At the end (and sometimes in the middle) of a climb is the inevitable need to get back down to the ground safely. In a gym, or on a single pitch climb outside, the climber will normally be lowered by the belayer.

Outside, and especially on multi-pitch climbs (with no walk-off option) the climber will likely rappel. In the US, the majority of the time this is done with one rope, through an anchor, producing two rope strands to rappel on.

Your belay device will work better/worse depending on the type of rappel, the size of the rope, the terrain you’re rappelling, and the distance of the rappel. And we talk about those nuances below.

Lowering vs Rappelling

There is an important distinction between the two methods involved for descending a route: lowering is when a belayer lowers a climber and rappelling is when a climber lowers themselves. When rappelling you are essentially controlling your own movement down a rope with the assistance of a belay device. It is important to note that not every belay device used for belaying can be used with standard rappelling methods.

In a gym, a climber is always lowered to the floor by the belayer. Outdoors, depending on the anchor situation and style of route, a climber may be lowered to the ground or will rappel to get down. We’ll talk about those nuances next.

PETZL-LoweringVsRappelling 1
The climber on the left is being lowered by a belayer through a belay device. The climber on the right is lowering themself (rappelling) on two ropes. Images courtesy of

The Double Rope Rappel

The most standard / usual / common way to rappel. Almost nobody says “double rope rappel” they just say “rappel” but they will be referring to the standard double rope rappel.

The most common form of rappelling involves two lines (thus the “double rope”) going through the belay device, and your device needs to be made to accommodate both ropes with 2 rope slots.

In the US this is less often two separate ropes and is usually a single rope that is doubled when it’s put through an anchor. Though on long multi-pitch routes or while ice climbing, it is not uncommon use two separate ropes.

At single pitch crags in the US, two bolted anchor points are often found at the top of routes. These anchors are usually equipped with chains or rings to pass a rope through when setting up a rappel. Standard tube style devices are perfect in this situation as they can accommodate two lines and are small and light so they can be easily carried while climbing.

A double rope rappel setup
A locking carabiner is used to attach a belay device with two slots for rappelling 2 ropes (or in this case, one rope doubled through an anchor.)

Some single pitch climbers end up purchasing a double rope tube device solely for rappelling and they use a separate device to belay (like a single rope brake assist device). Multi-pitch climbers will likely purchase a tube style device that has the option for “guide mode.”

These devices can all handle a normal double rope rappel as they have TWO rope slots:

These devices CANNOT handle a normal double rope rappel because there is only ONE rope slot:

Multi-pitch Climbing

In the high world of multi-pitch or alpine climbing where you are often several rope lengths above the ground, tube devices are also well suited. A preferred multi-pitch tube style belay devices also includes a guide mode feature which is an attachment point so they can be used to belay from above at the anchor. The climbers will often need to rappel each pitch climbed to get back to the bottom of the route – and as we discussed before, the ability to handle 2 ropes here is essential.

Rappelling on a MegaJul
A climber uses a belay device to rappel two ropes. The added metal loop on the Edelrid Mega Jul allows this device to also belay from above in guide mode.

Although most climbers today will use a tube style belay device with guide mode for multi-pitch climbing, there are some elder climbers and/or alpinist weight savers who prefer a plate belay device like the Kong Gigi seen in the 3rd example below. Typically we don’t recommend plates to newer climbers as the handling can be finicky to get used to.

Two common multi-pitch tube style belay devices and one uncommon plate style device:

Ski Mountaineering

Ski mountaineering is another situation that can require a double rope rappel in order to safely navigate unskiable terrain. Many ski mountaineers will be using a very thin and light rope, so having a belay device that has additional friction options is helpful. Things like teeth, arms, or a small small diameter range slow the movement of the rope through the device so they are especially ideal on the often wet or icy ropes carried by alpine ski and snowboarders.


In the case of canyoneering, rappel ropes are often fed through bolted or glued rings or around boulders or spikes. The static ropes used in these cases are often stiffer, and can range larger or smaller in diameter compared to climbing orientated dynamic ropes. They are also more likely to get wet or muddy. A figure 8 style device is commonly recommended for rapping these lines because their large opening gives ample room for the stiff rope to feed through and are less affected by water and muck. Figure 8’s also accept a much larger range of rope diameters.

