I hate myself when I uncoil new climbing ropes. I always mess it up and it ends up an impossibly tangled heap that takes at least 30 minutes to undo. I finally watched a YouTube video the other day and learned a lot. I realized that taking care of and managing ropes is a tad more nuanced than I initially gave it credit for, despite my years of experience.
I’ll never forget my first rope. It was a purple and yellow Edelweiss 9.8 that my parents gave me for Christmas. I lived in Dallas, hours away from any sport crag, but I had goosebumps. And my coach, who guided me along my competitive career, did her best to teach me the basics of rope care.
“Don’t step on it!” she snapped on our first outing.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because if you were wearing crampons, you could damage it,” she said.
“Why in the hell would I be wearing crampons?” I asked. I was 13 and had not one but two gym tags on my harness. It was a fair question, but one that she didn’t bother to answer.
To my coach’s credit, I have worn crampons exactly twice since then and have never stepped on the rope while wearing them. And not stepping on your rope is in general solid advice.
Below, more on that and other best rope-care practices.
Most ropes that you will buy will be coiled in a spool. Duh, I guess. But the reality vs. imagined difference is evident when you picture unraveling a spool of T.P. If you pull from the end when it’s on the holder, it comes off nice and neat. But, if you were to rotate it 90 degrees and pull up, think of the twists that would occur—which is neither good for T.P. usage, nor for your climbing rope. That’s why when you just throw your new cord on the ground and then yank (as I may have done for the last *cough 15 years) it quickly becomes a kinky, knotted mess.
So here’s what you do: after cutting off the zipties and other factory attachments keeping the thing together, place both your arms through the middle of the rope (make your arms the holder!). Then, do the macarena (seriously) and rotate your arms in circles, keeping the rope tensioned on top. If you have a partner, it helps if they pull the rope out as you do the arms circles.
It’s not the end of the world if you mess this up. Most ropes are prone to some amount of kinking out of the box, even if they were perfectly uncoiled to begin with. If your rope kinks, here are a few tricks:
- Try pulling the rope through a set of anchors. This is good to do anyways, since you should really switch up which side you’re climbing on so as to even out the wear.
- A slightly more complicated method: after your partner has finished climbing and reached the ground, tell them not to untie—they will serve as an anchor. Then coil the remaining rope. Have your partner back up until the remaining rope is slightly in the air. Watch it spin! Be sure to stop it from spinning the other direction due to momentum.
It’s best not to leave your rope coiled, as that can cause kinks. But for carrying and temporary storage, coiling your rope is a great way to keep it neat. There are many ways to coil your rope. The main methods are:
- For storage: Grab both ends of your rope and hold them together in one hand. Drape one arm’s length of rope over your shoulders. Continue adding loops of rope of approximately the same length across your shoulders until about one arm’s length of rope remains. Take the stack off your shoulders and fold it in half. Then take the excess loop and wrap it around the outside of the bundle, along the middle. Then you can feed the last loop of the rope on a bight at the top of the rope to secure it.
- For draping across your backpack: Grab one end of your rope. As with the method described above, you’ll drape arms-lengths of rope over your shoulders until you have about one arm’s length of rope remaining. Then take the rope off your shoulders, and grabbing the rope in the middle, make a small bight of rope using the excess. Then wrap the tail end around the middle of the rope. When you reach the end of the rope, thread it through the bight and cinch the bite down.
A helpful video can be found here.
UV radiation and extreme temperatures can damage your rope. So can dirt (more on that below). And, as stated above, storing your rope stacked in a pile rather than coiled helps prevent kinks. For all those reasons, use a rope bag!
Here are some of our favorites:
Blue Ice Koala
BEST FOR: Cragging
We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. Rope bags should be simple. Straightforward. But I have to hand it to Blue Ice, the Koala has some worthwhile innovations. When worn alone, the bag slings over your shoulder to, as the name suggests, hug you like a Koala. It unzips down the middle, the tarp pulls out, you’re ready to climb. Packing it back up is where the bag really shines. A helpful “Stop,” maker shows you where to zip up to. After that, you pick up the bag by the handles on the tarp, the rope conveniently packs itself in, and then you can finish zipping the bag up. Easy peasy. The bag fits ropes up to 80 meters in length, although a smaller rope gives you room for shoes and a harness. There’s even a small zippered pocket on the side, great for your phone, chapstick, and snacks. At $43, it is comparable to other bags on the market.
Kavu Shapiro Rope Bag
BEST FOR: Cragging
Professional climber Jeff Shapiro found himself dreaming of an improved rope bag, and, after some do-it-himself arts and crafts, created a prototype. One of his sponsors, Kavu, improved upon some of his original materials and construction and, voila, Shapiro’s eponymous rope bag entered their product line.
