If you’re starting your training as a climber, you’re probably engaging in top roping. It’s less physically exhausting, requires less technical knowledge, and is typically safer than other types of climbing.
This is because the climber is always secured by a rope that is anchored at a higher position. So, if for any reason the climber loses their grip, they will only fall for a minimal distance because the rope will immediately catch them.
Alternatively, while lead climbing sport or trad, the climber is required to hold onto the rock longer to place their own pieces of protection. If a lead climber falls, they will free-fall double the distance to their last piece of protection, plus whatever amount of slack their belayer had out.
Sometimes lead climbers can take falls, or “whips”, as far as forty to one hundred feet!
Needless to say, toproping is the perfect way to build not only the physical strength, but the critical mental strength necessary to advance into lead climbing in a safe and successful manner.
Keep on reading to learn more about top rope climbing!
In this guide you will find:
- Getting Started
- Outdoor Top Rope Climbing
- What is the Difference between Lead Climbing and Top Rope Climbing?
- Why is Top Rope Climbing Popular?
- What Gear is Needed for Top Rope Climbing?
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Getting Started Top Rope Climbing
Before you start climbing the big stuff, you will likely spend some time in a gym for the proper training to improve your skills.
Climbing is a mental and physical activity that requires a lot of practice, patience, and technical knowledge. Climbing gyms are a great place to hone in on these traits. Many gyms also offer certified instruction on gear, leading, and transitioning to climbing outside.
Indoor climbing training is split into bouldering, top roping, and lead climbing.
Bouldering is a great way to build climbing strength, and with minimal commitment. On your first visit to the gym, bouldering is the quickest way to get an idea of what rock climbing feels like.
Ropes are not used in bouldering, as the bouldering walls aren’t super tall (around 10-15 feet). Instead, climbers are protected by flexible crash pads that provide a soft place to land in case they lose their grip and fall. Sometimes, they can also be helped by a “spotter” or two.
Spotting can be a crucial skill when bouldering. Although having a partner to spot you indoors isn’t super essential, it might be helpful in preventing certain injuries.
Top roping is more involved than bouldering, and requires at least two people to do. While one person is climbing, the other person holds them up.
To top rope, you must wear a harness and learn how to tie a rope into your harness using a special knot. You must also learn how to use a special device, commonly referred to as a belay device, to belay (or hold up) your climbing partner.
If you have a friend who already knows their stuff, they can tie you in and belay you. This is a good idea if you want to test whether roped climbing is the sport for you before committing to it fully.
When you’re ready to learn how to be a self-sufficient climber – to top rope belay and tie yourself in to climb – you will have to attend a belay class, offered by most gyms with roped climbing walls. These classes are usually pretty cheap, don’t take too long, and give you all the foundational knowledge to become a top rope beast.
As you start climbing in the gym consistently, you’ll spend your time bouldering and/or toproping. You may decide that you prefer bouldering more, and make it your primary activity.
Whether you’re bouldering or rope climbing, getting stronger and climbing harder grades is the objective of the sport. Having a solid foundation also helps in your eventual transition to lead climbing.
A lot of gyms provide lead climbing classes, too.
As is often the case with top-roping, gyms won’t let you lead climb unless you have passed their class (or an on-demand test if you learned somewhere else). Most of these gyms also have minimum requirements for entering a lead class, such as being able to climb to a certain intermediate level of difficulty, and having already purchased your own personal gear.
Hence, its a good idea to develop solid toproping skills before taking a foray into the realm of lead climbing.
Both indoor and outdoor climbing routes have a particular difficulty level.
For boulder problems, the range of difficulty is marked from V0 to V14.
For rope climbs, the range of difficulty is marked from 5.0 to 5.15.
The higher the second number, the harder the route.
If you are getting on a route in the gym, its grade is normally displayed next to the starting holds. If you are getting on a route outdoors, you can usually find its grade in a guidebook or on Mountain Project.
Outdoor Top Rope Climbing
Both indoor and outdoor top rope climbing require the same sort of gear, although you will have much less control over the environment in the latter.
That being said, changes in weather, scenery, and rock type are what make climbing outdoors extremely fun.
In an outdoor setting, top rope climbing is set up in one of several ways:
- Hiking up to the top of a rock wall and:
- Building a trad anchor to run the rope through,
- Anchoring the rope to a large healthy tree,
- Or running the rope through an already established, bolted anchor.
- A lead climber climbs up the route and sets it up as a toprope via a traditional or bolted anchor
Once the rope is safely attached through an anchor, you can then hike back to the bottom of the wall and top rope climb the route!
If a lead climber set it up for you, you can follow them up next on top rope once they have returned to the ground. Be sure to climb on the end of the rope closest to the wall if the route zig-zags a lot or is overhanging.
If you don’t know how to properly set up a top rope anchor outdoors, make sure you have someone else who does set it up for you. Although it is relatively easy to learn how to build an anchor, the smallest mistake can cause serious harm.
