Ultimate Guide to Trad Climbing | History/ Gear/ Routes/ Destinations

The Ultimate Guide to Trad Climbing 101

Traditional climbing, or trad climbing, as it has come to be known, is effectively the oldest form of competitive climbing, which began to separate from the emerging sports climbing scene sometime in the 80s. While there are several different forms of the discipline, trad climbing generally refers to climbing where all of the protective gear is placed while climbing on lead, instead of while rappelling which is more common in sports climbing.

la sportiva and trad gear

As different rock formations demand different pieces of gear used in a variety of ways, a trad climber has to have confidence in their equipment and a deep base of knowledge covering all the different operations of it. It is most common on large, multi-pitch routes, and climbers such as Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, and Kevin Jorgeson are often making climbing headlines for their incredible trad climbing skills. 

How it Works

So you have reached the base of the crag and are staring upwards at a blank slab of granite and beyond, into the abyss. Somehow, you have to transport your body from where you are standing to the top of the aforementioned slab of granite and to be completely honest, you don’t feel like becoming a pile of guts and bones on the floor of the valley, so you would rather do it safely. The problem is that there are no bolts in the wall in which to secure yourself. What are you going to do? 

Trad

Luckily, for all of us who are a little intimidated by free soloing, to say the least, for almost every kind of imperfection on the slab that stands before you, somebody has manufactured a load-bearing piece of protective equipment that you can clip yourself into. This includes cams – spring-loaded metal devices that can be opened inside cracks (sometimes referred to as “friends”), slings, nuts, bolts, quickdraws, monkey fists – a special kind of knot, often made out of retired climbing ropes, and many more, along with any combination of these. With a big enough budget and deep enough knowledge, you will be able to stop your body from hitting the floor, thus saving the process of becoming a pile of bones and guts for another day.

The next problem that you may encounter is that you have to take all of this up the wall with you. Trad climbing harnesses tend to have larger gear loops to accommodate such an array of life-saving equipment, but obviously, if you are ascending all 3000 feet of Yosemite’s El Capitan, you simply cannot carry a new piece of equipment for every 15 feet of the wall without your harness pulling down your climbing pants and exposing you to the world, especially if you are big walling with a portaledge. As with most forms of rope climbing, trad climbing is done in pairs, and while one person ascends the route in lead and places the gear on a particular pitch while the other belays when the first climber reaches the top, they will build an anchor from which they can safely belay the other climber, who will follow and collect the gear so that it can be used for multiple pitches. If you are big walling, you will tend to have a haul bag that, believe it or not, you will haul up the wall after you have completed the pitch, containing food, accommodation, and some form of bag in which to poop. 

History of Trad Climbing

For as long as there has been life on this pale blue dot, various species have needed to ascend the terrain presented before them. Humans have needed to escape predators, reach vantage points, and find natural resources in high places that are hard to get to. Some of the earliest recorded forms of mountaineering were motivated by meteorology or religion in the 1300 and 1400s, however, as time has passed, technology such as ropes, harnesses, and specialized shoes have allowed us to more safely traverse difficult terrain, and to even turn certain forms of ascension into a competitive sport. 

climbing gear and equipment

The earliest forms of climbing as a sport are somewhat debated, and as there are no clear records, it is a debate that will continue for a while. Around the end of the 1800s and the start of the 1900s, people were starting to climb rock surfaces for fun and not just survival, in places such as the Dolomites of Italy, the area around the Elbe in the geographical east of Germany, and England. For a few decades, climbing was simply going up the rockface, often assisted by equipment, and placing bolts on the way for protection. 

As the sport of climbing developed, around the 1970s and 1980s, new forms of rock climbing became popular, such as sport climbing which is focussed more on the movement difficulty while taking out the element of placing protective gear on lead, and bouldering which initially started as a way for climbers to practice the crux of their projects close to the ground and without having to climb up to it each time. During this period, some climbers identified as being more traditional, sometimes referring to themselves as purists, and established trad climbing as a separate discipline. 

With the constant invention of new protective gear and refinement of already existing equipment, the sport is still developing despite being quite traditional. It is most prevalent in places such as the US which has a larger big wall and crack climbing scene than Europe, for example, and being home to such trad meccas as Yosemite and Utah, the US trad scene is only going to grow. 

Types of Trad Climbing 

Climbers have a habit of overcomplicating their own sport. Just take a look at the multiple grading systems and try to make sense of it if you don’t believe us. Naturally, as trad climbing develops over time, certain groups of climbers find differences in their form of trad climbing from others who are also identifying as trad climbers. All of the following examples are valid forms of trad climbing. 

Big Wall Climbing

Big wall climbing is probably the most popular and arguably the most exciting form of trad climbing. The amount of traffic you will find halfway up El Capitan at any given moment will likely surprise you unless you have seen it before. Big wall climbing is fairly self-descriptive – essentially, you are climbing… on a wall… that is big.

