Last update: May 11, 2022
Newcomers to the sport of climbing are sometimes surprised by the variety of techniques and equipment used by modern climbers to overcome the challenges of different types of terrain. From mountaineering and ice climbing to rock climbing and bouldering, all of these disciplines have their own specialized gear and demand that their practitioners master different skill sets.
When it comes to rope climbing on outdoor rock (as opposed to bouldering or free soloing), climbers usually employ one of two general styles. In climbers’ lingo, these are called trad climbing and sport climbing.
What Do “Trad Climbing” and “Sport Climbing” Mean?
In the realm of technical rock climbing, free climbing is defined by using a rope and some means of protection, with the climber only relying on this gear to catch their body weight in the event of a fall. Free climbers never pull on the rope or other gear to aid their ascent.
The two main styles, sport climbing vs. trad, are defined by one critical difference: the system of protection that a lead climber uses to reduce the distance and severity of falls.
In trad climbing, a leader places various types of gear into natural features in the rock. Then, they clip the rope as they progress upward. If they fall, their belayer locks the rope, and the gear keeps the rope and climber secured to the wall. This reduces or eliminates the risk of injury. The last climber to follow this leader removes the gear as they ascend, leaving no evidence of the party’s passing.
Sport climbing shares the main objective of trad climbing: to climb higher using only one’s hands and feet on the existing rock features. However, sport routes are equipped with pre-placed bolts in the rock for protection.
Sport leaders clip into these bolts as they pass using quickdraws, which are two carabiners attached by a short sling. When the leader takes a fall, he falls only down to the last clipped bolt.
Sport climbing routes usually have bolted anchors and hardware. This allows practitioners to lower or rappel easily without leaving behind their gear or webbing.
History of Rock Climbing Disciplines
As you may know, “trad climbing” is an abbreviation of the phrase “traditional climbing.”
Prior to the 1980s, trad climbing was essentially the only kind of technical free climbing. While early climbers in Europe and the Americas considered any method of reaching the summit of a route fair game, the post-WWII era launched a new era of athletes who wanted to test their strength and skill without using a rope or other gear for assistance.
Modern free-climbing ethics and gear evolved throughout the 60s and 70s as new pioneers pushed the limits of climbing difficulty.
During this time, the technology of climbing protection improved from simple slings and pitons to nuts and hexes to spring-loaded camming devices. This modern trad gear accelerated the pace of big wall conquests and unlocked possibilities for increasingly difficult routes.
Trad climbers also occasionally placed bolts to create safe anchors at belay stations or to protect an otherwise unprotectable section of a route. At some point, though, people began looking at long, blank faces that were not safe to protect using trad gear.
Thus began the sport climbing revolution of the 1980s and the opening of new crags and areas. Suddenly, the absence of placements for traditional protection didn’t matter. For many climbers, getting rid of all the gear needed for this older style ushered in a new era of freedom.
1. Climbing Method Impacts Where You Can Climb
The method that climbers use to ascend any particular route is highly dependent on the character of the rock at that locale. Rock formations containing many cracks and fissures, pockets, flakes, horns, and knobs generally develop as trad climbing areas. Climbers use these features to place natural protection in the form of slings, nuts, and cams.
The global climbing community has mostly agreed that bolts shouldn’t be drilled for protection if there are features available that would allow us to protect a route with natural gear.
In light of that, many climbing areas and crags are developed predominantly for one of the two disciplines, either sport or trad climbing. Climbers can’t climb rock walls with few features safely with natural protection. When climbers began bolting routes like this in the 1980s, it opened up a whole new universe of climbable rock.
Depending on where you live, you may have more opportunities nearby for one type of climbing over another. This depends not only on rock qualities but also on local history, ethics, and community standards.
For example, California has significantly more trad routes than sport routes (per MountainProject.com). Colorado has roughly an equal number of trad climbs vs. sport. And New York has virtually no sport routes.
To sum up: Sport climbers are limited to climbing where someone has installed permanent bolts. Trad climbers are limited to climbing where there are enough natural rock features to provide safe and sufficient gear placements.
Rarely do these conditions overlap, so if you want to climb ALL the routes, you’ll need to master both disciplines!
2. Amount and Type of Gear
Sport Climbing Gear
One of the best qualities of sport climbing is its simplicity. Not worrying about where and what gear to place allows us to focus more fully on the pure joy of moving over the rock.
