When rock climbers are finally ready to stop being on a top rope, they can turn to one of two forms of lead climbing: sport or trad. The exhilarating adrenaline rush that comes from leading a route is intoxicating.
Every climber will have their preferred form of lead climbing, and some may even regularly engage in both. The differences between the two types of lead climbing and their gear are detailed below.
What’s the Difference?
Before we dive into the details of sport vs trad climbing, let’s review lead climbing. This form of climbing involves a climber moving up the wall with the rope below them. Lead climbing can be completed via sport or trad techniques.
The climber is not protected from above until they finish a route. Should they fall, they will fall at least 10 feet to where the previous protection was placed.
Sport Climbing 101
Sport climbing can be completed in gyms and outdoors. Unlike trad, sport climbing is not limited to a specific rock face or certain features.
Bolts are drilled into the wall and are permanently fixed. Climbers will usually be able to see these from the bottom of the route, depending on the total height of the climb.
In sport climbing, climbers need to affix their quickdraw to each bolt as they move up the wall. If climbers are in a gym, the quickdraws are typically already on the bolt. Once the quickdraw (whether placing it or it is already fixed), the climber must clip in their rope.
Unless the route is a top out route (meaning the climber will climb on top of the mountain and hike back down), an anchor will need to be created. With sport routes, there are usually chains or rings available to create a safe anchor.
Sport Climbing Gear
With sport climbing, the amount of gear is substantially less than trad climbing. While some multi-pitch routes are sport climbing, this type of climbing only has a few essential pieces of gear.
Of course, every climber will need their rope, harness, chalk bag and climbing shoes. They will also need quickdraws. The number of quickdraws can be different on every route, so it is important to know how many are required before heading to the crag.
In order to create an anchor, the climber will need at least two additional quickdraws than are required to climb the route. Some climbers use regular quickdraws and others opt for locking carabiners for an additional level of safety.
Trad Climbing 101
Trad climbing is short for traditional climbing. In order for a trad route to be climbed, a crack must be present on the rock. This is because trad gear can only be placed in cracks.
Trad climbing is as close to the original form of rock climbing in our modern era. Climbers can place as many or as few protection pieces as they desire while climbing up the route.
When a climber reaches a point where they feel they want to place a piece of gear, they slide the protection piece into the crack. They then affix a quickdraw and clip their rope in. This is where trad climbing and sport climbing overlap.
Unlike sport climbing, there are no pre-drilled bolts, chains, or anchors to create an anchor. Climbers must form an anchor using their own gear. Some climbers (gently) place a rope around a tree for an anchor, while others use the crack and three or more pieces of gear to create a solid anchor.
Trad Climbing Gear
Trad climbing requires all of the same gear as sort climbing and then some. In addition to the shoes, chalk, rope, quickdraws, and harness, trad climbers will need to purchase trad gear.
Some of the most popular trad gear include cams, hexes, and nuts. Each has their own place on the wall. These types of gear can fit in an area as thin as a dime or as wide as one’s forearm.
For larger cracks, most climbers opt for a cam. Smaller cracks tend to be filled with a hex or nut, but there are small cams as well.
Trad gear is much heavier to bring up the wall than sport gear. If a climber has not previously climbed the route, they may not know which cams, hexes, and bolts to bring up the wall.
In addition to protection pieces, trad climbers often need slings and a cordelette to build their anchor. For experienced trad climbers, a nut removal tool is an essential piece of gear that saves them frustration when cleaning the route.
Aside from the weight, a trad rack (the collection of all the gear) can be quite costly to build. Most climbers start with a few essential pieces and build their rack with all of the different gear sizes over time.
Protection Is Key While Climbing
Regardless of what form of lead climbing a person chooses to experience, a climbing helmet is highly recommended when climbing outdoors. The wall is unforgiving during a fall, and it will hurt if you hit your head on the way down.
For those who plan on engaging in sport climbing or trad toward sunset hours, a headlamp is also recommended. You want to be able to see where you are climbing. Your headlamp will also be beneficial when you begin the trek back to your car.