Trad vs Sport Climbing

In the world of rock climbing, there are many different styles. You’re most likely already familiar with roped climbing and bouldering. But have you begun to venture into the world of lead climbing and seen arguments about trad vs sport climbing?

Within roped climbing, there are a few more styles of rock climbing. Top roping is an excellent introduction to the sport. And it’s a great way to build your skills up for two of the most popular styles: sport climbing and trad climbing. Both of these are styles of free climbing, but what is the difference between the two?

Sport climbing relies on pre bolted climbing routes while trad climbing requires the climber to carry and place their own protection as they climb the route. Bolts are drilled into the rock face and climbers then clip quickdraws into these bolts. The rope is clipped into the quickdraws for protection in case the climber falls.

A trad climber will carry a trad climbing rack, which can include climbing nuts and camming devices. These pieces of removable protection are placed into cracks and other weaknesses in the rock, then the climber clips the rope into carabiners that are attached to these pieces of gear. The pieces of gear will catch the climber if they fall and they can also be removed and used on the next pitch.

Table of Contents

Following a trad climb at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia
Beginning the traverse pitch on Conn’s East 5.6 Seneca Rocks, WV

What is sport climbing?

When I think of sport climbing, I think of routes that don’t need any supplemental gear to protect the climb. I should be able to show up to the route, clip quickdraws into pre placed bolts, and then clip my rope into the draws. The bolts should protect the climb sufficiently without trad protection. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case and can lead to heated debates about placing additional bolts.

Usually, sport climbing focuses on the physicality of routes. It can feel like doing bouldering problems while on a rope and 70 feet above the ground. Sport climbers take pride in their strength and endurance. It takes an incredible amount of technique and fitness to climb for 100 feet while performing delicate and powerful movements.

Most sport climbing areas will have practice anchors bolted into the rock at ground level. You can practice building and cleaning anchors from the safety of ground level. If you’re new to sport climbing, practice this skill. The worst place to learn how to clean an anchor is at the top of the climb.

The style of climbing can vary at a climbing area. Sport and trad routes can coexist next to each other!
Sport climber spotted at a trad crag. Spinnaker 5.11a Seneca Rocks, WV

Sport climbing routes will end at bolted anchors. I have been on some sport climbing routes that felt like they needed additional traditional climbing gear to protect a ledge fall at some point on the route. The placement of the bolts is left up to the route developer. Many climbing areas have nonprofits that monitor the condition of the bolts.

History of sport climbing

A sport climber making his way up to the anchors
Sport climbing in Summersville Lake, WV

What gear do I need for sport climbing?

In addition to your standard rack of climbing gear, sport climbing requires quickdraws and a dynamic climbing rope. I usually take 12 quickdraws with me when I go sport climbing, but not every climb will require that many. Sport climbs usually have a bolt every ten feet, which can be more sparse than lead climbs in the climbing gym. You’ll need one quickdraw for every bolt on the wall and then at least two for the anchor. Bring an extra quickdraw just in case you drop one as well.

What is trad climbing?

Traditional climbing, or trad climbing, follows the ethics of the original climbers. Trad climbers carry their own protection up the route and place it themselves as they climb. This could be fixed gear like pitons, but the modern style of trad protection will be pieces of gear that can be removed and do not damage the rocks. Spring loaded camming devices, chocks, nuts, hexes, and tricams are some modern pieces of gear that trad climbers use.

Crack climbing is a common form of trad climbing.
Crack climbing at the New River Gorge! New Yosemite 5.9

A trad climb can have bolts on it, pre placed bolts don’t make a particular route a sport climb or a trad climb. Some trad climbs were established with pitons to protect unprotectable sections of the climb. It’s common to see an expansion bolt replace the piton because they are stronger and more durable. You’ll still need trad gear to protect the rest of the climb.

Trad routes can have a bolted anchor, an anchor of fixed gear, or will finish at a large tree that can be slung for the anchor.

History of Traditional Climbing

Traditional climbing is the oldest form of free climbing. Back in the day, these climbers weren’t “trad climbing”, they were just climbing with the gear and materials they had available to them. The early rock climbing, like the days of Royal Robbins in Yosemite, would be considered aid climbing today. Climbers were using gear to protect and assist their way up the wall.

As time went on, climbers began to push the styles of the day further and further. Free climbing became more popular and many climbers tried to limit the impact they left on the rock face. The rock climbing documentary, Valley Uprising, is an excellent overview of the transition from early aid climbing to free climbing in Yosemite Valley. A must watch!

