Climbing is a broad world that encapsulates many different ways of ascending many different types of steep surfaces. It covers everything from climbing the highest peaks in the world to simply bouldering at your local park.
Part exercise and part puzzle, climbing is a uniquely personal way to connect with an area. It’s also a great way to challenge yourself both physically and mentally.
Itching to try a form of climbing? You’re not alone! The climbing community has seen a surge of new participants in recent years. People are realizing how immersive and expansive of an activity climbing can be, and just how many types of climbing there are to explore.
In this article, I’ll break down the 13 different types of climbing and explain how each works so you can decide which to try first.
The 13 Types of Climbing
Climbing encompasses many subdisciplines, many of which intersect and overlap. I’ll cover this in more detail as I dive into the different types of climbing below and explain how one often relates to another.
1. Sport Climbing
Sport climbing is a popular type of free climbing that relies on secure, permanent bolts that are pre-drilled into a rock wall. The bolts, with the aid of a belayer below, act as protection for a climber as they move upwards.
With sport routes, you clip a pre-rigged carabiner and sling into intermittently-placed bolts while ascending. The rope you are attached to is then clipped through the carabiner opening. The bolts each act as anchors, so that if you were to fall, the rope catches on the carabiner and bolt, as the belayer manually brakes a fall with their belay device from below.
Sport climbing requires less gear, less investment, and less experience than many other types of climbing. So, it’s one of the more accessible types of rock climbing for beginners. However, you’ll still need to know how to belay safely and how to clip into bolts for a lead climb. It’s also important to inspect the safety of bolts that have been on a rock wall for many years.
2. Trad (Traditional) Climbing
Traditional climbing—or trad climbing, for short—is a type of rock climbing that involves placing removable protection into natural rock features as you move up a wall. It’s also a form of free climbing.
Protective gear is placed in strategic locations so that it can mechanically react to and withstand the force of a falling climber. This type of gear is designed so that when you weight it with a fall, it wedges itself into the rock and holds fast. When it’s unweighted, you can easily remove it from the rock.
Trad gear includes a variety of active and passive rock protection. It comes in dozens of different sizes to accommodate the thinnest and widest of rock features. Some examples are spring-loaded camming devices, nuts and stoppers.
In general, trad climbers require more expertise and technical knowledge to complete a route. That’s because their safety relies solely on the skilled placement of gear.
3. Single Pitch and Multi-pitch Climbing
Climbing routes are classified as single pitch or multi-pitch climbs. A single pitch route only features one “pitch.” A multi-pitch climbing route includes two or more pitches.
Okay, so what is a pitch? It’s the length of a climb that can be protected using one climbing rope length. It’s usually 60 or 70 meters—the length of most climbing ropes—but can also be less.
At the end of a pitch, an anchor is present. Anchors on a climbing route can be pre-fixed bolts and chains that are drilled into the rock. Alternatively, you can create a temporary anchor system when you arrive at the end of a pitch using traditional climbing protective gear like camming devices or nuts.
The purpose of the anchor on a single pitch route is to allow you to be lowered down safely using a belay device. On a multi-pitch route, you can remain affixed safely to the rock using the anchor and belay your climbing partner up the route before continuing upward yourself.
4. Lead Climbing
When you arrive at the base of a climbing route, there’s usually no pre-set rope already going up it. So, you or your climbing partner need to find a way to get your rope up to the nearest anchor point. Enter lead climbing!
With lead climbing, a climber ascends a rock face from its base to a predetermined high point of the route. They carry a rope attached to their harness and are belayed by their climbing partner from below. Their partner is always prepared to catch a fall with their belay device if need be as the lead climber advances upward.
A person can lead climb a single pitch route or a multi pitch-route. As the climber moves upward, they securely attach—or “clip”—their rope to pre-existing bolts (sport climbing) or to traditional rock protection (trad climbing).
Once a climber reaches the top of their pitch, they can secure themselves to an existing bolted anchor or create an anchor system. When single pitch climbing, they can then be lowered down to the ground through the anchor. When multi-pitch climbing, the lead climber can belay their partner as he or she climbs up to join them at the anchor.
Lead climbing requires a lot of skill because you can take a larger fall, especially if protective gear is placed sparingly. Make sure you can confidently climb the grade, or difficulty, of a certain route before attempting to lead climb it. You should also feel very comfortable clipping bolts (on sport routes) or placing protective gear (on trad routes), and know how to fall in a way that reduces your risk of injury.
5. Top Roping
Top roping is a way to approach single-pitch climbs that doesn’t require lead climbing. You secure your rope to an anchor at the top of the route and then rappel down to the base of the route.
To top rope a route, there must be a way to safely walk to the top of the route. At the end of the day, you can climb or walk back to the top of the route to retrieve your rope.
6. Free Climbing
Free climbing encompasses almost all types of modern-day rock climbing. It’s any form of climbing in which a person uses their own strength to climb up a rock wall, using hands and feet on features in the rock that are commonly called “holds.” Trad climbing and sport climbing are both considered forms of free climbing.
Importantly, free climbing does not use any supplementary climbing aid equipment like ladders, which I’ll cover next. Free climbing is also not to be confused with free soloing, which I get into below. Safety gear and protection is still used on free climbs.
