In this article we'll take a closer look at the differences between sport climbing and trad climbing (traditional climbing). If you’re new to climbing, there are lots of strange terms and different styles of climbing that might seem confusing, but the distinction between sport and trad is really an important one.
Sport and trad climbing are both types of outdoor roped rock climbing (unlike bouldering, which is climbing closer to the ground above pads; and free soloing, where it’s too high to climb above a pad, but ropes are ditched anyway).
In roped climbing, unless the rope has already been placed at the top of the wall (a toprope, as you might find in a climbing centre), the climber has to take the rope up with them. This is lead climbing. As the leader climbs, they need to clip the rope tied at their waist through points in the wall (the rope is clipped through carabiners, so the rope runs through them, rather than being fixed to them). If the climber falls, they fall until their rope comes tight on the last point they clipped through. Their partner’s job is to pay out rope as they climb, but hold the rope tight (using a device) when they fall. This is called belaying.
And so here’s the big difference between sport and trad: in sport, these points that the climber clips to are pre-fixed bolts in the rock (just as you might find in a climbing centre) whereas in traditional climbing, the climber places their own equipment into the rock.
You might be thinking ‘How does the climber know their equipment is secure?’ – that’s a very good question. The availability of placements for gear, the quality of those placements and the skill and fitness to actually place them are huge variables in the safety and overall difficulty of a climb. Unsurprisingly, there’s quite a big mental aspect to climbing while all of these variables are in play; what might seem like a small difference in style actually adds a whole different dimension to the challenge of climbing.
So which is the main type of roped climbing – sport or trad?
As you might have guessed from the name, traditional climbing came first. To begin with, climbers used machine nuts that were threaded with bits of rope to jam into cracks, or tied spare bits of rope around chock stones caught in cracks. Over the years, much more sophisticated forms of protection have been engineered, including mechanical camming devices which expand into cracks when they’re fallen on. This gear is then removed once the leader has secured the rope at the top of the wall (so you get all your nice kit back!).
The placement of bolts and the advent of sport climbing (in the ‘80s) allowed climbers to venture onto terrain that didn’t have sufficient gear placements, which opened up a great deal more climbing. It also allowed climbers to focus less on the important business of protecting their falls and more on the athletic side of climbing. Hence the name ‘sport climbing’ – danger is significantly diminished in sport climbing while performance is emphasised.
Nowadays there are probably more sport climbers than trad climbers, and sport climbing is probably the most common form of roped climbing. But in the mountains and in adventurous climbing, trad is often the only way. Some areas, such as the UK or parts of North America, have strong trad climbing culture and, where possible, routes have been kept free of bolts. But in most parts of the climbing world, the safety and convenience of sport climbing has made it the most accessible and most popular form of roped climbing.
So is sport climbing safe?
Not entirely. You can still get injured falling on completely secure protection, especially in a leader fall (when the protection isn’t above you). Bolts can also be placed badly, or very far apart, and the leader doesn’t have the choice to place more of them as they climb. But generally speaking there is much less uncertainty in sport climbing and the question of how to get down from a climb is much simpler, as there are usually fixed points to lower from.
Falling is always a possibility in climbing, although it’s often overlooked or avoided. Falling safely is a physical skill which needs practising if falling is really going to be safe, and even when it’s physically ‘safe’ falling through the air can still be stressful, even for climbers. That means that climbing can be less fun and less fun if we try to ignore falling altogether. However, with structured practice and careful attention to our experience, we can become more comfortable falling and make climbing safer and more fun.
This is something we’re passionate about at Strong Mind – we have a whole course on learning how to manage fear of falling called "Flight School", suitable for both trad climbers and sport climbers.
What Makes Traditional Climbing Unique?
Trad climbing requires a greater level of commitment than sport climbing because there is no pre-placed protection like bolts or anchors that can be used as an easy way out if things get too difficult or dangerous. For trad climbers, fear management needs to be balanced with the skills of leader-placed protection, route finding and the climbing itself.
