It can be pretty confusing, especially starting out, to understand the difference between sport climbing, free climbing, free soloing, trad climbing, top roping, bouldering, deep water soloing, and all of the other variations of rock climbing. Someone may invite you to go free climbing, and you don’t know whether to bring quickdraws or to turn and run!
Sport Climbing is a type of Free Climbing where climbers use quickdraws to secure the rope to permanent bolts on a cliff wall. The other type of free climbing is Traditional (Trad) climbing, which involves removable protection instead of permanent bolts.
Although the differences between the types of climbing may seem subtle, they are very important and make a huge difference for climbers. Most climbers do participate in a range of climbing styles, but some focus in on one specific type. The following descriptions will help you easily understand the difference between the most common forms of climbing.
What is Free Climbing?
To understand Free Climbing, it’s helpful to start with its opposite. The opposite of Free Climbing is Aid Climbing. This is when climbers ascend a wall using more than just their hands and feet. With Aid Climbing, they use tools like hooks and etriers (rope ladders) to ascend sections that are too difficult for them to free climb.
For example, a climber reaches a smooth section of rock that he cannot get past so he reaches up and wedges a hook into a crack or onto a ledge out of his reach. Then he either pulls himself up on the hook, or hangs an etrier from the hook and climbs the ladder instead of the rock wall.
Once past that section, he begins to climb the rock until he gets stuck again. Alternatively, the climber may hammer in a piton or drill in a bolt and climb an etrier hanging from it instead. This is very slow progress, but does make it so a climber can climb up pretty much any surface.
Aid climbing isn’t very popular these days, because climbers focus more on getting up a wall by their own strength and wit instead of using extra tools. Many ‘classic’ routes in places like Yosemite National Park started out as Aid Routes, but were eventually climbed without aid once climbers and gear got better.
Free Climbing is when a climbers only use gear as protection to catch them if they fall, not to help them ascend. The difference- using hardware as backup or for a rest instead of to make it easier to get past hard sections- is huge. It feels like conquering the wall in a fair fight instead of cheating in some way!
Types of Free Climbing
The two main types of Free Climbing are Sport Climbing and Traditional (Trad) Climbing. To a non-climber or brand new beginner, they both look pretty much the same. A climber goes up the wall, clipping the rope to the wall to capture progress along the way until she gets to the top and then lowers or rappels down.
Lead Climbing refers to either sport climbing or trad climbing. The difference is what the rope is clipped into.
With Sport Climbing, climbers clip quickdraws into bolt hangers that are permanently affixed to the wall. Climbers set the route ahead of time by drilling holes in the wall every few meters and adding bolts with hangers.
Quickdraws are made up of two carabiners connected by a reinforced piece of webbing or cord. One carabiner clips to the bolt hanger, and the other one clips to the rope. Check out what I wrote about how much weight a quickdraw can hold.
In Trad Climbing, there is no permanent hardware on the wall. Every pair of climbers that climbs the wall places their own protection and then removes it when they finish. The gear includes nuts and cams, which can be slotted into different sized cracks in the rock.
The advantage is that trad climbing leaves no visible marks or scars on the rock. The disadvantage is that improperly placed gear or non-ideal cracks can mean that the gear will pop out in the event of a fall. Trad climbing is more dangerous than Sport Climbing, which makes it less popular. It is also a lot more expensive to gear up than Sport Climbing.
Top Rope Climbing vs Lead Climbing
Top Rope Climbing would be considered Free Climbing as well (as long as your belayer doesn’t just pull you up the wall). You can set up a top rope on a trad route or a sport route. Top rope climbing is easier than leading, as the risks are significantly reduced. See my article about Top Rope Climbing Safety.
Competition Climbing vs. Sport Climbing
Sport Climbing is different from Competition Climbing, such as in the 2020/2021 Summer Olympics. Climbing competitions happen all around the world, both indoors and outdoors.
The formats have traditionally varied between locals and events, but we are starting to see come convergence. Most Sport Climbers have never competed in an competition.
The format for the Olympics is a Speed Climbing route, a boulder problem, and a (sport) lead climbing route. For more information on Speed Climbing and the Olympics format, see my article Is Speed Climbing Always the Same Route?
Free Climbing vs Free Soloing
A lot of non-climbers and new climbers get confused between Free Climbing and Free Soloing. Free Climbing, as explained above, is the most common type of climbing, encompassing both Sport and Trad Climbing.
Free Soloing, on the other hand, is a very rare and very dangerous form of climbing where climbers don’t use ropes or any forms of protection. Any fall will likely result in serious injury or death. Most climbers would never really consider free soloing, though we all do it on easier terrain.
The vernacular can be confusing for some people, which can mix up two extremely different types of climbing. Remember that the difference is the word soloing- free soloing is climbing without any ropes or a partner.
Sport Climbing is a form of free climbing because climbers ascend the wall by their own strength. They only use gear and ropes to catch them if they fall, not to help them ascend.
The opposite of free climbing is aid climbing, where climbers use types of ladders and artificial holds to get up a wall. Free soloing is something different entirely, though it is a form of free climbing. It is climbing without ropes or protection.
Is Lead Climbing Free Climbing? Lead climbing can be free climbing, but can also refer to aid climbing. Lead climbing is when a climber starts with the rope at the bottom instead of starting with the rope through the anchors. Lead Climbing is not free soloing, which is climbing without ropes.
Is Free Climbing Safe? Free Climbing is a lot more safe than Free Soloing or Highball Bouldering because ropes and other safety equipment keep the climbers from falling very far and hitting the ground. Of the two main types of free climbing, sport climbing is more safe than trad climbing.
How Much Does Rock Climbing Cost? Indoor rock climbing costs around $20 for a day pass. Gear for indoor top rope climbing costs around $75. Gear for outdoor sport climbing costs around $250, and gear for trad climbing costs around $600.