Photo: D Scott Clark/TandemStock

How to Build a Trad Climbing Rack

How to Build a Trad Climbing Rack

Building a trad climbing rack is a labor of love. Each one is hand-assembled by the climber, a custom collection of pieces designed to accompany them on vertical adventures for years to come. Ultimately, your rack will reflect your favorite routes, treasured climbing areas, and unique personal style of climbing.

For those at the beginning of their trad-climbing journeys: a “rack” refers to a complete set of all the carabiners, draws, removable protection, anchor-building material, and other equipment required to lead a traditionally protected outdoor multipitch route (where climbers place all the protection against falls, and then remove it upon completion). While you can begin collecting trad climbing gear at any time, assembling a full rack is usually a step climbers take when they’ve been practicing “trad” (traditional) climbing long enough to lead routes and build anchors with confidence.

Because it takes a while to develop personal gear preferences, climbers often take months or years to assemble a complete rack. Fortunately, that leaves plenty of time to research each piece and understand your options before you buy. This guide is a great place to start.

In this article, you’ll learn the following:

  • Active Versus Passive Protection
  • How To Customize a Trad Climbing Rack for Your Local Crag
  • How To Choose Cams
  • How To Choose Nuts and Stoppers
  • Slings, Draws, and Anchor Material
  • Other Essential Gear
  • What a Sample Trad Climbing Rack Looks Like

Active vs. Passive Protection

There are two main categories of protection for traditional climbing: active protection and passive protection. We’ll also cover a few other types that fall somewhere in between.

Active Protection: Cams

 Cams—short for “spring-loaded camming devices” and sometimes referred to as “SLCDs”—are clever pieces of equipment that helped usher trad climbing into the modern age. They feature a wide head made of three to four “cam lobes” at the end of a long stem. Pull the trigger in the stem and the lobes retract, something like a flower closing up. You can then insert the device into a crack and release the trigger, at which point the lobes spring open, blooming to fill the crack. You then clip the end of the stem to the rope. If you fall, the rope tugs outward on the stem, cranking the lobes open so that they dig into the sides of the crack and catch your fall.

Cams are more expensive than passive protection. However, they are quick and easy to place, and when placed correctly, are very secure. Color-coded lobes and slings make it easy to select the right size from your harness at a glance. Cams are also easy to “clean,” or remove from the rock, which is useful for moving efficiently—and recovering your investment.

Passive Protection: Nuts and Stoppers

Nuts (also called stoppers) are the original forms of trad climbing protection. They are still considered an essential piece of most climbers’ racks. Nuts are simply small wedges of metal that slot into constrictions in the rock. They can be a little more difficult to place correctly in certain types of rock, but they’re usually easier to inspect for correct placement. A well-placed nut is very secure, and larger nuts can hold massive falls as long as they’re placed correctly in good quality rock. The other benefit of nuts is that they’re less expensive than cams. The downside is that they can take a while to clean—make sure your climbing partner has a nut tool and a good understanding of how to remove them from hard-to-reach places.

Hexes

Hexes are large, hollow, hexagonal metal tubes that can be placed in either a passive orientation—simply wedged into a crack like a nut—or in an active orientation, in which case the cable or sling of the hex extends from either its right or left side. That way, falling on the sling wrenches the hex even more securely into place, giving it a slight “camming” action. 

Hexes are not always straightforward to place and almost impossible to use in perfectly parallel-sided cracks. They also tend to be bulky. However, they’re also lighter-weight and less expensive than cams. While popular during the early days of climbing, hexes are now used mostly for more niche types of climbing, like alpine climbing or winter climbing.  

Tricams

Tricams are small chunks of metal with three distinct points that create a tripod when nested against a panel of rock. You can place them like nuts by settling them into constrictions, or you can fold the sling of the tricam over its head before placing it. That will cause a fall to tug on the tricam’s far end, keying it into the crack for a more secure fit.

Tricams can be tricky to place and clean, but they’re very useful for certain locales. They’re also relatively lightweight and less expensive than cams.

How To Customize a Trad Climbing Rack for Your Local Crag

Different types of rock are easier to protect with different types of gear. For example, if you’re climbing somewhere with exactly parallel-sided cracks like Indian Creek, Utah, cams are perfect and nuts rarely fit. But granite cliffs with numerous flaring cracks and constrictions are often easier to protect with passive gear. And while you’ll rarely see tricams in most places, they’re staples at crags with horizontal cracks and slots—like New York’s Shawangunks or North Carolina’s Looking Glass Rock.

The sizes of the cams or hexes you’ll need will also depend on the area. In a wide-crack haven like Vedauwoo, Wyoming, you’ll need big 5- and 6-inch cams—sizes rarely required elsewhere.

All this goes to say: Before you start buying gear, ask local climbers what kind of gear they prefer for nearby crags. Be sure to ask if there are any types of protection that fit the rock best, and if they recommend getting extras of any size cam or stopper.

