Trad climbing—also known as traditional climbing—requires a lot of gear.
From cams to carabiners, nuts to nut tools, there are so many options for trad climbing gear that it’s hard to know where to even begin. There’s also the question of how much gear you actually need to get started—a decision that must balance your own financial constraints with the common fear of not having enough gear to make it to the top of those first few trad leads. Here’s what you need to know about trad gear and tips on building your first climbing rack.
To start off, you’ll want a “single rack.” This is a generic term that you’ll often read in guidebook/topo descriptions. A single rack will often be enough to get you up many climbs and will cost somewhere in the $500 to $1,000 range. This gear, however, lasts a really long time, and if you consider that most people spend that kind of coin each season on a ski pass or new skis, then you quickly appreciate just how inexpensive trad climbing is relative to most outdoor sports.
Also known as active pro, this protective gear uses moving parts to wedge itself into cracks and other various crevices. The most common piece of active pro is the cam. Climbing cams are differentiated in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from TriCams to spring-loaded camming devices. They’re generally easier to place and clean, and they are more versatile in cracks that vary in size.
With no moving parts, passive protection is the most basic and inexpensive pro there is, as well as a necessity to any climbing rack list. Passive pro typically refers to “nuts,” “chocks,” “stoppers,” “RPs” or “wires”—different names to describe essentially the same thing. Nuts come in various shapes and sizes, and even in different types of metal. But the inherent design is a chunk of metal that has a cable drilled or machined into it. The chunk of metal wedges into cracks/constrictions in the rock, while the cable is used for clipping. With both active and passive pro, always know what climbing anchors you need to avoid.
Nuts are the most basic piece of pro that can be found on every single rack. They’re light, inexpensive, and simple to place well once you get used to the process.
These are much smaller than regular nuts, and they’re excellent for pin scars found on most rock. Micro nuts are typically made out of brass (as opposed to steel), a softer metal that deforms and “bites” into the rock better.
Also known disparagingly as “cow bells” for the obnoxious clanging noise these hollow nuts make on a rack, hexes are basically oversized, six-sided passive protection that’s meant for larger finger- to hand-sized cracks. Hexes are great because they are light and inexpensive, but they are sometimes challenging to place and remove, which is why most climbers today prefer rock climbing cams to hexes.
These specialty pieces of protection sit in the nebulous borderland between active and passive protection. Coming in a complete range of sizes, TriCams are funny-shaped nuts that can be placed in such a way that they cam into the rock, adding security. They can also be placed passively if you slide them into cracks the same way you would a stopper. They’re cheap and extremely useful when it isn’t easy to place nuts or cams.
Cams, or “spring-loaded camming devices” (SLCD), are the meat-and-potatoes when you’re considering how to build a trad rack. The most popular choice for active protection, cams typically contain four lobes at the head of the unit, and they have a trigger bar that retracts the lobes in order to place the head in cracks or to take it out once they’re placed. Cams come in a huge range of sizes to fit in finger cracks or offwidths. Some cams, like the Black Diamond Camalots and the new Wild Country Friends, have flexible stems that can bend in multiple directions. The older Wild Country Friends have rigid stems, a design that requires special precautions in certain (horizontal) placements. That said, rigid-stem cams seem to be slowly becoming a thing of the past. There are also single-stem, double-stem and U-stem cams that all have pros and cons.
A “three-cam unit” is a special cam that has only three lobes at the head. They are excellent for smaller cracks and tiny fissures on the rock. Their narrow profile allows them to fit in shallow cracks, such as certain pin scars and pockets.
Coming in all shapes, designs, and sizes, all carabiners serve one core purpose: they allow you to easily clip the rope into the protection you’ve just placed. Carabiners are the unsung heroes of the climbing world. Similar to sport climbing, you want to use standard (non-locking) carabiners while you’re climbing the route, and locking carabiners for anchors and belaying.