This minimalist aspect extends to packing at home and racking up at the crag. Most sport climbing routes worldwide can be sent with a 70-meter rope and 15 quickdraws for protection. Add in a belay/rappel device, a personal anchor system (PAS), and whatever else you need to clean and lower from a route, and you’re good to go.
Climbing gear definitely isn’t inexpensive, but getting into sport climbing offers a relatively low financial barrier compared to many sports.
Trad Climbing Gear
Contrast the sport climber’s lean rack to one of those images of a team of big wall climbers and their arsenal of heavy metal, along with a nest of cords and slings, spread out over a 24-square-foot tarp.
Of course, not every trad climb requires a 200-pound haul bag or a skirt of giant cams. But every trad climber does need to be prepared for a variety of unknowns. Making sure you can tackle whatever comes up requires more and more types of gear than any sport route.
A typical beginner’s trad rack consists of a set of nuts, a set of camming devices from 0.5 to #3, runners/slings, carabiners (4 locking carabiners), quickdraws, 6 – 7 mm cord, and a nut tool to assist in gear removal.
There are other types of traditional climbing protection, primarily variations of those mentioned. Hexes are like giant, hollow nuts for wider cracks. Micro nuts and micro cams are exactly what they sound like. Tricams are similar to nuts, but you can them in a way that creates a passive camming force.
Before embarking on a trad outing, try to find out if there’s existing info, or “beta,” regarding gear recommendations for your particular target route. Guidebooks and online sources usually include specific items needed for your trad climbing rack, especially if an unusual piece of gear is required to complete the climb safely. Some route descriptions will simply state, “Standard rack is sufficient,” or similar.
As you can see, trad climbing requires a more considerable investment in equipment and greater knowledge to use it properly.
3. Levels of Risk and Commitment
One of the biggest reasons for rock climbing’s exploding popularity over the past twenty years is that sport lead climbing in a gym has helped train outdoor leaders who aren’t afraid to fall.
Many consider sport climbing to be a less risky and committing endeavor in climbing circles.
Sport climbers generally aren’t worried about their protection failing or a bolt pulling out in the event of a fall. This security allows a leader to climb with a certain peace of mind on challenging routes and shrug off the consequences of a mistake.
The bolts on a sport route should be bolted in a way that limits the possibilities of ground fall or a leader hitting a ledge or other obstacle. And a route’s hardest move (the “crux”) is easier to protect and makes a fall at that spot inconsequential. There’s usually no reason for a bolted route to have dangerous runouts or serious fall risks.
On the other hand, Trad leaders must always be concerned about the solidity of their gear placements, or lack thereof. Every time you set a nut or cam in a crack, you give it a yank and ask yourself, “Will this hold?”
Overcoming this mental game is one of the biggest hurdles for would-be trad climbers.
There’s an old-school segment of the trad climbing tribe that glamorizes and encourages risky behavior. This is one of the elements that gave climbing a well-deserved reputation as a terrifying test of courage. Long runouts on blank rock were celebrated as “bold.”
That mentality may be necessary to succeed on the world’s classic trad climbing test pieces; there’s no doubt. But that’s not the norm. Most trad climbers try to place as much gear as they can to prevent serious falls and live to climb another day.
4. Techniques and Skills
Rock climbing is rock climbing, right? If you want to see something interesting, take a 5.11 lead climber from the gym and tie them in to top rope an off-width crack rated 5.8 in the 1980s. In about five minutes, they’ll be swearing off crack climbing forever and saying this is the hardest they’ve ever worked in his life. And no, this didn’t happen to me.
Trad climbing most often takes place in a low-angle to vertical world of cracks, pockets, knobs, and flakes. The techniques climbers employ to scale these rock features include jamming (hands, feet, fingers, fists, toes, legs, arms), chimneying, liebacking (or is it laybacking?), smearing, and stemming.
Sport climbs may require similar moves, but face climbing techniques are more common to sport climbing, like crimping and pinching handholds and edging and hooking on footholds.
Sport routes tend more toward the vertical to overhung. This can be more demanding of a climber’s upper body and finger strength.
5. Impact on Environment
When we create sport climbing routes, we are semi-permanently altering the landscape. Drilling 4-inch deep holes in a rock face and leaving metal expansion bolts behind. By most accounts, bolts provide a higher level of safety over natural pro, making climbing more accessible to a broader audience.
It’s also clear that bolting and leaving fixed hardware behind make a more significant and longer-lasting environmental impact than using traditional methods. Shiny bolt lines and chains hanging from the cliff face can also offend aesthetic sensibilities.
