How Climbing Gear Works

By: Marie Willsey  | 
Image Gallery: Extreme Sports Beyond your bare hands, what else do you need to climb a rock or ice wall? See pictures of extreme sports.
Martin Harvey/Getty Images

Mountain climbing: The challenge of a vertical ascent promises exhilaration, beautiful views and a rewarding sense of achievement. Wherever there are mountains to climb, you'll find folks who are drawn to the sport and its unique challenges, welcoming the chance to test their skills, strength, endurance and teamwork.

There are many different styles and variations of rock climbing, so anyone from the weekend adventurer to the seasoned mountaineer can enjoy the sport. Traditional climbing involves taking rock climbs along routes that don't have permanent anchors for climbers, using only your hands and feet and some protective gear. Sport climbing involves the use of protection or permanent anchors that are attached to rock walls.


When bouldering, the climber is usually no more than 12 feet (3.6 meters) off the ground as he works his way through a boulder route called a problem. It's an extreme sport that emphasizes fitness, creativity, problem solving and teamwork. Ice climbing routes add the challenge of snow and ice, while mountaineering involves hiking or trekking in higher altitudes, often over several days or more. The two most dangerous forms are solo climbing, which is climbing alone without a partner or rope and protection, and deep water solo climbing, which involves climbing a rock and falling into deep water.

Indoor (or gym) climbing on specially constructed walls is a great way for beginners to learn about climbing and improve their fitness. It's also an effective way to train year-round, improving climbing skills and having fun.

No matter what style of climbing you choose, you'll find that rock climbing is a sport with language and gear all its own. Where else will you hear enthusiasts discussing crampons, carabiners, belays and crash pads?

If you're just getting started, the right gear makes all the difference. As your skills and the difficulty of your climbs increase, you'll find that owning quality gear that will grow with you is a smart investment.

So whether you're heading for Kilimanjaro, Mount Hood, the nearest mountain range or the wall at the local gym, your equipment bag -- and your vocabulary -- should include a few basic pieces of equipment. Learn more about climbing rope, shoes, crampons, ice axes, harnesses, crash pads, as well as belay and rappel devices and more in this article.


Climbing Ropes

What type of rope do you need? That depends on the type of climbing you plan to do, whether sport climbing, big walls, alpine or rescue. One of the most versatile ropes is a 60-meter-long (196.8-feet) dry rope with a 9.8 millimeter to 10.2 millimeter thickness.

When shopping for a rope, it helps to know a little about rope anatomy. Most ropes have a kernmantle construction, consisting of a sheath and a core. The sheath is the protective, braided cover of the rope that protects the core and adds strength and shock absorption. Sheaths make up 30 to 40 percent of a rope's mass. The thicker the sheath, the more it resists cutting and abrasion.


The core refers to the inner twisted core strands of the rope. Filament is the thinnest thread that a rope is woven from, and twisted groups of four to six filaments make up yarns. Yarns are bundled together to make the core.

Here's the skinny on ropes:

  • Workhouse singles have a larger diameter and hold up to lots of use. This rope is ideal for big walls, top roping (when a rope is secured to an anchor point at the top of the route before the climb begins) and extreme use. On the downside, it can be bulky and heavy to carry.
  • All-round singles are the do-everything rope. They have average diameter, weight and fall ratings (a measurement of the stress applied to a rope if a fall occurs). They're ideal for sport, traditional and alpine climbing.
  • Skinny singles are ideal for very long or difficult climbs because they're lightweight. On long routes when you're turning over many belays, constantly pulling in slack or in an alpine situation where you're coiling rope over your shoulder and using switching techniques to move back and forth up a long climb, the lighter weight can make a big difference in the long run.
  • Half ropes, also known as a double rope, are two identical ropes used as a pair. They can run parallel through the protection using a twin rope technique, or you can alternate the "right" and "left" ropes through different protection points. They're good for long, wandering routes on rock, ice or alpine routes when you might need to rappel or retreat. (A wandering route is an indirect path to the summit, whereas a non-wandering route is more direct and vertical.)
  • Twin ropes are a good two-rope option. They're lighter and less bulky than half ropes and good for ice climbs and straight non-wandering rock climbs where repelling is necessary.
  • Static ropes are used in situations when you don't want rope to stretch, such as repelling, rescue and big-wall ascending, or anytime you're lowering, ascending or pulling a load up with the rope.


Climbing Shoes

climbing shoes
Caucasian man climbing on the rock mountain in nature. SrdjanPav / Getty Images

Rock climbing shoes come in a variety of colors, designs and materials, but the most important characteristic is fit and comfort. Expect to pay between $75 and $150 for a quality pair.

When you're choosing a climbing shoe, consider your climbing plans. Will you be doing most of your climbing in the gym, across boulders or on sheer mountain faces? The first shoe most climbers choose is in the all-day comfort category. You'll want to choose one that fits like a running shoe, but the tip of your longest toe should touch the end of the shoe. A snug fit helps make your feet more powerful when you're climbing cracks, crystals or overhanging rock.


