How to Build Your First Trad Rack: The 8 Steps to a Complete Rack
For most beginning climbers, trad climbing is a big leap — and an equally big investment. When you’re sure you’re ready to start building your own rack, it’s worth knowing what to get and when.
The following recommendations are MY PERSONAL thoughts on how best to build a trad rack. Everyone does it differently. Climbers have different styles, and many areas call for different gear or priorities. Feel free to mix and match. For a first rack, the gear here is a good place to start.
It’s possible to build a trad rack costing thousands of dollars, and it’s nearly possible to do it on a shoestring. Don’t buy shoddy gear, but don’t feel pressured to buy the latest and greatest, either. Shop for your budget, and look for ways to find deals.
There are two caveats to building your first trad rack.
The first is: make sure you really want to build a trad rack. Some climbing gear isn’t too expensive, but even with good deals, you’ll be dropping some dough.
That’s not a bad thing, but make sure that you’re excited to use your gear. Buying gear that sits in your closet is like buying a Ferrari that never leaves the garage.
And just to be a little contradictory, the second caveat is this: don’t be afraid to build a trad rack. I bought my first set of nuts when I hadn’t led a single pitch of trad. And when I did lead my first pitch on gear (a glorious ladder of a 5.2), I placed every single one of them.
I learned how to evaluate and place gear from experts I trusted, and you should too — but there will always be a moment for the leap of faith. When you want to start tying in on the sharp end, or stop bumming gear from your buddy, it’s time to start your own rack. Do your research and practice often, but don’t let fear stop you.
Step 1: A Nut Tool
Buying a nut tool should always be step one, even if you’re still getting your feet wet on trad climbs.
There are two main reasons:
First, having a nut tool (and knowing how to use it) prepares you to follow pitches. This is not only essential in learning how to trad climb, but it’s good ammo for badgering friends and/or ropeguns to take you out climbing. If you’re a good belay and a savvy gear-cleaner, many trad leaders will be more than happy to take you along and show you what they know. Take them up on it.
Second, having a nut tool means claiming booty. The rules surrounding climbing booty are a bit hazy, but the gist is this: if someone else abandoned it, and you can get it out, you get to keep it. This doesn’t apply to fixed gear or rescue gear, but if a party bails off a cam and you’re the next one to find it — that thing’s yours. Freeing abandoned gear is a good way to practice cleaning, and if you’re lucky, you might get a head start on your rack without spending a dime. Win-win.
Step 2: A Set of Nuts
Yes, all the language of trad climbing is vaguely sexual, so if you haven’t cracked any jokes yet — er, go nuts. But really, once you’re ready to start buying gear, your first investment ought to be a set of nuts.
Some climbers almost exclusively place cams. I’m going to argue against that approach. In most contexts, placing nuts is still an essential skill. Not only that, but nuts are light and cheap — virtues to prize in the world of trad climbing.
So which nuts?
Different climbers will have different answers here. The classic option would be Black Diamond Stoppers, which remain one of the most common choices. I personally climb on DMM Wallnuts and like them more than the BD pieces. Some climbers find DMMs a little harder to clean, but I’ve never had an issue. Wild Country and Metolius also make well-respected variants. Shop around, do a little research, and buy what you like.
Whenever possible — and this goes for any and all trad gear you will buy — climb on someone else’s gear before you buy it. If your buddy has a set of nuts, ask if you can take a look. Get the opinions of climbers you trust, and make up your own mind.
Generally speaking, one full set of nuts is enough to get you started. If you climb longer routes in diverse areas, you may eventually want closer to 1.5 sets. If you climb in areas with fiddly placements, adding offset nuts to your regular set may be a blessing.
Note that a “set” means a different number of nuts for each brand: a complete set of DMM Wallnuts is 11 nuts, while a set of BD Stoppers is 13. At the moment, my personal rack is a full set of DMM Wallnuts complemented by a set of DMM Alloy Offsets.
Step 3: Carabiners
Once you have a set of nuts, you need a way to carry them. Some climbers rack on a gear sling, but I prefer to rack all my gear on my gear loops. Either way, you’ll need quite a few carabiners.
Most climbers rack their nuts on one or two ‘biners. Many prefer ovals, but I rack my nuts on a Petzl Spirit carabiner — a quirky choice, but I find that a keylock nose makes for fewer fumbles when I’m placing. Your mileage may vary.
While nuts can go on a carabiner or two, most climbers rack cams on individual ‘biners. That means that you’re going to need a lot of carabiners. Most brands sell packs of various colors, which means that you can match your carabiners to your cams for easy color-coding on your harness.
It’s nice to get lightweight racking ‘biners, but don’t get something so light and tiny that it’s hard to handle. Whenever possible, try before you buy.
The Black Diamond Neutrino is a classic choice here, and the Wild Country Helium 2 is a longtime (if expensive) crowd favorite. You’ll have to decide whether keylock (or hooded wiregate) designs are worth the extra cash. I rack much of my gear on DMM Phantoms, which I find exceptional.
Step 4: Cams
That brings us to the big ticket item — cams. Carabiners are cheap, and a nut tool plus nuts won’t cost you too much over $100.
Depending on where you buy, you might spend that much on a single cam. But if you want to complete your rack, you’ll need a set.
