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Types of Rock Climbing, Explained

Man climbing on rock

I’ve been rock climbing on and off for many years. But even now I find myself a little caught off guard when I’m asked to explain the difference between free soloing and free climbing (they are VERY different, by the way!). There are more types of rock climbing than one might realise, and even in the climbing world for beginner climbers trying to get to grips with their options, it can be a little confusing, to say the least.

So to help clear things up for rock climbing newbies, as well as those who just struggle to be concise about the different types of rock climbing, here’s a quick guide.

Types of rock climbing: summary

Types of rock climbing: Aid climbing

Let’s get aid climbing out of the way. Not because it’s less fun or significant than all the other types of rock climbing, far from it. But because it sits in it’s own category of climbing with no other types of rock climbing closely associated with it. The other main category of climbing is free climbing. More on that later.

So what is aid climbing?

Aid climbing is the act of ascending a rock face using equipment that is attached to the rock to pull on, rather than pulling on the rock itself. Aid climbers place devices or pieces of protection into the rock, attach ladder-like webbing to the devices, and use these to progress upwards on a climbing route. This style of climbing is usually only done on very difficult sections of a route, where pulling on the rock is not an option. Instead, they climb using the aid they have placed.

Big wall climbers often use aid climbing to complete new routes that are not feasible without a little help. And many of the routes on El Capitan were first completed by aid climbers.

Types of rock climbing: Free climbing

Most types of rock climbing come under the umbrella term of free climbing. This is not to be confused with free soloing!

Unlike aid climbing, where climbers rely on using placed aid to pull themselves upwards, free climbers rely solely on their own bodies to complete a rock climbing route.

What’s important to note at this stage, is that ropes and gear can be used to help protect free climbers should they fall. The ropes and gear are, however, not used to aid the upward progress of a climber.

Got that?! Good. Now let’s get onto all the different types of rock climbing that sit under the free climbing umbrella.

Roped climbing

There are a few types of rock climbing that use ropes. Remember, the ropes are only used to keep climbers safe and not to help them get higher!

Top roping

Most beginner climbers will start out top roping. This will either be indoors at a climbing gym, or outdoors on a climbing course or taster session with an instructor.

Top roping uses ropes that run through pre-existing or placed anchors at the top of a climbing route. One end of the rope is attached to the climber and the other end is attached to another person: the belayer. The belayer takes in the excess rope as the climber ascends, and ensures that should they fall off the rock, they will be ‘caught’ by the rope (that runs through a belay device attached to their harness).

In climbing gyms, top ropes are already set up by the climbing elves. Outdoor top rope climbs aren’t quite so magical unfortunately. They can be set up by a more experienced climber who will lead the climb first (see below). Alternatively, the top of some outdoor climbing routes can be accessed on foot and the rope can be set up from above.

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Lead climbing

Unlike top roping, lead climbing requires a climber to anchor the rope to the rock as they climb upwards. They start the climb with no protection from a rope at all, and finish the climb with the equivalent amount of protection as a top rope climb.

Lead climbing is done using a belayer. However, there will be times when the climber is above the last anchor point. This means that, should they fall at this point, they will fall further than if they are below an anchor point. Therefore, a few extra skills are needed by the belayer to ensure that climbers fall safely and comfortably. Yes, there is such a thing a comfortable fall!

There are two types of lead climbing:

01Sport climbing

Sport climbing is a type of climbing that uses pre-placed bolts — that are drilled into the rock — to provide protection for the climber. A sport climber will clip a quickdraw (short sling with a carabiner on each end) to the bolt, and then clip their climbing rope to the quickdraw. Leading climbs in this fashion can be done in the climbing gym or at an outdoor crag. Because it is a relatively safe way to climb, sport routes often — though certainly not always — include highly dynamic moves that require athleticism and power. In this respect, sport climbing is similar to bouldering.

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02Trad (traditional) climbing

There are no bolts or pre-placed protection on trad climbs. Instead, climbers place gear (cams, nuts and hexes) into cracks in the rock as they climb. Climbers then attach their rope to this placed gear and carry on their merry way upwards until they find another appropriate place to shove some gear into a crack. This can often be further than one might be comfortable with!

