Trad climbing is a time-honoured tradition that goes way back to the early days of climbing. It requires a high degree of experience, as well as knowledge of the types of protection that work best in different types of rock.
Find out what trad climbing is all about, what kind of gear makes up a trad rack, and some things to consider as a beginner on your journey into trad.
Before we dive in: This article does not replace learning from a professional instructor. Trad climbing is an extremely serious sport that can pose significant dangers if not done properly and safely. It’s important to learn trad climbing skills in-person from a qualified professional. One place to start? Check out courses through the Alpine Club of Canada; their courses are facilitated by qualified ACMG guides.
What is trad climbing?
Trad climbing, or traditional climbing, is a type of rock climbing where climbers place protection (also called “pro”) in natural cracks and features in the rock, which protects the leader in the case of a fall. Trad climbers are responsible for bringing and placing their own protection, and they often don’t have pre-placed bolts to clip into along the route. When trad climbers finish a pitch, the gear is then removed by another climber following on top rope, or by the leader themselves while lowering down the pitch. This type of climbing emphasizes self-sufficiency, technical skill and an intimate understanding of the rock.
Trad climbing vs. sport climbing
Most trad climbers start as sport climbers. Sport climbing relies on pre-placed bolts at regular intervals for protection on designated routes. Climbers clip quickdraws into the bolts as they climb, which reduces the consequences of falls and allows them to focus more on the movement and technique of the climb itself. Sport climbing is super common in indoor climbing gyms, as well as outdoor sport climbing areas.
While trad climbing emphasizes the importance of self-sufficiency and placing your own protection, sport climbing places more emphasis on the physical and technical aspects of climbing. It can also be easier to get into sport climbing, as the fixed bolts make it simpler to protect yourself and climb harder routes.
Trad climbing vs. aid climbing
First, a quick primer. In rock climbing/free climbing, the climber ascends using only their body in contact with the rock; trad climbing falls into this category. In aid climbing, climbers ascend with the aid of gear, rather than body-touching-rock. They pull on ascenders to climb vertical or overhanging terrain and use step-in aiders (also called etriers). Aid climbing is often used when the rock is too difficult to free climb even by the best climbers.
Unlike trad and sport climbing, aid climbing doesn’t rely on the climber's physical ability to climb the rock itself. Aid climbing is often used in big wall climbing, where climbers spend multiple days ascending large rock faces.
Sometimes, an aid climb can be free climbed (not to be confused with free soloing). An example of this is when Lynn Hill made the first free ascent of The Nose on El Cap in 1993. It was a tough aid climb, but when she climbed it “free,” it quickly became one of the most legendary big wall free climbs in the world.
Gear you need for trad climbing
To start trad climbing, you need to build yourself a “rack.” A rack is a collection of all the different pieces of protection you’ll use. What you put on your rack totally depends on the area you’re climbing, the style of rock, the length of the pitches, and the difficulty. Local guidebooks often have information on what type of gear to carry on most routes in the area. For example, a guidebook may mention the requirement for a “single rack” with doubles in certain sizes depending on the width of cracks in the area.
For example, a typical rack for crack climbing on granite, such as in Squamish, would include:
Other types of pro
Nuts are known as “passive” protection. They’re less expensive, lightweight and easy to carry on a route. They’re more restrictive in terms of the ranges of crack you can “set” them in, so you’re more limited in the places you can use them. You can purchase nuts in a set, and a standard set of nuts has about 10 individual pieces that can cover most sizes of cracks.
As well, they can get stuck – especially if you fall on them – so it’s important to carry a nut tool to help you remove them after the climb. There are options to buy nut tools with a lanyard or you can make one on your own with some 5mm cordellette, so you don't drop it.
Cams are known as “active” protection. They’re heavier and more expensive, but they can be easier to place in cracks that have parallel sides without constrictions. That means you can use them in more places than nuts, and they’re often faster to place (taking care to have the right camming angle, of course).
