The world of rock climbing is rich with various methods and gear like – sport, trad, aid, ice, and alpine. You may find yourself enjoying one or all of these!
No matter which style you practice, it’s a helpful skill to be able to recognize what makes each of them unique.
In this article, explore the particulars that set apart sport climbing and traditional climbing.
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What Is Sport Climbing
Sport climbing is a type of rock climbing, often referred to as “lead” climbing.
Lead climbing involves clipping a rope into protection while ascending a route from the ground up.
You “lead” both sport and trad climbs – but not in the same way.
Sport climbing routes have permanent protection: a line of bolts with a set of anchors at the top, secured to the rock in advance.
What Is Trad Climbing
What is trad climbing then? Before sport climbing rose to fame in the 1980s, most rock climbing was done using traditional methods.
In traditional climbing (aka. trad climbing), there is no permanently affixed protection. Instead, the climber must carry up their own trad gear to place inside cracks, pockets, and other features in the wall.
After the pieces of gear are placed and the climber clips their rope into them, the climber is protected from taking a severe fall.
Once they have completed the route, the climber removes their gear and takes it with them. It is never left to remain on the wall.
Traditional climbing is considered slightly more dangerous than sport climbing because the gear is placed by the climber on-route. It is not always as reliable as well-located, sturdy bolts, especially because it is more subject to human error.
One of the greatest risks of trad climbing is the climber not placing their gear properly. The gear could also slip or break out of the rock due to slippery or weak rock quality.
However, these risks can be greatly mitigated by getting proper training on gear placement and having good rock assessment skills.
Overall, climbing trad requires the climber to have more technical knowledge.
The need to periodically place gear also leads to more time spent on the route and can distract from enjoying the movements on a climb.
Nevertheless, many people still find trad climbing to be very rewarding. Placing gear is an exciting art in itself. It also allows you to climb routes that are not bolted – and many climbing routes are not bolted.
The general rule of thumb is: if it can be done safely on trad gear, it should not be bolted (hence, most crack climbs do not have bolts next to them).
Key Differences and Similarities Between Sport and Trad Climbing
Different Gear and Different Style
The biggest difference between sport climbing and trad climbing is protection.
When free climbing trad routes , you must use special devices for removable protection as opposed to permanently placed hardware. Removable protection can only be used on routes with cracks and other deep spots in the rock.
Sport climbing routes have permanently affixed bolts for protection. These have allowed climbers to ascend nearly blank rock faces with small features that are not conducive to placing traditional protection.
The security of bolts also ensures the safety of the climber, enabling them to direct their focus to their speed and the difficulty of the movements.
As a result, sport climbing tends to be an entirely different style of climbing than trad. For most sport climbs, you do not need to know how to hand and foot jam in cracks.
Whereas, almost every trad climb requires that you have crack technique. Unless, of course, you trad climb in places like the Gunks.
Same Top Rope Potential
That being said, both sport and trad climbs can be done on “top rope”.
After a lead climber clips bolts or trad protection on a climb and runs the rope through the anchor, another person can then tie into the rope and ascend (top rope) the route without needing to place gear or worry about taking a big lead fall.
Top rope climbing allows folks who do not yet have the skills for lead climbing to get on sport and trad routes of any grade.
No Trad Climbing Indoors
Unfortunately, you still cannot trad climb at indoor climbing gyms. But some gyms do have special training equipment to prepare you for crack climbing.
Climbing gyms are either bouldering only, or also have top roping and lead for sport climbing.
Sport Climbing Protection
A quickdraw is carried up by the lead climber for each bolt on a route. Every bolt has a hanger on it, or a small loop, that must be clipped into with a quickdraw. Once the top of the quickdraw is secured to the hanger, the climber clips their rope into the bottom of the quickdraw.
This device is constructed of two carabiners, connected to opposite ends of a short length of webbing. In most cases, the carabiners are either solid gate, wire gate or a combination of both. The upper carabiner has the ability to move freely. A rubberized clipper holds the lower carabiner tightly in place for easy clipping.
Sport climbing route developers drill holes and secure plated steel or glue-in wave bolts in those holes along the course of a new climb.
Each bolt has a hanger, or small loop, for quickdraws to be clipped into.
These bolts are rated to withstand a great deal of force and wear. In popular areas bolts are replaced frequently, maximizing their reliability.
Sport climbers rely upon these bolts to clip their quickdraws into for protection. This gives the lead climber the ability to move upward without the hassle of carrying and placing traditional protection devices.
Trad Climbing Protection
Trad climbing gear is far more complex than sport climbing gear, as it is suited to be placed in many kinds of features.
