Everything You Need to Know About Sport Climbing Gear
In this second article in our series about rock climbing equipment, we’re looking at sport climbing. Building on the kit list we established in part one, which covered indoor climbing, we now take a look at what essential equipment we need for heading outside to climb bolted rock routes.
Progressing to Sport Climbing
Whether you’re progressing from climbing indoors to outside, alternating between trad climbing, or brand new to climbing, sport climbing comes with its own specific set of equipment to ensure it can be enjoyed safely.
It’s worth repeating ad nauseum that you should not set out to engage in any style of climbing before you’ve had experience and training in that particular form of climbing.
There’s a big step up in the skills required to climb safely outdoors, compared to climbing in the gym. Courses with trained climbing instructors are invaluable, but so is regular mileage with experienced peers.
It is possible to find partners on various online forums, such as UKClimbing. Be honest about your level of ability, and don’t be afraid to politely ask about your prospective partner’s level of ability.
A forum like UKClimbing is great, as you can share each other’s logbooks. Unless your prospective partner’s logbook is a total fabrication, you can get an idea of their level of ability.
But I digress…Back to the gear we need for sport climbing. I begin with some recommendations for some core equipment, common to both sport and indoor climbing.
These items have all been covered in part 1 of this article, so if you need any more information about, shoes, chalk bags, or harnesses, then go here.
This post contains affiliate links. If you use these links to buy something we may earn a commission at no extra cost to yourself. Thanks.
Sport Climbing Shoes
When it comes to climbing shoes, end is listless, as they say. Here are some of my favourite shoes I’ve used over the years.
- La Sportiva Cobra: These slipper-style shoes are without doubt the most comfortable climbing shoes I’ve ever worn. And what’s more they allow for some very technical climbing. The only downside I found, is that they are not very hard wearing, so don’t expect a long life from a pair of Cobras.
- La Sportiva Testerossa: These are the most aggressive and technical shoes I’ve ever used. They took several weeks to break in and there was no greater relief than taking them off straight after completing a pitch. But they were a fantastic performer, and I achieved some of my best climbs in these little sports cars.
- Tenaya Tarifa: My current shoe. In fact, I like them so much, I keep a rotation of three pairs. I have a comfortable all-day guiding shoe, a try-hard technical version a full size smaller, and a pair in between for stuff that’s, well, in between.
Chalk and Chalk Bag
Essential tools for any climber. Make sure you get a chalk bag with a built-in waist strap, or get some accessory cord to use it to tie around your waist. Experiment with different brands of chalk to find one you like, as their composition and feel varies considerably.
Sport Climbing Harness
Ensure your harness is a genuine product from a reputable climbing brand and that it bears the relevant certification i.e., EN12277 / UIAA 105. That leaves a massive choice of climbing harnesses to choose from.
Compared to a trad harness, you would expect a sport climbing harness to be optimised for comfort, and it may have larger padding, with the assumption that the wearer will be spending more time sitting in their harness as they hang-dog routes.
They may have less gear loops than a trad harness. After all, all you need are your quickdraws and, at most, a couple of slings, and few extra carabiners, and maybe a prusik.
Men's Sport Climbing Harnesses
Women's Sport Climbing Harnesses
Belay devices broadly fall into two categories. There are traditional devices that offer no additional braking functionality. And there are those that are classified as assisted braking devices.
Remember, that in almost all cases, the manufacturer will clearly state that they offer assisted braking only, and cannot safely be used hands free.
Safe belaying is crucial skill for climbing, so if there are any doubts over your technique, seek professional guidance to get this handled.
Slightly different skills are needed for assisted and un-assisted braking devices, so don’t assume you can change from one to the other without learning the nuances of your new device.
Traditional Belay devices
A multitude of climbing gear manufacturers make traditional ‘tube’ style belay devices. I recommend you use one with some additional teeth that provide additional friction for the braking rope.
Note, that if you want to get into multi-pitch sport climbing, which will usually involve abseiling down the completed route, you’re going to want to be using a tube-style device.
Assisted braking devices
New, and often strange, assisted braking devices come along all the time. However, the ubiquitous assisted braking device is the Peztl Grigri. They’re fantastic. Get one, and familiarise yourself with its use. Always read the manufacturer’s instructions.
The latest version is the Grigri Plus.
