Trad Climbing Buyers Guide
So here you are, you’ve made the decision and tied into the sharp end of the rope at the base of the iconic route The Eternity at Mt Piddington. But how did you get here? Don’t you froth on sport climbing and bouldering? The allure of the “ground up”, “traditional”, “leave no trace” ideals have obviously ignited a little spark in you, and just like your first ever sport climb lead, your first trad lead will make you feel like you’re a kid in a brand new playground all over again.
Obviously making the transition into trad climbing you are going to need a wider knowledge base to stay safe. Just like going from top roping to sport climbing, you will have to expand your repertoire of gear and techniques. This Trad Climbing Buyer’s Guide will help point you in the right direction.
As usual there are a bunch of different ways to trad climb and climbers will always have their favourite bits of gear and preferences. The authors Dan and Adrian are both keen trad climbers who of course have different preferences which we will highlight in this guide and of course will hopefully help you to make the right choices.
This Trad Climbing Buyer's Guide takes a different approach to the usual buyer guides that take a product category approach. Our approach is to take a look at the gear required for each stage of the trad climb which starts with...
Gear to Lead with
There are two common approaches to Trad Leading - single rope or double rope.
What are the pros and cons of single versus double ropes for trad climbing?
Leading with a single rope for trad is not much different to leading a sports climb - the biggest difference being that most sport climbs have a nice clean line whereas many trad climbs tend to wander around a bit more which is where double aka half ropes have an advantage. Leading with a double rope allows you to run each rope more directly - referring to the image above one rope could be used for all gear placements on the left and the other rope for all gear placements on the right but this process is more complicated as the lead climber will need to determine which rope to use for which clip.
Half, Double, Twin single - WTF does it all mean? If you still get a little confused between the three then we have a great article on climbing ropes that can be round HERE. However here is the excerpt about rope types:
Single - Like it sounds, is used on its own and is the most common and simplest rope to use. A lead climber has a single rope attached to themselves and clips it into protection as they climb up. It's important not to double up and use two single ropes as you would with double or half ropes as the impact force in a fall on the top piece of gear and you the climber, can be very high and achieve forces greater than 12kN which is quite dangerous. Used on its own and correctly, the maximum impact force shouldn't be much higher than 8kN and UIAA require it not to exceed 12kN in a worst case scenario.Twin - Twin ropes are used almost exactly like a single rope but you are clipping two ropes together into every piece of gear. Why would you use them then? For two main reasons - it allows you to abseil twice as far as a single when getting off routes and on long approaches you can share the load with your partner. For these reasons twin ropes are favoured by alpinists and ice climbers. When using two strands together UIAA require forces not to exceed 12kN, however you wouldn't use these on their own as they would elongate too much as a single rope.Double (AKA Half) - Double ropes are the most complex to use, both for climber and belayer, but also have some key benefits. You climb with both ropes attached but clip one rope only into each piece of gear. This system is particularly beneficial when trad climbing or climbing long wandering pitches as it dramatically reduces rope drag. It also can reduce the impact force on single pieces of gear, instead spreading the load over a couple of pieces, which can be good for marginal trad placements. They, like twin ropes have the benefit of being able to rappel the full length of one of the ropes. UIAA require a maximum of 8kN impact force for each half rope
Double ropes also have the advantage that you are able to setup 50m abseils which is often required for approach to or descent off multi-pitch trad routes.
I love to climb with double ropes. The whole process is so much more engaging and rewarding for me than climbing with a single rope - In fact I enjoy it so much that I will also use double ropes on multi-pitch sport routes. Adrian.
Long and Skinny or Short and Thick?
The trend with sport climbers is to typically purchase a 9.5mm or 9.8mm 70m working rope and a shorter and skinnier 9.2mm 60m send rope. Some climbers also prefer longer 80m to 90m working ropes.
Redpointing routes is tough on your rope as you're constantly taking whippers which punish the last 3m of rope, so over time as you chop that worn and frayed end your beautiful 70m rope will quickly shrink to a 40m rope.
