Traditional (or just ‘trad’) climbing is the style where you place protection in the rock as you climb. If placed properly, the protection will prevent you from falling too far. There are two major types of trad climbing gear available and a few other less popular kinds. Everyone who trad climbs should have 1-2 sets of nuts (aka stoppers), which are shaped metal wedges that you place in a crack where it gets narrower. If placed properly, nuts are bomber and will hold big falls. Camming devices, or just ‘cams’, work well in cracks with parallel sides and are the perfect complement to nuts. When you place a cam you pull the trigger, making the 3 or 4 metal lobes narrower. Once the cam is in the crack far enough, release the trigger and the lobes will expand. Any force that attempts to pull the cam will make the lobes become wider, keeping the unit secure. Before you lead a trad climb, make sure to learn from an expert how to properly place all your gear, build anchors, and other required safety techniques.
Rock Climbing Nuts (aka Stoppers)
Unless you are climbing totally parallel cracks in Indian Creek or something similar, then you will want to bring 1-2 sets of nuts along when you trad climb. They are easy to place, bomber and relatively lightweight.
I use the Black Diamond stoppers, but other people I know use Wild Country Rocks. The main differences between brands are the shape of the nuts as well as the sizing. One brand versus the other isn’t as important as knowing how to properly place them. Once you get used to one brand you’ll probably stick with that.
Rock Climbing Camming Devices (aka Cams, SLCD’s, Friends)
Unlike nuts, camming devices are heavy, expensive and vary widely from brand to brand. They are also a very important part of your rack, so make sure to choose wisely when you start assembling a rack. In general, it’s easiest to have a rack of all one brand of cams, but people generally mix it up a little, especially when buying really small or really big cams. I prefer the Black Diamond cams, but also own some Metolius and CCH Aliens. Wild Country offers the largest cam on the market, so if you’re into burly offwidth climbing, you’ll want to get one or two of those. You will want to get 1-2 cams of each size within a size range that you find necessary. For Black Diamond cams, this is probably everything between the 0.3 and 3 sizes in the C4 line. Check your guide books for recommended racks and find people who will lend you some cams when you start out so you don’t have to throw down too much cash right away. CCH Aliens are hard to find, but are great for placing in small cracks since they have a single stem. Besides the stem design, the number of lobes on a cam can vary, with 4 lobes being the most popular and stable.
Other Protection Devices
There are also many other different kinds of protection that people have invented over the years. Some of this gear is specialty equipment that you will need on certain climbs, while others are just different styles that you can adopt according to your preferences. There are other kinds of protection available that aren’t listed here, but they are mainly specialty pieces that are used rarely or only for aid climbing.
Tri-cams are probably the most popular type of protection aside from nuts and cams. They operate in a few modes and are able to act as an oddly shaped nut or have a camming action, similar to a Hex (introduced below). They often provide solid protection in places where neither a nut nor a cam will fit very well. Due to this versatility, many people like tri-cams and I encourage you to learn how to use them.
Rock Climbing Hexes
Hexes are old school gear that have mainly been replaced by cams. They look sort of like enormous stoppers and sound like cowbells. Their main advantages are their extremely low price compared to cams as well as their lack of moving parts. Cams have springs and wire triggers that sometimes need replacing, while hexes are much simpler.
Trango Big Bros are for people who are into crazy wide cracks that are too big for cams. If you’re into off width climbing, then chances are you might pick up a Big Bro or two.
Other Gear Required
In addition to the protection devices described above, you will need an assortment of other gear that will make sure you ascend the rock in style and safety.
Slings with two non-locking carabiners are often used as ‘alpine quickdraws’ when trad climbing. If you get the ones that are about 2 feet long, then you can shorten and extend them easily to adjust for the often traversing nature of traditional climbs. For example, when the route goes left or right a good amount, you will want to use longer slings to reduce rope drag. I generally bring about 12-15 slings with me on a trad climb, but it can vary widely depending on the pitch length.
Non-locking carabiners are essential as you will use two of them with a sling to make an alpine quickdraw. You’ll need about twice as many carabiners as slings plus one more carabiner for each cam, so you can attach the cams to your harness or gear sling.
Wire gate carabiners are very nice to have, check my guide to choosing quickdraws for more info about non-locking carabiners in general.
You will need enough locking carabiners to build 2 anchors, as well as tie in to those anchors. It’s always a good idea to have a few extra lockers just in case you need to connect something else securely to your harness or the anchor. I avoid auto-locking carabiners since they sometimes catch (and don’t lock).
A cordalette makes anchor building easy, quick and safe. For info on how to safely build anchors, learn from an expert and read Climbing Anchors. Get two cordalettes so you can set up two anchors on a multipitch climb.
A gear sling will help you keep your gear organized and allow you to move some weight off your harness. Also, they will allow you to quickly give your partner the rack. For trad climbing, the single shoulder sling is best.
A nut tool will help you remove nuts and sometimes even cams when you are following a pitch. Always keep one with you and attach it to your harness with a long sling so that you can’t drop it.
Climbing and/or Approach Shoes
When trad climbing, you will definitely want comfortable shoes that you can wear all day. I prefer the La Sportiva Mythos, but check my guide to rock climbing shoes for more details.
A great guide to trad climbing and all other styles of rock climbing (plus loads more useful info) is Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. I highly recommend you pick this up, but don’t let it replace an expert who can properly teach you safe rock climbing skills.
Basic Sport Climbing Equipment
Lastly, of course you will need a basic climbing equipment that you would use while sport climbing. This includes a climbing harness, shoes, chalk bag, chalk, helmet, and daisy chains. Check my guide to sport climbing equipment for tips on how to choose that gear. Just don’t try to do a multi-pitch trad route in your super aggressive and tiny sport climbing shoes!
This guide covers all the gear you will need for a trad climbing adventure. Just make sure to be safe and learn the proper skills before you go off on your own. Practice placing gear on the ground and start out on easy terrain! If you live in California, a great place to learn how to trad climb is Yosemite. Read my Beginner’s Guide to Rock Climbing in Yosemite for information about some intro climbs there. For other kinds of rock climbing gear check out the other articles on this website.