Everything You Need to Know About Climbing Ropes

Climbing ropes come in all shapes and sizes. The rope’s diameter, the amount the rope stretches, as well as a variety of other properties, are geared towards specific uses. This article helps demystify the world of ropes and will help you make the right choices depending on the type of climbing you intend to do.

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Buying Your First Climbing Rope

As with all climbing equipment, ropes come in a vast array of types, all with different qualities, depending on their intended use. Making sure you acquire the correct rope is serious business, so if in doubt, seek the advice of an appropriately qualified person to advise you. Your climbing rope needs to be a dynamic rope (up to 10% elongation when loaded), and it needs to bear a label showing either EN895 or UIAA 101 (or both).

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Climbing Rope Length

Like every parameter, this will depend on what situations you will be using your rope in. It stands to reason that there is no point in buying a rope far longer than you’ll ever need. And of course, there is no sense in buying a rope that is going to be regularly too short to climb full pitches on the crags you plan to visit.

For example, if you only plan to climb at your local climbing wall for the time being, simply buy a rope long enough to cater to the longest routes there. Check with the wall, but in many cases, a 50- or even 40-metre rope will be adequate for indoor climbing. Don’t forget to tie a knot in the dead end of the rope! However, if you’re climbing sport routes outside, a 70- or 80-metre rope is often needed, especially if you’ll be taking trips to clip bolts in sunnier climes.

In the UK, trad climbers tend to use ropes of 50- or 60-metres in length. The price difference between the two shouldn’t be much, so a 60-metre rope should cover just about any trad pitch you’re likely to encounter in the UK, leaving extra to build a spaced-out anchor too, if required.

Femlae climber climbing at sunset clipping a climbing rope to a quickdraw

Climbing Rope Diameter

The diameter of your climbing rope will have a fundamental effect on its weight (as does the sheath to core ratio). This will only really become important on harder and longer routes. And boy, it certainly does become important. Simply pulling the rope up to clip a piece of gear 40 metres into a pitch, or so, can become a serious effort. That’s the last thing you need on a long endurance-sapping test piece.

At the cutting edge (pun intended), ropes can be less than 8mm in diameter. Whilst this may be appealing, thinner ropes are much quicker to wear out, and God forbid, more likely to be cut through if loaded over a sharp edge.

Thus, for your first rope, I’d go for a chunkier rope of between 9 and 10mm. Too thick, and rope handling may become an issue itself. But, until shaving of weight becomes important to you, enjoy using a beefy rope that can take a bit of abuse. Your first rope should be a single rope. ‘Single rope’ specifically refers to its rope type.

Climbing Rope Type

Dynamic climbing ropes come in four types. Make sure you understand these types, and when they should, and should not be used. To achieve certification as a certain type of rope, the rope will have to pass a certain testing regime in order to display the EN/UAII number, as well as the symbol for the rope type.

These rope types are listed here, and they will display the symbol in the illustration below.

  1. Single Rope
  2. Half/Double Rope
  3. Twin Rope
  4. Triple-rated Rope
Climbing rope symbols - single, half and twin ropes

Single Rope Climbing

At its simplest, if you are climbing on only one rope, you should be using a single rope. At the start of your climbing career, a reasonably thick, single-rated rope is recommended. The lifetime of a rope is limited anyway, so this will not be the only climbing rope you ever buy.

Single use is generally used for indoor climbing and sport climbing. It is also possible to use a single rope for trad climbing.

I’ve used both the DMM Statement and Tendon Smart Lite ropes. Both are reassuringly thick, they also handle well and are hard wearing. They are generally available in a range of lengths from 30 metres upwards and both are great choices for a beginner’s single rope.

Climbing With Half Ropes

Particularly in trad climbing in the UK, it is common practice to use half, or double ropes. As the name implies, one of these ropes only makes up half the number of ropes required to climb safely! Owners of a set of half ropes should therefore be aware, that they should not climb using only one ½-rope at any time.

So why would anyone want to use half ropes? The use of two ropes has become common in trad climbing, where routes can often zig-zag across the crag and meander from left-to-right following lines of weakness up a rock face. A single rope going through runners at acute angles, around corners, over roofs etc., runs a real risk of generating serious rope drag. This can be a genuine show stopper. Poor rope-management on a route can result in the leader being unable to finish a pitch as they may no longer be able to pull up any rope due to the friction in the system.

