What is Trad Climbing?
Trad, or “Traditional” climbing, is a term used to describe the practice of placing your own protection while on lead. Odds are that if you have climbed in a gym, even if you have yet to earn your “lead card,” you have seen other climbers on lead.
The climber ties in, has their partner put them on belay, and protects themselves by clipping their rope through quickdraws as they ascend the wall. In an outdoor setting, these bolts are drilled permanently into the rock, but the same principle applies.
Trad climbing, by contrast, involves bringing along a variety of different tools – cams, chocks, slings, etc. – that a leader places manually in cracks and fissures as they climb. Once a tool, or “piece,” has been placed, the leader will clip their rope through a carabiner attached to that piece. Onward and upward!
Removable Protection – “Clean Climbing”
With few exceptions, all of the gear a climber places while on lead can be removed afterward. Moreover, to be prepared for all possible contingencies and terrain while on route, the leader needs to account for the unexpected. A trad rack, therefore, is going to be much bigger and bulkier than even the heaviest sport rack.
Trad Climbing Equipment – What is a Trad Rack?
A trad climbing rack is a much more complex set of tools than you will use when going out sport climbing. As opposed to sport or aid climbing, trad is also known as “clean climbing,” specifically because the gear is designed to be removable. Because the gear needs to be removed after the climb is finished, a trad climber needs to develop an understanding of which tool to use where, when, how and so on. Now, let’s take a look at the most common tools you’ll find in a trad climber’s kit!
Passive VS. Active Protection
In the trad climbing world, there are two types of protection that you will use: Passive and Active. Passive protection is any piece of non-mechanical gear (stoppers). Active protection is a term used to describe gear that is mechanical in nature and whose interaction with the rock is dynamic (cams).
Chocks, Nuts & Hexes
For many years, long before modern sport climbing, the only protection that free climbers had was some variation of “The Stopper,” or “Nut,” a small, often square, block of metal or aluminum with a braided steel cable woven through it. As they climbed, the leader would take one of these nuts and wedge them into constrictions in a crack. If they happened to slip, the nut – properly wedged – would arrest their fall.
Today, nuts come in many different shapes, sizes and metallic alloys. What you will use depends greatly on the area, type of rock and size of crack you will encounter on route. Here are just a few of the stoppers you are likely to find on a climber’s rack.
Spring Loaded Camming Devices
If you have ever laid eyes on a friend’s climbing rack, you have undoubtedly seen a weird-looking tool with 3 or 4 semi-circular lobes of ridged metal mounted on a plastic stem: the modern “Cam,” or camalot. At the bottom is a plastic thumb loop and a trigger. When the trigger is pulled, the lobes contract and the profile of the head changes.
The purpose of this contraction is for the head of the cam to slide into cracks. Once the head is in the crack and the trigger is released, the lobes will once again expand, wedging themselves against the sides of the crack. A downward pull, in the case of a fall, will engage the cam lobes and force them to expand even further.
Slings or “Runners”
No trad climbing rack would be complete without a collection of slings. Slings are loops of sewn nylon or dyneema webbing and are one of the most practical and versatile pieces of any climbing rack. However, the most common use for these “runners” are for extension.
When a climber is on a route, their path of travel is not always laser-straight. A climbing route will typically wander around the rock face, following the availability of trad gear placements, the most aesthetic line, etc. Therefore, the rope between the climber and belayer needs to be kept as straight as possible to prevent too much resistance on the leader, what is called “rope drag.” Runners clipped into a piece will help to keep the rope running true.
The modern approach to trad climbing gear is to keep a number of “alpine quickdraws” on your rack. Just like a regular quickdraw, these are 2 carabiners connected by a piece of webbing, only with an alpine draw, the webbing is a doubled up 60 cm runner that can be extended.
Standard Trad Rack
A “standard” trad rack should have a wide selection of gear – realistically enough variety and quantity to deal with just about any terrain you might encounter on a multi-pitch route.
Remember, there are vast resources available for just about any route you could ever hope to climb. Even if the guidebook doesn’t offer much information on the suggested rack, chances are that Mountain Project will. Do your research before heading out there, because each route is unique and there is no “one size fits all” trad rack that will suit every single climb in the world. That being said, the standard rack, broadly speaking, should include the following:
- 1 set of stoppers (nuts).
- 2 each of 0.5” – 4” cams (0.2 – #4).
- Between 5 and 10 runners (slings).
- 1 – 2 double length (120 cm) slings OR 1 length of nylon cordallete (5-6mm).
- 3 – 5 locking carabiners (not including those on your belay device or personal anchor system).
- A nut tool for removing stuck protection.
Trad Rack Essentials
What is “essential” for a trad rack is subjective. As I stated earlier, there are always at least two people per trad climbing party. Even if both partners only have one of each cam size, for example, together, they have a passable trad rack.
The essentials of a trad rack are going to follow similar guidelines to what constitutes a “standard” rack: cams, stoppers, runners, locking carabiners, etc. However, for the sake of argument, let’s say that it is absolutely essential to have AT LEAST the following:
- 1 of each cam size.
- 1 set of stoppers.
- Approximately 5 slings/runners.
