What is Trad-Climbing Exactly? The Complete Guide

If you had started rock climbing before the 1980s, you would be an expert in trad-climbing.

This is because what is known as trad-climbing now actually refers to climbing techniques in place prior to developments in the 1980s.

A form of lead-rope climbing, trad-climbing relies on climbers setting their own routes during the climb. As we will see, over time, trad-climbing techniques have evolved to become eco-friendlier in nature.

In fact, the history of trad-climbing is intricately tied to the development and the implementation of eco-friendly techniques designed to minimize traces left from climbing.

It’s also important to note that trad-climbing is characterized by a more-adventurous spirit. Different than other forms of climbing that use pre-set routes—such as sport climbing—trad-climbing is known for giving climbers more flexibility in making their own routes.

It’s for this reason that some may argue that trad-climbing better captures the true essence of rock climbing.

From the thrill of the summit to the freedom of the climb, trad-climbing embodies the very principles that made rock climbing so popular to begin with.

Now, I’m not saying that other forms of rock climbing aren’t true to the practice—simply that trad-climbing’s historical nature offers a more-natural experience.

Below, I’ll provide an in-depth overview of trad-climbing to tell you everything you need to know about the practice. Learn about its history to common equipment and more with this comprehensive guide below.

History of Trad-Climbing

What is trad-climbing how does it work

Trad-climbing in a form resembling what we recognize today got its birth in the latter half of the 19th century.

At the time, most who took up rock climbing did it for one thing:

The thrill of reaching the summit.

But as you may have guessed, rock climbing was generally pretty dangerous at the time. Without the use of modern equipment, rock climbing was an arduous undertaking that put climbers at significant risk.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that much of the equipment used today was finally invented.

A decade later, one of the more controversial pieces of rock-climbing equipment finally made its way into the market: the piston.

These solid pieces of metal aren’t used much in trad-climbing today, but they were an early innovation that greatly improved the safety of all climbers.

In the early days of rock climbing, these pistons would be forced into the rockface as the climber made his or her way up.

Unfortunately, these solid pieces could not be removed, meaning that climbers left trails in their wake. As we will see in more detail below, this would become a source of great contention for many climbers who had to grapple with the conflict between their sport and the state of the environment.

This ongoing debate still continues, as climbers look to minimize traces while still enjoying safe climbs.

As any experienced rock climber will tell you, it’s simply impossible to remove all traces of a climb. But that certainly hasn’t stopped technology from trying.

In Trad-Climbing there’s no rope securing you from the top. It’s actually below you most of the times, increasing the potential falling distance.

Typical Sequence of Trad-Climbing

Trad-climbing typically follows a set sequence. Though different routes may exist for each pitch, the sequence of that pitch is typically unchanging.

Let’s take a closer look at the trad-climbing process to get a better understanding of how it’s typically conducted:

1. Leader Gathers Gear

The leader—the climber who is climbing first—will prepare their gear and place it all on the harness in preparation for the climb.

Below, we’ll go over some of the most common gear used by trad-climbers. For now, just be aware that depending on your route, you may want to start considering the total weight.

Because the leader will typically determine his or her own route, a good amount of equipment is typically brought.

2. Leader Ties into the Rope

Next, the leader will tie themselves into the rope for security during the climb. As we will see, there are many different styles of knots that may be used in trad-climbing.

The most common and recommended of these notes is the Figure 8 Knot.

Unless you’ve got experience with tying other types of knots, the Figure 8 Knot is likely your best option.

3. Second Climber Also Ties into the Rope

Once the leader has secured themselves with the rope, the second climber will also tie into it. In this way, the climbers will be joined for added security.

This will also allow for the second climber to perform the next step.

4. Setting Up the Belaying Device

As the first climber ascends, the second climber will use a belaying device to help protect them in the event of a fall.

It’s important that both parties have a strong understanding of belaying technique to prevent serious accident or injuries from occurring.

In trad-climbing, belaying is the primary source of protection for both parties. For this reason, it’s critical that the process is done well—especially when climbing new routes or climbing outdoors.

