Trad Vs. Sport Climbing: Nuts, Bolts, And Quickdraws

Climbing is not a one-size-fits-all sport. While there were not always so many different types of climbing, these days, potential climbers have plenty of options to choose from.

Trad vs. Sport Climbing: Nuts, Bolts, and Quickdraws

Although this is obviously a good thing, choosing between different climbing styles involves learning a lot about each one, learning the similarities and differences, and weighing up the pros and cons. 

Two of the climbing styles that are often confused for one another, despite being very different, are trad and sport climbing. 

In this article, we will be explaining what sport climbing and trad climbing entail and how they differ from one another. Hopefully, if you’re eager to get into climbing, this will help you to find the climbing style that suits you best. 

What Do Trad And Sport Climbing Have In Common? 

When it comes to comparing trad and sport climbing, there are a lot of differences to cover, which we’ll get to in just a moment. First, though, there are a couple of similarities between trad and sport climbing. 

Trad climbing and sport climbing both involve a technique called Lead Climbing. Lead Climbing is when one of several climbers is responsible for climbing ahead of the others and positioning safety and protective equipment as they go.

Because both styles use this method, they often also use the same methods of communication in terms of specific commands. 

Additionally, both sport climbing and trad climbing are types of free climbing. Free climbing means that the climber doesn’t use additional tools to help them climb,

although they do have a rope to catch them if they fall. Please note that this is different from free soloing, which is much riskier and basically involves climbing with no help or safety measures in place. 

The Differences Between Trad And Sport Climbing 

Aside from the fact that trad and sport climbing both involve Lead Climbing and are both types of free climbing, sport climbing and trad climbing are very different. 

There are differences between trad and sport climbing in terms of their histories, the style of climbing, and the type of protection and climbing gear used in both sports. 

Without further ado, let’s go ahead and see how trad climbing and sport climbing differ!

Trad Climbing: A History 

We’ve talked about how trad climbing, just like sport climbing, is a type of free climbing. However, the association between trad climbing and free climbing is especially strong because trad climbing was actually the original form of free climbing. 

Of course, back then, free climbing wasn’t necessarily known as free climbing or trad climbing. It was just the only form of rock climbing that there was,

if you don’t count bouldering. Eventually, aid climbing came into the picture, which is when the distinction had to be made during the 20th century. 

Trad climbers in the early days of the sport used hexes, pistons, and other types of gear to protect them from dangerous falls, but did not rely on things like chain anchors and bolts to assist them in their climbing. 

This is partly because the focus of trad climbing was on exploration and adventure, which can be more difficult when you have to follow a specific route set out by your aid equipment. 

Sport Climbing: A History 

So, how does the history of sport climbing differ from that of trad climbing? 

Well, for one thing, sport climbing is much newer than trad climbing. Trad climbing, of course, is an abbreviation for ‘traditional climbing’ because it started to gain popularity in the late 19th century, making it the original or traditional form of free climbing. 

Meanwhile, sport climbing did not come onto the climbing scene until the 1980s, so nearly a century after trad climbing. 

The reason why sport climbing was invented in the first place was that climbers were looking for a more athletically challenging version of the sport.

While trad climbing was already a challenge in itself due to the lack of aid equipment, sport climbing presented a unique difficulty: having to drill bolts into rock faces. 

The point of securing bolts into the rock face before climbing is to allow climbers to clip their security ropes onto them. When positioned at even intervals,

the bolts provide a safe and secure way for climbers to really push themselves as they climb, being able to take risks they otherwise wouldn’t because they can rely on the strong bolts to keep them from falling. 

From this information, it is clear that the reason sport climbing was invented was to serve a different purpose from trad climbing. As we mentioned earlier, trad climbing was all about adventure, but sport climbing, as the name implies, has more of a focus on athleticism.

Trad vs. Sport Climbing: Nuts, Bolts, and Quickdraws

Trad Vs. Sport Climbing Style 

There are some similarities in the climbing styles of trad and sport climbing. For example, Lead Climbing can be considered an element of a climbing style, and both trad and sport climbing share this technique. 

