The first time I saw someone execute the Hasty Rappel (pictured here) I was a young Marine on a 6-month deployment to Okinawa. The barrel chested instructors at the Jungle Warfare Training Center had long since mastered this traditional technique and were able to run face first down incredibly steep muddy slopes with the use of just a rope. It was like watching some kind of commando magic show. I recently read a couple of “survival” blogs online where some daring armchair survivalists claim that every time they head out into the wilderness they are carrying 200 feet of high-dollar rope, 16 carabineers, a big wall climbing harness, and an assorted rack of climbing anchors. And, that anyone heading out should do the same “because you never know when you are going to need to rappel off a cliff.”
Well, I’m here to tell you that you don’t need all of that crap. Let me start by saying that I’m not a professional mountain guide or even a very good climber. I have however, led military combat patrols all over the world and I do like to think I am blessed with a bit of common sense. Anyone who has ever humped a ruck can tell you that the weight adds up fast. Like the old saying goes “Ounces equal pounds, and pounds equal pain”. With some knowledge of basic rope craft and a good route plan, you can get over most obstacles in the backcountry with just a rope.
I like to call it “practical mobility.” I can’t think of a situation that I have ever been in where I had such a poor route plan that it took me straight to the edge of a cliff, and there was no other option other than to rig up and rappel down. There have been instances where I have bypassed the cliff, moving to a 60-80 degree slope, thrown a standard military “120 line” around a tree or rock and performed one of the two following techniques to safely get down.
HASTY RAPPEL or as it sometimes called, the “Arm Rappel” is a simple and effective technique that requires no hardware, other than two arms and gloved hands to perform. Run the rope across your back and hook it with you elbow pits. Your strong arm should be facing downhill. Wrap the rope once around each arm and grab onto the rope with an overhand grip. This alone will give you enough friction to slow your decent on most low angle slopes. You can control your rate of descent by gripping the rope harder and curling your palms forward. To brake, bring your forward hand across your body. I recommend long sleeves and gloves. Now, face downhill, extend your arms and run forward.
BODY RAPPEL is another quick method for descending slopes that are usually steeper than those that you would use the hasty rappel on. I like to brake with my right hand, so I’ll explain it that way. Face your anchor point and straddle the rope. Reach down, with your left hand in front of your body and your right hand behind it and pull the rope up to your crotch. With your right hand, bring the rope over your right hip, across your chest and up over your left shoulder. At this point you have two options for your brake (right) hand. You can just grab the dangling rope from behind your back with an overhand grip, or for added friction you can give it an extra wrap around your arm. To brake, bring the rope across your body. With your back facing down hill, begin to walk backwards downhill and brake as needed and use your left hand as your guide hand. You might also want to put your collar up for this method. An important thing to remember with this is to keep your wrapped hip (right in this case) facing down hill. Failure to do this will cause you “unwrap” on steep angles.
Here’s another angle of the Body Rappel (with the left hand as the break hand).
I have been asked a few times about what to anchor to and how to rig anchors. For these methods, and in the context just trying to get myself down steep terrain quickly and safely, I go with the simplest method. I find a well-rooted living tree that is at least six inches in diameter and I throw my rope around it. Some people will say that you should never do this because the sap from the tree will destroy your rope or the rope will kill the tree. Maybe. Anchors are like cars; everyone has one that they like. But I inspect my equipment and take care of my gear and this method has served me well. I tie the two ends together with an overhand knot so I don’t fly off the end and I throw the rope over the edge.
If the high angled slope is longer than the 60 feet that this method allows, I’ll look for other anchor points that I can use below before I throw my rope. So leave your purse full of gear back at home and learn to rappel like a man.

If you spend enough time in the backcountry, you’re inevitably going to run into some steep terrain. Here’s how to get down … and all you need is rope.