Unlike sport climbing, which tends to focus on short routes with quick ascents, traditional climbing often takes more time and patience while tackling longer routes with multiple pitches (sections or rope lengths). Trad climbing can be more reliant on mental training techniques such as visualisation, goal setting, focussing tools, ‘mind hacks’ and flow in order to stay focused during their climbs.
(And honestly, this is where the learning really is!)
Additionally, traditional climbers must have good route finding skills in order to safely navigate through complex terrain without getting lost or off-route. In some areas, such as the cracks of North America, route finding and gear placement can be relatively straightforward, whereas trad climbing in the UK has a reputation for more complex gear placements which make up a greater proportion of the challenge.
Traditional climbing can be especially rewarding for the additional component of fear management and securing your own fall. But then again, sport climbing has its own psychological side too: not only can fear of falling affect sport climbers, but the complexities of performance psychology, fear of failure and finding flow that you might find in other sports. Sport climbing can be really fun and liberating, and focussing on your performance allows you to really push yourself in a different way.
So, What Is Sport Climbing?
You should already have a vague idea about what sport climbing is at this point, but let’s dive a bit deeper.
Sport climbing involves climbing established routes using pre-installed protection points and permanent anchors, which generally makes it a ‘safer’ form of rock climbing. Sport climbers use ropes, quickdraws, carabiners and harnesses to climb routes that have been previously bolted in the face of the wall or cliff.
The pre-placed bolts, which remain in the rock for a long time, replace the leader-placed protection used in traditional climbing. This means that the lead climber doesn’t need to think about placing lots of gear or worrying if it is safe (or carrying that gear up the wall). Instead, the climber can clip these bolts and focus on the climbing. Of course, it’s important that these bolts are safely placed and maintained.
This makes sport climbing a lot simpler than trad climbing. Generally, sport climbing requires much less equipment and much less time than trad climbing, and doesn’t require the same set of skills to protect a fall or descend from a wall. This makes sport climbing more accessible, and more performance-centred than trad climbing.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Traditional and Sport Climbing
Both styles of climbing have their own advantages and disadvantages.
When it comes to trad climbing, the biggest advantage for us here at Strong Mind is that it involves more mental game, which we believe is one of the most rewarding parts of climbing. It's not just about strength but also about your mind (and learning how to use it properly).
In trad climbing, you climb in really varied terrain and need to be creative, as opposed to sport climbs where bolts are already placed at set intervals on the wall.
This can make traditional routes much more exciting than their bolted counterparts since they require mental skills rather than just following a line up the wall. Additionally, trad climbs tend to attract fewer people due to the fact that they often take longer and require more gear than sport routes do, making them ideal for those looking for some peace and quiet out in nature, while still pushing themselves physically and mentally.
And one more special thing about traditional climbing: you can climb anywhere (theoretically) – you don’t need a route to be established in a specific place to climb that exact line. This gives you a level of freedom that you can't experience with sport climbing.
On the other hand, one of the main drawbacks of traditional climbs is their increased risk factor due to lack of pre-installed safety equipment like bolts or anchors. You also need a lot more skill, a lot more equipment and often a lot more time. Sometimes it’s easier to just go sport climbing to get your climbing fix so you can think about athleticism and performance, rather than whether you’ll hit the ground if you fall, or whether you’ll escape the crag before dark.
While this can add an extra level of excitement and thrill, it also increases potential danger if something were to go wrong during a climb – meaning proper knowledge about placing gear correctly is necessary before attempting any trad route.
Sport climbing, on the other hand, can be more accessible, quicker, simpler, and easier to manage if something goes wrong or you can’t complete the climb.
Sport vs Trad Climbing: Which Is Better?
Sport climbing allows you to focus on the performance side of climbing, while trad climbing is more adventurous. Sport can feel athletic and you can push your physical limits, whereas trad allows you to bring more skills and more psychological strength to overcome a challenge.
Many rock faces are unclimbable for most climbers without a pre-bolted route. That means that if we didn’t have sport climbing, we would have much less climbing available to us. Sport climbing requires less equipment and fewer specific skills, which makes it much more accessible. Trad climbing means the climber can choose their own route, and climb something that hasn’t been pre-equipped, or hasn’t even been climbed at all.
