HOW TO BUILD YOUR FIRST TRAD RACK
A trad rack is a collective term for the equipment climbers need to keep themselves safe during traditional or ‘trad’ climbing. Building your first starter rack of gear is an exciting experience but it is also one that takes time, consideration and a bit of practical understanding. No doubt you just want to get onto the rock; but when it concerns your safety, it’s always worth taking the time to choose the correct basic equipment.
That’s why we have put together this guide on the types of equipment available to you and why you may need them. Please note however, that this is not advice on the correct and safe usage. If you’re a beginner, or you’re unsure, find a qualified climbing instructor, learn from a more experienced friend or join a climbing club, as this is an excellent way of finding like-minded and experienced people.
We’ve also made this handy video, which explains how to build a trad rack.
WHAT IS TRADITIONAL CLIMBING?
Before going into detail about the different types of gear, it’s important to understand some of the processes involved in trad climbing.
Trad climbing is where the first (lead) climber will climb a route whilst placing various pieces of protective gear in case they fall. This is different to ‘sport’ climbing, as the protection is temporarily placed by hand rather than permanently drilled into the rock. To find out more about the different types of climbing, go to our guide on climbing styles.
Once the lead climber is secure, the next person will ‘strip’ the route by ‘seconding’ it. This is how trad climbers reclaim their trad rack gear whilst moving up the rock.
The type of climbing gear you will need depends on whether you will lead or second the route and is outlined below.
RACK FOR SECONDING
To be a well-equipped second a very small rack of sorts is needed. You will however need all the standard clothing and personal protection used for climbing in general. These include but are not limited to: Harness, Helmet, Climbing Shoes & Chalk bag.
With regards to the equipment specific to seconding a trad route, you will need:
A belay device and HMS Screwgate Karabiner – A tubular device that can be used for single, half or twin ropes and a screwgate karabiner for fastening it to the belay loop on your harness is ideal. Self-locking belay devices can be problematic on trad routes as they don’t give a particularly dynamic fall which can put excessive pressure on the protection. This style of belay is better suited to sport climbing. Single rope devices generally shouldn’t be used for abseiling and crucially can’t be used with half or twin ropes. Remember to check the rope diameter and compatibility with your device.
Three locking Karabiners – Ideally one of these will be a large HMS karabiner as this style is capable of holding multiple knots. I’d always carry a few of these on multi-pitch routes and any climb where there is an abseil descent or if there is any other reason you may need to be attached to the anchor after completing the route.
A 120cm Sling – This can be worn across the body or neatly kept on the harness. One use of this is to tie what’s called a cow’s tail. This is to attach yourself to the anchor whilst preparing to abseil or belaying the lead climber. Although this is often carried on a snap gate karabiner to save weight, when in use this typically done with a screw gate karabiner.
A nut key – This is essential for getting tricky bits of protection out of the rock. Having a small dedicated karabiner for your nut key is a must, as you’ll want to clip it to, and remove it from your harness. Try to ensure that all the karabiners on your harness are fully climbing rated, that means there’s no chance of using a small accessory karabiner by accident.
Prusik Loops – On multi pitch routes and certain single pitch routes, especially sea cliffs or those with abseil approaches/descents, you’ll also want to carry a couple of prussic loops. The benefit of having these is that if you were to accidently let go of the brake rope, then the prisik loop bites shut and should stop the rope playing through your belay. The thickness of the cord should be about 3mm less than the diameter of the climbing rope being used. As always, a locking karabiner is required to secure these.
RACK FOR LEAD CLIMBING
The gear needed for leading is everything listed above but also includes a range of protective equipment.
Belay Device – You may choose to use the same belay device you used when seconding. Alternatively you may chose a belay device with a guide mode; these have an additional, fixed metal loop which means it can be used in the system rather than connected to the belayer. These are good on multi pitch routes, especially with direct belays or when climbing with two seconders. But a standard device is also fine. As always with trad, self-locking and single rope devices are not a good choice.
Nuts – These are the most common and widely used pieces of protection. This style of protection is referred to as ‘passive’ as it has no moving parts. Typically I’d carry a set sized 1 to 10, but for longer routes, consider taking two of these sets, or at least two sets of the key sizes, which generally range from about 4 to 7.
Cams – Depending on the rock type cams are a vital addition. They can be expensive and are comparatively heavy, but by starting small, with sizes 1 to 3 you set yourself up for many routes. Due to their moving parts, cams are considered to be a form of ‘active’ protection. When learning, always practice on the ground, and when seconding, pay particular attention to how gear has been placed. The DMM Dragon or the Black Diamond Camalot are amongst the most popular.
Hexes – Despite the fact they have no moving parts, their shape means that they can, if used wisely, act as both passive and active protection. They can be wedged in, like a nut, or when weighted, ‘roll’ into position, not dissimilar to a cam. Hexes on doubled slings are especially good because it can cut down the number of quickdraws needed. Read and study the route description so you can tailor your rack to the route. You will over time develop a preference for different forms of protection in different areas.
Slings – A good range of lengths and thicknesses are always useful, not only for helping to build belays and anchors but also for threads, spikes and runners. As long as the rock is sound, slings provide excellent, multi-directional protection. Depending on the length of the route, two 60cm slings, two 120cm slings and maybe one 240cm sling gives you a good range of options – all on wire gates to save weight.
Quickdraws – There are a number of different styles, all with different lengths and gate openings, but generally medium to long quickdraws with wire gates are good because keeping weight to a minimum is always advisable for trad. The number of quickdraws you will need depends entirely on the length of the route and the amount of protection you choose to place. So as always, study the route guide beforehand to avoid any nasty surprises.
HOW TO RACK UP
‘Racking up’ generally means attaching all the gear to your harness before a climb. The more you climb the more you will understand your own personal preference, but try to consider; which is your dominant hand, do you have options accessible on both sides and is it evenly weighted. Other than that it really is down to you. You can choose to attach your rack to a bandolier, which is a sling across your chest, your harness or maybe a combination of both. Like many things with trad climbing, start easy and focus on learning. That way as your ability and knowledge improve, you are able to take more calculated risks.
WHAT IS THE COST?
So there is no denying that a complete trad rack isn’t cheap, but before you give up on the idea of ever getting your hands on some nice shiny new gear, there are a few things to remember:
1 – Firstly, if you’re new to trad you’ll probably be climbing with more experienced climbers who will already have their own gear. This means that you can test out which sort of protection you want to purchase first. When you do this you are also combining your rack with theirs. But remember, marking your kit with colored tape is a good idea.
2 – The other thing to remember is that very few people are able to go out and buy a complete rack all at once. And why should you anyway? You need to learn what you want, how to use it safely and purchase with certainty. That way you avoid costly mistakes. It is after all a collection, and collections should be gathered over time.
3 – When you break the cost down into small purchases it suddenly becomes very reasonable; and when you realise the amount of freedom it brings, it can very quickly seem like one of the greatest purchases you’ve ever made.
Rich Spindley - Ipswich Store
Rich is an avid climber and mountaineer having climbed all over the world. He is happy jamming on grit in the Peaks or clinging to slate in north Wales, but he’s most at home pulling on tools in the Alps up ice falls. He is also known to frequent the local climbing walls where he is also a route setter.