With trad climbing however you're usually not redpointing so you won't be punishing your rope as much by falling on it and as a result your ropes tend to last longer. However there is the consideration that many trad routes, especially of the easier grades, often have your rope running over edges and corners. Because of this, if you're just getting into trad climbing it is a good idea to still go a more standard 9.8mm thickness like the Sterling Evolution 9.8mm. This thickness is also easier to break with a belay device. Saying that, because steeper trad routes are usually kinder to your rope, many more advanced climbers are preferring the skinnier 9mm diameters for their general rope as they are lighter and have less rope drag. If this is your preference then a rope such as an Edelrid Swift Pro Dry 8.9mm 60m would suffice and if you like doubles then you can't go past a pair of Edelrid Kestrel 8.5mm 60m ropes.
Slings and Things
Slings and things like quickdraws are simple if you're a sport climber, a dozen or so 17-18cm quickdraws and you've pretty well got a complete sport rack. For trad though, it's a bit more complicated. As mentioned earlier trad routes can be a bit more wandery - Hmmm I'm pretty sure wandery is not in the dictionary but hey, the joy of neologism! Anyway, the more wandery trad routes will typically need some longer slings aka runners aka alpine draws to keep rope drag to a manageable level and to also help ensure that your protection aka pro doesn't get pulled out which can happen with shorter and stiffer quickdraws.
If you're leading with double ropes you can usually get away with shorter 600mm slings but you may need 1200mm slings if you're leading with a single rope.
Slings come in a variety of different widths and cost. In the dark ages, you'd buy a length of 25mm nylon tubular tape and make your own. Thankfully in these enlightened times slings are sewn (which is a hell of a lot stronger than knotting them) and much skinnier ranging from 8mm wide to 16mm wide. Skinner is not only lighter, but more importantly less bulky on your harness or slung over your shoulder so you can easily carry many more.
The wider 16mm slings such as the Edelrid 16mm sewn sling are made out of nylon and have around 2% stretch, which means they can absorb some energy and are your cheapest option but are quite bulky.
In comparison the skinny 8mm and 10-11mm slings such as the Edelrid 11mm sewn sling are far less bulky so you can easily make a bunch of Alpine Draws and rack them nicely on your harness. These slings are made out of Dyneema, a wonderful new material that has close to 0% stretch but is stronger than steel cable. Dyneema sewn slings are typically twice the cost of 16mm nylon sewn slings.
Slings can also be used as leashes.
I like to carry at least 6x Alpine Draws made from 8mm wide 600mm long dyneema sewn slings. 8mm is the width of choice for me as the bulk of the resultant Alpine Draw is similar to a Quick Draw. Dan
I will also carry 6-8 Quickdraws with a solid gate for clipping carrots. Adrian
Straight gate, Bent gate, Wire gate, Screw. What to do?
In general for trad climbing wire gates are a good idea - they are lighter and don't suffer from gate flutter - an unwanted phenomenon that can occur when a carabiner on the end of a long sling undergoes whiplash and the gate opens. A wire gate has a small mass and so will not generate enough inertia to open. TBD - video of James Pearson taking a fall.
But - a bunch of trad climbs also have the occasional carrot so you will need a handful of bolt plates and solid gate quickdraws to match.
Carabiners for slings, quickdraws and protection are D-shaped and are designed to only take a load along the spine of the carabiner. If the load moves towards the gate the carabiner can fail, so don't use D's for anything other than single loads along the spine.
For building anchors, you may need to attach multiple items or multiple strands of rope to your carabiner, so you will need a biner that can accommodate loads along its full width from the spine to the gate. For this a pear shaped HMS carabiner like a DMM Phantom HMS or Edelrid Strike is perfect.
Screw gate ovals like the Petzl OK are the perfect choice for racking your Prusik loops and the Petzl Pulley Wheel.
Finally for attaching your belay device there are now a number of carabiners available with a retainer to prevent cross-loading. The Edelrid Strike Climbing Carabiner and the DMM Ceros Carabiner with its horn are fantastic examples of this type of carabiner.