How To Choose Cams

While some climbers swear by certain brands of cam, the truth is that most will do the job well. Here are a few features to consider.

Three or four lobes? Cams with just three lobes nestle well in flaring cracks and small pods. However, they can be prone to wiggling around or “walking” in parallel-sided cracks, which can make them hard to clean.

Rigid stems or flexible stems? Rigid-stem cams are less popular these days, but you’ll still see them around, especially at second-hand gear shops. They are strong and durable if used correctly, but they can break if loaded over an edge, like in a horizontal crack.

Single stem or double stem? Two stems give a cam additional stability, as well as extra strength in horizontal placements. However, the wider neck of the cam means it might not fit as well in some shallow, vertical cracks.

Standard or offset? On most cams, all the lobes are the same size. Offset cams have two small lobes and two large lobes, which means they work well in flaring cracks but can be tricky to place. As such, offset cams are usually favored by advanced climbers for specific routes.

What size? You should strive to have at least one cam in every size, and doubles of the more common sizes, usually from 1 to 3 inches in width. [Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]Note: When you shop for cams, you’ll see that most are assigned a number from “#00” to “#7.” These numbers don’t necessarily correspond to the size of the cam—some “#3” cams are 3 inches wide, for example, but not all. When you see “bring two #3s” in a guidebook, make sure you know which brand’s #3-size cam they’re referring to so you can bring the right tool for the job.

How To Choose Nuts and Stoppers

Most climbers carry a standard set of small and medium-size stoppers. It can also be good to have a few extra-small stoppers (sometimes referred to as “micronuts,” “RPs,” or “small wires”). Here are some things to consider before you choose.

Material: Stoppers are generally made of aluminum, though the micro sizes come in brass and steel versions. Brass stoppers tend to be more expensive, but even soft rock tends to bite into the softer metal, giving you better friction and a more secure fit. Steel stoppers are hard enough to avoid deformation in very hard rock, making them a good choice for tiny seams in granite, but they can shear through softer rock. Aluminum is a good middle ground between the two.

Overall shape: Some nuts are roughly rectangular in appearance, while others curve or feature small dimples or cut-outs that can catch against crystals in the rock. Different climbers have different preferences. Test a few out, or ask around to see what fits best in the local stone.

Standard vs. Offset: Like cams, stoppers come in offset shapes—one edge of an offset stopper is narrower than the other, making it a match-fit for flaring cracks. However, be aware that offset stoppers provide less margin for error—you need a really good placement if you want an offset to hold a fall.

Slings, Draws, and Anchor Material

Trad routes occasionally wander over rock faces, making it necessary to extend your pieces of protection with quickdraws or shoulder-length (24-inch) slings. Most trad climbing racks include at least six “alpine draws‚” which are shoulder-length slings tripled over between two carabiners so that they hang short on your harness but can extend to their full length in a pinch. Most climbers opt for Dyneema (or Dynex or Spectra) slings for their alpine draws. The material’s superior strength means it can be thinner, and therefore less bulky to fold up and tote around.  

It can also be handy to have one or two double-length (48-inch) slings for gear placements that are really out of the way. These slings are also useful for slinging trees or pillars of rock. Many climbers prefer tubular nylon webbing for their double-length slings. Nylon is bulkier, but it’s less expensive than Dyneema or Spectra.

Finally, you’ll need material for building anchors. Anchors are strongest when you have several solid pieces of gear connected such that your weight is evenly distributed among all of them. To do this, you’ll need a quadruple-length (roughly 96-inch) sling and/or a 20-foot section of 6 mm to 7 mm cordelette tied into a loop with a double fisherman’s knot. Most climbers carry a bundle of cordelette on their harness regardless—it’s useful for improvised rappel anchors and self-rescue scenarios in addition to building anchors.

Other Essential Gear

Aside from protection and sling material, there are a few other items that are must-haves in any trad climbing rack.

Nut tool: You’ll need one of these special hooks for cleaning hard-to-reach nuts.   

Friction hitch: You can use a purpose-made loop of material for tying friction hitches—useful for backing up rappels or ascending the rope in emergencies. You can also make your own by making a loop of 7 mm cordelette using a double fisherman’s knot.  

Rappel device: Make sure you have the tools to both belay a follower from above and perform a two-stranded rappel.

What a Sample Trad Climbing Rack Looks Like

While your exact needs will vary depending on the style and terrain of each area you visit, this is a good foundational rack to get you started.

  • Full set of cams from 0.4 to 4 inches (about 11)
  • Second set of cams from 1 to 3 inches (about 6)
  • 16 to 18 small non-locking carabiners, in colors to match each cam
  • Full set of nuts (about 10)
  • 1 large oval carabiner, for nut storage
  • 10 alpine draws (each composed of 2 non-locking carabiners and a 24-inch sling) 
  • 2 double-length (48-inch) slings
  • 1 quadruple-length (96-inch) sling 
  • 3 spare non-locking carabiners
  • 20-foot section of 7 mm cordelette
  • 4 locking carabiners
  • 1 nut tool

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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