Trad Climbing 101: The Complete Beginner’s Guide
“Trad climbing” is what some editors call a retronym—a term coined to replace a word whose meaning has become clouded. Just the way an “analog watch” was once simply a watch, trad climbing was once the only type of climbing there was. It was simply climbing.
Since the rise of sport climbing and the meteoric growth of climbing in general, trad climbing has become a genre unto itself. These days, it gets a reputation for danger and daring.
But trad climbing isn’t reserved for thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies. It’s still the way many climbers are introduced to the sport, and it encompasses a vast range of difficulties and styles. Trad climbing opens up many of the best and most famous climbs in the world.
Whether you’re a gym-goer or an experienced sport climber, here’s what you’ll need to know to get started as a trad climber.
What Is Trad Climbing?
Trad climbing is any climbing that involves removable gear. That’s by contrast to sport climbing, which uses permanent gear (usually bolts).
Like all definitions, this one has some flex. Many climbs are a mixture of the two, with some sections protected by bolts and others by gear. These routes are sometimes referred to as “mixed” climbs, but they vary widely in adventurousness.
Lead Climbing vs. Toproping
Most trad climbing involves lead climbing, in which the rope starts at the bottom of the climb with the climber. This is different from toproping, where the rope is pre-hung at the top of the route.
Some toproping falls under the umbrella of trad climbing. When toproping outdoors, some routes require removable gear for anchors or as directionals. Cleaning and following are also a form of toproping—but more on that later.
Trad Climbing vs. Sport Climbing
Sport climbing relies solely on bolts or other permanent hardware. While both forms of climbing have their risks, sport climbing eliminates the variable of placing gear.
As a result, sport climbing makes it easier to focus on pushing physical limits. As a result, sport climbing is the more frequent venue for pushing the limits of grades.
That’s not to say that cutting-edge trad climbs aren’t still being done. But with the extra dimension, trad climbing can be as much about pushing mental limits as physical.
Trad Climbing vs. Aid Climbing
Another distinction brought about by the modern age of climbing is the one between aid climbing and free climbing. Free climbing means pulling on the natural features of the rock to ascend.
In aid climbing, climbers pull and stand on gear instead. This gear is generally removable, which makes aid climbing a subcategory of trad climbing. Free climbing tends to be more popular these days, unless you’re on a big wall like El Capitan, where aid climbing is still required for most mortals.
All About Protection
Protection (aka pro, gear, pieces, etc.) is what keeps a trad climber off the ground if they fall. While sport climbers can just clip a quickdraw and be done with it, trad climbing adds a few more steps.
In one way or another, trad protection utilizes features of the rock to create a clippable point that can hold the force of a fall.
This can happen in a few ways:
- Nuts: One of the oldest forms of protection, nuts are simple metal wedges that can be placed in constrictions of a crack.
- Cams: Short for “spring-loaded camming devices,” cams have lobes that expand against the walls of a crack. Along with nuts, cams are the most common element of trad racks.
- Hexes: Popular before the advent of cams, hexes are essentially hexagonal nuts. They offer some camming ability in parallel cracks.
- Tricams: A polarizing piece of gear, tricams are small pieces of metal that can cam against the walls of cracks. Hated by some, beloved at the Gunks.
- Big Bros: These expandable tube chocks are the weapon of choice for cracks that are too wide for any other gear.
- Natural Features: Often a tree, horn, or tunnel can be tied off with a sling for easy and reliable protection.
Then there are arcane pieces like ball nuts, but we won’t get into those. Trad gear with no moving parts (relying on shape alone) is referred to as passive pro, while gear that cams against the sides of a crack is called active pro.
Cracks and features on rock climbs are rarely consistent. Even in a single area (or a single climb), placements may run the gamut from micronuts to massive cams.
Each placement is unique—a climber must assess the shape of the rock, select a piece of gear, and place gear effectively. The best placements are only as good as the rock surrounding them, which means climbers must also watch for loose or friable rock.