Protection AKA Pro
Nuts and Wires
Nuts, wires or also known as stoppers are the first place you should look to begin building your trad rack. Why? The first reason is that they are reasonably simple to place and because they are passive, in that they have no moving parts, there’s not much that can go wrong with them. An old saying goes that a well placed nut is stronger than a bolt, and this saying is quite on the money - when used correctly they are bomber. The next reason is because they are very light compared to other protection options so you can carry a heap of them very easily and therefore make a climb much better protected. The last reason is because they are the cheapest form of protection (apart form just slinging a rock or tree) so they make entering the trad world a little easier.
Nuts and wires serve to protect the smaller placements, everything from a few millimetres wide to a descent finger stack width crack. They certainly work best in constrictions or when placed behind objects where the wire can poke back out to the climber through a hole or small crack. Because the placements of nuts are largely directional it is crucial to always make sure you use a flexible runner or sling on the wire as they can often come out if the rope pulls them in the wrong direction.
All nuts from all the major brands are basically similar in shape in that they have a flat back and curved/tapered front. This is designed so that they can wedge themselves in constrictions in the rock, the wire will pop out the smallest part of the constriction and so if it is pulled on, will only pull the nut further into that constriction - at least that’s the basics. There are more complicated placements but we won’t cover those here. Perhaps the brand to note in nut design is DMM. Their nuts have a couple of extra shaping features which do lend themselves to being more versatile to place. Firstly they have small grooves cut out of the middle of the front and back. These serve two purposes: 1. If there is a little crystal or bump in the crack you can position that in the groove so you get more contact area because without that the nut would only touch the rock on the apex of that crystal. And 2. By intentionally placing little pumps or crystals in that groove it usually makes the whole placement much more stable as it has an extra thing keeping it in place.
Arapiles would not be complete without the ritual morning alarm of discordant jangling hexes borne by crusty disheveled old timers and well, Dan. Otherwise I can't really think of a good use for a hex. Adrian
Hex-craft is becoming a bit of a dark art in the current trad scene. There is no doubt thay take more placing than cams, they are loud, clunky and you will get laughed at if you attempt to show them off on your instagram account. So why would I choose to rack them. In my opinion hexes have 3 major benefits that make them a great addition to the rack; firstly they are cheaper than cams, secondly they are more bomber than cams and finally they are not cams. There is a bit of a paradox when you start trad climbing in that newer climbers should ideally place more gear, yet it’s the climbers with longer beards that tend to have the quadruple rack sitting in their garage. Hexes are a great way for new trad climbers to add doubles (kinda) to their rack on the cheap. They are also notably more secure in dirty (or icy) cracks. There is a reason they are higher on the fabled 'gear hierarchy'. Finally hexes are not cams, obviously, which means that your partner will be very happy with you when you choose to use hexes in the anchor, saving them a cam for their lead. It also means you can save your own cams for the crux placements. Now to clarify, I'm not saying hexes are better than cams. If your budget allows for doubles of cams then that is the way to go. What I'm saying is that they are a great option for diversifying a standard rack in addition to cams. Dan
Camming Devices (Cams or Friends)
Choosing a brand that makes a large range of sizes means that when you do decide to expand into the smallest or largest sizes you don’t end up with discontinuities in what you can protect. On top of this a factor I like to consider when purchasing cams is how compatible the sizing is with other brands. The colour-size system has been semi-standardized across the larger brands with DMM, Wild Country, Black Diamond, Totem and other brands using consistent colour choices for equivalent sizes.
What should my First Set Look Like?
A first set of cams should ideally be twin axle and from one of the big brands. This will mean that your rack will cover a good range per cam and permits for future expansion. On top of this it is standard to get matching carabiners for your cams for easier identification (another reason to get standardised colours).
What order you purchase cams in largely depends on what and where you are climbing. Entry level trad climbing often occurs in cracks where the gear is obvious, simple and plentiful. Furthermore, it tends to revolve around the red to blue range where placements are easy to assess, and the level of climbing is accessible. These three sizes (Blue, Yellow, Red) are the best place to start. From there, moving towards the smaller end of the spectrum will allow you to protect thinner cracks and generally a larger range of climbs. Micro cams and larger sizes are best purchased later when you start noticing places where they would fit on climbs.
