If you are interested in rope climbing, you may be familiar with the terminology of sport climbing and traditional (trad) climbing. You may have heard the terms and aren’t entirely sure what the difference is, or you may only have a vague understanding. Either way, this article will set the record straight and leave you with enough knowledge to answer the next time you hear “What’s trad climbing” or “What’s sport climbing?”

First and foremost, it’s crucial to understand that both traditional and sport climbing are rope climbing disciplines. Both allow the climber to scale heights above 12-15 feet with safety measures in place for protection. The other major climbing discipline is bouldering, where the climbs generally don’t exceed a height warranting a harness and rope. Crash pads are enough to protect the climber from these shorter falls. So, whether you choose traditional or sport climbing, rest assured that safety is always a top priority.

In the context of understanding the differences between sport and traditional climbing, we can use a mental Venn Diagram to illustrate the shared characteristics of these two disciplines: the style of climbing, lead, and gear requirements – rope, harnesses, quickdraws, belay devices, and locking carabiners. Lead climbing requires the climber to bring the rope with them as they climb, clipping into quickdraws along the route. The alternative is a top-rope setup where the rope is pre-anchored at the top of the climb and hangs down, allowing the climber to ascend without worrying about clipping into safety points. After these similarities, sport and trad climbing diverge in origin, style, and special gear requirements.

man climbing a wall

Unique Traits of Traditional Climbing

Trad climbing is the OG way of ascending rock, hence ‘traditional.’ It is only accessible outdoors. In trad climbing, a lead climber ascends a rock face, selecting cracks and crevices to place camming devices. Camming devices are protective equipment that serves as temporary anchors where the climber can attach a quickdraw and thus the rope. To recover the placed gear, a second climber follows the leader up the route once the leader has reached the top, secured themselves, and set up a belay. The ‘follower’ climber is now on a top-rope belay so they can remove the cams and quickdraws as they pass them.

Trad climbing, with its roots deeply embedded in the history of rock climbing, offers a thrilling adventure. As the climber meticulously searches for safe, secure places to insert cams while actively ascending, the mental challenge is elevated. The entire process proceeds at a much slower pace than sport climbing, adding to the suspense and excitement. But, the potential for adventure is endless with trad climbing. In some places, it is the only option to ascend cliffs due to bolting laws or the sheer height of the mountain (multi-pitch).

Unique Traits of Sport Climbing

Sport climbing relies on pre-fixed bolts. It is accessible indoors and outdoors. There may be pre-fixed quickdraws to attach the rope along the pre-fixed bolts. At a climbing gym, this is a guarantee. Outdoors, it depends on where you’re climbing, and the fixed quickdraws are called permadraws (short for permanent). Of course, permadraws need replacing and maintenance as they wear down, so always double-check the quality before clipping into them (sometimes the mental of the carabiner can wear down too much and cause abrasions to the rope or cut the rope). Unlike trad climbing, where there’s a leader and a follower. One climber can ascend a sport route and retrieve their gear while lowering from the anchors.

Sport climbing, with its reliance on physicality, presents a different kind of challenge compared to traditional climbing. As the climber does not have the mental challenge of finding secure places for protective gear, they can focus on completing more demanding moves. A sport climber’s goal tends toward performance, pushing their physical limits and striving for improvement. Due to the indoor accessibility of sport climbing, it is more popular and has fewer barriers to entry (fewer gear requirements and technical skills), making it an ideal choice for those seeking a physical challenge.

There are more nuances to dive into, especially regarding all the different gear trad climbers use, but these are the basics of the two main types of lead climbing. Gym climbers are likely more familiar with sport climbing, whereas climbers who started outdoors are likely more familiar with traditional climbing. Trad was the foundation of the sport, and as the sport has evolved into commercial gyms, the Olympics, and more, many outdoor enthusiasts love the mental, physical, and adventure challenge trad climbing presents. For climbers psyched about pushing their physical limits, there has been an increased focus on high-difficulty sport route development worldwide. Try one, try both, or stick to bouldering, but whatever you choose, be safe!