After whetting their appetite sport climbing outdoors, many gym-to-crag climbers will eventually desire to get into trad climbing (AKA traditional climbing). Trad climbing gear is more complicated and varied than sport climbing equipment, leaving many beginner trad climbers overwhelmed with their purchasing options.
Here, we will give a short list of trad climbing essentials, and then offer our simplified buyers guide to traditional rock climbing gear.
Trad Climbing Essential Gear:
Anyone who wants to do traditional rock climbing needs a few things:
- A climbing harness
- A climbing helmet, to protect against loose rock falling from above.
- A climbing rope. Today’s standard is 60 or 70 meters for a “do everything” rope.
- COMFY SHOES. Trad climbing often involves staying in your shoes all day long, so tight sport climbing shoes aren’t recommended. The TC Pro seems to be the most popular model for trad, currently.
- Trad Protection — removable devices used to protect against falls. This comes in many varieties, including:
- Cams: spring-loaded devices which hold in parallel-sided cracks
- Nuts (also known as “stoppers” or “Chocks”): small wedges of metal which fit into constrictions in the rock.
- Tricams: a cross between a nut and a cam, which fits well in small pockets and horizontal cracks. These are considered a bit specialised.
- Hexes: Large, hexagonal nuts. These are considered a bit outdated.
- Alpine draws : two loose carabiners on a 120cm sling. You can make these yourself (many sport climbers will take apart their quickdraws), or you can buy pre-assembled ones. Most climbers carry around a dozen.
- An ATC Guide or similar guide-mode belay device. This design allows for much easier belaying on multi-pitch climbs.
- Locking Carabiner x3 (for anchoring to the belay and belaying from the top of a pitch)
- A nut tool for removing the leader’s protection
Climbers will argue the specifics until the cows come home, but the list above includes all the truly essential items. What exactly you choose to buy first will depend on your local area and personal preferences.
Now that we’ve reviewed what trad climbing gear you need to build your first rack, let’s take a look at the best brands of cams, nuts, etc. In other words: what trad gear should you buy?
The Easy Starter Rack
Our no trouble recommendations:
- Black Diamond Camalot C4, sizes .4, .5, .75, 1, 2, 3 (six cams)
- Black Diamond Litewire Rackpack x1
- Black Diamond Stopper Set, sizes 4-13
- DMM Alloy Offset nuts, sizes 7-11
- Alpine Draw x8
- DMM Pivot or Black Diamond ATC Guide, x1
- Nut Tool x1
This rack will get you started in an easy, cheap way. There are many alternatives to what we have listed, but you won’t be disappointed if you just take our recommendations right down the line. For a bit more context about each item, read on:
Black Diamond Camalots are the gold standard across the climbing world. The cams are proven and reliable, and any experienced climber will automatically understand what they are working with when they encounter a rack of Camalot cams. The Camalots also come in an ultralight version (Camalot Ultralight). The Ultralights use the same design as the regular Camalots, but are considerably less durable. In our opinion, beginners do not need to invest in ultralight c4s for their starter rack. If you do choose to buy ultralighhts, the weight savings are greatest in the #3 and #4 sizes.
These carabiners will be used to “rack” your cams. Having colour-coded carabiners makes it easier to quickly identify the piece you want while it is on your harness.
These nuts with special shapes are amazingly sticky. They will fit in places regular nuts won’t, and are quite confidence-inspiring. The only issue is they sit so well in the rock, sometimes they get stuck and don’t come out.
These nuts complement your Offset Nuts. While two sets of nuts might seem like overkill, chances are you will end up losing a few early on in your trad climbing career, because you won’t know the intricacies of using them. This is normal, and to be expected. Luckily, nuts are a lot cheaper than cams. And besides, Offset nuts and regular stoppers have different shapes, making them quite complementary.
Nuts smaller than size 3 are used for aid climbing; a more expert discipline. Once you see how small the #4 nut is, you won’t want sizes 1-3, anyways.
Any brand and combination of slings and carabiners will work for your alpine draws. Feel free to put them together using your existing equipment. The Mammut Contact slings are a great option because they have the bar-tacking covered, which makes them less likely to snag.
Multipitch Belay Device
The DMM Pivot costs $5 more than the ATC Guide, but is much easier to lower a climber with. We recommend the Pivot. Many other manufacturers such as Kailas, Wild Country and Petzl make belay devices in this category. The key feature to look for is the extra metal loop, used for belaying from above on a multi-pitch climb. A Gri-Gri is not recommended for beginner trad climbers, as rappelling using a GriGri involves some extra steps when compared to rappelling using a tube-style device.
The Wild Country Nut Tool with leash is our recommendation, due to the integrated bungee leash. When you are multipitch climbing, losing your nut tool can be disastrous. The bungee leash on this tool elegantly solves that problem. If you opt for a different model, you’ll find ways to keep it attached — but they won’t be as elegant as just buying this nut tool.
Trad climbing can be confusing and overwhelming for a newbie looking to advance in the climbing world. The overwhelming emphasis on gear, jargon and obscure knowledge can be frustrating. Crusty old climbers seem to assume everyone knows what a “red camalot” is, and a “#2 Metolius” or a “black totem” without the need for advance knowledge.
This is how trad climbers see the world — and the way you will begin to understand it, too, if you keep climbing. There is considerable room for nuance, here. But that’s not the point of our site — we aim to keep it simple and digestible for beginners.
So, if you want to learn to trad climb, we advise you to buy the items on the list above, and make sure to understand the systems you are working with. Always trad climb far below your physical limit. Trad climbing carries considerably higher risks than sport climbing; it’s much smarter to take it slow and work your way up through the grades, learning the intricacies of rope management and placing gear as you go.
If you are in need of a more detailed reference, The Freedom of the Hills is the standard climbing textbook in North America. Any question that book can’t answer, YouTube can.
Take it slow and best of luck!
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