Quickdraws and Alpine Draws are both used in trad climbing to attach your pieces of protection to the rope. Quickdraws have fixed lengths and are commonly used in sport climbing but can be useful on trad routes, especially those with straight, vertical cracks that create a more or less straight rope path between the leader and belayer. (Don’t forget, always make sure you choose the right climbing rope for the job).
On less direct routes, alpine draws are the norm. Instead of having a fixed length like quickdraws, alpine draws use a sewn sling that is looped in such a way that it can extend from roughly the length of a standard quickdraw to about two feet in length. This is very important on trad routes — by extending your placements with longer alpine draws, you allow the rope to travel in a more linear path between the belayer and leader. If the rope has to travel over a ledge or follows a meandering route and an extended alpine draw isn’t used, the rope can pull on your protection, causing cams to “walk” and nuts to pop out of the wall while you are climbing.
This is a loop of nylon or Dyneema, often sewn with a bar-tack. It serves a variety of purposes, from slinging chicken heads to racking your gear. Clip two carabiners to a sling and make an alpine draw to extend your placements even farther out than standard quickdraws.
Similar to slings in construction, runners typically have a much larger circumference than most slings. Use them to create anchors or extend placements on traversing terrain, or sling them around rocks to protect you in places where neither passive nor active placements can.
Made from a loop of 6mm or 7mm cord, cordelettes are inexpensive pieces of gear that are very versatile. Use them for anchors, backups, or leave them behind when you need to lower for an emergency. You can always buy another one because they are so inexpensive.
A pick-shaped piece of metal that can help the second climber remove a stuck nut wedged into the rock. The nut tool is an indispensable item.
This is essentially a sling with a padded section that rests on your shoulder, and it has multiple loops for organizing your gear. Some climbers take their gear slings climbing, and others use it solely for organization purposes.
One of the most confusing and frustrating parts about trad climbing is deciphering guidebook descriptions of the sizes of cams or nuts that you will need for that route. Most guidebooks have a decoding guide for your convenience, but there isn’t a standard; therefore, not all sizes between brands correspond directly to each other. For example, a #0.5 Black Diamond C4 is equivalent to a #1 Wild Country Technical Friend. Just as we wish we could have one universal charger for all our electronic devices, climbers would love to see some kind of industry standard when it comes to cam-size number (and its corresponding color).
Cracks are often described by their width, in cam sizes. The guidebook description might read something like: “4 #1’s,” which means you’ll need four cams of #1 size. Depending on who wrote the guide, the #1 size could mean literally one-inch; or it could mean a #1 Black Diamond Camalot; or it could mean a #1 Wild Country Friend. What’s important is to be aware that not all #1 (etc.) cams are the same. Whatever brand cams you choose, you’ll have learn how to calculate those cam conversions in your head.
It’s worth noting that every trad-climbing area is different, and not all “single racks” are the same everywhere you go. You’d almost never need a piece larger than a #3 C4 in the Shawangunks of New York, but #3, #4, and #5 C4s are typically considered necessary for a standard Yosemite rack.
Below are my recommendations for building a trad rack that will get you up and down most climbs at most climbing areas, especially when you combine racks with your partner—which is standard.
6 24-inch “shoulder-length” slings (nylon or Dyneema). These are generally used to extend placements and make alpine draws.
Used for building anchors. Make your own using a 16-20 foot length of 6mm or 7mm Spectra cord, tied into a loop using a double-fisherman’s knot, which is one of the eight need-to-know knots in climbing.
20 to 30 lightweight carabiners. This may seem like a lot, but they add up fast when you’re using one or two carabiners per each piece of pro you set.
3 – 4 lightweight locking carabiners. These are used for belays and building anchors. Any system that is holding a load should use a locking carabiner.
1 for racking gear.
This should be enough to get you started! And if you have questions along the way, you can always reach out to a Backcountry Gearhead and we’ll connect you with a trad climbing expert to answer your questions or provide recommendations.