5. Climber Places the First Piece of Protection

As the climber starts moving upwards, they will place their first piece of protection into the rock. Prior to the late 1970s, this usually meant that they would hammer a metal piston into the rockface.

While this made for great security, it also permanently altered the rock for other climbers.

For this reason, many traditional climbers today use cams. These unique devices allow for the same degree of protection without leaving permanent or lasting damage. In fact, these pieces of protection will eventually be picked up by the second climber on their way up the rock.

For this reason, cams have become popular among traditional climbers, as they generally favor eco-friendly climbing techniques. Another tool that serves a similar purpose, are so so called “nuts”.

The positioning of the first piece of protection is important, as is the sturdiness. It’s important that the protection be put in such a way that it can’t be pulled out no matter the direction the climber shoes to move in.

This protection will serve as the mount for the rest of the climb, so it’s extra important that it’s done well.

6. Climber Connects the Rope to the Equipment

Once the protection is firmly placed—typically in the cracks of the rock—the climber will use a quickdraw to connect the rope and the protection. This will allow the climber to have extra security as they move up the wall face.

If connected to the equipment, the climber will be protected in the event of a fall—assuming the belayer is using proper technique—as they will fall to where their last piece of protection is located.

This is why it’s so important that protection be placed properly so that the climber remains safe.

7. Climber Climbs Up and Places Second Piece of Protection

Once the rope is connected to the first piece of protection, the climber will use it to continue to climb higher.

After reaching their new height, the climber must once again attach another piece of protection to the rockface and secure it to the rope before continuing the climb.

You may have realized that this will require multiple quickdraws and cams. Be sure to check how many you will need before you start on your trad-climb. You don’t want to get in the air only to find out that you don’t have enough equipment to make it to the top!

8. Climber Repeats this Process Until He Reaches the Top

This process will continue until the climber reaches the top of the rockface.

The length of time this will take will depend on the difficulty and the length of the route being traveled, as well as on the skill of the climber.

More experienced climbers will likely have a better idea of where to place protection to navigate the route as quickly and as safely as possible.

If you’re unsure of the route, it might be a good idea to research it beforehand to get a better idea of what you’re getting yourself into. Because each route may be different, it’s important that you have an understanding of what you may be expected to do.

With this in mind, however, it’s also important to realize that if you’re climbing a new route, you’re going to have less information to go on. You’ll also likely have to spend more time making a climbing route along the rockface—so be prepared to spend more time and effort in doing so.

Finally, most trad-climbs are within the 60m range, so be careful not to go so high that you run out of equipment—or rope.

9. Lead Climber Builds an Anchor

Once you get to the summit, you still have a lot of work to do. It’s here that the lead climber must set up an anchor and prepare to be the belayer for the second climber.

It’s important for the safety of everyone involved that the lead climber makes an effective anchor. This will be used to safely ground the belayer and help prevent against serious injury or falls.

I’ll go over proper anchor-making techniques in more depth below, but for now just note that the lead climber will attach himself at two points to the anchor before belaying.

10. Second Climber Removes Leader from Belayer

The second climber will then remove the leader from the belay and prepare to climb himself. Before making the climb, however, there are more steps the second climber must follow.

11. Lead Climber Pulls the Line Taut

Before connecting the second climber to the belayer, the first climber must remove all slack in the line.

This is done by pulling the rope taut until there is no slack between the two climbers. Once this is done, the leader will put the second climber on the belayer.

12. Both Climbers Communicate to Signal Start of Climb

Once everyone is safely situated, the lead climber will signal to the second climber that it is safe to begin.

Before starting, the second climber will give a signal to the lead climber that the climb will soon commence.

It’s important here that both climbers have a solid understanding of the phrases being used to communicate during this process.

Standard protocol stipulates that in this situation the leader will say “On Me,” and receive a reply of “On You” from the second climber before the climb commences.

13. Second Climber Makes His Way Up

The final step of the climbing process is part of what makes trad-climbing so unique.

It’s here that the second climber will make his way up the rockface, following the path as set up by the lead climber.