If you want to climb in the cleanest environmental style possible, trad is the way to go. It’s also the only way in designated Wilderness areas in the US, as drilling and bolting are forbidden.
Who Are the Best Sport and Trad Climbers in the World?
It’s good to have role models to teach us and provide the stoke to keep training for the next big project. The climbers listed below would crush most of us in any discipline. However, they are best known for their work in a particular style. Here are some of the world’s baddest climbers in sport climbing and trad.
Rad Trad Climbers
Wide Boyz (Pete Whittaker and Tom Randall), Beth Rodden, Hazel Finlay, Tommy Caldwell, Jacopo Larcher
Stupendous Sport Climbers
Alex Megos, Adam Ondra, Stefano Ghisolfi, Janja Garnbret, Margo Hayes, Angela Eiter, Chris Sharma.
What Are the Hardest Sport and Trad Climbing Routes in the World?
It’s difficult to compare ratings for the hardest sport climbs and trad routes side-by-side since they often have extremely different characteristics and physical challenges. At the time of this writing, the highest-graded sport route is 5.15d, and the most difficult known trad route is 5.14d/5.15a (check out our article on climbing grades if you need a refresher!).
Are you gunning to be the best of the best? Take a look at these hardman and hardwoman routes and start training.
Silence, 5.15d / 9c, Flatanger, Norway, First ascent Adam Ondra (unrepeated)
La Dura Dura, 5.15c / 9b+, Oliana, Spain, FA Adam Ondra
Bibliographie, 5.15c / 9b+, Ceuse, France, FA Alexander Megos
Jumbo Love, 5.15b / 9b, Nevada, USA, FA Chris Sharma
Tribe, 5.14d / 9a, Cardarese, Italy, FA Jacopo Larcher
Meltdown, 5.14c / 8c+, California, USA, FA Beth Rodden
Pura Pura, 5.14c / 8c+, Valle dell’Orco, Italy, FA Tom Randall
Cobra Crack, 5.14b/c / 8c+, Squamish, Canada, FA Sonnie Trotter
What’s the Best Discipline to Start Rock Climbing?
The answer to this question may depend on your climbing goals. The easiest path for a beginner without an experienced partner available is to start climbing at an indoor climbing gym. You can pay for instruction there and learn the basics of top-rope climbing, then lead belaying and climbing.
After you understand the basics of lead climbing and lead belaying, along with how to clean an anchor, rappel, and perform a few other basic skills, you’re ready to safely lead a sport climb outside.
The easiest path isn’t always the best path, though. Not everyone lives near indoor climbing gyms.
Maybe you live in an area where trad and crack climbing are dominant, and few sport routes are nearby. Or you have a climber friend willing to teach you the basics of the traditional climbing style. Take advantage of these opportunities and learn the art of trad protection that the average sport climber will never comprehend.
Sport vs. Trad FAQs
Most climbers consider trad climbing more physically and mentally challenging than sport climbing. Learning to safely lead a trad route requires more technical knowledge and experience placing gear, the endurance needed to pause mid-route and ensure good placements, and perhaps greater mental strength to counteract the greater risk factors present in trad leading.
Lead climbing simply refers to the first climber (i.e., the “leader”) tying in to a rope at the bottom of a cliff and ascending while clipping into gear as he or she gains altitude. Whether the leader is clipping sturdy bolts or removable protection, this is all referred to as lead climbing. The opposite of lead climbing is top-roping. When climbing on a top rope, the rope is already attached to an anchor at the top of the route, so there is virtually zero risk of taking a dangerous fall. Trad climbing and sport climbing are both forms of lead climbing.
For some of the reasons we’ve already described, most people believe that sport climbing is objectively safer than trad climbing. The number of accidents caused by pre-installed bolts failing is incredibly small, compared to the frequency of trad protection pulling out during a lead fall. However, most leader falls on traditional protection don’t end in injury. It’s up to the trad leader to decide whether a climb offers adequate gear placements and acceptable runouts and whether the risks are manageable. Ultimately, the safety of either climbing style relies on the leader and belayer understanding and mitigating all known risks as a team.
Eric Neyer was introduced to the joys of rock climbing while studying creative writing in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. He has lived and climbed all over Colorado for the past 20 years. Currently residing in southern Colorado, on most weekends you’ll find Eric sport climbing the local granite or limestone, scouting out the next great boulder problem, or hiking one of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks.