surface with your feet shoulder width apart. This is a really stable and comfortable position.

Key takeaways

  1. Legs at right angles (90 degrees) to the rock or surface.
  2. Feet are shoulder width apart.


Figure 3: Abseiling Cross Creek

4. Move fast and smooth

Getting the right friction first, allows you to be fast and smooth (see 1. The right amount of friction). What I mean by fast is at a speed where you are under control but allows you to easily and smoothly go from one obstacle to the next. Adding some speed to your descent allows you to be smooth. I have observed that when people tend to creep down the abseil line they tend to be unbalanced, bouncy and slip over much more.

Depending on your environment, going faster may mean heat build up in your device, and on your hands, so keep this in mind. In canyoning, we don’t have to worry about heat build up so much as the ropes are usually wet. Many people use gloves as well which helps.

Key takeaways

  1. Go a bit faster while being in control and think about being smooth.
  2. Be aware of heat build up.


Figure 4: Abseiling Trifalls

5. Look and plan where you are going

Sometimes your attention is focused in the 1m space around your head and you lose situational awareness. So look and plan ahead. First, you must look where you are going. To do this turn the upper body and look over your shoulder on your abseiling side e.g. for right-handers look right and left-handers look left.

Planning where you are going often means a brief pause on a ledge to see what’s below and deciding on a line or approach. From time to time glance upwards to make sure that the rope is sitting in a good position.

Things to look out for

  • Go with the fall line – generally, it’s the line of the rope – if you go off the fall line eventually you will swing back. This is not so good for the rope and worst case can cut it. Also, be aware of the pressure on your feet. If one foot has more than the other, then you are off the fall line.
  • Making a move – sometimes you need to get to a particular spot that is off the fall line. Abseil down to just below the target and swing across. The swing will bring you up to the right spot.
  • Be aware of sharp edges – remember to look up and place the rope on a smooth piece of rock as you are going over an edge.
  • Sharp undercuts – for a low rope entry angle; do a ‘grovel’ start on your side with the abseil hand on the outside and keeping fingers out from under the rope. For a high rope entry angle; keep your feet on the edge until you are near upside down and then step the feet down to normal abseil position with little to no swing.

Key takeaways

  1. Keep situational awareness.
  2. Look and plan ahead.
  3. Glance up from time to time.


Figure 5: Abseiling Imp Grotto


Practice and play with purpose. To get better at abseiling you need to aim to improve every time you head out. Remember to have fun.

Observing others in a recreational, instructional or guided group setting can help you identify common issues. This gives you the opportunity to experiment with ways to help.

I would like to hear from you if your list is similar or different. What else have you observed that helps people improve their abseiling?

By Grant Prattley, Over The Edge Rescue, 2016

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