All of the trad gear one owns is referred to as a trad “rack”, or “rack” of gear.
Not every rack looks the same. Different areas and styles require different racks. If you plan on purchasing your own, be wary of the sorts of routes you intend to climb most.
The majority of trad climbers carry both regular draws (a.k.a. “alpine” draws) and quickdraws. Regular draws can be extended to greater lengths, whereas quick draws are always the same short size.
Cams and Hexes
Cams are a form of active protection, meaning they have moving parts. In particular, they have four lobes that can be pulled down and reduced to a smaller size by use of a trigger.
Passive protection has no moving parts. Nuts are a form of passive protection.
Cams are available in numerous sizes. Although nuts can be made in smaller sizes than cams, cams can be made in larger sizes than nuts.
Cam sizes range from the thickness of the smallest finger to the width of a human head. They are super versatile and reliable, although quite expensive.
Cams are best used in cracks with straight, parallel sides, but can be placed in other situations as well.
Most climbers do not purchase a complete set of cams. They select multiples of three to four of the most frequently used sizes at their local crag. (Unless, of course, they plan to climb at Indian Creek.)
Once the climber gains experience in different places and attempts more difficult routes, more sizes and multiples of cams are necessary.
If you plan on trying a trad climb that has a rapidly widening crack, you might also want to have a couple hexes.
Hexentrics (aka. “Hexes”) look more like nuts than cams, as they do not have lobes that can move when triggered. They are asymmetrical, six sided tubes that are used for placements in constrictions.
Hexes can be better than cams for widening cracks, as cams have a much greater tendency to “walk”.
This occurs because cams naturally open wider as they have the space to. When the crack is wider above it, it has the ability to move upward if pulled up on or nudged in any way. It could move upward enough into a wide space that it opens completely, and is no longer an effective piece of protection.
Nuts, Ball Nuts, and Tricams
Nuts are small, square-ish chunks of metal attached to a wire, and come in a wide variety of sizes. They can be as big as a clenched fist, or as thin as a matchstick.
Nuts are also referred to as stoppers, wires and chocks. Nuts are placed by slotting them into constrictions in cracks.
The average trad rack consists of 10-12 nuts.
Ball Nuts are considered specialized gear generally unnecessary for new climbers. This is because they only come in super small sizes. However, ball nuts provide protection for thinner cracks because they fill voids too small for any cam.
Tricams are another option, although they essentially work the same as a nut: they need a constriction to work effectively. Cams, on the other hand, can hold solid in a crack with straight parallel walls and no constriction.
Tricams have a unique design which requires particular placement. They are best suited for protection in horizontal cracks. The average trad rack has one or two tricams.
These are expandable tubes offering protection for wide cracks.
Think of a shower curtain rod that can hold a climbing fall!
Despite being more compact and lighter than large cams, big bros are more difficult to place. They are also not good inside flaring cracks and are unable to be reshuffled (or “bumped”) up the crack.
Thus, tube chocks are more helpful on routes with squeeze chimneys or off-width cracks.
Brief History Of Trad and Sport Rock Climbing
From Summits to Cliffs
There is no specific date as to when climbing first began. Evidence like cave paintings and ancient burial sites suggest people started climbing mountains as early as 400 BCE. Most experts believe climbing started even before then.
The earliest forms of climbing were done out of safety and necessity as opposed to sport. It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that people accomplished large vertical ascents for fun.
Antoine de Ville climbed France’s Mont Aiguille in 1492 using equipment like ropes and ladders. From then on, mountaineering grew increasingly popular throughout Europe.
Mountaineering involved a combination of hiking, traversing frozen terrain, and sometimes scaling cliffs.
In 1786, Michael Gabriel Piccard and Jacques Balmat achieved the first summit of the highest mountain in the Alps, Mont Blanc. Their monumental feat helped kickstart a new wave of mountaineering: to bag the world’s tallest peaks.
To train for such adventures, mountaineers would climb on small cliffs and rocks. This ultimately led to the split of mountaineering and rock climbing, as many took to the latter activity. By the 1800s, climbers really began to direct their attention toward ascending sheer faces for the sake of experiencing the climb itself (versus reaching the summit).
Walter Parry Haskett Smith’s first free solo ascent of the seventy-foot, “Napes Needle” in 1886 certified sport climbing’s notoriety in England. Around the time, other free solo ascents were completed in Italy’s Dolomites, areas in Great Britain, and America’s Yosemite.