El Capitan in Yosemite National Park

What gear do I need for trad climbing?

A trad rack is a way to refer to all the gear you need. Your trad rack is going to include your standard list of climbing equipment and all of the pieces of protection you’ll need. You could be carrying 10-15 pounds of additional weight thanks to all the extra gear! Back in the day, traditional protection involved hammering pitons into the wall. Today, traditional gear emphasizes less damage to the rock. Let’s go over what a modern trad rack looks like.

Camming Devices

Black Diamond X4 camming device

Cams are known as active protection because they have moving components within them. Black Diamond C4 Camalots have 4 lobes that can be retracted by using the trigger. This pulls the lobes in and makes the cam smaller. When the trigger is released, the lobes expand and press against the rock.

In the event of a fall, the cam lobes are pulled against the rock. And as long as the rock is solid, the cam will hold the climber. Cam sizes range from extremely small, barely bigger than a quarter of an inch like the Z4 #0, to the Black Diamond C4 #8 which can be a foot long!

Other forms of active protection include tricams. I love tricams for horizontal slots and for building gear anchors. Trad climbers are known for having a love story for the pink tricam.

What are trad climbing nuts?

A bouquet of climbing nuts

Climbing nuts are known as passive protection because they are just a hunk of metal. There aren’t any moving components in these pieces. They function by being bigger than the opening of the constriction. This wedges the piece in the rock so it cannot come out. Nuts were one of the first pieces of modern protection used in trad climbing.

Many trad climbers pick up nuts as their first pieces of gear because they are intuitive to use and inexpensive. Nuts make an excellent first part of your trad rack, and they can help shave a few pounds off of a heavier trad climbing rack.

Alpine Draws

Alpine draws are required for trad climbing so we can extend pieces to prevent rope drag and prevent the piece from being “walked” into a bad position. When a piece walks, it means that it has wiggled from its original placement into one that could potentially not hold a fall.

Alpine draws are long nylon and Dyneema slings that have two carabiners on them. A trad climber can choose to extend the draw to make sure the rope goes up the route in a straight line. I do not use sport climbing protection quickdraws when trad climbing because they aren’t as long and they are not as flexible as alpine draws.

Sport vs Trad Climbing

How are trad and sport climbing similar?

Trad climbing and sport climbing are forms of lead climbing. Lead climbing is when you are climbing up and clipping the rope into protection as you go. This is different from top roping, where the rope is already set through the anchor and is above you the entire time you are climbing.

Lead climbs can be done at indoor climbing gyms and in the great outdoors. But a trad climb usually doesn’t indoors. Gyms will have pre bolted climbs with quickdraws already attached so you can practice your lead climbs. Some climbing schools have fake rock walls where you can practice placing trad gear, but it’s not often you’ll be placing gear indoors.

Can I reuse gear for trad climbing and sport climbing?

Climbing gear can be used for trad climbing and sport climbing! The climbing rope works perfectly for both disciplines. I will use alpine draws for trad and sport climbing. But I won’t use quickdraws on trad gear. Quickdraws are stiff and aren’t as flexible as a Dyneema alpine draw. I like to have some flexibility on my placements to prevent them from walking. And sometimes it’s fun to place some cams and nuts on sport climbs!

Climbing gear thankfully has crossover between the disciplines, our harnesses and belay devices can both be used for sport and trad.

Bouldering or sport climbing?

Readers Also Asked…

Is trad climbing harder than sport climbing?

Trad climbing is not harder than sport climbing but it does involve a lot more technical knowledge. Rock climbing already includes some technical knowledge, sport climbers need to know how to tie into the rope, belay, and clean anchors. But trad climbing requires knowing how trad gear works, rescue protocols, and route reading all on top of the climbing technique you need for sending a route.

What is trad climbing vs lead climbing?

Trad climbing is a form of lead climbing. A lead climber is when someone trails the rope up below them and clips the rope into protection as they get higher and higher. In the event of a lead fall, the climber will back to their last piece of protection and then the amount of the rope slack that’s in the system.

Is top rope climbing sport climbing?

Top rope climbing is not sport climbing, but a sport climber will rehearse a route on top-rope. The hardest sport climbs require consistent practice and training.

Is multi pitch climbing trad climbing?

Multi pitch climbing is not always trad climbing, there are many multi pitch rock climbs that are protected entirely by bolts! Sport and trad climbing can both be on a multi pitch route.