This is part one of our series, Learn to Climb Trad: A Complete Beginner's Guide.
Trad climbing requires a large and somewhat complex set of gear that’s used instead of bolts to stop a fall. This protection, also called pro, is placed in cracks and fissures as you climb up, and then removed, or cleaned, when you’re done, so all you leave on the rock is a few chalk marks. Read on to learn about the different types of pro and the various ways to place each.
The two basic types of protection are passive and active. Active pro has moving parts that expand and contract to fit a placement. Passive pro has no moving parts and depends completely on the shape of the metal to fit the placement. Guidebooks will often tell you what kind of gear you should carry on any given climb; this is called the rack. Although the same basic rack can be used on most climbs, some routes require very specific gear for safe ascension. Common guidebook phrasing includes:
- Gear to 3 inches. You need protection that can fit in cracks and slots that are three inches and narrower; carry pro that falls into that size range, including at least one 3” piece.
- Standard rack. This varies from area to area, but it can be assumed to mean a full set of nuts (7 to 13 pieces, fitting cracks up to about 1.5”) and a set of about six or more cams, from 3” down to 0.5” and smaller.
- Doubles or a double rack. This means you should bring two sets of cams in a certain size (doubles in 1”) or two sets of the standard rack of cams. Triples means three sets and so on.
Each cam has three or four lobes that contract when the trigger is pulled, and then expand to fill the crack when the trigger is released. These lobes are spring-loaded to hold the cam in place when it’s unweighted. During a fall the overall shape of the cam head transmits the downward force along the stem to outward force against the crack walls. These are ideal for parallel-sided cracks, and since the contraction amount varies, each cam fits several different crack widths.
- Want more in-depth training? Internationally certified mountain guides Rob Coppolillo and Marc Chauvin will teach you the fundamentals of trad climbing in our Intro to Trad 8-week online course. From placing/removing gear and proper belay techniques, to how to make an anchor and manage a stuck rope, Intro to Trad Climbing takes the guesswork out of exploring traditionally protected climbs. Learn More.
Designed for wide cracks, these have two telescoping tubes that expand (after releasing a trigger) to push against opposite sides of the crack; a ring is screwed down to secure the piece. During a fall, one side of the unit is weighted, which levers the other side up into the rock, creating a basic camming action that wedges it in place.
These wedges of aluminum, designed for smaller cracks, rely on a constriction in the crack to create a mechanical barrier that keeps the piece in the rock. You can place them a few ways (broad side out, sideways, etc.), but the standard placement only protects a downward pull.
These are larger pro made of hollow blocks of aluminum that are good for medium to wide cracks. They were necessary for many routes before cams were invented, but now many climbers prefer cams for such placements. However, hexes are lighter, cheaper, and more secure in wet or icy cracks.
Although these are technically passive pro because they have no moving parts, the sharp point on one side and the opposite gently curved side cam against the rock to make them effective in parallel-sided cracks and flaring pods.
"My best advice is to be open to new ideas and to learn new ways to tackle the challenges in front of you. It’s fun and a learning experience to climb with different people; no one person knows all the ways to address all the interesting and diverse challenges you’ll run into when trad climbing. I fundamentally changed the way I build anchors after 28 years of climbing. They were safe before, but now they are faster, flexible, and safe." —Hans Florine
Make Your Mark
While every climber wants to be a unique butterfly, most of our gear looks exactly the same. To distinguish your beloved rack from others’ inferior hunks of metal, it’s important to mark everything, including cams, carabiners, and slings. Borrowing gear is necessary in places like Indian Creek, where you will need several of the same size to complete a climb, and marking it will help you quickly gather your gear when there are eight No. 1 cams in a pile. Use tape (duct tape or electrical tape are best) or nail polish to create a unique pattern or color combination to put on all your gear. Make sure to position the tape or nail polish in an area where there will be less abrasion and wear (e.g., the spine of a carabiner instead of the rope basket) so it lasts longer, and never put nail polish on the webbing or sling. The chemicals in the polish can wear away the nylon or Dyneema and compromise its integrity. Nail polish usually lasts longer than tape, and it can be easier to create one-of-a-kind color combos.
"My best advice is that efficiency starts on the ground. Have a tight, organized system, whether that’s how you rack your gear, stack your ropes, or communicate with your partner. Be efficient at belays—10 wasted minutes at each belay might mean the difference between enjoying a beer and burger at the bar and stumbling down in dark. There’s a fine line between taking too much gear and being unprepared for the unknown." —Brittany Griffith
The Price of Glory
Trad climbing ain’t cheap. Here’s the cost breakdown of a standard rack, averaged between three common brands.
"My best advice is to have fun, tape up, and learn to embrace a little pain but a lot of adventure!" —Beth Rodden
Rack It Right
How you carry your rack while you climb is a matter of personal preference. Some people prefer wearing a dedicated gear sling over one shoulder, some prefer clipping everything to the gear loops on their harness, and others do a combination of both. Whatever your poison, try to order the gear with smallest pieces in front, starting with nuts all on one biner, and larger pro in back. Racking on your harness can make it easier to find the right piece, but it can be troublesome when you are faced with an offwidth or chimney and need to keep all the gear on one side. A gear sling allows you to smoothly move all the gear from side to side, and it’s quicker to hand off the entire rack to your partner at a belay, but this setup can be annoying on a low-angle slab where all the gear will shift to your front and potentially trip you up.
To learn more trad climbing skills, see the rest of our series, Learn to Climb Trad: A Complete Beginner's Guide.
Want more in-depth training? Internationally certified mountain guides Rob Coppolillo and Marc Chauvin will teach you the fundamentals of trad climbing in our Intro to Trad 8-week online course. From placing/removing gear and proper belay techniques, to how to make an anchor and manage a stuck rope, Intro to Trad Climbing takes the guesswork out of exploring traditionally protected climbs. Learn More.