What’s the Difference Between Sport and Trad Climbing? A Beginner’s Guide

In Good to Know, Pro Advice, Skills by Pete

I recently started rock climbing again more seriously. I climbed in my teenage years mostly to hang out with the beautiful people at the local rock climbing gym. After finally settling in one spot I decided to seek out a climbing community.  It can be intimidating infiltrating such a sport, not merely for its risk but for the jargon alone. It took me a little while to learn the ropes again. One thing I have learned is that there are many different ways to get to the top.

What is Sport Climbing?

Sports climbing is a type of rock climbing that utilizes permanently fixed bolts for protection from falls. Bolts are typically placed evenly apart. Sport climbing routes tend to outline a more direct path. As a climber sends the route they lead the rope up the wall attaching a quickdraw, two carabiners attached to opposite ends of webbing, first to the bolt then clipping in the rope. After the rope is anchored at the top of the route, there are typically two bolts, the lead climber can descend and the route is now set to top rope. The climber can clean the quickdraws and rope from the rock face, and the bolts remain in the wall.

sport climber using minimal equipment since all protection points are pre-existing on the wall

What is Trad Climbing?

Traditional climbing or trad climbing is a type of rock climbing in which the climber uses all their own gear to set and send routes. Routes are typically windy and treacherous. The climber has to identify crevasses to place appropriate gear, that gear mimics a temporary bolt. Then, they continue to place a quickdraw and lead the rope to the top of the route. All gear is placed by the climber, and it is used for protection from falls. The climber then cleans the route, removing all gear at the end of the climb session.

What kind of equipment is needed?

There have been times I’ve climbed a route without enough quickdraws on my harness, and I’ve realized too late. It’s important to be prepared with all the necessary equipment to send a route. Otherwise, you might end up between a rock and a hard place. I take care in building my rack. I know I wouldn’t want to be caught up there unprepared. There are some basic items of equipment used for both sport climbing and trad climbing. Sport climbing utilizes relatively less equipment than trad climbing. The climber uses some of the same gear for both.
• Harness (for belayer and climber)
• Climbing Shoes
• Chalk Bag
• A Dynamic Rope
• Belay device (Grigri or ATC device)
• Locking carabiners

In addition to the above gear, sport climbers need quickdraws and slings for anchoring. Quite a bit more of equipment is needed for trad climbing. Trad climbing requires more expertise in determining the appropriate equipment.

• Aluminum, steel or brass nuts
• Spring-loaded camming devices
• Tricams
• Hexagonal shaped chocks
• Slings

If you’d like to see some of our team’s recommendations for gear and climbing hardware, please click the button for our recommended gear page!


Climbing equipment is continually evolving. Sport climbing equipment such as quickdraws are becoming lighter weight and more efficient. Trad climbing equipment is becoming more secure and easier to remove. Prior to 1970 there were no forms of removable nuts, cams or chocks. Pitons were used for trad climbing. Pitons were fixed into the rock and remained on the wall, and used much like bolts are in sport climbing. Since the 1970s a push for removable trad climbing equipment has been encouraged due to conservation efforts.

Care of Equipment

Equipment should be checked for wear and tear. Worn or broken equipment can increase risk while climbing. There are four factors that contribute to the wear and tear of a climbers’ equipment. First, inspection of gear should take place before every trip. Sand and other natural debris can cause deterioration. Not only should you look for deep cuts or tears, but ropes and harnesses could have frayed areas.

sport climber on and indoor gym wall

Harnesses and Ropes

The tie-in point of a harness is the most crucial area to inspect. After all, this is the spot that has the most tension on it when a climber sends a route. If there is any significant sign of wear on a harness it should be discarded and replaced. I trust my harness with my life, and I have enough on my mind to be worried about whether my harness will catch me if I fall. Ropes are the second most important piece of climbing equipment. Before sending a climb flaking a rope at the crag is a sure way to inspect the rope for any snags, tears, or wear spots. Proper inspection of anchor materials, webbing, or slings is a must.