Importantly, however, the second climber will not just use the protection and move on.

Instead, he will also remove it from the rockface and collect it as he moves up.

In the end, this will leave minimal trace evidence behind. This is especially true for routes where cams are able to be safely put into pre-existing cracks in the rock face.

Trad-Climbing involves a lot of gear – and sometimes a lot of tattoo’s 😉

Exceptions to the Process

If you’re wondering if there are times where trad-climbers will ever use simple nuts and bolts, the answer is yes.

But this occurs very rarely.

As noted, trad-climbers are under a lot of pressure to make sure that they leave minimal trace evidence behind.

Sometimes, however, this just isn’t possible.

Though these instances are rare, some particularly-adventurous climbers may encounter routes that others never have before—and it may be that in this case bolts may have to be placed into the rockface to make it safe for climbing.

This is typically not something that most trad-climbers will ever experience, but it’s worth noting regardless.

If you plan to follow more pre-established routes, you can do so in a way that minimizes your effect on the environment while also maximizing the ease and convenience of your climb.

Some other exceptions to the above sequence may include the different types of knots and anchors used, but these typically are set.

Anchoring in Trad-Climbing

As mentioned, proper anchoring technique is essential the safety of both climbers.

In order to ensure that the second climber can ascend safely, one must first properly anchor themselves to establish proper belaying position.

This can be easier said than done, however.

Make sure that you have a firm grasp on proper anchoring and belaying technique before going on your trad-climb. As you study, keep the following points in mind:

  • The Anchor Should Be Established in an Even Way

What this means is that you don’t want any piece to have to shoulder additional parts of the weight. By anchoring yourself properly, you can avoid serious mishaps.

Because the weight will be equalized across the entire system, in the event that a piece of protection fails or that the climber falls, the extra shock can be easily absorbed without much disruption.

This will allow for you to better belay and safely ensure their ascent.

  • Always Have a Backup

Make sure that your backup is established in such a way that there’s never a reason to fear one piece of protection failing.

In other words, your anchor shouldn’t rest on the stability of a single piece. Make sure that you have a backup in case something fails.

If you don’t, you may throw off the balance of the system and put you and your second climber at risk.

  • Be Quick

Try to be as quick as possible when building your anchor. This is especially true if you’re building an anchor on a multi-pitch route.

Be careful not to forsake quality and safety in the name of speed, however.

  • Ensure Equipment Position

In order to properly anchor, you’re going to want to make sure that all the protection in the system is correctly placed. This will help you in case of a fall. You’re going to want your whole system to work as a cohesive unit, so make sure that your anchoring technique meshes well with the rest of your system.

With these tips in mind, you’ll be ready to start building your anchor. Because this can be quite complicated for those who have never done it before, I again urge you to get professional help before attempting this in a real-world setting.

The first step to building your anchor will be to determine the location of your anchor points. Ideally, you’ll have three anchor points.

Many people tend to use natural anchors, such as rocks or trees, when making their anchors, but be careful. It’s been noted by many that the overuse of some trees as anchors has led to their early deaths (the trees, not the belayers). For this reason, if it’s possible, try to scope out other safe anchor points. If this is not possible, trees and rocks typically work quite well.

If you’re looking to go a non-natural route, you can use bolts and pistons, but remember that these are now frowned upon as being environmentally-unfriendly. Removable anchors can be used as well, just make sure that they have a tight, safe fit.

Once this is done, you’ll want to connect these points while keeping the above information in mind. In doing so, you’ll be creating a master point. This is the location where you’ll clip in yourself. Just make sure that the weight is evenly distributed throughout your anchoring system.

Bailing the Trad-Climb

Bailing refers to the act of the lead climber aborting the climb early. In doing so, they will make their descent down the rock wall, leaving their protection in place.

How Does Trad-Climbing Differ from Top Roping?

Trad-climbing and top roping require different skills and techniques to master.

The most striking difference between the two is that trad-climbing generally requires a higher level of ability.

Whereas most trad-climbing will take place on various outdoor routes, top-climbing is a popular indoor climbing style that is often used to teach techniques to those at the beginner to intermediate level.

