Trad Climbing Basics: Guide for Gear, Techniques & Tips

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Traditional climbing, also known as trad climbing, is a form of rock climbing that involves setting up the gear and protection that the climber needs as he or she is climbing. As such, the art of trad climbing requires that the climber be able to plot his or her own routes and be able to safely and carefully make their way up a rock face. Whether trad climbing is new for you or if you have dabbled and are eager to return to this style of rock climbing, this guide will give you a solid foundation from which to start.

Choosing Your Gear

As with any form of rock climbing, it is an essential part of the experience to ensure that you have the high quality gear and equipment that you will need for a successful climb. The following will look over the basic pieces of gear involved with trad climbing.

For more information you can also have a look at this article, how you can put together your first Trad Climbing gear or “Trad Rack”.


“Protection” refers to the primary equipment that trad climbing centers around. Also known more commonly as simple “pro,” this style of gear involves a couple of major forms:

Passive Pro

Climbing nut set*

This gear involves equipment with no moving parts that are generally in the form of nuts* with tapered metal ends that can be wedged into cracks in the rock face. 

Active Pro

Climbing cam set*

Active gear involves more moving parts, and its cams* are often curved devices that can be placed into a crack in the rock and the “trigger” manipulated to cause the cam ends to expand inside a crack. This provides a stronger base that is often more load bearing than simple bolts or passive pro.

For the best equipment set, you will need a variety of different sizes of both passive and active pro. During your climb, you are going to run into different shapes, sizes, and hefts of rock that will require different pieces and style of equipment to surmount. You can start with a basic chock, nut, and cam kit to get you going and then add on to it as you gain in experience.


These are an essential part of any rock climbing kit. For a basic kit, 20 to 30 non locking carabiners and 4 locking carabiners is a good place to start. There are four different “shapes” of carabiner, and knowing which one will work best for you is an important first step in choosing your gear:

  • Asymmetric D Shape – This is the most common and widely used type of carabiner because it has a large opening, it is generally sturdy, and it is lightweight. The one downside is that the asymmetric D shaped carabiner is often more expensive and loses some space inside because of its shape.
  • Pear Shape – This shape resembles the asymmetric D shape, but is much smaller. Primarily, pear shaped carabiners are used for belaying and rappelling.
  • D Shape – These carabiners are very sturdy and are perhaps the strongest of the carabiner styles. Due to this the D shape carabiner is often heavier and more expensive.
  • Oval Shape – This is the original shape of carabiners and they come in a variety of strengths and prices that make them affordable. However, the oval shape carabiner does tend to be weaker than its counterparts, and it has a much smaller opening.

Non locking carabiners are split between straight gate, bent gate, and wire gate styles, and are generally used for most basic applications for your rock climbing kit. These “gates” are spring loaded so that you can easily attach them to loops in your harness and/or to looped ropes. Most often, non locking carabiners are used to hold gear or for quickdraw situations.

Lockable Carabiners*

Locking carabiners* are the sturdiest of the equipment type and either have a manual, screw lock gate or an automatic lock gate (depending on which type of locking carabiner you purchase). These carabiners are much heavier than the non locking style and can prove troublesome with certain pieces of equipment or techniques (e.g., these are not suitable for quickdraws), but they are the best chocie for belaying or rappelling to increase your overall safety.


Just as with most style of rock climbing, a climbing harness* is one of your central pieces of equipment that helps distribute the weight of your gear and can help you stay balanced. A quality trad climbing harness includes:

  • Padded, adjustable leg loops with buckles.
  • Numerous gear loops (4 or more, on average).
  • Padded waistbelt (for comfort and safety).
  • Extra lumbar padding to help stabilize the lower back while climbing.
  • A haul loop so you can carry a second rope.

Compared to sport climbing, which is one of the most popular styles of climbing, trad climbing involves a larger amount of gear so your harness must be able to keep up with that demand. Meaning that your trad climbing harness should have a bit more space to hold your equipment and be more comfortable and balanced overall.

–> How to Choose a Rock Climbing Harness

Gear Sling

Gear slings can carry a lot of equipment*

Again, since trad climbing requires much more gear than sport climbing, the addition of a gear sling* is sometimes necessary and/or highly useful. The gear sling generally sits over one shoulder and passes under the opposite arm with plenty of space to hold equipment. Different chocks, nuts, and cams can be clipped to the sling for easy transportation and transfer of gear between climbing partners (as the sling and its clipped gear can easily be taken off and passed around).

The advantage of a gear sling is that it can hold a great deal of extra gear, depending on what you may need for your climb. The major downside is that the sling can make you more top heavy and because you have so many clips swinging around your torso, the sling can sometimes get in the way while climbing. Many trad climbers accept these downsides for the added equipment haul that a gear sling provides. Whether or not this is useful for you is up to your unique climbing style.