However, apart from this, the styles of movement involved in sport and trad climbing are quite different from one another. 

The main difference between the climbing styles of trad climbing and sport climbing is that sport climbing is, to put it simply, more physically intense.

In addition to just finding the best hand and footholds, sport climbing requires climbers to contort their bodies into difficult positions in order to hang on while drilling bolts into the rock face. 

This is no mean feat! That’s why the movements required for sport climbing involve more power and flexibility – it’s almost like gymnastics, but on rocks. 

Trad climbing, on the other hand, mainly uses a technique called crack climbing. Crack climbing is where a climber follows a route that is guided by natural cracks in the rock’s surface. The climber must wedge their feet and hands into the best cracks. 

Slab climbing is also a feature of trad climbing. Slab climbing involves climbing on a rock face that doesn’t have very many natural crevices to hold onto. This means that climbers are forced to rely on excellent balance as well as pure friction to scale the rockface. 

Trad Vs. Sport Climbing Protection 

Because trad climbing and sport climbing use different climbing methods that result in different risks, it makes sense that these forms of climbing use different protective equipment. 

Trad climbing doesn’t rely on much protective reinforcement, but one piece of protective equipment every trad climber should have is a trad rack.

A trad rack usually consists of a set of cams (adjustable aluminum devices that can be positioned inside cracks), some alpine draws, and some nuts. This might not sound like a lot, but since we’re talking about high-quality equipment, it still costs a fair amount. 

Trad climbing also makes use of more traditional climbing equipment used in free climbing, such as slings and carabiners. 

Sport climbing doesn’t require as much protective equipment as trad climbing because sport climbers can mainly rely on the bolts that they secure into the rock face to support their weight and prevent them from falling.

However, that doesn’t mean that sport climbers don’t have to invest in any equipment at all. Sport climbing is done with the help of a quickdraw. 

A quickdraw is a piece of nylon with a carabiner attached to each end. You may also hear the nylon material referred to as the dogbone.

Quickdraws serve the purpose of attaching the climbing rope to the rock face and the benefit of using one is that they’re really easy to attach and move around.

Sport climbers may also use slings and lockers, but the total equipment costs much less than most trad climbers have to spend. 

The harnesses used in trad climbing are quite heavily padded. They are primarily made for comfort. On the other hand, sport climbing harnesses are built to maximize speed.

There isn’t as much padding because this can make the harness heavier and bulkier. This also means that sport harnesses are less expensive, even if they aren’t as comfortable. 

Trad Vs. Sport Climbing Footwear 

One major difference between trad climbing and sport climbing is the footwear that the climbers use. This is because different movements are required from both sports, so naturally, different footwear is also in order. 

Sport climbing shoes are usually turned down at the toe to make it easier to access footholds, especially when climbing vertical or overhanging surfaces where more grip is required.

This is also why sport climbing shoes are designed to fit very tightly to the wearer’s foot since it’s hard to get a good purchase when there’s room at the tip of your shoe. 

Conversely, trad climbing shoes are flat to allow for a more neutral foot position. This is because downturned sport climbing shoes would not be ideal for crack climbing. 

Like the harnesses used for trad climbing, trad shoes are designed with comfort in mind. For this reason, the toe box is streamlined and the soles are quite thickly padded. 

Final Thoughts 

Although sport climbing and trad climbing are both types of free climbing and both rely on Lead Climbing to ensure a safe ascent, that’s more or less where the similarities between these forms of climbing end. 

Trad climbing involves techniques like crack climbing and slab climbing, inserting hands and feet into cracks, or using friction and balance on smooth areas. Sport climbing takes place on vertical surfaces and puts a lot of emphasis on physical strength and flexibility. 

Sport climbers don’t have to use much equipment beyond a quickdraw and bolts, whereas trad climbers require more specialized equipment that costs more. 

The protective gear and footwear designed for trad climbing is more comfortable than sport climbing gear. 

The most important difference, though, is that trad climbing is more an exploratory sport, whereas a lot of emphasis is placed on athleticism in sport climbing.

Kevin Macey
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