What is trad climbing? Our expert guide to traditional rock climbing

what is trad climbing: climber on rock wall
A lead climber on a committing route in Squamish, British Columbia (Image credit: Getty)

Just what is trad climbing? You might have found yourself among vertically inclined folk who suddenly start waxing lyrical about “trad”. They may regale you with a tale of that multi-pitch route they lead in the mountains or weave the yarn of a daring ascent of a wild sea stack on some windswept coastline. Chances are, whenever the word “trad” is used, there’s a certain pitch to their voice, as if the word conjures up something evocative. It all sounds rather exciting, so just what is trad climbing?

Put simply, trad climbing is the discipline where the lead climber installs their own protective gear into the rock as they progress up the crag. They place their rope through the installed protection using a quickdraw to safeguard them against the consequences of a fall. Once the lead climber reaches the top of the climb – or the top of that section of the climb, known as a pitch – they make themselves secure and belay for the second climber. The second climbs the route, taking out the protection as they go and attaching it to their harness, thus reclaiming their gear.

what is trad climbing: climber on steep wall

The focus of an exhilaratingly tough climb (Image credit: Getty)

Trad climbing differs from the popular pursuit of sport climbing, where the protection is already installed, or bolted, into the rock. The challenge and skills involved in installing protection, finding the optimum line and juggling this with the actual act of climbing makes trad climbing so enthralling. It’s also a very pure approach to climbing, as – in theory – any crag, mountain or cliff can be tackled with a trad climbing approach.

Mastering trad climbing takes practice. To train for climbing, be it trad or sport, it’s worth spending a few days with an instructor, a more experienced friend or joining a climbing or mountaineering club. The obvious other thing to state is that you will need a climbing partner who you can put your trust in while on the crag.

What is trad climbing? Climbing venues

what is trad climbing: the Triple Buttress, Beinn Eighe

Mountain environments, such as Torridon in the Scottish Highlands, are a treasure trove of trad climbing potential (Image credit: Getty)

Unlike sport climbing, which is replicated in indoor climbing walls, trad climbing is a totally outdoor pursuit. From buttresses protruding from huge mountains and immense walls like Yosemite’s El Capitan to roadside crags and sea cliffs, there is an almost endless variety of trad climbing venues. Mountains, coastlines, gorges, quarries, outcrops, tors and escarpments all hold a host of possibilities, with a huge number of routes documented and graded in guidebooks or on the internet.

Different environments and rock types bring different challenges and character to a climb. The granite of Yosemite, the grippy black gabbro of Scotland’s Black Cuillin, the famous gritstone of England’s Peak District and the high quartzite found in Morocco’s Anti-Atlas, the quality of the rock is often what attracts hosts of climbers to a region.

what is trad climbing: El Capitan, Yosemite

The granite icon that is El Capitan in Yosemite National Park (Image credit: Getty)

This is also true of the setting. While spectacular routes in mountainous regions make some climbers go dewy eyed, many are enthralled by the trad climbing found on the coast. The unique atmosphere and quality of sea cliff climbing, with the incoming tide goading you from below is a major draw for many. Some trad climbs require a boat to access, or a committing abseil just to begin the route.

What is trad climbing? Equipment required

what is trad climbing: trad rack

Trad climbing requires a whole host of specialist gear (Image credit: Getty)

The equipment you need for trad climbing depends on the location of your chosen route. An easily accessed crag will require little more than your standard equipment and rack, whereas a venue deep in the heart of the wilderness will require you to take many hiking essentials along, due to the length of the walk-in unpredictability of the weather. Let’s start with the standard kit:

Standard trad climbing kit

Helmet – Head protection from a fall and from rockfall. Should be replaced immediately if damaged.

Harness – A padded harness is most comfortable and a model with at least four gear loops and a central belay loop is recommended.

Rock boots – Tight fitting with sticky rubber soles that allow maximum precision and grip on the crag. Don’t be surprised if they’re uncomfortable to walk in, it’s not what they’re designed for.

Rope – For trad climbing, you should be looking for at least 50 meters in order to access the majority of single pitch routes.

Belay device – Either a manual breaking device or an assisted braking device that the rope is fed through the create friction

Carabiners – Oval or D-shaped metal hooks close with a gate – some have snap-gates, while others have screwgates.

Quickdraws – Usually between 10 and 25 cm in length, these consist of two snap-link carabiners linked by a tape sling.

Slings / webbing – Useful for making use of rock spikes, trees as runners or anchors.

Chocks – The different sized and shaped nuts and hexes that can be placed into the rock to create runners or anchors.

Camming devices – Known as cams, these are spring-loaded mechanical devices that can be fitted into cracks in the rock as runners or anchors.

Nut key – a superb piece of kit that makes removing awkwardly placed protection much less troublesome.

what is trad climbing: belay device

An assisted braking belay device (Image credit: Getty)

Additional items when climbing in more remote regions

If you’re climbing in the backcountry, you will need to consider the environment, the weather and the length and technical difficulties of your walk-in – and therefore your walk-out. You will need at least a daypack to carry your provisions: such as additional layers, waterproofs, navigation equipment, and food. A headlamp is recommended in case you end up walking back in the dark (see our guide to the best headlamps for some good options). For the hike to the crag, you may need a pair of the best hiking shoes or approach shoes, depending on your preference.