Typically, in a standard rack the goal is to have enough cams to cover roughly 0.3–3.5-inch width cracks. For skinnier cracks, lower-profile cams specifically designed for thin cracks and pin scars, like Wild Country Zeros or Black Diamond Z4s are advised, as they’re easier to fit into skinny cracks. For everything above and up to 4-inch territory (which starts to turn into offwidth climbing, a whole other topic), standard cams – such as the Black Diamond Camalot – work great. The number of cams and sizes you double up depend on the length of routes and the consistency of the cracks. For example, in Squamish it’s common to double or even triple up in sizes like .75 and 1. However, in places like Indian Creek, where cracks are consistently the same size, you may have to bring as many as four or more cams in the same size.
Other types of pro
There’s a whole other world of funky forms of protection, such as hexes, Tricams, Big Bros, offset cams and more. Generally, these pieces of gear are niche and aimed toward more obscure trad climbing routes. Beginners can generally ignore them until they start climbing routes that require them.
Trad climbing tips and tricks
Again, it’s incredibly important to learn from a qualified instructor. Placing trad gear in a safe manner is key and isn’t something that can be taught through an article. That said, here are a few things to be start thinking about as you embark on your trad journey:
When you learn to trad climb, it’s important to learn on routes where you’d be confident in your ability to climb without falling. As well, the mental aspect of trad climbing will have a significant impact on your confidence. If you’re sending 5.10b on top rope, consider learning to start by leading routes you’ve already climbed on top rope and are comfortable on, or lead on a 5.7 trad route (your instructor can provide some options).
Place on top rope
One way to learn to place gear safely is to go out with a more experienced friend/mentor and have them either lead the route and set up a top rope, or set up a top rope from the top. From there, you can practice placing gear with another rope or the other side of the same rope while still being on top rope from the main line. Once you place gear, the experienced climber can follow and clean the route, critique your placements, and provide feedback in a safe environment. If it’s your first time ever placing trad gear, you can also practice at the base of the climb first before you even start climbing.
Manage rope drag
Another factor to consider when placing protection is rope-drag management. Ideally, you want protection to line up so the rope moves in as straight a line as possible and doesn’t zig-zag too much. One of the best tools to manage this? Switch your quickdraws for extendable quickdraws (also known as alpine draws or extenders), which are two carabiners and a 60 or 120cm sling.120cm sling.
Beware of the zipper
Most trad gear can effectively manage downward force on your protection, which you can achieve with a straight route and solid rope management. But when issues arise, you can risk the pieces “zippering” out (your pro popping out one after the other) and taking a significant and dangerous fall. The dreaded zipper could be caused from upward forces on nuts or zig-zag routes that can cause multi-directional forces, and is another reason why learning how to place pro as solidly as possible from a guide or instructor is essential.
As you gain more experience, you may want to consider getting a double rope (also known as half ropes) to climb on terrain that zigzags and for longer rappels: two thinner ropes of 60m that you alternatively clip into your pro as you climb, thus minimizing drag and allowing you to do full-length rappels.
We’re not talking about matching the colour of your climbing pants to your harness, although that can be fun too. In order to quickly find the right cam on your harness gear loop, think about clipping it to a carabiner of the same colour, so that next time you’re looking for your “red” (size 1) Black Diamond C4 cam, you can quickly look for the red carabiner on your gear loop rather than fumble through all the sizes.
Trad climbing techniques
In sport climbing, you’re often grabbing face holds like crimps, slopers, sidepulls and climbing “square” to the wall. But with trad climbing – and crack climbing, specifically – expect to use a whole new range of climbing techniques. For example, when climbing a crack, you need to jam different parts of your body into the crack to ascend. Hand jams are common, and climbers refer to cracks that fit hands well as “hand-sized cracks.” Many climbers choose to tape or use hand jammies to protect the backs of their hands from abrasion. Other hand techniques include fist jams, fingerlocks and ring locks.
Similarly, crack climbers often need to put their feet inside cracks and cam them to stand up – this technique is known as a foot jam (or toe jam in a thin crack). There are specialized climbing shoes that can make crack climbing better for your feet. These are often stiffer, have additional rubber that covers your pinky toes, and sometimes come in high tops to protect your lower ankles.
Photos by Bradford McArthur in Frey, Patagonia, as part of a climbing expedition supported by MEC.