All racked up and ready to place a bit of gear every half a metre!
We've now got our basic rack sorted:
- A full set of wires from size 1 to 11
- A full set of cams from the tiny blue cam through to the big blue cam
- 6x quickdraws
- 6x alpine draws
- Prusik loops
- HMS carabiners for anchors
And of course, since it's a really long multi-pitch, you've doubled up on the purple through to blue cams and somehow have to rack all of this gear in a way that is easy to get to when you're pumped stupid and desperately want to throw something, anything, in that crack.
As you can see from the image above there are many different ways to rack your gear and it mostly comes down to personal preference. If you are swapping leads on a multi-pitch however it helps if both climbers rack in exactly the same way as this will make gear swapping at belay stances so much easier and faster.
The obvious thing to do is to rack everything on your gear loops. Small stuff like wires at the very front and on the right loop if you're right-handed, then progressively larger cams towards the back and evenly distributed on both front loops. You want your pro to be on the front loops so that it is easy to see and reach.
Quickdraws and alpine draws can go on your rear loops. You don't really need to see these as you can blindly reach at the back loops and just grab one.
Of course this makes for one busy and packed harness and you may struggle to fit everything if so you can always try clipping same sized pieces into each other to reduce the amount of space taken up on the gear loops.
Whilst you can fit everything on your gear loops the use of a Gear Sling or Bandolier will make it much easier to rack your gear.
It is usually best to use Gear Slings to rack your quickdraws and alpine draws and keep your cams on your harness. The reason for this is that when you're on an overhanging route, all of the gear on your Gear Sling will naturally slide to bottom of the Gear Sling, which means it will be hanging below you and you won't be able to see what you're reaching for, so it is best to rack gear that you don't need to see.
The exception to this are gear loops on the sling itself which will remain positioned near your chest - these gear loops which are easy to reach are perfect for your wires or nut tool.
Building and attaching to Anchors
We are not going to cover how to build anchors as there is a wealth of good information out there. One recommended read is the American Alpine Club's publication [2017 Accidents in North American Climbing](https://americanalpineclub.myshopify.com/collections/aac-publications/products/2017-accidents-in-north-american-climbing) which has a feature article on anchor building.
There are a gazillion different ways to build anchors, you can use the rope only, you can use a bunch of slings and things, or you can use a Cordelette or any combo of the above but the use of Cordelette is likely one the most popular ways to build anchors.
Cordelette is simply a 6m length of 7mm cord tied into a loop with a double fisherman's bend. It can be used to create a "Cordelette" anchor as shown above for attachment to 3x anchor placements or a quad for use with two or four anchor placements.
Cordelette is also very useful in a range of rescue setups and can be used to easily pass knots on abseil - take a look at David Fasulo's book Self-Rescue for a bunch of handy ways to use Cordelette.
Leashes or Personal Anchors (PAS)
Leashes - you either swear by them or see them as superfluous fluff that only weighs you down. Many a trad climber will simply clove hitch directly into the master point of an anchor system thereby precluding the need for a leash plus you get the benefit of dynamic attachment to the anchor. And when it comes to descending you simply use one of your 1200m slings - which should form part of your standard trad rack - as a leash to attach to the abseil anchor.
If however you prefer to use a designated personal anchor leash then ensure that you use one such as a Sterling Chain Reactor where each and every loop is fully rated. Daisy Chains are not rated and have been known to completely unzip - keep well clear of Daisy Chains unless you're using them for their designed purpose: Aid Climbing.
I like to keep it simple when I'm trad climbing. The simpler my anchor and attachment is, the quicker it is to setup and check. For this reason I almost exclusively climb with double ropes, build anchors using the rope and attach directly to master point with my rope. The only time I will use Cordelette for anchors is if I am the one doing all the leading on each and every pitch (block leads). Adrian
Belaying and Seconding Gear
Trad routes have a reputation for loose rock so it is a seriously good idea to use a helmet especially when you're the belayer at the bottom watching your leader hurling blocks the size of bricks off that easy grade 13 intro route named "The Alpine Route".