However, will careful rope management, climbing on half ropes will eliminate this problem altogether. The trade-off is, that half ropes tend to be much thinner than single ropes, to save weight. Therefore, they are generally not as strong, and hence need to be used in a pair of half/double ropes.

Twin Ropes

Twin ropes are quite specialist and are usually used by ice climbers. With sharp, pointy things attached to both their hands and feet, as well as climbing through potentially sharp terrain, ice climbing carries a far greater risk of cutting the rope.

As a result, ice climbers seek the highest level of redundancy possible in their rope system. Unlike half ropes, which alternate clipping pieces of protection, twin ropes will both clip all pieces. Ice routes, in general, are fairly straight, so rope drag in usually not a concern.

Ice Climbers often use twin ropes for safe ice climbing

Triple-Rated Ropes

The final category of ropes are triple-rate ropes. These ropes pass the test for all of the previous three rope types, and will display each of the three symbols on their label. As rope technology has improved, their weight and diameter are comparable with half ropes. Unsurprisingly, they will come at a price. But a pair of triple-rated climbing ropes can cover any type of climbing situation there is, so definitely worth considering if you plan to do a range of styles of climbing.

Beal Jokers are a long-time favourite for dry-treated (see below), triple-rated ropes. I’ve been using them myself for years and love mine. My other recommendation would be the Petzl Volta which, at the time of writing, is available for an amazing price.

Dry-Treated Ropes

Top end climbing ropes will also be ‘dry-treated’. Dry treatment adds an element of water repellence to the ropes, which offers a number of advantages.

Absorbing much less water, they won’t get heavier when climbing in wet (or icy) conditions. Dry-treated ropes will also have a longer lifespan. Wet ropes wear out faster than dry ones, especially with respect to stresses from falls. Dry-treatment also lessens absorption of dirt and other particles that will contribute to the aging and wearing of your rope too.

Whilst there are few real downsides to dry-treated ropes, expect to pay more for a dry-treated rope vs. a non-dry-treated one. However, given the longer life expectancy of a dry-treated rope, I think dry-treated ropes are a good idea for any kind of outdoor climbing.

In addition, to anyone who spends time climbing sea cliffs, where salt is a constant problem, dry-treatment can only be a good thing. However, if your ropes end up in a salty rockpool, dry-treated or not, make sure you give them a wash in fresh water as soon as you get home.

Ultimately, you want to buy a single rope, or pair of ropes that are going to cover most, if not all, of the climbing situations you envisage in the near future. If you only see yourself climbing indoors for the time being, there’s no point on buying a pair of triple-rated, dry-treated ropes. But if you have ambitions to progress to outdoor climbing as soon as possible, you might want to factor that into your plans to avoid buying twice.

Climber makes a rising traverse up the ominous Mercury, E2, Carn Gowla, Cornwall

Semi-Static Ropes

Climbers use dynamic ropes for some very important reasons. The stretch of these ropes is a required property to be able to climb safely. Taking any kind of fall on a no-stretch rope could have disastrous results.

Firstly, the impact on a falling climber could cause serious injury. The process of the rope stretching during a climbing fall dissipates a huge amount of the force of the fall.

Secondly, this dissipation of forces lessens the force exerted on the hardware that the rope is running through. A hard fall onto gear with a no-stretch rope could cause catastrophic equipment failure.

However, there are use cases in climbing where we do not want the ropes to stretch. This is predominantly when abseiling, and for rigging ropes, i.e., for setting up top-ropes and so on.

As loads are repeatedly applied and released from abseil and rigging ropes, there is inevitably a sea-saw effect. This can be greatly amplified by using a dynamic rope. The result could lead to rope damage or failure as the rope is sea-sawed across any edges the rope comes into contact with.

The answer is semi-static, or low stretch ropes. Such ropes have their own certification, EN 1891, or UIAA 107. Semi-static ropes generally come in plainer colours than dynamic ropes, although this is not always the case.

Check the labelling on any rope before use, to ensure you are using the correct rope for your intended use.

Now you have gained a better understanding of the various rope types out there, jump to our other articles on range of climbing equipment needed for various types of climbing, from indoor climbing, to sport and trad climbing.

Climber Abseiling down a cliff in Cornwall, silhouette with whispy clouds in the sky