Some climbers were also utilizing gear to get up routes, such as iron or wooden spikes and rope ladders. This came to be known as “aid climbing”, and was the predominant method of scaling cliffs until the commonplace usage of removable traditional gear in the 1960s, and then permanent sport climbing hardware in the 1970s.
The act of climbing a route without using aid equipment came to be known as “free climbing”.
Gear Through the Years
Starting in the early 1900s, technical rock climbing gear improved at an increasingly rapid rate. Each decade saw a new advancement that drastically shaped the future of the sport:
1910s: The design of the piton was perfected by Hans Fiechtl. Around the same time, the first climbing-specific steel carabiner was engineered by Otto Herzog.
1920s: Laurent Grivel came up with the first rock drill and expansion bolt and Fred Pigott developed the first stopper (similar to a trad “nut”).
1930s: Emilio Comici pioneered the first slew of big wall climbing gear, including trail lines, hanging bivvys, and multi-rung aid ladders. Meanwhile, famous Fountainbleu boulderer Pierre Allain designed the first soft-sole climbing shoe.
1940s: Nylon rope was manufactured for the first time as a result of World War II, alongside less expensive pitons and carabiners. Initially intended for the army, this gear was quickly adopted by climbers.
1950s: John Gill introduced and popularized gym chalk for use in climbing.
1970s: Tom Frost and Yvon Chouinard developed “hexes” in 1971. By 1978, the first spring-loaded camming devices were invented by Ray Jardine. Hexes and cams would revolutionize trad climbing around the world, removing the necessity to hammer pitons into the wall and potentially cause damage to the rock face.
Around that time, French climbers began developing sport climbing areas entirely using bolts. This soon carried over into the United States, with Alan Watts’ development of the Smith Rocks area.
As a result, sport climbing exploded. Many were enamored with the freedom that fixed gear enabled: to focus on establishing increasingly bold and difficult climbs without worry of having spots to place traditional protection.
To Bolt or Not to Bolt
Not everyone agreed on the way climbing was changing. People argued about what the proper amount of aid gear was, then whether all gear should be removable, and more recently, whether bolts were an appropriate form of protection at all.
The “Bolt Wars” reached their peak in the 1960s and 70s, when the community opinion was so divided that some individuals went out and chopped bolts already placed on climbs. A famous example is Royal Robbins’ attempt to chop all 300 bolts on Warren Harding’s route, the Wall of the Early Morning Light.
This conflict is still seen today, manifested between the developers of trad and sport climbing.
Trad climbers argue that bolting defaces the rock, and is unnecessary on routes where any sort of placements for traditional protection are available.
However, many amazing climbs cannot be done with traditional protection at all, as they are sheer faces with tiny holds and no other features to sustain any gear besides bolts.
Were it not for the advent of sport climbing, many amazing routes would not exist.
The Future of Sport Climbing vs Trad Climbing
Whether for trad or sport, the improved safety of technical climbing gear through the years has inspired more people to enjoy rock climbing.
It’s also allowed climbers to push the boundaries of possibility and attempt free climbing routes with minimal trad gear placements.
Bolts now protect nearly blank, technical faces for advanced, athletic routes.
Modern traditional devices can protect varied terrain, with quick placement and removal – enabling climbers to do big wall routes in much less time than they used to (from 6+ days to less than one!).
From 1800 onward, climbers established increasingly challenging routes. The difficulty of climbs being completed today far exceed anything from the past, and the future holds endless room for growth.
Interested in an extensive timeline of climbing accomplishments? Check out this article.
Sport and trad climbing may vary greatly in their gear and their ethos, but both require a great passion for the vertical world and appreciating technical climbs.
Although sport was born out of trad, it is now perhaps the most popular form of climbing – especially with the help of a now booming indoor climbing industry.
That being said, many famous and fantastic routes still cannot be done without using traditional protection!
While both styles have their pros and cons, don’t knock either until you’ve tried them. It also helps to have experience with sport and trad as their styles can crossover on many climbs.
Likewise, knowing how to do both enables you to climb almost anywhere in the world!
Melissa is a full time van-living outdoor enthusiast hailed from Florida. After deciding to spend her freshman summer of college living out of a tent to work and climb in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky, her life changed forever. She found her way to El Potrero Chico, Mexico in the winters, where she fell in love with travel and community. Post-graduation, she drove from Florida to Alaska to experience its world-class backpacking, then worked her way back south to explore climbing spots throughout the western U.S.
Meeting countless amazing people, hearing their stories, and learning the histories and struggles of local areas through minimalist travel, climbing, and hiking has inspired her to share these experiences with others. Her passions include improving intersectional access to the outdoors and responsible environmental stewardship.