You do need to use a helmet specifically designed for rock sports. Bicycle helmets as an example have large ventilation holes which means that falling rocks can easily pass through the ventilation holes and make a nice matching hole in your head instead.
I fell in love with my Grivel Stealth Climbing Helmet helmet the instance I saw it. Ultra lightweight, yellow and reminiscent of Kryten, my favourite android from Red Dwarf, what's not to love about it! Yeah I know, I'm a Geek. Adrian.
There used to a time when I would buy the latest and greatest belay device so that I could evaluate it and make recommendations for it's use in Scouting. Then the belay market went crazy and every manufacturer was coming up with every conceivable type of belay device and my wallet decided it needed to go on a diet.
Despite the plethora of belay devices out there, the basic Stitch plate style device which has evolved to your more sophisticated guide mode tube style device remains the belay device of choice for trad climbing. With their ability to deal with both single and double ropes, a DMM Pivot, Petzl Reverso or ATC Guide are tried and proven and the new kid on the block, the Edelrid Mega Jul provides a form of assisted braking that has gained a bit of a cult following.
Devices like the Petzl Grigri which are awesome for sport climbing are not so well suited to trad climbing as they are only suited for single ropes and not suited at all for descending from multi-pitch climbs.
Guide mode devices provide an assisted locking mode for easily and safely bring up one or two climbers. If a climber falls the device will lock with the assistance of the belayer. Pulling the rope through one of these devices in guide is not as smooth as the feed through a Grigri and can be laborious. Thanks to [Steph Davis](https://stephdavis.co/blog/kong-gigi/) I (Adrian) now also carry Gigi for belaying my seconds on double ropes as the rope feed is as smooth as a baby's bottom it can easily be transitioned to a hauling system and is my backup device.
Nutpicks, Nut Tools and Nut Keys
Nutpicks aka Nut tools aka Nut Keys are devices used to remove passive protection, usually nuts but they can also be used to help remove over cammed cams.
Hopefully your lead climber will use just the right amount of force to properly seat nuts and wires so you will only need to give the nut a light tap to remove it. Many climbers will also try to yank the nut out by tugging upwards on the alpine draw which usually results in fast removal but this also contributes to excessive bending of the wire which can result in the wire fraying or permanent kinks in the wire. If you want your wires to last it's a good idea to use a nut tool.
Nut tools like the Wild Country Pro Key come with or without a leash.
I'm not a fan of leashes on my nut tools as for whatever reason the leash just seems to get in my way. If I do need to secure the nut tool I just clip it into the alpine draw the wire is attached to. Adrian.
Getting Back Down - Descending Gear
Getting back down should be the easy part but a full day on a 10 pitch climb can leave you mentally and physically drained and once you've reached the top it is too easy to breathe a sigh of relief and switch off which is when tragic mistakes can be made so maintain that focus until you are safely on the ground.
The good news is that you already have everything you need to get to the ground:
- Belay device which can be used to abseil with
- Prusik loop for setting up a self belay and sling for extending your belay device on abseil
- Sling or leash for attachment to abseil anchors
Remember to tie a knot in the end of your abseil rope. Many an accident could've have been avoided by simply tying a knot in the end of the rope.
Getting Out of Trouble - Rescue Gear
Detailing how to set up a self-rescue is out of scope of this article, so all we will cover is the **minimal** set of gear required.
Our recommendation is that you get a copy of David Fasulo's book ***Self-Rescue*** which covers everything you would ever need to know about self rescue.
Typically you will need to either set up a hauling system to raise a climber or need to lower a climber and you really don't need a lot of equipment to set up a self rescue.
Lowering a climber from a direct belay using a device in guide requires the use of a sling, prusik loop and 3-4 biners as shown above.
Converting your direct belay to a 3:1 hauling system requires nothing more than a prusik loop and biner though if you want to increase your mechanical advantage to 5:1, 6:1 or more you will additional slings and carabiners, and if you wanted to make it easier you could also introduce a pulley.