When you are ready to learn, seek advice from a certified climbing instructor. Learning the right way from the get-go will allow you develop safe anchor-building habits early on.
What is the Difference between Lead Climbing and Top Rope Climbing?
Lead climbing and top rope climbing are two techniques that you need to learn if you’re serious about your rock climbing training.
The natural progression is from top rope to lead.
It’s best to develop a foundation of knowledge and strength through learning top roping before getting into the more complex and demanding style that is lead climbing.
Top Rope Climbing
Top rope climbing is the most popular climbing method indoors and outdoors for less experienced climbers. It’s also used when other climbing methods are not suitable or might be damaging to the rock or surrounding natural environment.
In top roping, the rope is extended from a belayer up through a fixed anchor, and then down to the climber. The belayer must constantly pull in slack from the rope as the climber ascends a route, so if the climber falls, they will only fall for a super short distance.
This technique allows the least experienced climbers to experiment with the most challenging climbing routes because it’s safer and less mentally and physically demanding.
You can watch online videos to learn about the best tips for top rope climbing, but one-to-one coaching is crucial. In addition to training at the gym, you also need to practice top roping in a natural setting where you can actually see how your mind and body will handle the overall experience.
What Is Lead Climbing Then?
Lead climbing is a more advanced rock climbing technique that should only be practiced after mastering top rope climbing. It can be done indoors or outdoors.
The lead climber begins with the rope entirely on the ground, as opposed to hanging from an anchor at the tope of the route. As they climb up, the “leader” places protection and clips into it.
In outdoor sport climbing, there are bolts periodically drilled that have hangers (little loops) on them. The lead climber carries enough “quickdraws” to clip into every bolt’s hanger.
In the gym, these quickdraws are permanently attached to the wall, so the climber doesn’t have to worry about putting them up and clipping into them.
A quickdraw consists of two carabiners attached to opposite ends of a piece of webbing. The climber should clip the top carabiner of the quickdraw to the hanger, and then clip their rope into the bottom carabiner. Every time the climber clips their rope into the quickdraw, they are protected from falling.
There’s a higher risk of injuries in lead climbing as the protection is placed by the climber while they’re climbing.
The protection is spaced out, and can be especially spacious in certain outdoor climbing areas. When the climber ascends further above their last piece of protection, they increase the distance of which they may take a free-fall if they come off the wall.
While top roping, you don’t really take free-falls; rather, you just lean your weight fully into the rope, which can sometimes feel like a small “fall”.
When a lead climber falls, however, the fall will be twice the distance between the last piece of protection and the climber’s body. The distance will also depend on the rope’s tension and the belayer’s abilities.
If the climber pulls up slack to clip into a quickdraw and immediately falls due to exhaustion or insecure footing, the extra slack they pulled up will also add to the distance. This is why it is important to find a good clipping stance, and develop fast clipping technique.
Ultimately, there are a lot more complicated factors in lead climbing than in top roping.
As a result, lead climbing takes a lot of time and intensive instruction to master. The amount of time that is actually needed to help you learn this technique is related to how devoted you are to your attitude and training.
Although lead climbing is more intimidating than top roping, it is an important skill to learn if you want to climb more outside.
There are top rope routes at many crags around the world, but most routes (especially the tall ones) can only be done by leading them.
Why is Top Rope Climbing Popular?
Top roping isn’t designed to get you to the highest tip of the mountain, but it’s a fun way to spend a lovely afternoon in nature with your friends.
Here are a few reasons why top rope climbing is popular:
It Requires Less Technical Knowledge
When compared to lead climbing, top rope climbing requires less technical knowledge.
When leading, for instance, you need to be able to clip the bolts on the way up, which not only requires more strength, but also more technique. It can even be scary!
The belaying for top rope climbing is also much more simple, as essentially all you need to do is take in slack as the climber advances.
It Has Very Minimal Risk
Although injuries can happen while you’re top rope climbing, they are extremely unlikely; and are far less likely to occur in than in lead climbing.
In top roping, the belayer always keeps the rope taut, so the climber will only experience rope-stretch falls (which are super short). For this reason, top roping is also the best choice for first-time climbers who want to practice climbing without dealing with fear of falling.
Helps Improve Muscle Coordination
Although top rope climbing is less demanding than other climbing methods because you are not having to hang on the wall longer to place protection, you still have to climb all the challenging moves of the route.
To successfully complete difficult routes, you need to have good intramuscular coordination. This climbing technique engages different muscle groups simultaneously and allows you to control all of them to pull your body up.
Improves Overall Physical Strength
Whether top roping or leading, climbing helps strengthen your fingers and forearms as you learn how to efficiently hang on different sizes and shapes of holds. These muscles are hard to isolate and train in most other activities, but not in climbing!