Both styles of climbing require psychological skills – from the mental training of performance psychology to fear management. Fear management is more prominent in trad climbing, particularly the use of focussing tools in the moment, but this can also be hugely significant in sport climbing.
Really, it’s not about “sport vs trad climbing”, one being better than the other. It’s about understanding which style of climbing is going to be most fun, or which you will learn most from. If you’re like us here at Strong Mind, then you’ll love both types of climbing and you’ll find that they can both be challenging and immensely rewarding.
FAQs in Relation to Sport vs Trad Climbing
Is trad climbing harder than sport?
If you were to climb the same route using different types of protection, trad climbing would almost certainly be harder than sport climbing, both physically and psychologically. But really, the different styles change the challenge so much that this question is difficult to make sense of. It depends so much on the availability of traditional protection, and in any case so much of the challenge of trad climbing is psychological, and this is difficult to compare to sport climbing.
Since sport climbing doesn’t involve as much route finding, improvisation, mental management and risk mitigation, sport routes often allow climbers to cover ‘harder’ ground which is less challenging psychologically.
Trad climbers often face more unpredictable conditions that can make it more challenging than sport climbing. Nevertheless, the level of difficulty for either style can depend on personal preference and route. Ultimately, both styles can be incredibly demanding.
What are the similarities of trad climbing and sport climbing?
Both trad climbing and sport climbing are forms of roped climbing which involve the same basic skills, such as rope management, problem solving, and physical fitness.
They are both types of free climbing – the climber uses their hands and feet on the rock to ascend, rather than pulling on the ropes and their equipment. They have ropes, but they’re just there in case they fall – the climbing is done using their body on the rock.
However, they differ in their approach to protection from falls. Trad climbers rely on placing removable gear into cracks in the rock while sport climbers use pre-placed bolts for protection. Both require a certain level of technical skill and mental focus to succeed; however, traditional climbing is often seen as more committing since there are fewer safety options available if something goes wrong and often a poorer or less reliable form of protection.
What is lead vs trad climbing?
Lead climbing is a style of rock climbing where the climber attaches themselves to a rope and climbs the route while clipping into protection points (either placed by the climber or pre-placed bolts) along the way.
Trad (traditional) climbing involves the leader placing removable gear such as cams, nuts, or hexes in cracks for protection as they climb.
Sport climbing is also lead climbing, but clipping pre-placed bolts instead of placing gear.
A climber is not lead climbing when they are top roping or seconding – when the rope is already established above them and they don’t need to clip it into protection points as they climb.
What is the difference between sport and trad quickdraws?
Sport quickdraws are designed for sport climbing, where the climber clips into bolts already placed in the rock. They usually have two carabiners connected by a short sling and feature ergonomic designs that make clipping easier.
Trad quickdraws, on the other hand, are used for traditional (trad) climbing and involve connecting to leader-placed protection such as cams or nuts. These tend to vary in length and can be longer than sport draws so they can reach further away placements, and they are often lighter as they usually need to be carried up the climb along with lots of other equipment on the climber’s harness.
Most quickdraws can be used interchangeably between the two styles of climbing, but it is best to check the manufacturer’s advice first.
In conclusion, sport vs trad climbing is a matter of personal preference. Traditional climbing involves more technical and mental challenges than sport climbing does but also carries greater risks due to the lack of protection available on many traditional routes.
Sport climbing offers a simpler entry point for those just starting to climb outdoors, with more of a focus on performance. No matter the style, it’s worth recognising the psychological side of climbing and the benefits to performance and enjoyment when we engage in mental training.
If you want to set yourself up for success and enjoy climbing to the fullest extent, you should check out our online climbing courses.They all focus on the mental side of things, which is one of the biggest factors setting apart great climbers from good ones.
Also make sure you follow our podcast, where our founder Hazel Findlay interviews and talks to some of the best climbers in the world, and experts on mental training in other sports and disciplines.