Climber view from top

What is Trad Climbing?

First things first, what is trad climbing?

Trad climbing is, unequivocally, the single most addictive and enthralling activity on the face of the planet.

It’s adventurous, intriguing and imposing. It’s captivating and calming, exhilarating and daunting, all in equal measure. It’s a paradoxically austere and grandiose sport that can be life-changing and life-affirming. 

Now that we’ve established my impartiality and lack of bias, let’s look at a more objective definition. 

Traditional or “trad” climbing is a style of climbing whereby a leader free climbs up a rockface placing various pieces of metal equipment (known as protection or gear) into the natural cracks and slots in the rock.

Man climbing

They then clip the rope to this gear as they go in order to protect against a fall. 

These pieces of protection are then removed by the follower as they ascend, belayed by the leader from the top of the route. This leaves the rock face as “clean” as before the climbers arrived. 

Free climbing also shouldn’t be mixed up with “free solo climbing”. That involves climbing ropeless, using your hands and feet both as a means of ascent, and your only method of protection.

You may have heard of a guy called Alex who’s done a little bit of this.

Related: The Dawn Wall vs Free Solo: Which Film Is Better? [Hint ~ It’s Not Free Solo]

In this guide you will find:

What Does “Trad” Mean?

Man climbing

Initially, trad climbing was just known as “climbing”, but with the advent of sport climbing, a way was needed to differentiate between them. Thus the original type of climbing became known as traditional climbing- or “trad” for short. 

The history of trad is a fascinating one, but far too long to go into here. Intertwined with the meaning of trad is the ethics of it, influenced through the years by leading icons of the day- from Paul Preuss and John Salathé, to Royal Robbins, Joe Brown, and countless others. 

Ethics revolve around how we interact with the rock and minimise our impact, along with what style you “should” climb in.

They vary considerably from crag to crag and country to country. For example, some routes can have bolted anchors, or even a bolt or two on the route and still be considered trad, while other areas will completely be against any type of bolting. 

It’s a long and sometimes controversial topic but going by Leave No Trace principles is a good place to begin. Once you respect others (including the local ethics), care for the environment and take responsibility for your own actions, you’re doing pretty well. 

The rest is all fluff; whether you onsight or redpoint, preplaced gear, top rope, none of it really matters once you enjoy yourself, are honest and are happy with how you’ve done it.

As the peerless Irish climber Ricky Bell puts it “Don’t cheat the route…but more importantly, don’t cheat yourself”.

Sport Climbing vs Trad climbing

Man Climbing and nature view

While I have a “versus” above, sport and trad are by no means opponents. Rather, each complements the other and can provide wildly different, yet equally satisfying experiences, while also making you a more holistic climber.

To give a sense of comparison, sport climbing is like racing on an athletics track while trad climbing is going for a trail run along a ridge. A lot of the “what ifs” and unknowns are removed in one style, allowing focus purely on the physical movement.

In the other, the experience broadens, the mind has to maintain a wider focus- you have to be aware of the ground underfoot, navigation, clothing, etc. 

The obvious difference between the two is the bolts- or, rather, lack thereof. Instead of having stainless steel bolts at roughly body length intervals, a trad climber has all his equipment for protection placed on his harness. This has several cumulative effects:

  • The gear is not as regular; how often you can place gear, and how good that gear is depends on both the rockface (i.e., where the cracks are) and the climber (i.e., their ability in placing and assessing gear).
  • You have more weight hanging off you when trad climbing.
  • It’s easier to get off route. Trad climbs tend to wander more as they follow lines of weakness in the rock, and you can’t just look up and spot the next shiny bolt! The flip side of this is a heightened awareness and connection to the route.
  • Trad climbs tend to top out more. It’s a lot harder to lower off halfway up a cliff when you don’t have an anchor…

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is where the emphasis lies. Sport climbs trend more towards the physical realm of pure performance; this is reflected in the tendency of your “grade” being regarded as what level you can redpoint. 

Related: Redpoint Climbing: What is it All About? (And Why You Should Care!)

Trad, on the other hand, has a much bigger emphasis on the mental aspect and the adventure aspect (discussed more below). Fewer climbers will tend to climb at their physical limit on trad routes, preferring to limit their chances of falling. As such, trad climbers trend more towards what level they can comfortably onsight.

Why Should You Try Trad Climbing?

View from the top to climber

Above all else, trad climbing is an exploration- in every sense of the word- geographically, physically, and personally. 

It’s a journey of adventure- big, sprawling mountain crags, remote walls in the wilderness, sea cliffs or little tucked away gems set in scenic locations. The landscape and situations trad climbing allows you to participate in is endless. 

Long days without sight of another soul, the constant flickering of the mind as you think about moves, gear placements, anchors, route finding. It creates a single mindedness that is often lost in the fog of life these days. 

The range of emotions one can encounter on a single pitch is endless, running the full spectrum from the joy of the situation you’re in, through the intensity of focus on a move, to the worry and, yes, sometimes fear as you search for gear, and the satisfied sense of accomplishment as you pull over the lip to the top.

