Skip to content Skip to footer

Trad Climbing vs. Sport Climbing

Wondering what’s the difference between trad climbing and sport climbing? In this article, I am going to break down the main difference between these two forms of rock climbing.

Traditional climbing, or trad climbing is a form of free climbing in contrast to sport climbing – climbing where all protection and anchor points are permanently installed prior to the climbing.

Trad Climbing

The routes in trad climbing are climbed without using artificial tools to help the ascent. Only the climbers hands and feet and some passive protection such as nuts and hexes are used.

The defining features of trad climbing are a strong focus on exploration, and a strict dedication to leaving nature unblemished.

In trad climbing, a leader ascends a section of rock placing his or her own ‘protective devices’ while climbing. Prior to about 1970 these devices were often limited to pitons. Today they normally consist mainly of a combination of chocks and spring loaded camming devices but may less commonly include pitons which are driven with a hammer and bolts inserted into a hole drilled into the rock.

Tools used in Trad Climbing are employed as a means of assisting climbers by means of protection, rather than aiding them upwards. What separates Trad Climbing from other styles is that the safety of the climber relies on the tools used as well as the suitable area to place such tools on the mountain wall.

The Australians call this ‘adventure climbing’.

This type of climbing is fairly gear intensive as it is necessary to carry everything you need or might need. This gear is usually carried on a rack which in turn is carried on a sling around the shoulders or clipped to the gear loops on the harness. Such equipment will consist of pieces of protection (“Pros” – see above), slings of different lengths, as well as spare carabiners for emergency use. You will of course need all the taken for granted stuff – harness, climbing shoes, helmet (if you wish), a belay device, etc.

The pieces of equipment used are retrieved either by a belayer or by the climber himself during his descent.

TradClimbing is far more adventurous. It allows you far more freedom on a rock face. The freedom to choose your own route, to test your capabilities and to ensure you know what your equipment is all about – after all your life is going to depend on it. It also promotes teamwork as you will be climbing with a leader who will be placing the ‘pros’ and a belayer who will retrieve the equipment after the climb.

If you are climbing solo, you will be removing the ‘pros’ yourself.

A number of different types of rock are suitable for trad climbing but granite, sandstone, and limestone are ideal.

Sport Climbing

Sport climbing, on the other hand, relies on permanent anchors fixed to the rock, especially bolts, for protection which means that a climber ascends a route that already has permanent bolts and anchors attached on the rock wall. This means that the gear for sports climbing is virtually minimal compared to trad climbing, but not non-existent! The kit you need should consist of a harness, climbing shoes, climbing helmet, rope, belay device and quickdraws.

Since the need to place protection is virtually eliminated, sport climbing places an emphasis on gymnastic ability, strength and endurance, as opposed to adventure, risk and self-sufficiency.

To sports climb, a rope is tied to a climber’s climbing harness with the loose end handled by a belayer. As the climb progresses, the climber will eventually come across bolts where he or she could use a Quickdraw to clip one side to the bolt and the rope to the hanging end of the Quickdraw. This is basically how a climber is protected from falling. Normally, there is a distance of eight feet between each bolt in Sport Climbing route.

Sport climbing was practiced as early as the 1970’s in France when climbers started to place bolts on mountain routes, particularly difficult ones, to allow a climber to ascend more easily by clipping lines to the bolts.

rope, helmet, climbing shoes, harness, chalk bag, belay device, and quick draws

Two quickdraws

Very simply, a route suitable for sport climbing has pre-placed bolts following a line up a rock face. Sport climbs are typically between 20 and 120 feet in length, and have eight to twelve bolts. Some routes may have as few as three bolts, while other routes may have twenty-five or more.

To lead a sport climb is to ascend a route with a rope tied to the climber’s harness, and with the loose end of the rope handled by a belayer. As each bolt is reached along the route, the climber attaches a quickdraw to the bolt and then clips the rope through the hanging end of the quickdraw. This bolt is now protecting the climber in the event of a fall. At the top of sport routes, there is typically a two-bolt anchor that can be used to return the climber to the ground or previous rappel point.

Sports Climbing is a good starting point for anyone new to rock climbing. Practicing techniques and getting used to equipment without fear of injury makes this form of climbing perfect for beginners. It’s also a good form of exercise developing the climber’s strength, stamina, and flexibility in every climb. And, of course, it’s cheaper than trad climbing as less equipment is needed. However, please do not think that this means you can cut costs on what you do have – whatever form of rock climbing you do there is always an inherent danger and it is NOT worth cutting any corners.

Rock types that produce good sport climbs include limestone, granite and quartzite, though sport climbs can be found on almost all rock types.

Final Thoughts

There is a little animosity between the two techniques. Maybe not so much animosity as a difference of opinion…

While it may be more dangerous than sport climbing, traditional climbing leaves little or no trace of climbing which preserves the natural environment of the cliff face. Sport climbing, on the other hand, requires bolts to be permanently drilled into the rock face providing the exclusive or primary means of protection. The difference between sport and traditional or “trad” styles has caused some periodic contention in the rock climbing community as the respective camps debate the relative merits of the differing styles.