Prusik loops are typically made from supple 6mm cord like Sterling Accessory Cord - stiff cord will not grip properly. You will need a waist loop and a leg loop. Typically you would measure your waist loop from nose to belly button plus 400mm for the knot and a leg loop measured from your sternum to the ground plus 400mm for the knot.
You can also carry a short progress capture loop made from a 1m length of cord.
The diameter of Prusik cord should be between 70-80% of the diameter of the rope you are managing.
You've probably seen abseilers, canyoners and cavers carrying multiple pulleys, prusiks, VTs, Tiblocs, progress capture pulleys and ascenders - ready to set up a complex 7:1 hauling system with 90% efficiency faster than a cut snake. Which is great if you like carrying an extra 2kgs of gear.
So do you really need a pulley? Well, it depends. You really only need a pulley to set up a hauling system and if you're hauling someone the same weight or less than you, then you can get away without one. Once you've converted your guide mode direct belay to a 3:1 hauling system you'll find that with all the friction taken into account, that it will effectively be somewhat less than a 2:1. So hauling a 70kg climber is much the same as repeatedly lifting 35-40kg, sure it's hard work but manageable.
On the other hand if you only weigh 50kg, then hauling that effective 35-40kg will be totally exhausting, if not downright impossible so the addition of a pulley or two will bring the system back closer to a 3:1 which means that hauling that 70kg will feel a bit more like hauling 25-30kg.
If you feel you need a pulley, then a really lightweight option is to use a Petzl Pulley Wheel in combination with a Petzl OK oval biner - from which you'd already have one your Prusik Loops slung. Another option is to use a DMM Revolver Carabiner which is a biner with a built in pulley. The added benefit of a DMM Revolver is that it can easily be added to the rope end of your runners to dramatically reduce the friction, which is on long and wandery routes makes a huge difference.
And you really want the bees knees of pulleys - then the Petzl Micro Traxion with it's built in progress capture is the Gold Standard.
A Petzl Tibloc is a lightweight alternative to prusik or mechanical ascenders. It is quite a versatile device which can be used for:
- emergency ascent being a bit easier to use than prusiks
- progress capture
- general substitute for prusik loops e.g. on hauling systems
Suggested Trad Racks
A beginners Trad Rack
The following is a fairly standard entry level trad rack. It works best when you are climbing with others who also own racks.
- Nuts - A full Set (potentially doubles of small golden to large blue nuts)
- Cams - Purple (finger sized) to Blue (hand-fist sized)
- Alpine Draws - 6x 60cm extendable draws
- Quickdraws - 12x standard draws of various lengths
- Slings - 3x 120cm Slings
- A Nut Tool
- The Standard Belay/Anchor/Emergency Gear
Intermediate Trad Rack
The following will allow you to move into routes that may require a more specific gear set.
- Nuts - A full Set
- Cams - Blue (finger-tips sized) to Grey (Wide-Fist sized) with doubles in the green to yellow
- Alpine Draws - 3x 60cm extendable draws
- Quickdraws - 12x standard draws of various lengths
- Slings - 2x 120cm Slings
- A Nut Tool
- The Standard Belay/Anchor/Emergency Gear
Advanced Trad Rack
Generally after climbers have got what we'd call an "intermediate" rack they will slowly buy specific pieces of gear to protect specific projects they want to climb. As in if a particular climb requires a large off-width size cam then they'll buy that, if it requires micro brass stoppers or RP's then they'll grab some of those. The following is an example of what a dedicated trad climber might accumulate over the years.
- Nuts - 2X full sets
- Micro brass nuts or RP's - 1 Set
- Half Nuts or Superlight nuts - 1 Set
- Micro Cams - 1 full Set
- Cams - Full set including doubles around green to blue, and also including a large off-width purple or green
- Alpine Draws - 6x 60cm extendable draws
- Quickdraws - 12x standard draws of various lengths
- Slings - 2x 120cm Slings
- A Nut Tool
- The Standard Belay/Anchor/Emergency Gear
If you are ever lucky enough to own such a trad rack then you'll pretty much have every trad climb in the country covered bar some aid routes, but who wants to climb aid routes anyway? Well aid climbers of course! But that is for another article.
By: Adrian Kladnig & Dan Butler