Black Diamond Camalot C4s have long been the gold standard in the world of cams. The competition is starting to catch up: the new generation of Wild Country Friends is impressive, as are the DMM Dragons. Which you choose will likely come down to price, preference, and how you feel about extendable slings.
For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to refer to sizes in the cam most climbers (including myself) use most often — the C4. Black Diamond also makes an ultralight version of the C4, but unless you’re a weight-obsessed alpinist (or a millionaire) the price is too high for a first rack.
To start, find one cam each in the sizes you’ll need. These will vary somewhat by area, but 0.5″ to 3″ — purple to large blue, in C4 sizes — is the bare minimum. Unless you’re climbing somewhere like Yosemite, you probably won’t need anything larger than 3″ to start.
You will probably want to invest in a few small cams. Some climbers try to get by purely on nuts, but small cams are useful as multi-directional pieces, or just when you’re pumped. Several cams in the 0.2″-0.4″ range will serve you well.
Oddly, small cams are some of the most polarizing pieces among trad climbers. Some swear by Totem cams. Others will only climb on CCH Aliens (preferably originals). Many grieve the impending doom of the Black Diamond C3.
I personally climb on a mix of Black Diamond X4s and Metolius Master Cams. I wish I had definitive advice here, but small cams are finicky and can vary in effectiveness depending on rock type. Try before you buy whenever possible, and get what you think will work best in your area of choice.
A single set of cams will probably have somewhere between 8 and 12 units. From there, double up on the sizes you use most often. For me, that’s 0.4″-1″ (gray through red in C4 sizing). As you gain experience, you’ll get a good sense of which sizes you need more of and which you don’t carry as frequently.
Building a Full Rack Can Take a Long Time
Although cams and carabiners are listed as two separate steps, it may take quite some time to build a full rack. Unless you’re prepared to drop hundreds of dollars all at once, you may need to piece everything together bit by bit. It took me more than a year before I considered my first rack satisfactory.
I don’t think this is a bad thing: it takes a little trial and error to figure out what you like and what you place. Once you have the essentials, refine your rack to find what works best for you and the places you climb.
Step 5: Slings & Draws
In the sport climbing world, quickdraws are a relatively simple matter. Trad climbing demands different attributes: lightness, versatility, and extension.
The third of these is possibly the most important. To avoid rope drag and keep pieces in place, it’s often prudent to extend the reach of a gear placement. Alpine quickdraws are the main way to do so.
If you’ve never seen an alpine draw before, it’s a tripled single-length sling with a carabiner on either end. The sling can be placed in tripled form (where it’s about the length of a regular quickdraw) or extended to the full length of the sling. All you need to start building alpine quickdraws is a few slings and lots of your favorite wiregate carabiners.
(Read our guide to alpine quickdraws for more info on how to build and use them.)
Slings also come in handy for all sorts of other tasks on trad climbs, like slinging trees or building anchors. It’s wise to have a few double-lengths in addition to all your single-lengths.
You will have to choose between Dyneema and nylon slings — some climbers believe nylon slings are more reliable and versatile, while others prefer the lightness and handling of Dyneema. After field testing 10 top options, here are our favorites.
I usually carry 8-12 alpine draws along with a few conventional quickdraws. Many companies make trad-specific quickdraws, which are generally lighter and less stiff than sport climbing draws. Don’t feel the need to buy all-new draws if you already have some, but do make sure to construct plenty of alpine draws.
Step 6: Anchor Material & Personal Gear
If you’ve followed routes or gone sport climbing, you likely have most of the personal gear you need: a belay device, a sling or two, and a few locking carabiners. Building your own anchors on gear may require a few extra items.
The title of this section is intentionally vague, because anchor building is another one of those subjects that gets trad climbers foaming at the mouth.
Some people build anchors with slings. Others do it with cordelettes. Others do it all with the rope.
Many a glorious route has been climbed with each of these methods. Whichever one you use, learn it well and take your anchor-building seriously. Cord and slings are cheap, so get whatever gear you need for your system of choice.
Step 7: Specialty Items
We’re really close now — you’ve picked up a nut tool, nuts, cams, anchor gear, and enough carabiners to rack it all. All you need now is to fill in the gaps.
Depending on where (or what) you climb, you might need an extra piece or two to make sure you’re covered.
Climbers at the Gunks tend to be fans of tricams — some climbers hate them, but the pink tricam is one of my all-time favorite pieces of gear.
If you become a devotee of the offwidth cult, you’ll want some large cams or even a couple Trango Big Bros. Most climbers nowadays prefer cams, but if you’re an alpinist or you like to go old school, you could replace some of them with hexes. As you figure out what you like, add what you see fit.
Step 8: Take It for a Spin
That’s it! That’s all you need for most of the trad routes you’ll encounter. Nut tool, nuts, ‘biners, cams, slings, draws, and a belay. You’re set.
As I said at the beginning, there’s no sense in buying all that gear just to let it sit around. The real secret is this: building a rack is a project that is never truly finished.
If you climb long enough, you will lose some of your gear. By the time you’ve found what works in one area, you may want to explore somewhere new. Maybe you’ll take up aid climbing, in which case you’ll have to find all kinds of new items. And just when you think you have it all dialed, something will need replacing.
Embrace the process. Your rack is an organic collection that can grow and shrink as you need it to. The most important part is that your gear gets you outside and (safely) adventuring. Finding the gear that works for you can be a fun process — enjoy it, and even more, enjoy all the climbing it will lead you to.