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This means a few things. Firstly, if there are any at all, it is highly unlikely that the entire route has been bolted, forcing you to use your own equipment. Secondly, it means that you will be climbing multiple pitches, and, most likely over several days. A true trad climber takes up everything they need to survive for their entire time on the side of the rock without having to rappel down and ascend back up again with supplies. This includes food, accommodation, climbing gear, and even water. Furthermore, nothing should be left behind on the wall when you are finished, so you will have to carry your waste with you too.

The most famous big wall climbing in the world is in Yosemite, but the US is filled with great places for this version of the sport. States such as Alaska and Utah also have some pretty big rocks. Other great locations include Madagascar, Pakistan, Canada, and even Antarctica. 

Crack Climbing

Crack climbing is a hugely popular form of climbing in the US, described by Pamela Pack as “ultimate fighting with a rock”, and it is slowly making its way to the rest of the world, aided by the efforts of The Wide Boyz. It has even started to find its way into competition climbing and bouldering, although not in the same way as it is seen in trad climbing.

Those who have seen The Wide Boyz movie on Reel Rock will remember that they had to repeat their ascent of one of the hardest crack routes to date because Stevie Hatson was convinced that their first ascent didn’t count as the gear was pre-placed. Crack climbing most commonly is unbolted, and therefore requires climbers to place the gear on the lead to safely protect themselves, making it another form of trad climbing by definition. 

Bolted/unbolted Trad Climbing

While modern trad climbing is generally unbolted and all protection is placed on lead, the earlier forms of the sport included bolting the route as it was climbed. Some trad routes, especially the older routes, do actually have bolts on, whether or not climbers decide to use them is something else. Some people argue that bolted trad climbing is another form of trad climbing, and may even say that it is cheating to use the bolts as they are pre-placed gear, however, as the bolts are few and far between, it is important to distinguish bolted trad climbing from sports climbing. 

Repelling or Abseiling

A general law of physics is whatever goes up, must come down. In climbing, there are painful and less painful ways to do this, and with trad climbing, it can be particularly interesting. Some routes allow climbers to top out and take a gentle (at least by comparison to the ascent) hike down the other side of the rock. Most likely, you will have to rappel off the route, and the least gear you can sacrifice to the climbing gods in the process, the better.

A very quick but relatively dangerous way that many trad climbing pairs descend a route is by both rappelling down either end of the rope simultaneously. Be aware that if anything goes wrong, such as one person rappelling off the end of a rope with no knot in it, then both climbers are likely to suffer serious damage and quite possibly death. It is much safer although much more time-consuming to rappel, one at a time, using both sides of the rope for one person.

Trad routes are often equipped with rappelling stations – fixed bolts in which the rope can be threaded through for the sake of rappelling. If not, climbers often use natural points, such as sturdy trees, protruding pieces of rock, or fixed slings of sorts. These are usually detailed in guidebooks, or can be found out before starting the climb by talking to local experts. Do not start your climb without knowing how you will come off the route, both in the event of a successful send or if you have to quickly bail from any point of the climb. 

Trad Climbing Skills and Technique

Trad climbing involves several techniques and skills to ensure the safety and success of those taking part. You should have confidence in the following skills before committing to a difficult trad route. 

  • Belaying – belaying is the process that climbers use to secure each other. There are multiple devices for this and multiple ways of doing this, but a good trad climbing belayer will be confident in doing so while their partner is climbing lead with potentially large runouts which can be typical on trad routes. 
  • Gear placing – this is the big one for trad climbers. The gear that you take has to secure you and to stop you from falling to your death, and it is up to you as a lead climber to make the best decisions and to protect yourself from a gruesome fate. It is worth studying which pieces of equipment work best in which features in the rock, such as using cams in cracks, slings around stalactites, and nuts in pockets. Not all climbing areas permit all types of protection, so be sure to know this beforehand.  
  • Rappelling – this is the act of safely coming down from a route, and even if you have to walk off the top of the route, there is always a chance you will have to bail halfway through and come down quickly and safely. Rappelling is the normal way down for a trad climber as there is not often a good place to run the rope through for an abseil exit, so be confident that you know how to rappel and do remember to tie a knot in both ends of the climbing rope when doing so. 
  • Climbing – climbing itself is certainly a skill that you will require when trad climbing. There are multiple forms of it, and trad climbers often are greeted with a diverse range of different rock features on which to practice their climbing skills. Expect slabs that require careful footwork, powerful dynamic overhanging sections, cracks of varying sizes, and 3D walls that challenge your mind as well as your body. 

Rating System and Grading

Climbers like to confuse themselves by using multiple grading systems depending on the type of route they are climbing and the location of said route. Most climbing of all sorts in the US uses the Yosemite decimal scale which is a complex beast of itself, ranging from 1 to 5.15c, although most of what people consider is climbing ranges from 5.1 to the highest numbers of the scale.

In the UK, there is a dedicated trad climbing rating system called, you guessed it, The British Trad Grading System. This is split into two parts: an adjectival grade that judges the overall feeling of the route, the mental capacity you require, how protected the route is, and so on. This is marked between Diff and E10 – the higher the number, the harder it is on the adjectival scale. There is also a difficulty scale included in the grading system, often graded by the hardest move on the route. This is marked between 4a and 7b. 