It also can be deeply influential on a personal and psychological level. It’s hard to put into words exactly what I mean…so I won’t. But get out there and I’ll happily wait to hear from anyone it doesn’t change!

Is Trad Climbing Safe?

Yes! And No.

As with most things in climbing, the answer is “it depends”. In comparison to sport climbing, yes, there are a much wider range of things to think about, and more things that can go wrong.

But once you take the time to properly understand the systems and gear, trad climbing can be super safe.

Many people get put off by videos and tales of massive falls or scary leads. The reality is, the vast, vast majority of the time, climbers have a great day out and get a little scared- which is different from dangerous.

To an extent, trad climbing is as dangerous as you make it- you don’t have to try hard or climb at your limit to enjoy trad. Once you learn to climb trad safely, you can have the most amazing and marvelous adventures, all the while climbing well within your limits on one of the thousands of really well protected routes that are out there.

It’s the experiences you have, not the grades you climb that makes trad such a glorious sport.

Trad climbing gear rarely, if ever fails by breaking; it’s usually human error- e.g., a bad placement. This is why properly getting to know your gear and placements is vital before starting to try to lead routes.

All this to say, it’s not that trad climbing isn’t scary- it can be extremely nerve-wracking and daunting, and there are definitely times when it can be dangerous. But a lot of the time this fear is unwarranted and in actuality you’re completely safe. 

Trad racks
A Set Of Nuts

Being able to differentiate between an unwarranted fear when you’re climbing, and a rational, logical fear where you are in danger is one of the key aspects of trad climbing. 

One of the best resources on this topic- and on climbing in general- is Dave MacLeod’s 9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes. Understanding your fear is not just a key topic for trad, but a key reward; you end up getting a much deeper understanding of yourself and more awareness of your emotions in everyday life.

Trad Racks:

Trad climbing is undoubtedly more expensive than sport climbing. The flipside is that you get lots of fun new gear to play with! Initially, you’re probably going to be climbing with someone who has a rack, so there’s no need to invest straight away. Take your time and build up a rack slowly.

Realistically, getting gear from any of the main brands (e.g., DMM, Wild Country, Black Diamond), is going to be pretty comparable in both quality and price, especially starting off. I’ve listed out some of the components of a trad rack below (with the assumption you already have the basics of harness, helmet, etc.).

As a general recommendation for your first purchases, a set of DMM wallnuts, 3-4 60cm/24” alpine draws, a 120cm/48” sling and a 240cm/96” sling is a good place to start.

Depending on your local crag, this may vary, so again, it’s worth waiting a while before making purchases.

Nut tool:

Probably the first bit of gear you should pick up. It’s essentially a thin long strip of metal used for hammering out bits of stuck gear. They’re all pretty similar although the Wild Country Pro Key has the advantage of being on a spring leash, meaning you can’t drop it while trying to bash out that awkwardly placed nut! 

Ropes:

Ropes

Most of the time, you’ll use the same rope as you do for sport climbing. However, trad climbing also brings in the use of half ropes- particularly in Ireland, the UK, and in alpine areas of Europe. Half ropes are of benefit for wandery routes, or where the protection is off to each side.

For everything you need to know about ropes see: “Types of Climbing Rope: A Guide To Everything You Need To Know

Passive Protection:

Passive protection consists of a fixed wedge of metal that is placed in a constriction in the crack, generally protecting against a downward force. Most common is a set of nuts, although Hexes and Tricams fall into this category also. 

Active Protection:

Active Protection

This consists of cams (technically called Spring Loaded Camming Devices); 3 or 4 retractable lobes mounted on an axle that, when weighted, transfers the downwards force of a fall into outward pressure on the crack in which they’re placed. 

Perfect for parallel cracks, the speed at which they can be placed make them a lifesaver when you’re pumped! They are probably the most expensive item on your rack, but they’re worth their weight in gold!

Slings:

One of the most underrated pieces of gear given their versatility, having 2-3 slings is important for building anchors, use on a route, abseiling, and pretty much anything else you can think of! A 120cm/48” and 240cm/96” are the most common sizes for anchor building, while 60cm/24” are great for use as alpine draws. 

Alpine draws are essentially a 60cm sling folded in thirds, with a carabiner at each end to make a normal length quickdraw. They can be clipped like this, or if you want to make them longer (e.g., to reduce rope drag), you can extend the sling to its full 60cm.

How to Start Trad Climbing

Climber view from below

Outside of cost, the biggest barrier to trad is finding someone who is willing to bring you out and (literally!) show you the ropes.

Particularly for trad, no amount of online articles, books or videos will teach you everything you need to know. 

Ideally, you’ll have a friend who trad climbs and is happy to teach you. In which case, spend as much time as you can seconding.

Your partner will be happy as they get to lead stuff all day and you get the opportunity to inspect the gear as you clean it, seeing how, when and where it’s placed.