These are all skills unto themselves, and because safety is on the line, they’re skills worth practicing. All the variables lead to the inevitable question:
Is Trad Climbing Safe?
The short answer: Yes.
The slightly longer answer: Trad climbing is as safe as you want it to be.
Because more knowledge and assessment is involved, trad climbing requires a longer learning period. With experience and sound skills, gear placements can be reliable and consistent. No form of climbing can eliminate risk, but trad climbing doesn’t have to be any more dangerous than other disciplines.
On the contrary, part of the joy of trad climbing is that it puts safety in your own hands. You get to decide where and how often you place gear. If a section is hard, you can place as many pieces as you want.
There are limits, of course. Some routes may have long stretches of climbing without any available gear placements (called a “runout”). Still, you’re in control—if you’re not comfortable on a runout, you can choose not to continue.
Risk tends to be exacerbated when climbing at or near your limit. Placing protection takes focus and calm, which both tend to be in short supply outside the comfort zone. With the added burden of gear placements (plus old-school grading), you’ll likely find that your limit is much lower than it is on sport or gym climbs.
The takeaway? Controlling risk in trad climbing was best summarized by Socrates: Know thyself.
Anchors & Following
While bolts can stay in the wall year round, trad climbing gear goes with you when you leave. Or at least, you hope it does (see “booty” in the glossary below). Once you’ve placed gear, how to get it back out?
Trad gear is designed to be removable, although some pieces are easier to clean than others. After a leader has placed gear on the way up, they’ll secure the rope to an anchor at the top.
This anchor may be on fixed hardware or built from more gear. Books have been written on anchor building alone, and it deserves its own treatment—check out our introduction to climbing anchors for more info.
A follower then ties in to the other end of the rope and cleans the gear on the way up. Your best friend when cleaning is the trusty nut tool, which is like an extra-thin finger that can reach into cracks to retrieve gear.
Single Pitch vs. Multipitch
The logistics of trad climbing expand again when the route is longer than one pitch. In these cases, successive anchors must be built to move up the wall one pitch at a time.
If you’re curious about multipitch climbing, check out our guide on the topic.
How to Get Started Trad Climbing
With so much to learn, it can be hard to tell where to start.
But nothing can substitute for hands-on experience.
Many gyms and guide services offer classes and courses. These can be a decent place to start, and you’ll be learning from experienced guides.
But classes can be expensive, and once they’re over, you’re on your own. A more sustainable strategy is to link up with an experienced mentor.
The bonds of mentorship run deep in the climbing community. If you know an experienced trad climber, don’t be afraid to ask them to share their knowledge. They learned from someone, too.
If you don’t know many experienced climbers, reach out to local resources. Ask for help at the gym or gear store. You’ll often make connections that will lead to learning opportunities.
The best way to find a mentor is to make yourself an attractive partner. Know how to clean anchors. Get a nut tool and know how to use it. Be positive. Bring snacks or a six pack to thank your teacher. If you’re excited and willing to adventure, many climbers will be glad to rope up with you.
Eventually, you’ll be ready to set out on leads of your own. Don’t shy away from this moment, but don’t rush it either. When you start to lead, take the time to hone your skills assessing routes and placing gear.
The Climbing Gear You Need to Get Started Trad Climbing
Trad climbing requires a little more gear than other disciplines, but that’s no reason to be intimidated. If you’re just starting out, you don’t need to buy it all at once. Here’s what you’ll need for a day out placing gear:
Expect to pay: $50-$150
A trad climbing harness needs to carry a rack of gear. Especially for longer routes or those with hanging belays, it’s nice to have a harness that’s comfortable to hang around in.
You can read about our favorite harnesses over at our harness roundup.
Expect to pay: $50-$200
Unlike bouldering or even sport climbing shoes, trad shoes prioritize comfort and stability over all-out performance. You’ll need to stick your feet into cracks, which is easier with a flatter, padded shoe.
That doesn’t mean that trad shoes won’t perform well. You can read more on our favorite shoes for trad climbing.