Some countries will use the UIAA sports grading system or the French grading system, or any form of rock climbing grading to describe trad routes or sections of them. Have a look at some of your local trad routes and, using a grade conversion chart, you can try to figure out what the hell is going on. 

Trad Climbing Tips

First and foremost, knowledge of how to use your equipment is paramount to your climbing ability. You can be the best technical climber in the world, but if you placed a cam badly, you will still die if you fall. Learn how to place gear in a safe setting, either on a specialized course and/or by practicing at ground level and slowly weighting it so that you can trust your equipment and your placement of it.

Once you are a master at using your protective gear, just go and have some fun with it. Don’t worry too much about grades, let your ego go, and enjoy a pure form of climbing. Find a beautiful place and immerse yourself in nature. Once you are comfortable and enjoying the sport, you can start to push the boundaries a little and increase the grades of your climbs. 

Your climbing technique can be practiced in any form of the sport. Bouldering gyms are a fantastic place to refine your footwork, build up key muscles, and familiarize yourself with the movement and flow of climbing as well as immersing yourself in a generally open and accepting community. 

Lastly, be sure to fully research your routes before you commit to them. Buy the climbing guides, know which equipment you will need and what pre-placed gear you can expect on the route. Be prepared to make an emergency bailout should things not go exactly to plan. 

Trad Climbing Equipment

A standard rack of trad climbing equipment consists of the following:

  • A climbing harness
  • A chalk bag (where chalk is permitted)
  • A rope
  • Climbing shoes
  • Protective equipment (cams, nuts, bolts, monkey fists, etc)
  • Helmet
  • Belay equipment (and somebody to belay you)
  • Slings
  • Anything else you might want or specific equipment for specific routes (daisy chains, ascenders, portaledge for big walls).
  • Guide books/topos

Trad Climbing Costs

Unfortunately, trad climbing is the climbing discipline that requires the most equipment, and climbing gear is not cheap. A full set of cams alone can set you back $500 (USD). It is, for sure, an investment, but do not compromise your safety and your life for the sake of saving a few bucks. You can expect to spend up to $1000 for your equipment to begin trad climbing with and to keep replacing pieces and adding to your arsenal over time.

The actual climbing is usually free, although you have to consider the price of gas, parking, food, and sometimes national park fees. It is, sadly, not a cheap sport. 

Is trad climbing difficult or beginner-friendly

There are some very easy, beginner-friendly trad routes out there, however, one should be fully confident with how to use all of the equipment safely before starting the sport. Knowing how to use the equipment is much more than the actual climbing technique as you are starting as a trad climber. There are courses that you can take to learn this, such as from Mountaineers.org in the US and the DAV (alpenverein.de) in Germany. 

Finding a trad climbing guide

While the climbing community is, generally speaking, a very inclusive group of people, when it comes to learning how to use gear in trad climbing, your life literally depends on it, so you should not rush away with the first person who is willing to teach you how to use it. The best thing you can do is to try to find an official certified course or guide, and that way, if you do fall to your death, your ghost will actually have something to complain about on TripAdvisor.

What is available depends very much on where you are located, or where you are eager to climb. Most mountainous areas, or sometimes even countries, have some kind of alpine club or climbing group who are happy to show you how to trad, and who also have some sort of standard that they have to follow for safety reasons.

In Germany, for example, the DAV is a great group to join. There is a membership fee, but it is minimal, and the group holds multiple events and climbing courses as well as insuring you should you get into trouble in rural areas.

In California, there is the SCMA (rockclimbing.org), which holds regular events including safety evaluations. A quick google of your local area should help you determine the main climbing groups that are active in the region and what courses they provide. 

Trad Terms and Jargon

Here are some definitions of common terms used in the wonderful world of trad climbing.

  1. Trad climbing – a form of mental illness. Symptoms include sore hands, an obsession with rocks, a large array of battle scars, an empty bank account, and the inability to stop smiling
  2. Anchor – an artificial or natural structure that is used to secure the rope at one point while belaying
  3. Beta – help or advice by a fellow climber on how to attempt or complete a route or a segment of it
  4. Whipper – a big fall
  5. Bolt – a piece of metal secured to a rock to protect climbers
  6. Lead climbing – climbing up a route and securing the rope at protection points along the way, instead of, for example, top-rope climbing where the rope runs through a point at the top of the route 
  7. Cam – a spring-loaded device that expands outwards to fill the space in a crack, that can withstand the force of a climbing fall. 
  8. Monkey fist – a popular piece of equipment in Saxony and on protected sandstone, consisting of rope tied in a special knot that can be jammed into holes
  9. Trad dad – a nice name to call your trad obsessed male friends
  10. Crack – a satisfying place in which to put your hands
  11. Offwidth crack – an unholy space, somewhere between 3 and 7 inches that is too big for your hands and too small to jam your entire body inside to chimney climb 
  12. Slings – a loop of strong webbing that can help with building anchors or providing protection
  13. Nuts – a tasty snack. Can also mean a type of protection that consists of a wire loop threaded through a strong piece of metal.
  14. Standard rack/double rack – a standard rack is a full set of cams and nuts. A double rack is, believe it or not, two of them 

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