Climbing also engages your biceps, triceps, shoulders, legs, and core. Your core muscles are always engaged on the wall, and especially on overhanging routes. When the wall is less than vertical, you have to work harder to hold your body up.
Enhances Mental Strength
Going top rope climbing is an excellent way to enhance your mental strength.
Repeated exposure to climbing up taller routes can be very helpful in getting rid of any fear of heights you may have, or even just figuring out how to manage that fear.
Top roping various styles and harder grades of routes can also help you develop good determination and perseverance. Working through more difficult grades can take a lot of effort, and multiple tries on the same moves.
As you gain experience in the mental component of climbing, you will form a stronger mindset that enables you to tackle increasingly challenging situations in your progress through higher grades and advanced climbing styles.
Whether you’re training indoors or outdoors, top rope climbing is an excellent way to boost stamina and endurance.
These traits allow you to climb more without feeling tired. They also increase your overall health for other activities, like hiking, yoga, and mountain biking.
Top roping allows you to focus solely on the flow and beauty of the climb because you are not distracted by the need to place protection or fear of taking a big fall. As a result, top roping routes can be more enjoyable and less stressful than lead climbing.
What Gear is Needed for Top Rope Climbing?
It’s always recommended to wait until finishing a training course before buying your own climbing gear. During the course, you might get to exposure to different gear and devices, which can help in your personal purchasing decisions. Here are a few things to lookout for.
- Make sure that you’re buying top-quality safety gear. Although used gear might be more affordable, you don’t want to risk your safety while you’re rope climbing.
- If you have already bought your kit, store your equipment in a cool and dry place where it won’t be subject to any harmful chemicals that might affect their performance.
- Always buy gear that has been specifically designed and certified for rock climbing. You can find safety harnesses and ropes at different sports stores, but they won’t always work for rock climbing.
- Ask about guarantees. Climbing gear isn’t cheap, and you need to make sure that yours comes with a valid warranty. You should also ask about the repair or replacement policies.
When you’re top rope climbing, you’ll need the following things:
You cannot climb routes using a rope without a harness. Make sure to get a harness that is specifically manufactured and approved for rock climbing.
Climbing harnesses come in many types and sizes. They can also have extra features, like tons of gear loops and attachments for ice screws, which become useful when doing advanced forms of climbing that require a lot of gear.
Don’t worry about spending a bunch of money on a tricked out harness when you first start climbing, though. For top roping, all you need on your harness is a single belay loop and a couple of gear loops. The Black Diamond Momentum is a popular example of the perfect top roping harness that is adjustable and super affordable.
Although you can use a basic ATC to belay a top roping climber, having a brake-assisted belay device will increase your climber’s safety. In the event you lose control of the brake rope, the brake-assisted device will lock the rope in place so your climber does not fall.
An ATC does not have this feature, so if you let go of the brake rope, the rope will slide through the ATC and drop the climber.
However, it is a good idea to learn how to belay on an ATC first, as it helps you develop good belaying habits. You should never let go of the brake rope, even when using a brake-assisted device.
For more on belay devices see: “13 C H Best Belay Device Reviews: Read This Before Buying!”
Belay devices and other gear are attached to your harness using carabiners.
It is important to use a locking carabiner for your belay device, so that it cannot not slide out of the carabiner while you’re belaying.
If you are going top roping outdoors, you will also need locking carabiners to set up the anchor. Unfamiliar with top rope anchors? Check out this video.
You will need at least 3 for the anchor, and you can add more for enhanced security. Make sure that the carabiner is big enough to tie a large knot, such as pear-shaped and large D carabiners.
Wearing a helmet is crucial, albeit moreso when you’re climbing outdoors. Make sure that your helmet is lightweight and comfortable enough to be worn for extended periods.
For more info on climbing helmets see: “Best Rock Climbing Helmet Reviews: Everything You Need to Know and Oh, So Much More“
If you’re setting up top ropes outside, you will also need one or more climbing-certified dynamic ropes that can be used in varied terrain.
Your rope should have a diameter of at least 10 mm and a length of at least 60 meters.
Although more expensive, dry-treated ropes are a good choice because they hold their sheathing longer and are more durable.
Building top rope anchors also requires a durable nylon sling. Make sure you pick a width and length option suitable for the size and type of anchor you plan to build.
Top rope climbing is a straightforward and fun climbing technique that provides a great first step into the world of rock climbing. Anyone – no matter how young or old, short or tall, big or small – can tie in and enjoy the thrill of ascending a route.
Patience and continuous practice in top roping are essential if you want to improve your skills and progress into more advanced climbing styles.
Now get out there and have some fun!
For further reading see: “Redpoint Climbing: What is it All About? (And Why You Should Care!)” and “13 Best Chalk Bags for Rock Climbing [Tried & Tested]”
Editorial staff for The Wandering Climber. An expert roundup of climbing nerds from across the world!