We’ve seen an in-depth look at the trad-climbing process.

How does top roping compare?

For starters, it differs greatly in the setup.

Whereas trad-climbing requires that both climbers be connected, top roping has a simpler set up: a rope is connected to the belayer at the bottom, passed through an anchor at the top, and then connected to the climber at the bottom by the harness.

Because of this setup, it’s unlikely that there will ever be a serious fall for the climber. This gives him the flexibility to experiment and try difficult routes and moves—no matter the rockface.

It’s this reason that makes top roping a popular teaching method in many indoor gyms.

It also makes it a popular choice for some environmentalists.

It must be noted that the distance in these cases is typically not too high—they’re generally so low, in fact, that climbers are able to easily access the summit through other means in order to create an anchor.

Common Trad-Climbing Equipment

The following is a list of common, removable trad-climbing equipment:

  • Spring-loaded Camming Devices (Friends)
  • Aluminum, steel, or brass nuts
  • Slings
  • Tricams
  • Hexagonal-shaped Chocks
  • Quickdraws
  • Carabiners

Glossary of Commonly-Used Terms

To better understand trad-climbing, consider the following commonly-used terms:

Anchor—A point, either natural, fixed, or removable, in which the lead climber secures himself to the masterpoint of a stabilized system. From here, the lead climber will belay the second climber.

Belayer—The person who operates the belaying device. This is a device used to protect a climber by holding the rope in case of a fall.

Lead Climber/Leader—This is the individual who climbs first and places the removable equipment. The leader will also serve as the belayer for the second.

Protection—Also known as “pro,” protection can be either active or passive and refers to gear designed for climber safety.

Second—The second climber who acts as the belayer for the leader.

Top Roping—A form of climbing used mainly indoors. Anchors are placed at the top, with belayers at the bottom, giving climbers the flexibility to make even difficult climbs.

Trad-Climbing—The original climbing method, trad-climbing now focuses on eco-friendly techniques. This has led to the development of non-scarring and removable climbing protection.

Commonly-Used Knots in Trad-Climbing

Check out the following seven knots that are common in trad-climbing:

  • Figure Eight Loop

The figure-eight loop is one of the most popular and commonly-used knots in trad-climbing.

Some common uses for the figure-eight loop are locking carabiners and attaching ropes to harnesses.

The figure-eight loop can be made by tying a traditional figure-eight knot after doubling the rope into a bight.

  • Alpine Butterfly

The alpine butterfly knot serves the special purpose of creating a loop in the middle of a rope. In trad-climbing, the alpine butterfly is typically used to attach a climbing harness with a carabiner.

The alpine butterfly is known for being easy to adjust, tie, and untie, making it one of the most climber-friendly knots in all of trad-climbing.

  • Munter Hitch

This common knot is frequently used with belaying systems. Some even use it to belay without a belaying device—an effective method in a pinch, as it only requires a carabiner to work.

  • Slip Knot

Also known as the “running knot,” the slip knot is frequently used by climbers to sling obstacles that are in the route.

By pulling the tail, one can easily undo this knot.

  • Clove Hitch

The clove hitch knot is primarily used when creating an anchor. One of the most important knots in trad-climbing, the clove hitch serves important functions in belaying and anchoring safely.

  • Double Bowline

The double bowline knot is also important when anchoring and provides a more secure hold than the standard bowline knot.

The double bowline is frequently used by many climbers who find it easier to untie than the figure-eight loop.

  • Water Knot

The water knot is commonly used by trad-climbers to make secure slings.

To tie a water knot, all one must do is create an overhand knot at one end of the rope and feed the other end through in the opposite direction.

Protection Used in Trad-Climbing

Because of the nature of trad-climbing, protection is extremely important.

Thankfully for trad-climbers, a number of quality protection devices have been developed over the last century.

These devices have revolutionized trad-climbing and have made it safer than ever before.

But what kind of protection, in particular, is used by trad climbers?

For starters, it’s important to note that there are two different categories of protection. When it comes to trad-climbing, this protection (also known as “pro” in trad-climbing circles) may be classified as either active or passive.

