Trad Climbing vs Sport Climbing [What’s The Difference?]

If you ever thought all climbing was the same, think again. In this article we will take an in-depth look at trad climbing vs sport climbing, a similar but, in reality, two very different endeavors requiring almost completely different skill sets.

By the time you’ve finished reading this article, you will know everything you need to know about the differences between trad and sport climbing.

Let’s start out by establishing exactly what trad and sport climbing each are:

Trad, or traditional climbing, generally covers climbing that involves taking various equipment with you and attaching certain security equipment along the way to safely harness yourself to whatever surface you are attempting to scale. In contrast, sport climbing focuses more on the physical challenges with climbers using pre-placed bolts to scale the surface of a wall.

The Key Differences

Climbing has evolved a lot in recent times. There was a time when there was only one type of climbing: rock climbing.

Then along came sport climbing, and there had to be a way to distinguish the two, hence the introduction of the terminology trad climbing and sport climbing.

Key characteristics of traditional climbing:

  • The stakes are higher. The danger of getting injured or killed is significantly higher with trad climbing and, indeed, there are many such fatalities every year. That said, neither style of climbing is entirely risk-free.
  • Trad climbing is usually synonymous with rock climbing, although there are climbers who like to scale buildings and such like.
  • Traditional climbing shouldn’t be attempted by beginners without an experienced instructor along for the ride. It requires technical knowledge that can take several years or longer to properly master.
  • Trad climbers have to feel their way up by route-finding. No two routes are exactly the same, even on the same rock face.

Key characteristics of sport climbing:

  • Sport climbing is not without danger and there is still a serious risk of injury, but most facilities that cater to sport climbing will have a strong emphasis on health and safety.
  • Most sport climbing happens in sports facilities or at other special venues. Many gyms, for example, nowadays have climbing walls for better all-round fitness.
  • It is quite ordinary and common for sport climbers to fall repeatedly. The safety equipment is designed to make sure that they don’t hurt or injure themselves.
  • Practically anyone can give sport climbing a go with little or no experience. There will be an instructor at whatever venue you attend to help you with your harness and gear to ensure a safer climb.
  • One of the key defining characteristics of sport climbing is the pre-placed bolts on the wall or surface you are climbing. You can still choose your own path up the wall from the numerous bolts attached to the wall.

scaling rock face

How To Choose The Style Best For You

If you’re not sure which is the best style of climbing, here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you decide which is more suited.

Why Do You Want To Climb In The First Place?

Choosing the style of climbing that suits you best depends on a number of facts, a lot of them psychological.

What do you want to get out of climbing? Are you doing for the buzz? The sense of self-efficacy, perhaps, as you scale yet another peak in your quickest time yet?

How Much Time Have You Got To Spare?

Whichever style of climbing you decide to pursue, it can take up a considerable amount of your time.

It’s not just the time it takes you to scale the wall or rock face, there’s the time it takes you to learn to climb, the time to travel wherever you are going, the time to clean and maintain your equipment (more so with traditional climbing) and so on. Climbing is a very time-intensive hobby to pursue.

How Much Are You Willing To Invest?

You can generally find a suitable rock face and climb it for free, but the clothing and equipment for traditional climbing can be expensive.

In contrast, with sport climbing any special safety equipment like harnesses and helmets will likely be provided by the venue. You simply pay whatever price they charge to use the equipment.

What Is Your Appetite For Danger?

Both trad climbing and sport climbing can be dangerous. Accidents happen, injuries occur. Neither endeavor is entirely risk-free.

Having said that, you stand a far greater risk of messing up and getting yourself killed trad climbing than you do sport climbing.

Most sport climbing is carried out in controlled conditions and so the type of injury tends to be more minor.

Where Will You Climb?

Obviously, whichever style of climbing you decide to pursue, you need somewhere to do it. Is there a local gym nearby with a climbing wall? If not, sport climbing might not be feasible.

Likewise, if you don’t live near any interesting rock faces, you might have to think about how much time you will actually be able to spend learning the necessary intricacies of trad climbing before you even attempt to set foot on a rock face.

Equipment Needs

rock climbing gear

As mentioned, if you plan to take up sport climbing, most of the equipment will already be there for you but we will now look at some of the equipment you will need for trad climbing.

  • A Helmet. It almost goes without saying that one of the first pieces of equipment you will want to invest in is a suitable helmet. They only limited protection in the event of a fall, of course, but they offer you valuable protection from rocks and other debris falling on you from above.
  • Ropes. You will, of course, require ropes and not just one rope. There are all different climbing ropes available that are all designed to meet different needs. Speak to your instructor about which ropes you need to start out with.
  • Shoes. Specialist rock-climbing shoes are engineered to make standing on tiny pieces of protruding rock far easier. One of the most important considerations when it comes to shoes is the fit. You will likely be wearing the shoes for extended periods and be moving through various awkward positions. The shoes need to be comfortable and well-fitting.
  • A Harness. The more experience you get trad climbing, the more likely you are to develop a favorite harness. You will spend a lot of time in the harness and so it needs to feel comfortable. Most harnesses have a number of gear loops for attaching things to, too many though can be confusing and off-putting. Four or five such loops is the ideal amount.
  • Cams, hexes, slings, and other equipment. There is a lot of minor pieces of equipment you need like cams, hexes, and slings. These are not optional extras, they are an important part of your trad climbing equipment and the costs can quickly add up. Don’t be tempted to skimp on costs, though, and always be wary of buying pre-owned equipment that may have developing weaknesses that are not immediately obvious.

Along with this concise list, there is a host of other equipment and clothing that you will potentially need. Again, you should discuss your equipment needs with a qualified instructor and find reputable suppliers.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, this article has thrown a bit of light on the often adrenaline-filled world that is climbing and helped you decide which style of climbing you would like to pursue.

Nathan Barker

My wife and I are huge adventure seekers! We've traveled and explored over 40 countries and want to share what we have learned on our journey. We'll be talking about everything from hiking and camping, to guides, reviews and tips that we're sure will help any avid adventurer no matter what walk of life. So relax, grab a cup of coffee and we hope you enjoy the read!