Photo: Grant Ordelheide/Tandemstock

How To Start Trad Climbing: 10 Steps to Proficiency

Figuring out how to start trad climbing can feel daunting.

After all trad, or “traditional,” climbing takes place on routes without fixed bolts and often without bolted anchors. As a result, you have to place (and remove) all your own protection by hand. You also have to understand the complexities of anchor building, route-finding, rappelling, and rope work. 

Trad climbing is a sport for the adventurous. To excel, you’ll need to rely on your own knowledge and skills to navigate unmarked terrain. Getting to that level can take years of experience, but it’s also what makes trad climbing so rewarding. If you have a healthy sense of curiosity and passion for knowledge, you’ll be a proficient trad climber before you know it. Use this series of recommended steps and progessive goals to keep you focused and moving forward. 

1.  Master the Basics of Movement

Before you wade into the complicated world of technical rope work, make sure your physical skills are up to snuff. Start climbing in a gym or top roping with an experienced friend or guide. When you can consistently lead routes up to 5.8 without falling or weighting the rope, you’re ready for the next step.

2. Become an Expert Belayer

When you first start trad climbing, you’ll accompany a mentor and follow the routes they lead. To keep your mentor safe, you’ll need to be a master belayer. Gain experience lead belaying in an outdoor environment, and learn how to moderate a climber’s fall over ledges, bulges, and roofs.

3. Get Your Rappelling Dialed

You can walk down from some trad routes, but many require one or more rappels. Even on single-pitch trad routes, it’s generally best practice to rappel instead of lowering off the rings. That’s because fixed anchors on trad routes are usually inspected and replaced far less often than those on sport routes. Before you venture outdoors, make sure you’re comfortable rappelling safely with minimal supervision.

4. Learn Basic Self-Rescue Techniques

One of the best things you can do to be a valuable climbing partner is to become well versed in self-rescue. Trad climbing mentors take on a lot of responsibility when they bring a new pupil outdoors. Knowing how to rescue yourself (or your mentor) if things go wrong is a great way to take some of the weight off their shoulders.

Self-rescue is endlessly complicated, but try to take a wilderness first aid course and a clinic or two on escaping the belay, ascending a rope, and/or lowering a stuck partner.

5. Find a Mentor

With all the basic skills under your belt, you’re ready to seek out a trad climbing mentor. It’s best to ask a friend that you already know and trust, and who has at least three to five years of consistent trad climbing experience in a variety of settings. No one come to mind? Ask around at your local gym, but be conscious of the fact that taking on a mentee is a huge responsibility. Plus, with more new climbers becoming interested in trad than ever before, most places have a shortage of experienced mentors.

Also be cautious when it comes to learning from strangers: Not all confident trad climbers are experienced enough to teach, and many don’t appreciate the serious risks inherent to trad climbing. If you can’t find a mentor you already know and feel comfortable voicing safety concerns around, it’s best to hire an accredited guide to teach you the basics.

Photo: Mike Wilkinson/TandemStock

6. Learn How to Place and Clean Gear

One of the first things you’ll learn with your mentor is how to place and clean gear. A great drill: Go to a crag with a whole rack of nuts and cams. Try to place as many of them as you can while standing on the ground. Then get your mentor to inspect your placements and offer critiques. Repeat until every placement earns a thumbs up.

7. Follow Some Trad Climbs

When you’re proficient at cleaning both active and passive protection, follow your mentor up several trad climbs. Take note of where and how often they place gear, and how they extend each piece. Also inspect their anchors. Ask questions whenever you don’t understand what you see.

8. Learn How to Build an Anchor

You can learn the basics of anchor building online or from a book (Like John Long’s classic Climbing Anchors) but there’s no substitute for hands-on practice with experienced supervision. Have your mentor teach you the basics. Then, build a few anchors on the ground and get constructive criticism.

9. Lead a Single-Pitch Route

Have your mentor select a single-pitch route that’s well below your onsight level (i.e. the hardest grade you can do without falling on your first try). If you’re consistently leading 5.8 sport routes without breaking a sweat, find a 5.4 or 5.5 for your first trad route. That way you’ll be able to focus on the technical aspects of placing gear, not on the physical difficulty. Have your mentor follow your route and offer constructive criticism.

10.  Lead a Multi-Pitch Route

When you’re confident leading single-pitch routes, building anchors, and belaying from above, it’s time for your first multi-pitch. Talk through the anchor transitions on the ground with your mentor. Then, swap leads every pitch. Consider carrying walkie-talkies in case you climb beyond earshot of your partner.

Learning how to start trad climbing is exciting, but beware: Trad climbing proficiency is a moving target. You’ll always be learning better techniques, new efficiencies, and methods for managing risk. Keep your self-rescue skills sharp, and keep asking questions. After all, the true mark of a proficient trad climbing isn’t a grade; it’s the desire to keep on learning, no matter how many years have gone by.

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.