A few other suggestions to begin trad:

  • Start multipitch sport climbing. Multipitch sport can provide a nice introduction to some of the problem solving skills needed for trad while staying closer to your comfort zone.
  • Get out scrambling. Long, easy mountain routes provide a great opportunity to get used to being in a serious situation while still being on easy ground- in a sense it’s a progression from multipitch sport, with more problem solving, route finding, and the added advantage of a fantastic day in the hills.

  • Contact your national governing body. They’ll have a list of clubs local to you, or can point you in the right direction of more informal groups.
  • University clubs are often a great way of getting into trad if you have that option, they can provide gear, mentors and often discounted training courses.
  • Take a course- while the more expensive option, spending a day or two individually or as a group with a guide can be worth its weight in gold.
  • Read! Yes you can’t learn it all from a book, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an insane amount that you can pick up. 

National organizations often provide high quality, comprehensive resources. For example, The American Alpine Club has some great resources here and a particularly good one on anchors here, while the British Mountaineering Council has a great list of short videos taking you through many of the basics.

Some of the best books include Rock Climbing: Essential Skills & Techniques by Libby Peter, The Trad Climber’s Bible by John Long & Peter Croft, and Climbing Anchors by John Long & Bob Gaines. The VDiff climbing website also does an excellent ebook

Person climbing

Techniques:

To the uninitiated, trad climbing techniques can seem to range from the unobvious and the mysterious, to the painful, weird or just plain awkward. And they’re right…kind of! 

Welcome to the wonderful world of jamming. Jamming can take some getting used to, but once you get a feel for it, hanging off a bomber handjam will feel more secure than any jug!

Particularly starting off, climbers can usually figure out a way around a jam, but as with most things in climbing, taking the time to get the technique right initially pays off in the long run. 

Person climbing

The basic premise of jamming is that rather than using holds, you’re creating them. Think of your limbs as cams; you’ve a rack of sizes, from fingers to hands to fists etc.. Each can expand or contract as needed to fit a particular size of crack. Much like with gear, the recurring theme of  getting time and experience on the rock is key to be able to read where in the crack is best for each jam.

If you want to get much more in depth, Pete Whittaker’s recent book Crack Climbing is the most comprehensive book on the subject.

Tips For Starting Out

Passive Protection

  • Mileage. All of the miles. Forget about grades, just get on the rock. So much of trad climbing is all about experience. There’s such a multitude of scenarios that can happen, the only way to learn is by experiencing them. Someone who climbs outside 2-3 times a week for 6 months is going to be way more experienced and competent than someone who climbs outside once a month for three years. There’s two different ways of obtaining this mileage:
    • Second a competent leader on more complex routes (e.g., wandering ones, ones with different types of gear, sea cliffs, multi pitches). The more variety the better.
    • Get on easier routes that allow you to a) place gear without as much worry of falling off and b) allow you to climb faster and cover more ground.
  • Practice. Practice, practice and practice, then practice some more. Get to your local crag or any kind of wall with a crack and start placing gear while you’re on the ground. Weight the gear, sit on it in a harness or stand in a sling. It’s not going to be anything like fall forces, but you can get a sense for what happens as weight is applied. Place good pieces, bad pieces and everything in between while you’re still safe on the ground.
  • Get used to sizes. Figuring out which piece of gear to put in can be tricky initially, and you don’t want to be fumbling about trying 5 different sizes of nuts before getting the right one. One tip for this is to figure out sizes in comparison to your hands. For example, I know if I have a crack that is just wider than finger width, it’ll take a Person climbingbomber purple cam.
  • Do mock leads, placing gear while on a top rope then get someone else to check it. When you leave the ground on your first lead, you should be completely confident in the basics of what you are doing.
  • Question everything. Even if it’s someone you know well, and especially if it’s someone you don’t. Someone should be able to give a better reason for doing something than “well I’ve always done it this way” or “I don’t know, it’s just how I was taught”. If they understand what they’re doing, they’ll be happy to explain. If they don’t, maybe it’s time for a new partner!
  • Understand the principles, not just the rules. Acronyms like IDEAL or SERENE are great introductions to how to build anchors, but if you understand the principles behind these guidelines, you’ll be in a much better place to apply them appropriately.

Being able to trad climb opens up a whole new world of adventure, encouraging freedom, exploration and creativity. 

It might have a longer apprenticeship and a steeper learning curve than starting to climb indoor, boulder, or sport, but the payoff is tenfold. It’s a true combination of mental, physical, tactical and technical. 

The responsibility grows, as to do the rewards. If you want to get out into the mountains, into alpinism or bigger routes, you’re going to need to have some trad skills. So what are you waiting for, get out there and get climbing!!

For further reading see: “13 C H Best Belay Device Reviews: Read This Before Buying!” and “Merida ~ Venezuela’s Next Adventure Climbing Destination” 

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Published by Seán Fortune

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