7. Aid Climbing
Aid climbing is a method for climbers to reach the tops of challenging walls. It’s usually implemented on sections of a big wall route that cannot be free climbed safely without supplementary gear.
On aid climbing routes, a variety of equipment—called etriers or aiders—is used to help a climber make upward progress. Aid climbers traditionally used a series of hammers, hooks, pitons, and other pieces of metal that they placed into the tiniest of rock features. A climber is then able to attach themselves and transfer their weight onto a ladder to proceed up.
These days, “clean aid” is the more common style of aid climbing. Climbers are not hammering in new pieces of metal, but rather using pieces that were placed by earlier climbers. This prevents further damage to the rock.
8. Free Soloing
When a climber free solos a route, they use no protective gear whatsoever. One slip usually means death.
Free soloing has been in the spotlight as of late, particularly after climber Alex Honnold’s free solo of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. It must be known, though, that free soloing is not a regular or recommended form of climbing.
Only a very, very small percentage of the most elite professional climbers attempt a free solo climb in their lifetimes. And they put their lives at extreme risk when they do it. While it’s okay to respect the free solo accolades of climbers like Alex Honnold, we at AlpInsider highly discourage attempting a climb without rope or safety gear.
9. Deep Water Soloing
Deep water soloing is a form of free soloing in that it doesn’t use a rope or protective gear. However, instead of climbing a route over ground, it involves climbing above deep water. If you fall, you simply splash into the water. The chance of injury is much lower.
Most climbs of this type are on sea cliffs or above lakes and reservoirs. It is very important to have proper information on an area before climbing above any body of water, though. Rocks and low tides can be serious risks.
When bouldering, a person climbs a boulder, a rock formation, or an artificial rock wall without climbing rope or a harness. A crash pad—a special shock-absorbing mat designed for bouldering—is used to provide a soft landing when you fall.
Bouldering routes are typically 10 feet in height or less. That’s about the maximum height you can fall from onto a crashpad and not get injured. Even then, it’s much safer to have a partner or a group to spot a climber and help redirect a fall if need be.
Gear for bouldering is relatively minimal, which makes it an accessible option for those new to climbing. On artificial climbing walls, indoor climbers need nothing more than rock climbing shoes and chalk. If outdoor bouldering on real rock, you’ll need to bring a crash pad and a helmet.
11. Ice Climbing
Ice climbing is a form of climbing that involves an iced surface. In place of rock climbing shoes ice climbers use mountaineering boots attached to 10-point or 12-point crampons. In place of hand holds, they use sharp ice tools that they swing into the ice.
The same core principles apply to rock and ice climbing. Ice climbers always use dynamic climbing rope, harnesses, helmets and protective gear as they ascend. Instead of traditional rock protection when leading a route, an ice climber uses ice screws that are hand-drilled into the ice.
There is significantly more risk involved in attempting to lead climb ice compared to rock. Extreme weather, avalanche hazards, and sharp axes and crampons can all cause major harm or worse at a moment’s notice. You should be very well-practiced at ice climbing before trying to lead climb ice.
12. Mixed Climbing
Mixed climbing is a unique style of climbing that combines elements of rock, ice, snow, and other frozen surfaces. It’s a form of alpine climbing very frequently used by mountaineers.
Most mixed climbing routes require scaling sections of both ice and rock using ice axes and crampons. Sometimes, climbers will even switch between mountaineering boots and climbing shoes.
Mountaineering is a method of mountain climbing or ascending a peak by all means necessary. It can involve glacier travel or scrambling up granite or volcanic scree. It sometimes requires snowy ascents or working up frozen cliffs with ice axes. Depending on the route, it can also require technical alpine climbing, skiing, and snowshoeing.
Regardless of the route at hand, mountaineering requires a broad set of climbing skills and specialized mountaineering gear. Technical knowledge and the ability to adapt to and understand various types of terrain is also crucial. The most skilled of mountaineers are versed in rock and ice climbing, route finding, glacial travel, avalanche safety, and alpine skiing.
The world of climbing includes numerous forms and styles to try out. To summarize, here are the 13 different types of climbing I highlighted above:
- Sport Climbing: A climber utilizes pre-placed bolts to ascend a route.
- Traditional (Trad) Climbing: Removable protective gear is placed into natural rock features as a climber ascends a route.
- Single Pitch & Multi-pitch Climbing: Single pitch climbs use one standard rope length, Multi-pitch climbs are broken down into several sections due to the route length.
- Lead Climbing: A climber ascends up a route, placing protection along the way.
- Top Roping: A climber ascends a route with rope established on an upper anchor.
- Free Climbing: Any type of climbing where a person uses their own strength to ascend up a steep surface.
- Aid Climbing: Climbing up a section of a route using supplemental aid gear.
- Free Soloing: A style of climbing in which no protective gear is used.
- Deep Water Soloing: Climbing with no protective gear, but over deep water to fall into.
- Bouldering: Climbing shorter rock routes (usually less than 10 feet) with only a crashpad as protection.
- Ice Climbing: Ascending on ice using tools like crampons and ice axes.
- Mixed Climbing: Climbing both ice and rock surfaces, usually using ice climbing tools.
- Mountaineering: Ascending a peak in a range of environments using a variety of techniques and skillsets.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.