Like other rope bags, the Shapiro Rope Bag has an internal tarp that folds out for the rope to sit on. But unlike many rope bags, the tarp is removable: it zips off, allowing you to burrito-up your rope and move it from belay stance to belay stance without restacking the rope (read: somehow getting it hopelessly tangled) into the bag each time. If you did want to re-bag it each time though, the Shapiro’s bottom and sides have enough stiffness so as to allow it to function as more of a rope bucket. The Shapiro forgoes the cinch-up drawstring that many rope bags rely on, instead using three strategically-placed straps of webbing—one vertical, two horizontal—that tidily buckle everything up. The closure system makes this bag a solid choice for cragging, but rules it out for any multi-pitch adventures unless you want to risk exploding your pack at every belay. Read on here.
Mammut Magic Rope Bag
BEST FOR: Gym bag, sitting mat, rope bag
Good things come in threes, or so we are told. Let’s see …
The Mammut Magic Rope Bag is tri-use. It makes a nice solid, handy gym bag. Room for a couple pairs of shoes and a jacket. Over-the-shoulder carrying sling. Large interior zip pocket to try, might as well try, to contain the chalk dust — anyway, it holds a chalk bag, and tape or whatever else you like. Wrist-deep exterior zip pocket works for keys, phone, sport bar or other snack.
The bag is padded, with thin foam sides, to make a comfortable mat to sit on and stay out of the dirt for putting on shoes. Or perhaps just basking and chatting. The instructions say to pull the drawstring for converting the bag to a mat, yet that seems not to make an appreciable difference. I’d just turn the bag on its side and sit on it.
Some people really like stand-up bags for, again, keeping things out of the dirt, but I prefer tarps and, usually, a big ol’ backpack for hiking to crags. So I have not used this item as a rope bag. The climbing gym, on the other hand, is a pleasant mile walk from where I work and elsewhere in town, and for that this bag is an easy carry, especially with just the usual few light gym items in it. Read on here.
Bonus Favorite: In a pinch, Ikea bags work great. Something is better than nothing.
Dirt can work its way in between rope fibers and abrade it while the rope stretches and contracts. This is the real reason why you shouldn’t step on your rope, as that can really work the dirt in. A 2010 study conducted by the International Technical Rescue Symposium demonstrated that a rope can lose 20 percent of its strength after just one soiling, and 40 percent after eight soilings. Yikes!
Luckily, washing your rope is easy. The most important thing to remember is: never use detergents or bleach. Stick with dedicated rope cleaning products or just water. You can wash your rope in the tub, a bin, or the sink by soaking it and massaging it with your hands. Rinse and repeat. Or you can wash your rope in a front-loading washing machine. Be sure to run the washing machine with nothing in it first to rinse it of detergent residue. Then daisy-chain your rope before tossing it in so that it won’t tangle.
To dry your rope, you can lay it out in a shaded area outside or a ventilated room indoors. Do not leave it in the sun or expose it to high temperatures.
Notes for in the Field
Sharp rock edges present the greatest threat to your rope, especially when it’s under tension. Inspect your carabiners and quickdraws, as they, too, can damage your rope if worn sharp. Use rope protector sleeves if you’re fixing your line.
Regularly inspect your rope for signs of damage, which include excessive fuzziness and flat or soft spots. If you see white it ain’t right. In other words, if the core is exposed, it’s time to cut the damaged section off. More than likely, this kind of wear will be towards the ends of the rope, where knots are tied and where falls actually happen.
To chop your rope, first wrap the spot you intend to cut with some basic finger tape. Slice through the rope and tape and then burn the exposed end with a lighter so that the tape, core, and sheath melt together. You can write on the tape the new length of your rope, but be sure to use a rope-specific marker, as regular ones can damage the cord. Also, consider marking a new middle point, as that will have shifted (or just cut both ends).
Speaking of rope length: Did you know that your rope will shrink with usage? As it swells in diameter over time, it may decrease 2 to 3 percent in length after just a few uses and up to 10 percent in length over its lifespan. Be wary of this and be sure to tie a knot at the end of your rope!
Like dirt, water can reduce the strength of your rope by up to 30 percent! It will regain this strength once it dries, but try not to get it wet when out at the crag, and never store it wet.
Bonus tip: When cragging, keep your rope away from Fido, as dog pee can be damaging.
When to Retire?
With regular use, most ropes will last you about a year. After that, you may be able to get away with using it in the gym or for top roping on short pitches. Based on how often you climb, here is what to expect:
- Frequent use (a few times a week): up to 1 year
- Regular use (few times per month): 1–3 years
- Occasional use (once per month): 4–5 years
- Rare use (1 – 2 times per year): 7 years
- Never used: 10 years
When the life is gone, recycle your old rope by making it into a rope rug, bracelets, or a dog leash.