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5 Tips for Transitioning from Sport Climbing to Trad Climbing

Updated: Apr 28

The transition from sport climbing to trad climbing can be scary! There's a ton to learn! From how to place gear, anchor building, identifying safe rock, and so much more. Here are a few tips to help you transition to trad climbing and to help ease your mind.

man trad climbing

1. Don't Start Climbing at your Limit!

A colossal mistake new trad climbers make is thinking they can swiftly transition their climbing grades. Remember that if you're a confident 5.11 sport climber, you may not be a 5.11 trad climber, and that's okay! Trad climbing has a steep learning curve, so it's best to start placing gear at a much lower limit than you're used to climbing. This can be discouraging but remember that you're wearing more weight on your harness, you're trying something new, and you must think about not only the climbing moves but all the protection you need to place while moving up the wall. It's a lot!

2. Practice Placing Gear on the Ground

Speaking of placing gear, the best place to start is on the ground. There are no consequences! Take your rack to your local trad crag and find some cracks. Get familiar with placing gear in different-sized cracks. When placing gear on the ground, learn what size gear a good hand-jam and a fist-jam is for you. When you know a #2 is your perfect hand-jam size, you can deduce that a loose hands crack could be a tipped-out #2 or a tight #3.

3. Find a Trusted Teacher

Whether in the form of a trusted trad-dad or taking an intro to trad climbing course with a professional climbing guide, learning from other people is the surest way to minimize mistakes. Indeed, you can learn on your own by watching videos online or reading climbing forums, but with something as delicate as trad climbing, it's best to learn from somebody in person who can identify mistakes and answer any questions.

4. Identifying Safe Rock

If you've been sport climbing for a while, you've likely run into some unsafe rock. Transitioning into trad climbing will require you to get really good at this. If you're out in the mountains climbing, you may not see the familiar X of chalk on a loose block of rock. If you're leading, it is your responsibility to identify hazardous rock to keep yourself and your partner safe. You can look at the route above you and try to identify any precarious-looking blocks or flakes. When you reach these sections on the wall, further investigate without pulling on them first to see if they're loose, completely detached from the wall, or fine. A good trick is to knock or pound on the rock as you climb to check if it sounds hollow. A hollow-sounding rock is often an unsafe rock. Draw an X in chalk on it and relate your findings to your belayer so they don't accidentally pull on it.

Alternatively, if you climb on sandstone, you're used to waiting multiple days after rain before climbing. Sandstone is a soft rock that can be shifted easily when wet. Therefore, don't climb when it's wet to minimize damage. Trad climbing on sandstone can be tricky because even though the wall appears and feels dry, the cracks don't see as much sun and may still be wet. Use your best judgment when assessing if the rock is safe to climb. A good trick is to check the soil at the base of the climb. Dig a few inches to see if the soil is damp, and if so, wait and come back another day.

5. Multipitch Anchors

Many multi-pitch trad climbing routes don't have anchors at the end of each pitch. This is where your knowledge and practice of building anchors on the ground will be useful. Anchor building isn't only a great skill to use when you finish a pitch but also for the chance that you get off-route and must build an emergency anchor to find your way back to the route or bail.

Practice building anchors in all types of scenarios while on the ground. Build an anchor and imagine you have a grand ledge beneath you. Next, place a few pieces and clip yourself in to simulate a hanging belay and practice building an anchor this way, too.

Trad climbing is exhilarating and can be a perfect balance between clean climbing, pushing your limits (mental and physical), and exploring new parts of nature where sport climbing can't take you. Transitioning from sport climbing to trad climbing doesn't have to be scary! Find a trusted guide or partner to show you the ropes and practice all that you can on the ground before taking off into the air.


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