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Learn to Trad Climb: A Beginner’s Guide

Want to enhance your rappelling skillset? Build better anchors? Perfect your gear placements? Crush your first multi-pitch?

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Trad climbing can be mentally challenging, confusing, frustrating, scary, and just plain hard—but it’s also freaking awesome! It can take you to new heights, breathtaking places, and give you a feeling of accomplishment like nothing else. Trad climbing also lets you branch out from the sport crags and explore the world’s greatest routes. Whether you want to fine-tune your rappel skills, build better anchors, or crush your first multi-pitch, this comprehensive guide to trad has everything you need.

Here’s what we’ll be covering:

• The Gear

• Leading and Following

• Placements and Anchors

• Knots, Rappelling, and Logistics

• America’s Major Trad-Climbing Destinations: Shawangunks, New York; Smith Rock, Oregon; Red Rock, Nevada; Joshua Tree, California; City of Rocks, Idaho; New River Gorge, West Virginia; Cathedral Ledge, New Hampshire; Tennessee Wall, Tennesse

Part 1—Learn to Climb Trad: The Gear

Black Diamond C4 Camalots
Cams are an important component of most trad racks.

Trad climbing requires a large and somewhat complex set of gear that’s used instead of bolts to anchor you or your rope to the rock, and to arrest a fall. This protection, also called pro, is placed in cracks and fissures as you climb, and then removed, or cleaned, when you’re done. Learn about the different types of pro and find advice on building your first rack. Read the full article.

  • 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.

Part 2—Learn to Climb Trad: Leading and Following

A nut tool
Nut tools help free pieces of gear that get stuck in place.

Tying in to the sharp end is what it’s all about. You’ll need to thoroughly understand gear placements, rope systems, and how to keep your second safe, among many other things. Read the full article. 

Part 3—Learn to Climb Trad: Placements and Anchors

A well-placed cam in a crack
Protection placement is critical to safe trad climbing.

The trickiest—and most important—parts of multi-pitch trad climbing are placing solid gear and building safe anchors quickly. Read the full article.

Part 4—Learn to Climb Trad: Knots, Rappelling, and Logistics

A clove hitch and a figure-8-on-a-bight
Knowing the right knot for the right situation makes for safe, efficient climbers.

More fundamentals for multi-pitch awesomeness to get you to the top—and back down—safely. Read the full article.

Trad Climbing Destinations

Get your start at one of these eight gear-plugging American paradises.

• Shawangunks, New York

• Smith Rock, Oregon

• Red Rock, Nevada

• Joshua Tree, California

• City of Rock, Idaho

• New River Gorge, West Virgina

• Cathedral Ledge, New Hampshire

• Tennessee Wall, Tennessee

Shawangunks, New York

"Trad Destinations The Gunks"
The Shawangunks, New York, one of America’s oldest and most historic trad- climbing areas, known for its stout grades, strenuous climbing, and massive roofs.

Characterized by horizontal cracks running through quartz conglomerate, the Gunks is likely the most popular rock climbing area in the Northeast. Most climbs here are one to three pitches, with many overhangs and roofs. There might be a few bolts, but there are definitely no sport climbs.

Rack: Standard rack plus micro-nuts, small cams, Tricams, and extra runners.

Smith Rock, Oregon

"Trad destinations smith rock"
While today mostly known for its iconic sport pitches—and as the birthplace of sport climbing in America—Smith Rock is also home to myriad trad opportunities, from multi-pitch routes on its welded-tuff spires to perfect basalt cracks in the Crooked River Gorge.

With new routes going up every year—and also home to the nation’s first 5.14 (To Bolt or Not To Be), climbed in 1986—this Northwest haven has not waned in popularity. It has a large collection of difficult sport climbs, but the volcanic welded tuff provides plenty of easier to moderate trad routes as well, not to mention the basalt cracks down in the gorge.

Rack: Gear to 4”.

Red Rock, Nevada

"Trad Destinations Red Rock"
Red Rock, Nevada, has it all: bouldering, single-pitch sport climbs, and of course some of the funnest multi-pitch traditional climbs in America, from moderate jug-romps up to 5.13+ technical walls.

Great weather, beautiful sandstone, and a couple thousand routes mean you can’t go wrong with a visit here. Plus, who doesn’t want to spend a rest day at a resort pool or in the casino?

Rack: Standard rack plus small cams and extra slings.

Joshua Tree, California

"trad destinations Joshua Tree"
Joshua Tree National Park has a bit of everything—and thousands of climbs. Must-do trad pitches here include cracks like Mental Physics and Illusion Dweller as well as spicy slabs like EBGBs.

One of the most popular climbing sites in the United States, J-Tree continues to attract new climbers with its plethora of ultra-classic climbs. The quartz monzonite is so climbable that heinous-looking routes tend to be moderate due to the high friction of the rock.

Rack: Small nuts, micro-nuts, and cams to 3”.

City of Rocks, Idaho

"Trad destinations City of Rocks"
The “City,” as its known to climbers, has some of the finest granite around—perfect white and gray stone with splitter cracks, chickenheads, and perfectly cleaved arêtes and corners.

Once a stop for migrants looking for a fresh life in California, City of Rocks features ancient rock that offers always-fun pockets and chickenheads. Keep a lookout for hidden treasure—legend has it that $90,000 in gold was stashed near Treasure Rock in 1878 but never found.

Rack: Standard rack plus extra small cams.

New River Gorge, West Virginia

"Trad Destinations New River Gorge"
The endless Nutall sandstone walls of the New River Gorge, West Virginia, offer an astounding array of climber-friendly splitters and corner cracks, in addition to hundreds of sport climbs.

Solid sandstone makes up the walls of this gorge and premier climbing center in the East. The Gorge is home to many styles, including overhangs, cracks, and slabs, from 5.7 to 5.14.

Rack: Standard rack.

Cathedral Ledge, New Hampshire

"Trad destinations Cathedral Ledge"
Old-school trad—stiff grades and committing climbs—are often the name of the game at Cathedral Ledge, New Hampshire.

The granite of North Conway is home to many classic climbs and very beautiful scenery. The various styles of climbing, including excellent beginner routes, make this place a good fit for any climber.

Rack: Standard rack plus Tricams.

Tennessee Wall, Tennessee

"Trad desitinations tennessee wall"
Catch it on a warm, dry, sunny winter day, and the Tennessee Wall (aka the T-Wall) is a crack-climber’s paradise, with everything from perfect 5.8 hand cracks to 5.12 offwidths through its massive ceilings.

Known affectionately as the T-Wall, this area looks out over the Tennessee River Gorge and features super-fun, well-protected face and crack climbing located in the sandstone belt. Best of all, the holds on T-Wall are kind and won’t shred your hands.

Rack: Gear to 4”, small cams, extra slings.

Want more in-depth instruction in traditional climbing? 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.