Getting into trad climbing opens up your opportunities for climbing different types of routes at your favorite crag, but it also comes with the added expense and need to build up your gear closet. Unlike sport climbing, you’ll want a lot more than a few packs of quickdraws to get started. In this post we’ll review the recommended gear to start leading trad climbs. Once you cover the basics, you’ll quickly learn where you need to augment your rack based on where you climb and the type of routes you frequently lead. Like most things, the gear you need depends on the routes you are typically climbing.
While the sky is the limit for the different types of gear you could accumulate, it’s smart to start with the basics that you will use on almost any trad climb. Cams and nuts are going to be the obvious starting place for building out your rack. More specialized protection could be nice to have and play around with, but necessity should be driving what you have in your rack. Building your trad rack isn’t cheap so focus on what you need before you start falling for shiny objects.
Outside of protection pieces, you are going to need extra carabiners, slings, and cord. These will be used mainly while on-route but also used for anchor building and safety measures. We won’t be covering any anchor building or self-rescue applications, but these are skills that should be learned and practiced before tackling bigger more committing climbs.
Finally, before you actually go lead any climbs, make sure you know how all these pieces work and how they are intended to be placed. Each have their own intended uses and scenarios for when and how they should be placed. Take the time to thoroughly learn the intricacies of trad climbing and gear placement before you start jumping on the sharp end of the rope. Following an experienced leader is a good introduction to trad climbing, but you should be comfortable knowing how to place your gear and all the factors that contribute to making a solid placement.
Now let’s take a look at the different gear you’ll need to get started as a trad climber.
Cams or camming devices are a staple of the modern trad climber and changed the sport altogether. This form of active protection allows for easy use and placements in most cracks, and comes in a wide range of sizes and a variety of styles. Today, the most common cam you’ll find is a four-lobed camming device with a flexible stem such as the Black Diamond Camalot C4. Your trad rack should span the most common sizes of cracks that you climb and even include doubles of sizes where you think you will need them. A good place to start is getting two different cam packages that range in different sizes but have overlap in the common middle-sized pieces. Good options for this include:
These two packages will cover you from hands all the way down to less-than-finger sized cracks, with doubles between half-inch to 2-inches. The Black Diamond Camalot’s have a smooth trigger and stable stem for the larger sized cams. The Metolius Master Cam’s provide a great variety of smaller sized cams that always come in handy, with the yellow and orange Master Cam’s almost always being placed on trad lines at Smith Rock. This will be enough cams to get you started for most climbs and you will probably learn than having a #4 Camalot doesn’t hurt to have either. For any doubles or triples you might need, consider asking friends to borrow a few pieces here and there as needed before buying more. Cams aren’t cheap!
Passive protection in the form of stoppers and hexes were what the original hardmen of climbing used as their everyday protection before the invention of camming devices. Nuts are still commonly used today and can serve as the best type of protection given the formation of rock you are climbing. They protect a climber by being wedged in a crack or constriction in the direction of fall without relying on any moving parts – think of trying to push a cork through the neck of a wine bottle. Due to the simplicity of this gear, nuts and other passive protection is much cheaper but also is somewhat limited in application for areas such as Indian Creek, where wider splitter parallel cracks don’t abundantly allow for nut placements.
A full set of nuts is a good idea for most beginner trad racks, especially at crags like Smith Rock where most cracks offer up plenty of constrictions for perfect nut placements. A single package of nuts from Black Diamond, along with a nut tool will provide a good range of sizes and a way for your follower to unlodge any gear that is stuck. The Metolius Torque Nut Tool clips easily to your harness and has a few different wrench sizes to fasten down spinners if needed.
Trad climbing and gear placement requires a significant amount of carabiners used for racking, draws, and anchors. All those cams you just bought are going to need to hang from your harness somehow, and a nice set of color-coded racking carabiners will come in handy when you need to quickly grab the right sized gear. Each cam will require its own racking carabiner, and the less weight you can add to your rack the better. The Trango Phase Mega Rack Pack and the Black Diamond Oz Rackpack will match up with the Metolius and Black Diamond cams recommended above, making it easy to pick out the right sized gear.
While the name implies large alpine climbs, the versatility of alpine draws extend (pun intended) far beyond alpine environments. Extensions for your gear placements is almost always a good idea to for decreasing the opportunity for gear to walk or rip out in the event of a fall. While your standard sport climbing quickdraws will work great for trad climbing, having a handful of apline draws is also a good idea.
Alpine draws are made up of a sling and two carabiners, and typically allow for extending a placement on a wandering route. While quickdraws will work in a lot of scenarios for clipping the rope to your placed gear (similar to a bolt), they are typically heavier and don’t allow for any versatility in changing lengths on the fly. Slings can also be used for girth-hitching or wrapping around natural features, something that a quickdraw cannot do.
Alpine draws will require 60cm (shoulder length) runners and more carabiners. The lighter the better in most cases means Dyneema slings and lightweight carabiners.
A must for climbing in general is having plenty of locking carabiners and different lengths and sizes of cord, used for anchors, personal safety, and belaying. You can never have enough locking carabiners, but not are equal. For personal safety and anchors, locking carabiners in the shape of a “D” are best because they are typically smaller and lighter in weight. Large locking carabiners that are more pear shaped and offer a large flatter surface at the top or designed for belaying. A mix of each is good to have.
Cord of varying sizes lets you build different types of strong anchors, either on bolts or using your own gear. Smaller cord is used for personal safety on rappels or in rescue situations, which is a whole different topic to learn about.
Building a trad rack is not a one-size fits all approach, but there is a short list of gear that will be useful in most trad climbing scenarios. Before you buy anything, do research about where you think you will be climbing the most and what type of rock you will be placing gear in. Most of the time a starter rack of cams and nuts with the necessary set of accessories will do the trick. Either way, this is not a cheap sport to get into and it isn’t worth skimping on gear that will be protecting you from harm. When in doubt, get or borrow all the gear you need before jumping on the climbs you’ve been eyeing. Once you have the gear, make sure you understand proper placements and safety before leaving the ground. While the technology in today’s gear makes it easy to use, don’t assume that any placement will do. Take the time to learn about all your gear and the factors to consider with each placement from a trained professional.
Before getting on a climb, practice racking gear on your harness and come up with a system that works for you. All of this gear is going to be much bulkier and heavier than the rack of quickdraws you are used to with sport climbing. Go to a local crag or collection of rock near you and try plugging different sizes of gear in different cracks. This will help you recognize what sized pieces work best in different sized cracks. It will also allow you to pull on and see the gear in action all with the safety of standing on the ground. The more you can learn about your gear, the better. Happy trad climbing.