All assisted braking devices I’m aware of put the emphasis on ‘assisted’. They should never be used hands free and at least one hand should be on the braking rope at all times.
Don’t forget, whatever device you use, you will need to use it in conjunction with some kind of locking carabiner.
No matter what genre of climbing you plan to enjoy outside, there are many good reasons to wear a climbing helmet. However, not all climbers do, and it remains an ongoing debate.
Climbers of all levels, including top professionals, fall on both sides of the argument.
One possible stance I could take is to say, that like most decisions in climbing, the best judgement can only come from experience. With that in mind, certainly when first venturing into outdoor climbing, I’d recommend wearing a helmet at all times.
The EN number for climbing and mountaineering helmets is EN 12492 (UIAA Standard 106).
Aside from adequate protection, the features that will separate helmets will be weight, ventilation, comfort, and ease of adjustment. Another feature most helmets have, are clips for holding a head torch. As most helmets do include this, it’d be a shame to spend similar money on a helmet that does not.
I currently use the Camp Storm helmet, but all of the following helmets are tried, tested, and popular models.
Unisex Climbing Helmets
Women's Climbing Helmets
Men's Climbing Helmets
Sport Climbing Rope
As detailed in our climbing rope guide article, ropes come in a bewildering array of choices. However, if we want a rope specifically for sport climbing, we can narrow down our criteria straight away.
By default, any rope suitable for sport climbing will be perfectly fine for use indoors, or even in single-rope traditional climbing. Do bear in mind, that a long sport rope may be overkill for either of these other two climbing styles, particular on a relatively short indoor wall.
I hinted at the qualities we’re looking for in a sport climbing rope in the previous paragraph. We need a single rope (yes, that’s a type of rope), and it needs to be long enough to allow the climber, not only reach the chains on the route, but also be safely lowered to the ground once the climb is complete.
Remember to ALWAYS tie a knot in the other end of the rope. Always.
A minimum length of 60-metres is advised for a sport rope. But, to cover most routes you’re likely to encounter, you may want to go for a 70-metre rope.
Unless you’re seriously pushing some hard grades, the weight of the rope isn’t going to be a serious consideration at this time. So, opt for a thicker rope, in the region of 10mm. It will be reassuringly thick, harder wearing, and therefore longer lasting than a rope of thinner diameter.
Any of the following ropes will have you covered. Make sure you select the rope length you require.
Quickdraws for Sport Climbing
Quickdraws are an essential component in our sport climbing system. They are the means by which we connect the rope to the pre-placed bolts on the route. A quickdraw consists of two carabiners joined together by a length of material.
This configuration prevents any catastrophic twisting of metal on metal that could occur if only a single carabiner was used. Additionally, it will aid rope management and prevent friction in the system building up and inhibiting the climber’s upward progress.
Quickdraws are also used in trad climbing, but sport and trad quickdraws have evolved to optimise certain qualities. Trad climbing quickdraws will usually be optimised simply to save weight, as trad climbers are carrying so much additional equipment on their harness.
Without this necessity, sport climbing quickdraws are usually thicker and sturdier than trad quickdraws, and it so follows that they are typically slightly heavier.
This allows sport quickdraws to be generally more robust, and thus better suited to the rigours of performance climbing, were falling and hang-dogging are generally much more common than in trad climbing.
Finally, whilst a common feature of most modern carabiners, look for carabiners that have a keylock nose (rather than a hooked nose). That makes unclipping them and cleaning a route a great deal easier.
How many quickdraws do you need? This will depend entirely on the number of bolts on a route. In fact, the best sport climbing guidebooks will even tell you how many bolts there are on a route.
To cover most eventualities you’re going to need 10 to 12 quickdraws. If your local crags are dominated by shorter routes, you may get away with less draws in your quiver. But do bear in mind that if you venture to new crags, you may be left consistently short of enough draws to climb safely.
Bear in mind, one of the easiest ways to change over for lowering at the chains is using two quickdraws, so don’t forget about that, too. I’ve been using the DMM Shadow quickdraws for a number of years now and highly recommend them.
Slings and Carabiners
In addition to your quickdraws, you’re going to need a few extra bits and pieces. Namely, some extra locking carabiners and a 120cm sling to make yourself safe whilst you re-thread the anchor. This does depend on which method you use for doing your change over.