It is quite rare for climbers to use a Figure 8 style device for everyday climbing/belaying. Figure 8’s tend to twist the rope and it is commonly accepted that tube style devices provide superior handling.

The Single Rope Rappel

A note on safety: Rappelling on a single line is an advanced skill and is a rarely used technique. Seek proper guidance and training to become familiar with these techniques before performing a single rope rappel.

Full Disclaimer

Rappelling on a single rope or single line is not a situation most climbers will find themselves in.

This usually only happens in situations where there is a fixed line. A fixed line is when a rope is temporarily or permanently anchored in a specific area. This could be in a work at height situation where the top of the rope is tied off to an anchor, or it could even be outdoors where somebody has anchored a rope to help get (up or) down a section faster/easier.

In this case, there is no belayer, and the climber is lowering themselves. Because there is no belayer, it is common practice to use other devices or knots to back up this single device, which requires more training and knowhow to do correctly and safely. For climbers who do a lot of work on fixed/rigged lines, the handle usually found on mechanically assisted belay devices tends to allow for a smooth control over the speed of the rappel, since the device holds most of the weight of the climber rather than the climber’s hand.

SingleRap 2
A mechanical brake assisted device is useful for rappelling on a single strand

Route Setting and Developing

A common example of a single rope rappel would be when routesetting at a gym or developing and cleaning a route outdoors. Repeatedly lowering to check a sequence of moves or scrubbing some moss on a new route is often best accomplished using more specialty devices called descenders, which are made to be used hands free by trained professionals, but many find the use of a mechanically brake-assisted belay device useful here.

Rappelling on a Grigri
A route developer lowers on a single fixed line to brush some holds.

The Petzl GriGri is perhaps the most ubiquitous belay device out there today. It is used in route setting, gear hauling, belaying and like most mechanically assisted devices, is a great choice for single rope rappelling.

Big Wall and Aid Climbing

There are many instances for needing to rap down to previous anchors when climbing massive big wall routes. Retrieving left gear, back cleaning a pitch or freeing a stuck haul bag are all situations where utilizing a single fixed line saves time and hassle. While any rappel device will do in this situation, mechanically brake assisted devices really can’t be beat. Their ability to lower weight in a controlled manner by pulling on a handle makes for a smooth descent and they are easy to back up by simply tying an overhand below them when you stop mid rap to assess a stuck rope or pack up that portaledge.

Rappelling or Lowering Summary

If you are only lowering, like in a gym, or many single pitch crags, you can use a belay device that only has 1 rope slot, that can accommodate only 1 rope.

If you are rappelling, in a standard method used in multi-pitch climbing or single pitch climbing where the ethic is to rappel to clean the anchors, then you will need a belay device that can accommodate 2 ropes.

At (where you can see and compare every belay device that is currently sold), we have a filter that you can click to ensure you are looking at a belay device that can accommodate 1 rope, or either 1 or 2 ropes.

At you can choose how many ropes your belay device should accept.

Which Belay Device is Best?

Do you need to lower or rappel, and in what context, will answer that question.

If you’re gym climbing only, you just need to worry about lowering and not rappelling. This means you are fine with a brake assist belay device that only holds one strand of rope.

If you’re heading outside to a single pitch crag where the ethic it to clean and rap, you’ll need a tube device that can descend two ropes, which may or may not be the same device you choose to belay with.

If your outdoor single pitch crag prefers the lower-off ethic, then you just read this article focused on the differences of rappelling to learn something new and to prepare you for other crags and anchor situations. Your indoor device will be fine.

Multi-pitch climbers do best with a guide tube device that allows belaying two ropes both above and below the climber as well rappelling on two lines. Having one device to do everything saves you weight on the climb and money for nuts and cams.

Big wall and aid climbs benefit from having as many tools in the toolbox that you can haul up the big stone. Having both a guide tube and a mechanically brake-assisted device available is the proven method. Besides, if you do all the leading, then your partner is the one worried about hauling the extra weight.

If you want to do a deeper dive, head over to our look into each belay device type. You can also go to our belay device page to compare literally every belay device available today.

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