So what’s the difference?

It’s pretty simple to figure out.

Active pro is protection that has moving parts. The most common type of active pro in trad-climbing is the cam.

Camming devices are typically spring-loaded and have about four cams attached to them. These metal cams are flexible to the degree that they will fold inward when a trigger on the device is pushed.

This allows for the cams to fit inside tight rock crevices. Once the cam is placed securely inside a crack in the rockface, the lead climber lets go of the trigger, allowing the device to expand. Once expanded, the device typically allows for a very strong and secure hold into the rock.

Once the second climber makes his way up the rockface, all he must do is simply push the trigger once more to navigate the camming device safely out of the rock wall. Note that if the device is correctly placed, it will not simply fall out when weight is placed on it—from any direction. Only by pulling the trigger should one be able to wiggle the device free from the wall.

If you find that the cam is too loose, make sure that you reposition it before attempting to use it as protection. If this device slips, you will be put in danger if you’ve already climbed past it.

As you can see, this is an approach that is much better for preserving the integrity of the rockface for others.

On the other hand, passive pro is non-moving equipment. When talking about passive pro, one typically refers to three different types of equipment: nuts, chocks, and tapers. These devices also allow for minimal traces to be left behind by climbers as they make their way up the rockface.

It’s important to note that trad-climbing today all-but necessitates the use of this equipment. Those who use more traditional bolts fall under a much-criticized style known as “trad-bolts.” Because common consensus in the rock climbing community has moved away from permanently scarring rock structures, this style of rock climbing has fallen to the wayside.

For this reason, make sure that you’re investing in this updated technology if you want to properly conduct trad-climbing.

Is Trad-Climbing Dangerous?

With this in mind, it’s time to answer the question some of you are surely asking:

Is trad-climbing more dangerous than other types of climbing?

The answer isn’t quite so simple.

Outdoor trad-climbing is by far more dangerous than indoor top-roping, for instance, but it’s still a safer option when compared to alpine climbing.

So just where do I put trad-climbing on the danger scale?

Let’s consider a bit of information to find out:

  • You’re Life is Dependent on the Belayer

While it’s not likely that you get a belayer who is not that good, if you do have this problem, you could be in serious trouble.

This is because when you’re performing trad-climbing, the belayer could quite literally be holding your life in his hands.

And that’s a scary thought if you don’t have a quality belayer.

For this reason, the safety of your climb will largely depend on the quality of your partner—and your own belaying skills.

If you’re the lead climber, you’ll be charged with building an anchor and acting as the belayer as your partner climbs up.

It’s absolutely critical that both climbers have a mastery of belaying technique and laser-sharp focus to prevent any unfortunate accidents.

If you’re not comfortable giving someone that much power over your own safety, you may find that trad-climbing is a bit too dangerous for you.

  • Proper Gear Placement is Paramount

Studies conducted with information found in Accidents in North American Mountaineering found that trad-climbing is appreciably more dangerous than other forms of rock climbing, such as sports climbing.

And can you guess what the number-one reason for this was?

You got it—improper gear placement.

This is a problem that may result from bad judgment or simply from inexperience—but whatever the reason, it can lead to quite a serious fall.

It’s important to make sure that you’re correctly placing the protection throughout the climb. It’s got to be able to hold up for you and your partner.

Many accidents that occur when trad-climbing happen when gear comes out during a fall. When this happens, there’s little recourse for the climber to catch themselves, as their protection is now torn from the wall.

This means that the equipment was improperly placed in the first place. Because sports climbing typically uses preset bolts that are permanently fixed into the rockface, climbers don’t have to worry about them flying out during a fall.

The good news is that if you place your equipment correctly, you won’t have to, either.

Make sure that when protection is placed, it’s unable to be moved in any direction. This will allow for the maximum security during your climb.

And as difficult as it may seem, there are many inexperienced climbers who simply attempt to use the wrong equipment when making the climb—making it more likely that the protection will fall out and lead to a serious accident.