However, sometimes you might find an unusual anchor set-up where you go-to method may not work. In such a situation, it’s good to have the knowledge, and be equipped for, an alternative method of changing over.
Note that, if you plan to rig any sport route to be used for top-roping, it is best practice to make sure your rope is only running through your gear. This saves wear on the in-situ equipment.
In this case you’ll need up to four locking carabiners plus an extra sling to build the system.
Whilst not essential, an adjustable lanyard, such as the Peztl connect can make life at the chains much easier. An adjustable lanyard allows you to easily clip yourself to the anchors and adjust the length exactly as required to get the tension right where it’s needed.
It’s always a bit more of a fiddle using a sling, although pre-knotting a 120cm with an overhand knot immediately gives you more options.
Sport Climbing Accessories
Armed with everything described above, you could be all set. You certainly have all the essential gear to safely enjoy sport climbing independently. However, read on, as there are some items which will make your life easier, and your equipment last longer.
Typical conversation at a sport climbing crag:
“Can you see the first bolt?”
“No. Wait….there it is!”
“No way, all the way up there?”
“Oh my God, and the first moves look quite hard!”
“Fetch the clip stick!”
Many sport crags are developed and equipped by prodigious local climbers, often at their own expense. Therefore, it’s not uncommon to find that the first bolts on routes can be uncomfortably high on a route.
And you may feel that you have to do moves that you anticipate may be quite tricky. Sport climbing is supposed to be a safe way of enjoying the sport. And there are certainly no prizes for getting injured before you managed to clip your first bolt.
This ingeniously simple solution is a clip-stick. A clip-stick is an extendable pole which you can attach a quickdraw to, along with the rope, and reach up to clip the first bolt. Problem solved.
And if you’re worried about climbing ethics, don’t be. A serious redpoint attempt is considered legitimate with the first two bolts pre-clipped.
Rope Bags and Crag Bags
Dashing your rope out on the floor is fine, but over time your rope will get muddy and fine particles of grit can penetrate the sheath of your rope and potentially cause damage.
Whatever happens, there’s no denying that taking good care of your ropes will mean you can get the maximum lifespan out of them before they need replacing.
A rope bag is a very worthwhile investment. The concept is simple, they’re generally a sheet of durable material (a tarp), large enough to flake out even the longest sport rope.
This can then be rolled up into the built-in bag element, securely fastened, and either carried as a backpack, or in the hand, if preferred.
A rope bag generally refers to this simple bag that is designed to hold little more than your rope. Therefore, you’re going to need an additional bag to fit the rest of your climbing gear in. OR you can get a larger crag bag, that if chosen well, will hold all of your kit.
There are additional considerations. If you’re planning to travel abroad to sport climb, do you need a bag that can fit on the plane as hand luggage? Many manufacturers these days make bags with these things in mind.
A bag of about 45 litres capacity should just about satisfy your sport climbing needs. If you’re also a trad climber, you may want to look at some larger options. Head on over to our article on building your trad rack for more information on that.
Sport Climbing Guidebooks
Last but not least, let’s not forget about guidebooks. I’m going to assume that you’re not out developing new crags for yourself at this point.
So, you’re going to want some guidebooks to the areas in which you plan to climb. That will include guides to your local area, as well as guides for your sport climbing trips away from home.
Guidebooks are brilliant, and the standard of guides has improved dramatically in the last decade. You can now expect guides full of high-quality, colour photos, as well as exhaustively researched, up-to-date detail on the crags and routes within them.
Climbing guides are brilliant for getting psyched for climbing. Leafing through them at home and compiling tick lists is almost as much fun as climbing itself.
And once at the crag, you’ll be able to identify your objectives and get straight on with climbing, without accidentally sandbagging yourself by getting on a route three number grades harder than you had planned.
It’s of course impossible to recommend THE guidebooks you need. It entirely depends on where you plan to climb. However, the following choices should whet your appetite for some world-class sport climbing destinations in mainland Europe.
So, there you have it - that covers sport climbing equipment. If you remain a sport climber and decide never to dabble in trad climbing, rest easy, knowing you’ve saved yourself huge additional expense, not to mention several kilograms of extra kit in your rack.
Consider though, that you might potentially be missing out on the fun and adventure that trad climbing can offer.
But there’s no denying it, you need quite a lot more gear to go trad climbing. Building your trad rack is covered here.