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What Is Trad Climbing?

LAST UPDATED: 29th September 2023

As soon as you dip your toes into the world of climbing, you will occasionally hear the phrase “trad” used by buff climbers as they discuss dozens of pitches and cams, friends, and pros. Although you might not get most of the jargon, hopefully, this little piece of information will help you better comprehend the subject and maybe even pique your curiosity about this discipline.

Well, first things first, you should know that the term “trad” climbing or traditional climbing has not always been so traditional per se, such as when classical music wasn’t classic when it first appeared. 

What Is Trad Climbing?

Before it was known as “trad”, traditional rock climbing was simply known as climbing. It all started changing in the 1980s when bolted routes started appearing and the term “trad” was used solely for the purpose of distinguishing sport climbing from the “original” method of scaling the walls.

Woman trad climbing pulling on gear

The main difference from other climbing methods is that trad climbing, apart from being a challenging physical activity, is also a much more challenging discipline on the mental side. This is because in trad, instead of following a “set” route traced by bolts, you will have to place your own gear and find your best option to reach the top of the route. The harder the trad grade gets, the less gear you place and the more run out the climb becomes.

Traditional climbing requires that you build your “rack of pros” which you will place up along the way instead of placing your quickdraw in a bolt. Instead of relying on the quickdraws to catch you if you take a whip, you are relying on how well you have placed your protection. Scary thought when you think about it, right?

How Does Trad Climbing Work?

Trad climbing, often regarded as the purest form of rope climbing, demands not only physical strength but also a strategic mind and a deep understanding of rock formations. It is a discipline where climbers must be adept scouts, meticulously identifying the optimal route up the rock face, a task that is as challenging as it is crucial.

In trad climbing, the emphasis is on self-reliance and ingenuity. Climbers navigate routes that are longer than a single pitch, relying on their skills to place removable protection such as cams and nuts in the natural irregularities of the rock, like cracks and fissures, as they ascend. This method of placing protection is what distinguishes trad climbing from other forms, offering a raw and unfiltered connection to the rock.

woman trad climbing placing a nut and cam

The climbing party typically consists of a leader and a belayer. The leader, who is the first to ascend, has the critical role of placing the protective gear strategically and securely to safeguard against falls. This is a skill honed over time, where you learn to trust your judgment and equipment, aiming to create a safe passage up the rock while maintaining the spirit of adventure that is at the heart of trad climbing.

For those new to the sport, it is highly recommended to start by following an experienced trad climber, taking on the role of the second climber who removes the gear placed by the leader. This not only facilitates learning the nuances of gear placement but also helps in understanding the route chosen by the leader, offering insights into making intelligent climbing decisions.

Before venturing into trad climbing, gaining experience through multi-pitch climbs can be beneficial. It allows new climbers to become comfortable with the height and to master the belaying techniques essential for safe and successful climbs.

What Tools Do You Need To Trad Climb?

Up until now in this article, you’ve read some terms like pros, friends, rack, and so on. Maybe it’s about time that we clarify these terms for you and build the gear list necessary for trad climbing.

The protection equipment, also known as pros, is a unique set of gear that you place into cracks, nooks, slots, and so on instead of using bolts. The protection gear can be split into two great categories: passive and active.

climber with trad gear rack

Passive protection comes in the form of nuts, cams, hexes, or tricams, and they are called passive because they don’t have any moving parts. Usually, this kind of gear is jammed into a crack or behind a rock in order to catch your fall.

Active protection comes in the form of camming devices, the most famous being the Wild Country “Friend” which gave the nickname to these devices. What makes these types of gear active is the fact that they have moving parts. The spring-loaded camming devices come with a trigger that will expand the piece of gear in a crack, thus securing it in place.

Climber trad climbing

Apart from the pros and the usual climbing gear like rope, harness, and helmet, a sturdy trad inventory should contain, slings, and carabiners in order to build strong belay anchors.

Trad Climbing vs Sport Climbing

In recent times, the climbing community has witnessed a resurgence in trad climbing, driven partly by a growing consciousness about the environmental impact of climbing activities. A significant number of sport climbers are gravitating towards the principles of “clean climbing” and “leave no trace,” a philosophy rooted deeply in trad climbing, to mitigate the damage bolting can cause to rock formations.

Alex Megos on Dreamcatcher
Alex Megos unsurprisingly sending Dreamcatcher in just one session ©Ken Etzel

Delineating the differences between sport and trad climbing brings to light the unique challenges and rewards each style offers. Sport climbing often revolves around a physical contest against the rock, characterized by hang-dogging and projecting, where climbers work on routes at their limit. It is a style that allows for indoor climbing, offering enthusiasts a chance to practice and hone their skills in a controlled environment, something that is rare in the world of trad climbing.

Trad climbing, on the other hand, presents a holistic challenge that engages both the body and the mind. Climbers must exhibit a high level of confidence in their abilities and trust in their equipment as they navigate routes with a rack of gear that they must place themselves. This gear, which is carried by the climber, facilitates a “clean climb,” leaving no permanent fixtures or traces on the rock face. The act of carrying and placing this gear not only adds a physical layer to the climb but also a mental one, as climbers must make real-time decisions about the best placements to ensure safety.

male climber placing nut

One of the standout differences between the two is the depth of experience required for trad climbing. Trad climbers are generally seasoned individuals with a rich background in rock climbing, well-versed in building anchors and identifying the most viable routes up a rock face.

In essence, while both sport and trad climbing offer avenues to engage with climbing, they cater to different preferences and philosophies. Sport climbing offers a more accessible entry point with a focus on physicality, while trad climbing appeals to those seeking a purer, more self-reliant form of climbing that harmonizes with nature, offering an immersive and environmentally conscious climbing experience.

Best Trad Climbers

Legends from both the modern era and the time before the Stonemasters are many in the history of traditional climbing.

Tribe (5.15d) in Cararese, Italy, FAd by Jacopo Larcher is one of the hardest trad grade climbed to date. Other noteworthy routes include Blackbeard’s Tears (5.14c) in the United States, FAd by Ethan Pringle in 2016.

Strongmen abound in the British trad climbing scene, including the famous Wide Boys, Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker, whose ascent of the Century Crack (5.14b) in Canyonlands, Utah, made their crack climbing method well-known worldwide. Also, in the British space, we’ll find Scottish legend, Dave MacLeod who climbed Echo Wall (E10/E11 7a) on Ben Nevis, Scotland.

Dave MacLeod on Echo Wall ©Claire MacLeod

Trad Climbing Tips

It’s crucial that you take some lessons from a seasoned trad climber who will teach you the ABCs before you start spending money on a brand-new piece of climbing equipment and getting fired up over Yosemite tales.

Spend some time at the crag perfecting your crack technique and practice placing gear so you can gain confidence before you hit the rocks.

Another great way to get moving on trad is to try sport climbing with your rack and try to double your protection with hexes, or nuts.

Check out this video from the Wide Boyz where they go through some tips on how to trad climb:





Born and raised in Jiu Valley, Romania, I am a true mountain enthusiast, absorbing knowledge from each sport the area offers. Snowboarder in the winter and a hiker and climber in the summer, I love spending my days up in the Carpathians. I have had a passion for writing ever since I laid my hands on my first keyboard, and I always have a curiosity for gear and great stories. I split my time between various jobs and hobbies, including being a full-time psychologist, repairing skis in the winter, and working with kids at my local gym whenever I have time.

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