Unroped climbing

There are three main types of unroped climbing. One is for sane people, one is for water-lovers and the other is for people who value their life in a slightly different way to the rest of us!

One of the great things about unroped climbing is the freedom that it gives. It’s just you and the rock. You don’t need to worry about clipping in a rope. You don’t even need to know any climbing knots. And you certainly don’t need a load of heavy and expensive gear. Plus, you can head out on your own without having to reply on a partner.

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Instead of using ropes for protection, boulderers use crash mat or pads that they place below the route, or “problem”, as bouldering routes are referred to. Bouldering is usually done on rocks or “boulders”, believe it or not, that are lower to the ground than sport or trad climbing routes. That said, some boulder problems — known as highballs — can be up to 35 feet high, rendering a 6 inch deep crash pad totally useless should the worst happen. And this is the type of unroped climbing that is supposed to be for sane people?!

Most bouldering problems are not this high, thankfully. Crash pads do a perfectly sufficient job at providing decent enough protection for fallers, as do some helpful climbing pals, also known as spotters. They’ll help break a fall on the slightly higher problems, guiding the faller onto the crash pad.

Bouldering problems are usually short, relatively speaking, but they are also very tough. Boulderers usually “work” a problem before they complete it, piecing together each separately solved move.

But bouldering is also great for kids and beginners as they don’t have to deal with any fear of heights that can often be a barrier to those starting out. Most indoor climbing gyms have bouldering walls, and some gyms are dedicated solely to this type of rock climbing.

Free solo climbing

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock (or too busy trying to figure out all the different types of rock climbing), you’ll probably have heard of Alex Honnold. You know, the one who climbed that massive rock face in Yosemite recently… without ropes? Yep, he’s a free solo climber. Need I say more? For the sake of completeness I’ll continue…

Free soloing is the act of climbing a rock face without ropes, aid or protection of any kind. And, if you fall, you die (best case scenario).

Deep water soloing

Many climbers see deep water soloing (DWS) as the ultimate way to gain total freedom on the rock, without certain death consequences should you fall. It combines the tough, athletic moves of bouldering and sport climbing with the flow of free soloing. It’s done on rocks that tower above and over deep bodies of water which acts as a crash pad, of sorts.

Of course, the higher you climb above the water, the more dangerous the fall will be. So although DWS can be done on low routes that are relatively safe, there is still the risk of injury when high falls occur.

Other types of climbing

There are a few other types of climbing that can’t really be classed as rock climbing, though the outcome is the same: get to the top without dying. These include:

Alpine climbing

Alpine climbingThis is a type of climbing that adopts one or all of the following types of rock climbing: trad climbing, aid climbing, free soloing and ice climbing. It is usually done to get to the top of a mountain or peak and is done over multiple pitches and many hours.

Ice climbing

Ice climbingInstead of climbing on rock, ice climbers climb on… yes, you got it, ice! They replace rock shoes with crampons whose spikes dig into the ice to provide traction to push up on. And hands are replaced with ice picks or axes that drive into the ice to pull down on. Protection is achieved by placing ice screws into solid sections of ice and attaching a rope to them.

Via Ferrata

Via ferrataVia ferrata means “iron way” in Italian. It is a way for inexperienced climbers to enjoy long exposed high mountain routes in safety. Routes contain metal rungs that are drilled into the rock, acting like a ladder. Climbers are attached to fixed steel cables, that run alongside the route, via a harness and a specialist via ferrata attachment system. Via ferrata routes sometimes include bridges and walkways too.

So there you have it. You’ll nail your next pub quiz with this newly ingested info on the different types of rock climbing. Plus, you’ve just saved yourself from ever agreeing to go free soloing!

However you like to do it, be sure that you do it safely, sensibly and with someone else who knows what they’re doing (if you don’t). And of course, have fun!

About the author


Joey is based in Cornwall, UK, and runs Cool of the Wild. She can’t get enough of being outdoors – whether that’s lounging around the campfire cooking up a feast, hitting the trail in her running shoes, or attempting to conquer the waves on her surfboard – she lives for it. Camping is what she loves to do the most, but has also spent many many hours clinging to the side of a rock face, cycling about the place, cruising the ski-slopes on her snowboard and hiking small mountains and big hills.

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