What is trad climbing: single and multi-pitch explained

A single pitch climb is a route that only requires one rope length to complete. Trad climbers typically carry a rope of 50 meters or more to allow them to access the majority of single pitch venues. A single pitch approach represents ideal rock climbing for beginners, as the rope-work is more straightforward. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that single pitch routes are easier than multi-pitch climbs.

Multi-pitch climbs involve using more than one rope length and are therefore usually more committing. After each pitch, the lead climber has to find a suitable stance and secure themself with a solid anchor, before bringing the second up. From here, the process begins anew, as the lead climber forges onwards, with the second belaying from below. It’s not uncommon for climbers to switch between being lead and second on a multi-pitch climb.

what is trad climbing: climber on Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis

A climber at the top of the multi-pitch classic of Tower Ridge on Scotland's Ben Nevis (Image credit: Getty)

Multi-pitch venues range from roadside crags that simply require more than one rope length, to massive routes in the mountains that may involve in excess of a dozen pitches and require long walk-ins or a bit of scrambling to reach. This is where approach shoes come into their own.

What is trad climbing? Grades and ratings

what is trad climbing: difficult move on a climb

Grades indicate the difficulty of a climb (Image credit: Getty)

For us, there’s something magical about a guidebook to a new region. All those crags and routes as yet unexplored. Spaces on the page awaiting the inky swish of a tick. Mountains that seemingly exist only in print and in our imagination, awaiting the moment they’re made tangible by first-hand experience and then committed to memory forever. We can hear the waves crashing at the foot of the sea cliff, even if we’re just sat at home, eyeing up the grades and ratings of future routes snaking up a face that’s routinely flogged by the elements.

Before a climb commences, you want to get an idea of what you’re in for. This is where a climb’s grade and rating come in. Ratings are usually given to indicate the quality of a climb. These are, of course, subjective and the format differs from guidebook to guidebook and website to website. Slightly more consistent are the systems used to grade the difficulty of a climb. Every discipline – from trad and sport, to bouldering and scrambling – has a grading system that indicates the level of difficulty, and these vary depending on where you are in the world. Our guide to climbing rating systems attempts to demystify any misconceptions across climbing’s myriad forms.

what is trad climbing: climber on rock wall

(Image credit: Getty)

In terms of trad, there is the British Traditional Grading System, which begins by using adjectives (such as ‘Moderate’ or ‘Difficult’) to describe the severity of the climb as a whole and then reverts to an ascending numbered grade beginning with an ‘E’ (so, E1, E2, E3 etc.) once things get a little harder. At a certain point, this is combined with a technical grade, which describes the single most difficult move on the route. This is a number followed by a, b or c to signal nuances within the grade.

In America, the Yosemite Decimal System is used. This grades the difficulty of walks, hikes and climbs in ascending severity from 1 to 5, with 5 being rock climbs. The ‘decimal’ comes in to indicate the challenge of a given climb. So 5.1 is an easier climb than 5.2 and so on. The table below gives a rough indication of how the two systems relate to each other. However, climbing grades by their very nature are subjective and the difficulty of a climb is prone to many factors. The table should not be taken as a hard-and-fast comparison.

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UK and US trad climbing grades compared
British trad gradeBritish technical gradeUS grade
Moderate (Mod)Row 0 - Cell 1 5.1 / 5.2
Difficult (Diff)Row 1 - Cell 1 5.2 / 5.3
Very Difficult (VDiff)Row 2 - Cell 1 5.2 / 5.3 / 5.4
Hard Very Difficult (HVD)Row 3 - Cell 1 5.4 / 5.5 / 5.6
Mild SevereRow 4 - Cell 1 5.5 / 5.6
Severe (Sev)Row 5 - Cell 1 5.5 / 5.6 / 5.7
Hard Severe (HS)Row 6 - Cell 1 5.6 / 5.7
Mild Very Severe4a / 4b / 4c5.6 / 5.7
Very Severe (VS)4a / 4b / 4c5.7 / 5.8
Hard Very Severe (HVS)4c / 5a / 5b5.8 / 5.9
E15a / 5b / 5c5.9 / 5.10a
E25b / 5c / 6a5.10b / 5.10c
E35c / 6a5.10d / 5.11a / 5.11b
E46a / 6b5.11b / 5.11c / 5.11d
E56a / 6b / 6c5.11d / 5.12a / 5.12b
E66b / 6c5.12b / 5.12c / 5.12d / 5.13a
E76c / 7a5.13a / 5.13b / 5.13c
E86c / 7a5.13c / 5.13d / 5.14a
Alex Foxfield

Alex is a freelance adventure writer and mountain leader with an insatiable passion for the mountains. A Cumbrian born and bred, his native English Lake District has a special place in his heart, though he is at least equally happy in North Wales, the Scottish Highlands or the European Alps. Through his hiking, mountaineering, climbing and trail running adventures, Alex aims to inspire others to get outdoors. He is currently President of the London Mountaineering Club, training to become a winter mountain leader, looking to finally finish bagging all the Wainwright fells of the Lake District and hoping to scale more Alpine 4000ers when circumstances allow. Find out more at www.alexfoxfield.com