Expect to pay: $15-25 for a tubular belay device or $40-$150 for an assisted-braking device.
Every roped climber needs a trusty belay device. Tube devices like the ATC Guide tend to be the standard for trad climbing, but a GriGri can work well. Check out our belay device testing for more info, as well as our shootout between the ATC and GriGri.
Expect to pay: $10-20
Your nut tool is one of the best investments you’ll make. It will make sure you get your gear back, and if you’re lucky, you might even snag what someone else left behind.
We narrowed down our favorites in our nut tool testing.
Importance: Strongly Recommended
Expect to pay: $60-100
The environment of trad climbing is far more variable than the gym or sport climbing. Loose rock is more common. On long and adventurous routes, the stakes are higher.
Head protection is all the more important. Read more about our top picks for climbing helmets.
Importance: Necessary (for leading)
Expect to pay: $200-300
Trad climbing puts more abuse on a rope, so it’s generally prudent to stick to diameters around 9.8 mm and up.
For our recommendations, head to our guide to the best ropes.
Importance: Necessary (for leading)
Expect to pay: $500-$1500
A rack of trad gear is one of the biggest gear investments most climbers will ever make. There’s a lot to track down: sets of nuts, different sizes of cams and microcams, offsets…
The good news is that a rack will last many years. Check out our guide to building your first trad rack.
Carabiners (Locking & Non-Locking)
Expect to pay: $100-200
All those pieces of gear in your rack need to clip to your harness somehow. You need more for alpine draws, plus locking carabiners for anchor building and another for your belay device.
Expect to pay: $50-100
Depending on how many alpine draws you like to carry, you’ll need a good number of slings. It helps to have slings of different lengths to build anchors and tie off features.
Here’s our guide to the best climbing slings.
Importance: Necessary (for leading)
Expect to pay: $60-150
In addition to alpine draws, regular quickdraws come in handy. Trad draws prioritize lightness and portability.
Read about our favorites in our quickdraw roundup.
Anchor Building Material
Importance: Necessary (for leading)
Expect to pay: $15-25
Some climbers prefer to build anchors out of slings, but many use a loop of cord called a cordelette.
Expect to pay: $10-40
Rounding out the personal gear is your chalk bag. Its job is simply to hold your chalk.
Expect to pay: $2-20
Of course, you’ll need chalk to fill your chalk bag with. Many gyms sell chalk, or you can buy it online. Amounts vary from a single brick to gallon buckets.
We conducted a blinded field test of seven top climbing chalk brands. You can see the results in our guide to the best climbing chalk.
Importance: As needed
Expect to pay: $30-100 for a small- to medium-sized climbing pack; $80-150 for a crag pack
You’ll need something to carry all that gear. Trad climbing can involve a couple different pack sizes.
Climbing packs are a broad category and contain everything from daypacks to gym bags. Small to medium sizes range from 15-30 liters. For multipitch climbs, many teams opt for a small pack that can carry essentials without getting in the way of climbing.
Crag packs are larger and designed to carry lots of gear. They usually fall somewhere in the 35-50 liter range.
Importance: As needed
Expect to pay: $3-5
Especially when you’re crack climbing, tape is essential for trad climbing. We tested a variety of tapes to figure out which hold up best to crack climbing.
Expect to pay: $20-40
Another creature comfort, gloves save the skin on belays and rappels. A good pair will provide dexterity, grip, and protection. After all, you need that skin for the rock. If you’re climbing lots of cracks, specialized crack climbing gloves will save you loads of tape.
For our recommendations, check out our guide to the best climbing gloves for belaying and rappelling.
Expect to pay: $20-80
Although not strictly necessary, belay glasses will save your neck a great deal of craning. Belay glasses are generally reserved for single-pitch climbing.
For our recommendations, check out our guide to the best belay glasses.
A Note On Trad Climbing Grades
In the USA, trad climbing grades follow the familiar Yosemite Decimal System. Abroad, grades may follow any number of local systems.