- MINIMUM 1 double length sling or coradallete for building anchors at the end of each pitch.
- 2 locking carabiners.
Personal Safety Gear
Each member of a climbing party is responsible for materials that they will need to ensure their own safety.
- PAS (personal attachment system) for securing oneself to an anchor or belay.
- A “third hand” to be used while rappelling. This is a sewn or tied piece of nylon cord that is an extra measure of security while rappelling.
- Note: Make sure that you are familiar with at least one method of tying a friction hitch with this third hand.
- A rappel device, such as an ATC or equivalent
Beginner Trad Rack
I have had many friends over the years who, deciding to invest in a trad rack, have asked me what they should buy first. This is always a hard question, but my advice is to start small – maybe 1 set of stoppers and a single set of cams from 0.5”-3”. If you can’t foot the bill for that right away, don’t worry!
A few different sizes of cams will suffice for a beginner’s trad rack. Even with three or four pieces of gear, your contribution to the rack is a huge asset in a climbing partnership. Your partner may be missing a piece, or has lent one out to someone else. All of a sudden, your one 0.75 cam is the difference between being able to climb a route or being forced to find something else.
Full Trad Rack
There are an infinite number of scenarios, types of terrain and contingencies you will encounter while trad climbing. Therefore, sometimes even the “standard” trad rack will not be enough. A full trad rack will also feature a good cross section of less mainstream tools. Tri-cams, big-bros, ball nuts, pulley devices, even the occasional piton.
Again, what you will need all depends on where you are and what you will be climbing. For instance, you will need a completely different rack when climbing a splitter crack in Indian Creek than you will for climbing a dome in Yosemite.
Organizing a Trad Rack
If you are organizing your rack at the end of the day, the general rule of thumb is to group each type of gear together, i.e., cams with cams, slings with slings, etc. Additionally, cams should be organized according to size for the sake of efficiency.
Now, if you are suiting up for the next pitch, there are a couple different ways to arrange your gear. One is to do the same thing as when you’re putting equipment back on your gear sling: according to size. However, perhaps a more calculated way of doing things is to study the pitch before starting to climb and place gear you know will be used first at the front of the queue. Any pieces that you know will only come into use later go to the back of the line.
Lastly, and this is a habit that I have developed over the years which has helped immensely – if you are bringing more than one of any single piece, rack one on the same carabiner as the other. For example, if the gear recommendation for a pitch includes 3 #1 cams, a good way to save space is by clipping two of them together on your harness.
Other Trad Rack Essentials
Chances are that if you are thinking of investing in a trad climbing rack, you already have many of the essentials for a day out at the crag. However, just in case, they bear an honorable mention.
You are not going rock climbing without a dynamic rope, period. The rope is literally the lifeline between a climber and their belayer. Make sure that when you are shopping for one, you buy dynamic. Neither static nor semi-static ropes should be used when lead climbing as they do not possess the stretch necessary to keeping all the other hard/soft-wear in optimum working order.
A harness is another non-negotiable in trad climbing. The type of harness you buy will depend on many different factors – what sort of comfort, durability, ease of movement it offers, etc. A sturdy and comfortable harness – such as the Wild Country Session – is better for long trad climbing days, as you will be sitting in a hanging belay at some point.
This is a necessary tool in trad climbing. Even if you are an extremely competent climber who does not, under ANY circumstances fall, you should always wear a helmet. In the mountains, things are constantly shifting. Rockfall is not only common, it is virtually guaranteed, no matter where you are – especially if you are in a popular climbing area with other parties above you. Even a penny sized pebble, if it falls from a hundred feet, can generate enough velocity to puncture your skull.
There are many different types of belay devices that suit a wide range of applications. However, the most widely used are the ATC and the Petzl Gri-Gri. In reality, every trad climber should probably own and know how to use both. In addition to belaying your partner, odds are that,
eventually, you are going to have to rappel a route. Unless you are descending a fixed line, you will not be using a Gri-Gri to rappel.
How Much Does a Trad Rack Cost?
Here’s the deal, climbing gear is expensive and building a trad rack is going to be a costly process. A fully functional and well-rounded trad rack, in total, will run between $1,000 and $2,000. What most people will do is build their rack slowly to help soften the blow to their bank account – one piece here, another piece there. Most cams will cost between $70 and $85. Once you start venturing into the larger sizes – cams suited for wider cracks – that price goes up substantially.
It is important to note that as climbing gear is used, it degrades. As a piece of equipment ages, is used and exposed to sunlight, the force under which it will fail diminishes. If there is one thing I want to emphasize, it is to UPDATE YOUR RACK REGULARLY. A 10-year-old cam with the manufacturer sling still on it is more likely to fail under load.
Have You Got Your Trad Rack Ready?
At the end of the day, trad climbing is an intensely engaging aspect of the sport. You can achieve similar levels of effort as in bouldering and sport climbing but with the added dimension of having to contemplate the most effective arsenal of gear.
What’s more is that, with the proper amount of gear and know-how, the possibilities as to where you can go are virtually limitless! But with those possibilities come the responsibility of making sure your trad rack has everything you need to succeed in your goals. Start small, end big!