Climbing shoe uppers, the part that surrounds your foot and sits atop the sole, are constructed of either leather or synthetic material. Leather is easiest to care for. Unlined leather shoes can stretch, so be sure you can feel your toe knuckles pushing against the leather. Lined leather reduces stretch. Synthetic uppers don't stretch as much. New synthetic materials breathe and whisk away sweat.

You'll also notice several different types of closure systems. A lace up is the traditional, versatile style. Hook-and-loop closures offer easier on/off conveniences and work best for bouldering and gym climbing. Slippers simply slip on your feet; they have thinner soles and allow you to "feel" the rock much more than lace up shoes will. They're the easiest to wear and pack, and slippers are often the choice of more experienced climbers. Since they usually don't have a stiff sole and midsole, wearing them for training helps your feet gain strength.

The most important factor is fit. Be sure to try on a variety of styles to find the pair that best fits your foot and your climbing style. Climbing experts suggest trying on shoes in the afternoon since your feet swell during the day: you'll get an even better fit after an active day that includes a walk, run or climb.



A man wearing ice climbing crampons Buena Vista Images / Getty Images

Crampons, which look like metal skeletons with sharp points, attach to your climbing shoes for extra traction when you're climbing on snow and ice. Usually made of steel or aluminum, the frame fits beneath the soles of your shoes and is attached by adjustable straps or clamps.

Most crampons have 10 or 12 points. If they have 12 points, the two pointed straight out on the toe make frontpointing easier. The sharp points bite into the ice or whatever surface you're climbing for a more secure hold.


Crampons are specialized for various activities. For everyday winter walking over snow, super-lightweight traction devices are a good choice. Other models are suited for snow and glaciers, technical hiking and winter or summer mountaineering. You can even find crampons designed especially for frozen waterfalls or routes that involve both ice and rock that allow you to adjust the length and the pitch, or angle, of the points.

Most crampons feature a semi-rigid design that performs well in a variety of conditions from simply walking over winter snow to moderate ice climbing. Some allow you to adjust the linking bar between the toe and heelpiece (which helps gives you traction and support when walking in the snow and ice) to change to a flexible mode for more comfortable hiking over forgiving terrain.


Climbing Harnesses

climbing harnesses
A man using climbing harness on the mountain Andre Schoenherr / Getty Images

Like climbing ropes and shoes, climbing harnesses are made for different types of climbing. Whether you enjoy sport, gym, alpine, wall, ice or general climbing, there's a harness that's right for your climb. The harness is used to secure the climber to a rope or from an anchor point.

When choosing a harness, consider your climbing plans and the features that are important to you. Are you a beginner, planning on occasional outdoor climbs? Do you want a lightweight harness or one that's more comfortable? Once you have your goals in mind, consider the different styles of harnesses. Prices range from $50 to $200.


  • Gym and competition harnesses feature a slim design, narrow webbing, little padding and few extras or loops for gear. Use for sport routes, gym and competition climbing.
  • All around or multi-purpose harnesses are good for all kinds of climbing and all kinds of body types and budgets. They feature padded leg loops and waist belt, detachable leg loops and gear loops for hooking your gear on the waist belt and a dedicated belay/rappel loop on the front so you can belay or rappel from it.
  • Big wall harnesses are intended for climbing on long routes that might take several days to traverse. Comfort on these long hauls is important, so they have thick waist and leg padding, as well as multiple gear loops.
  • Alpine harnesses are designed for mountaineering. They're lightweight, and they're easily adjustable to fit over many layers of clothes and made of water-repellent nylon to stand up to wet and snowy mountain conditions. Lightweight, inexpensive and adjustable to different body types, this harness makes a great extra to keep in your pack for a friend.
  • Chest harnesses are used with a seat harness, and they are good to use on routes where there's a chance of flipping upside down or falling into a crevasse on a glacier.
  • Body harnesses are made for children and adults with narrow waists and hips to prevent the climber from flipping upside down during a fall.

Be sure to try on several harnesses to see which one fits best. And if possible, put it to a real-life test: Hang in the harness to make sure you're comfortable with its fit and feel.


Ice Axes

Mountain climbers rely on ice axes when traveling routes that involve ice and snow. This versatile tool can be used in several ways, depending on the conditions you encounter.

An ice axe may be used as a walking stick when the climber holds the head in the center with the pick pointing backwards. It also can be used to form a secure anchor to bring up, or belay, a second climber. An axe is also a useful tool to cut footsteps in the ice or snow or to scoop out seats or trenches.


There are two classifications of ice axes: basic and technical. Basic axes are designed for the beginner or casual climber, and they're best suited for basic support. Technical grade axes have stronger shafts, and they can be used for vertical, technical climbing or in belaying.