Climbing Hardware

Climbing hardware, such as; belay devices, cams, nuts, tricams, chocks, and quickdraws can develop hairline fractures that can cause them to have weak spots. Careful storage and handling of these items can prevent this from happening. Although, these are meant to serve in harsh environments. Dropping or banging items on hard surfaces can cause small cracks. Climbing hardware should be stored separately from harness and ropes because they can snag and cause damage in between climbing adventures.


I have taken some hard lead falls, one of which I swung against the wall and hit my head. Luckily, I was wearing a helmet. I gathered my confidence and continued sending the route, but I knew before my next climbing adventure I should replace my helmet. Even though it did not visibly show any large imperfection, a helmet should be replaced if it takes a hit. Like other hardware, they can develop hairline fractures that impair its performance.

Kinds of Risk

Climbing in a gym is much different than outdoors. Routes are clearly determined with colorful holds, and the gym is a predictable, artificial, environment. Training in a controlled environment is a great way to build strength and technical skills, but once I’ve taken my training outdoors I always need to adjust my perception of my capabilities. There are many more unpredictable variables to encounter in nature.

All types of climbing disciplines have risk involved. Climbing outside has its own unique hazards because of the unpredictability of natural environments. Most notably, rock falls are prevalent. It’s important for both belayers and climbers to wear helmets to protect themselves. Also, loose holds can dislodge and cause rock falls. This can make sport climbing and trad climbing very dangerous. While a climber is leading a sport or trad route it’s important for the climber to find solid holds for their feet and hands to prevent rock falls. Rocks can be slippery or wet. In one of my more unfortunate moments several years ago in Colorado, I stepped on a bee’s nest unexpectedly in a hold!

Risk during Sport Climbing

Climbers sending sport routes can concentrate on the difficulty of moves because they do not have to concern themselves with placing protection in the rock. However, during lead climbing, they can take falls up to 20 feet between quickdraws. The bolts in the wall for sport routes are typically solid permanent structures and it is unlikely they would fail during a fall. The climber would fall to the previous bolt.

Risk during Trad Climbing

Trad climbers prepare before starting the climb

Trad climbers need to be much more knowledgeable about their equipment and route. Careful preparation is vital to ensuring a successful climb. Building their rack and selecting appropriately sized cams, chocks, and nuts is a tedious process. Trad climbing requires special concentration and more development in technical skills to send a route because the climber needs to be decisive and confident in placing protective gear in the rock. Inexperience can lead to poorly placed gear and bad falls. A climber could potentially fall several pitches if gear dislodges.

Technical Skills

Sport climbing to me is much more relaxing. I can take my time on the wall and rest when needed. The route is laid out for me and I can take my time. Sport climbing is a less intense type of climbing. A sport climber needs strength and stamina to send a route but does not have to do much problem-solving. The route is already determined so as they climb they just clip into the bolt.

Trad climbing requires strength and stamina as well, but it is much more intense and requires much more concentration. Trad climbers are constantly problem-solving to determine the proper spot to place equipment. They are in control of setting their own forms of protection from falls. They must be knowledgeable about their equipment and they must be exceptionally well-prepared. I have seen first hand the detriment that a trad climber feels when they have to bail on a climb because of lack of preparation. If the climb is deemed too difficult, or forces of nature intervene, the climber may be forced to bail.

Climbing is a sport for all ages and all types of risk takers. I’ve realized there are many different ways to get to the top. I’ve learned it is important to know my limits and capabilities. A good “belaytionship” is vital to success on the wall. Lack of communication with lack of skill can cause accidents to happen. There are always new things to learn and opportunities to try new types of climbing. Surrounding oneself with a knowledgeable climbing community can push a climber to reach new personal heights.

What’s the Difference Between Sport and Trad Climbing? A Beginner’s Guide was last modified: April 18th, 2019 by Pete