Like all grades, trad grades are subjective and vary by route and area. Some areas (like Joshua Tree or the Gunks) are famous for their sandbagged grades.
The variability is compounded by the specialized skills inherent in trad climbing. If you’re an offwidth expert but struggle on finger cracks, you may find the respective grades to be soft or stiff.
The grades of some routes were established decades ago. These often feel stiff compared to modern routes, in part because the YDS used to end at 5.9. If you encounter any old routes graded 5.9+, watch out.
As usual, it’s best not to get too wrapped up in grades. Trad climbing is about much more than numbers.
Trad Climbing Terminology
A short and incomplete list:
- Approach (n): The walk or hike to the cliff. Much less fun than climbing.
- Beta (n): Information on the best way to climb (or protect) a sequence or route.
- Bomber (adj): Perfect, good, able to catch a fall. Applied to gear or sometimes holds.
- Booty (n, v): An abandoned piece of gear that may be claimed by any who can free it, or the act of doing so, e.g. “I bootied that #3 off the Bastille yesterday.”
- Choss (n): Loose or dangerous rock, may take adjective form as chossy.
- Clean (v, adj): To remove gear from a route once finished, or obstacle-free, e.g. a clean fall.
- Crux (n, v): The hardest sequence on a route, or to struggle on that sequence, e.g. “I’m really cruxing out right now.”
- Follow (v): To toprope a route (that has already been led) from the opposite end of the rope, cleaning gear on the way.
- French free (v): To pull past a move by using gear as a handhold.
- Gripped (adj): Intensely anxious or fearful, usually on lead.
- Headpoint (v): To rehearse a trad climb on toprope before leading it on gear.
- Jam (n, v): To use a crack as a hold by stuffing in part or all of the hand, or a place where it’s possible to do so.
- Lead (n, v): To climb a route on lead, or the responsibility to do so, e.g. “This is your lead.”
- Marginal (adj): Questionable or suspect. Applied to gear placements.
- Offwidth (n, v): A crack too large to jam with one hand, or the act of climbing such a crack.
- Piece (n): Synonym for gear or protection.
- Pro (n): Short for protection.
- Pumped (adj): Possessing forearms made weak by fatigue, e.g. “I was too pumped to pull the crux.”
- Pumpy (adj): Likely to make you pumped, e.g. a pumpy route.
- Rack (n): A collection of pro that covers the expected needs of a route.
- Runout (n): A long stretch of rock with no available gear placements; may also take verb form as run it out.
- Sandbag (n, v): A climb with a grade too low for its difficulty, or the act of assigning such a grade.
- Second (n, v): Synonym for follow or follower.
- Sharp End (n): The leader’s end of the rope, e.g. tie in to the sharp end.
Where to Trad Climb?
Trad climbing can only happen outdoors, so you’ll have to find real rock to start placing gear.
The first step is finding nearby trad climbing areas. Locals are the best source of knowledge, and your local gym and gear stores are a good place to start. They’ll usually have guidebooks to peruse, too.
Mountain Project’s area map and route finder are useful tools. Between these two tools, you can sort by area, difficulty, and type. Mountain Project pages will usually tell you how to get to the crags and warn about any access issues. Most route topos will also provide information about what gear the climb requires.
The best way to learn an area is to climb with someone who knows it. Going with an experienced friend makes a world of difference, and it usually means you’ll get on quality routes.
A Wide World
Trad climbing opens up an incredible amount of quality rock climbing. You get to follow in the footsteps (and handprints) of titans like Layton Kor, Royal Robbins, and Lynn Hill.
Trad climbing is also a uniquely individual experience. Where you climb, what style you climb in, and what gear you place is all up to you. Trad climbs can be mild romps or epic tests of stamina and will.
That makes trad a rewarding experience, in spite of all the prerequisites. Above all the talk about gear and risk, trad climbing is a way to find adventure and beauty in the wilderness.
Enjoy it—and climb safe.