Runners and Cordelettes

A runner* has a similar shape to a sling, but is much larger and is generally used to create anchors or terrain extensions while climbing. Runners can also be used to loop around a rock for stability when you cannot utilize your passive or active pro.

A cordelette* is a small, 6mm or 7mm cord that can be used for anchoring or backups. You can also leave a cordelette behind on a rock outcropping so that, in an emergency, you can more safely and quickly work your way back to the ground.

Quickdraws and Alpine Draws

Quickdraws are the connection between rope and anchor*

These pieces of equipment are used to attach your pro gear to your rope. Quickdraws* have a fixed length, while alpine draws have a sling attached that can be used at different lengths. This type of gear is used to allow the rope to move freely between bolt anchors (or your other pro gear) for more fluid and easy movement up the rock face.

Trad Climbing Techniques

If you are the lead during a trad climb, then it is essential that you understand where gear should be placed, how the ropes work, and how to do your very best to prevent yourself and your fellow climbers from falling. It is the lead climber’s job to ensure that pro is securely placed and that anchors are securely installed into the rock face.


All anchors must bear the same amount of weight so that, should one fail, the others will not suffer a sudden shock of the load that will likely cause them to fail. Furthermore, each anchor should have back ups attached to it so that, should one part or piece give out, there are more to pick up the slack.

When you are ready to belay, you will need to choose where to place your anchors. Usually, chest height is a good place to start, and the anchors should always be close together if you can manage it. Anchors can be secured together with small slings, clips, or cordelettes, depending on what you have on you. Each loop should be pulled down below the anchors and stacked together; from there, you can tie a figure eight knot with the loops to further increase their sturdiness. These loops represent the “master point” where you can clip in to set up a working belay point.

Tying Knots

To properly affix the loops and ensure that your anchors are secure, you must first learn how to tie the right knots. There are two major knots that are popular amongst trad climbers:

The Clove Hitch

  • Make one loop and then make a second loop and stack the second loop on top of the first.
  • Move the second loop to the back.
  • Insert your carabiner into the loops and pull tight.

Figure Eight

  • Make a loop in the rope and place it behind the rest of the rope strands.
  • Pull the apex of the loop over the strands (move them to the front) while holding the bottom of the loop and strands up with your opposite hand.
  • Pull the apex of the loop back up through the end that your opposite hand is holding (creating an “eight” in the line).
  • Continue to pull the loop until it is tight.

Getting Down the Rock Face

Depending on your rock climbing style and preference, you can either walk down or rappel down. For walking down, you will want to follow the trail that you made on your way up and carefully walk your way down. A sturdy pair of shoes with good tread is recommended to make sure that your feet have a good grip while moving down.

Rappelling can be far more complex, but is a common way for climbers to more quickly make their way back down to the ground. Rappelling requires that you move from anchor to anchor, so it is actually a multiple step process that will require plenty of focus. There are also two sub categories of rappelling that can be used:

  • Single Rope Rappel – You use one rope attached to an anchor. As you rappel down, you can only travel half the length of your rope.
  • Double Rope Rappel – You use two ropes tied at the anchor overhead, and you can rappel the full length of the shorter rope.

Useful Tips and Tricks

So now you have a pretty good idea of what you will need and how you can utilize your gear correctly for a successful trad climbing experience. To sum up, this last section will briefly go over some of the key tips that you should always have at the front of your mind when you are preparing to go climbing.

  • Always be aware of your personal climbing ability: do not attempt a climb that is far beyond your skills. Work your way, starting with easier climbs.
  • Go out and see the place you are planning on climbing before you actually start climbing. This way, you not only have a good idea of what to expect, but you can start mapping out a good climbing route beforehand.
  • Invest in a guidebook that will give you more practical information about the climbing route and the overall area.
  • Plan your trip out to the smallest detail: make sure that you know what type and amount of gear you will need to bring. If you are not entirely sure, plan on bringing extra gear just in case.
  • Do not over place your pro gear, as it will make the climb more difficult for your fellow climbers. If you are not wholly confident in your gear placement abilities, then perhaps turn to a more experienced rock climber to lead the climb.
  • Make sure that your climbing rope does not get tangled or snarled, and certainly do not begin a climb when your rope is in poor or knotted condition.
  • It is important that you take your time when it comes to placing good leads, but do not take so much time that your climb goes nowhere.
  • Be confident and be careful.
  • Have fun!

Final Thoughts

Trad climbing is complex and takes quite a bit of practice and confidence to get right. However, once you develop the skills that you need to successfully undergo a trad climbing trip, there are few experiences that can compare. Make sure that you have the gear you need and that it is of a superior quality to ensure that you are safe and prepared. Remember, rock climbing is an inherently dangerous sport, but it can be highly rewarding if approached with the proper amount of respect and dedication.

Attention: You have to take care of your safety when climbing! The information on only helps you to learn. Before you climb, you should make sure that you have been properly instructed by an expert and that you follow all safety precautions.

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