There are five key components of an ice axe:

  1. The head is made of steel and features a pick and adze, a tool for smoothing rough cut wood. There's a hole in the center for attaching a wrist leash or carabiner.
  2. The pick is the pointed end of the head, slightly curved to help with ergonomics.
  3. The adze is the flat, wide end of the head used for chopping steps in hard snow and ice.
  4. The shaft is straight or slightly angled. Today, shafts are usually made of aluminum or titanium or a composite.
  5. The spike, or ferrule, is a steel point at the end of the shaft used for balance when the climber is holding the axe by its handle like a walking stick.

Ice axes range in price from $75 for the most basic steel and aluminum model to more than $300 for an advanced ice tool with a carbon fiber shaft.


Belay and Rappel Devices

belay and rappel devices
Member of canyoning team with camera attached to his arm is moving down the cliff in the canyon. EXTREME-PHOTOGRAPHER / Getty Images

A belay device is used in belaying, when one climber secures the rope for another climber as he ascends. It's the basis of climbing safety -- it holds the rope and the other climber in case of a fall. The rope links the climber and the belayer in a safety partnership, allowing the climber to fall without fear of hitting the ground. It's also used in rappelling, or sliding down the rope to reach the ground.

Sometimes called a BD, a belaying device allows the belaying climber to hold the active climber's fall via the friction of the rope as it runs through the device. The rope, anchored to safety gear at the top of the wall, is attached to the climber and the belayer. The climber is tied to the end of the rope, while the belayer is attached to the rope with a belay device, a mechanical device that makes it possible for the belayer to hold the climber's weight. The belayer must keep the rope snug on the climber as he ascends, hold him if he falls, and lower him back to the base after reaching the top of the wall.


Belay devices are available in many different sizes, styles and shapes. Some are interlocking devices. Made of aluminum or an alloy, BDs are an essential piece of gear for every climber to own and use.

The belay device attaches to the harness of a belayer using a carabiner, a metal loop with a spring or screwed gate. Carabiners also come in different shapes, including the versatile oval, the D shape with a larger opening that makes clipping the rope easier, and locking versions that are ideal for belaying or setting anchor. Good quality carabiners can help your rope to last longer.


Crash Pads

Crash pads are a beautifully simple idea: They're placed between the climber and the ground to help reduce the impact from falls. Crash pads are made of foam, covered with a durable fabric and feature straps or handles for easier handling.

Crash pads are most often used for bouldering and sport climbing when routes are determined before the climb, and they're positioned beneath tricky locations where a climber is most likely to lose footing and fall.


While the first commercial crash pads did not appear on the market until 1993, many climbers today rely on crash pads to help protect their bones from occasional falls. There are dozens of options on the market, ranging from $75 to more than $350, and they range in size from the popular 3 foot by 4 foot (0.9 meter by 1.2 meter) pad that fits in a gear pack to larger pads that are designed for more permanent placement.

When shopping for a crash pad, look for one with a good foam quality to cushion the force of impact and absorb the shock of the fall. You should feel like you're falling into a sand pit, not a trampoline.


Testing Climbing Gear

Climbing equipment is tested and certified by the International Federation of Mountaineering Associations, or UIAA. The UIAA works closely with the industry to develop standards to minimize accidents caused by equipment failure. Most manufacturers follow the standards determined by this organization, although laws requiring certification vary from country to country.

The UIAA first started to test ropes in 1960. Its main testing criteria includes the number of falls a rope can hold before breaking, how much impact it can withstand, the static elongation, or how much stretch results when a 176-pound (80.2-kilogram) weight hangs from it, and the dynamic elongation that results in the length of a rope after a fall.


Today, the UIAA has standards for 20 different categories of equipment, including helmets, harnesses and crampons. Climbing gear such as slings and carabiners are strength tested by UIAA, the manufacturer or an independent testing agency. Strength tests evaluate the load or force that will cause the equipment to break, but they don't consider whether the equipment is being used correctly by the climber or the strength of the rock. For this reason, it's extremely important for every climber to understand how to use climbing gear properly and use good judgment when out in the field.

Always look for equipment that passes the UIAA tests to help ensure a safe climb and long-lasting, durable equipment.


Lots More Information

Related Articles


  • Arsenaut, Mark. "The Coolest Climb." The Boston Globe. Dec. 27, 2009.
  • Bouchard, Nancy. "How to Choose Rock Climbing Shoes." REI Expert Advice. July 2009.
  • "Climbing." 2010, The New York Times Company.
  • Howard, John. "Why we climb Mount Hood." Portland Scenic Travel Examiner. Dec. 16, 2009.
  • Arsenaut, Mark. "The Coolest Climb." The Boston Globe. Dec. 27, 2009.
  • Pegg, Dave. "Bombs away - Jumping into the best all-around crash pads." Climbing. August 2002. Skram Media.
  • Silitch, Michael. "How to Choose a Climbing Rope." REI Expert Advice. September 2009.