If you’re planning to go trad-climbing, make sure that you take the time to learn from a professional instructor first.

By mastering protection placement, anchoring, and belaying techniques, you can help ensure that you and your partner enjoy a safer climb.

Trust me: this isn’t a time when you want experience to be your teacher. Don’t get up on the rocks if you haven’t had that much experience—even if your partner is a master.

Before you dive into trad-climbing, make sure that you have a foundation and enough ability that you’re not putting anyone’s life at risk.

If you can, you might also take the time to invite another experienced party over on your first few trad-climbs for supervision. This will allow you to hone your technique and will make sure that you’re following proper protocol. This is almost standard procedure for many trad-climbers who are just starting out.

Popularity of Trad-Climbing

So, if trad-climbing is more dangerous than sport and other forms of rock climbing, why does it remain so popular? As one of the most-popular forms of rock climbing, it’s important to understand its appeal.

In short, there are several factors that make trad-climbing so popular. Some, for instance, are pulled in by its endearing, rugged charm. Still others have more ethical reasons for doing so.

Let’s take a look at some of these reasons more in depth to get a better understanding of trad-climbing.

  • Rugged Charm

Perhaps most trad-climbers choose this form of climbing because of its unique appeal.

Because it’s much closer to a natural rock-climbing approach, trad-climbing offers a unique charm unlike any other.

The lack of preset bolts also makes the climb feel more up-close-and-personal for some, with greater feelings of satisfaction being felt when the climb is complete.

And because of the increased risk while climbing, it’s also true that some prefer the extra excitement and thrill.

Because of this, trad-climbing has its own unique charm that many just can’t find with other types of rock climbing.

Though it takes a bit more skill and precision in some cases, trad-climbing often proves very rewarding for those who participate in it.

  • Ethics

As we’ve seen, many find trad-climbing to be a more moral choice when going rock climbing.

Why is that?

In a nutshell, this is because environmentally-concerned individuals have praised its focus on not leaving lasting scars and equipment into the rockface.

But why is this important? And how did concern for this come about in rock climbing in the first place?

As noted, in the early days of trad-climbing, solid pistons were used for protection. However, these pistons had a marked downside in that once they were hammered into the rock, they couldn’t be removed.

This posed several problems—especially as the number of climbers grew in number and the effects of trad-climbing were coming to be felt in major climbing areas across the world.

Let’s consider some of these issues in greater detail:

  • Detracted from Viewers’ Experience

One of the big concerns was that rock climbers were detracting from the natural beauty of the landscape by leaving unsightly pistons stuck in the rocks. Tourists who wished to see beautiful natural landscapes were now getting assaulted by views of ugly metal jutting out of the rocks.

  • Affected Other Climbers

Because pistons could not be removed, those wishing to climb certain routes were forced to follow the trail of others.

For trad-climbers with an adventurous spirit, this led to them branching out farther and farther across the rocks in search of new routes.

Now, with removal cams, climbers enjoy more variation in their routes with minimal effects on the natural landscape.

The Growing Case for “Clean Climbing”

The push for “cleaner” climbing methods had been boiling under the surface for a while before Yvon Chouinard, founder of gear company Patagonia, began leading a push for better climbing practices.

Chouinard’s concern rose from the damage he saw being done to the rocks at Yosemite. Determined to make a difference and boost the eco-friendly nature of rock climbing, Chouinard invented popular wedges—passive pro—that could be stuck into cracks and later removed.

Even with the best of protection, however, there’s no avoiding the fact that damage will be done to some degree.

From the overuse of natural objects as anchors to leftover chalk streaks, rock climbing can take its toll on the environment.

Still, however, the works of early pioneers in the trad-climbing field helped to better the practice and make it more environmentally-friendly.

The Bottom Line

Think you’re up for the challenge?

If so, visit your local rock climbing gym to see how you can get started training today!

Climbing Blogger

Zealous boulderer, gear geek and editor. Typically has more flappers than fingers on his hands. Occasionally enjoys the feeling of being scared of heights. Mostly prevents looking down too much, though, and cheers at the invention of climbing chalk.

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