Unless you’re a dedicated bolt clipper or a gung-ho pebble wrestler, chances are that the time will come when you need to start building your own rack.
Sure, the days of tagging up with a buddy or two for endless days of climbing may have been fun, but eventually, you’ll want your own gear so you can go out and adventure when you want to, not when others’ schedules dictate.
Unfortunately, buying a full rack of trad gear can be pretty pricey and, for most of us, will be a substantial investment. Thus, it's important to go into the rack buying process with as much background knowledge as possible so you come out the other end with only a partially depleted bank account and a rack that's perfect for all of your future sends.
First things first, let’s look at what you need to consider:
Where do you climb?
While we all wish our lives were some never-ending climbing road trip to all of the best climbing locales, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of us spend the most of our time climbing in one particular area.
Whether you’re a hardened Yosemite climber or a Peak District gritstone climbing extraordinaire, the gear you need for one area is going to have very important differences from the gear you need for another.
Instead of trying to buy one rack that can do it all, consider what your specific needs are. Climbing mostly in the Gunks? You might want tricams, hexes, or flexible-stemmed cams for those horizontal cracks. Climb a lot in Moab? You’ll probably be happy with a solid selection of different sized cams for sending those splitters.
If you’re new to climbing and just starting to get into the trad game, it’s worth asking experienced local climbers about what gear they use most. Or, take the time to flip through your local guidebook; Many modern guidebooks list gear recommendations or must-haves in either an introduction section or as supplementary information on specific climbs, which can be indispensable information for a newer climber.
What kind of climbing do you do?
Although we’d all like to be equally amazing at finessing our way through delicate slab manoeuvres as we are on steep overhangs, many of us naturally drift towards the type of climbing we like most.
Since the gear you’d need on finger-tip sized splitter cracks is much different than on steep face climbs, it’s worth considering the type of climbing you do most.
It’s important to note that these differences in gear go well beyond whether or not you might prefer cams or nuts. A trad rack is made up of much more than just the protection as it includes carabiners and slings, too.
People who love long, wandering alpine routes might really prefer to have lightweight Dyneema alpine draws with single wire gate carabiners while a weekend warrior that spends most of their time at local crags might make do with a set of quickdraws. It all depends on what kind of climbing you like to do.
Now that you have a bit of an understanding about how small differences in climbing can change what you might want in your rack, let’s get to specifics. Here’s the gear you ought to buy for your rack:
As we mentioned before, there’s more to a rack than a bunch of nuts and cams. Sure, these things are pretty important, but they’re not going to be much use for you unless you have some way to attach them to your rope. Enter: the carabiner.
Carabiners are vital pieces of climbing equipment - they connect the protection to your rope and are also used in everything from gear racking to belaying.
Any solid rack has a decent selection of different carabiners for different uses. Starting out, you’ll want to focus in on acquiring a significant number of multi-purpose carabiners so you can hit the ground running.
When it comes to buying carabiners, you really have to consider what they’ll be used for. It’s not always best to buy the lightest and smallest carabiners, so a little research goes a long way. That being said, there are two kinds of carabiners that a new rack ought to have: wire gates and lockers.
Wiregates are the perfect carabiners for racking up your gear on your harness and for attaching protection to the rope.
This is because they’re light, relatively easy to clip, and they vibrate less against the rock, which reduces the likelihood that the gate will open slightly and thereby decrease the strength of the carabiner.
Eventually, you’ll want about 40-70 of these, but to begin with, shoot for 20 or so to make sure that you have enough carabiners to rack your gear and to make alpine draws with.
Lockers, on the other hand, are useful for everything from belaying to attaching oneself to the anchor.
They come in a variety of different shapes and locking mechanisms. We recommend having a selection of HMS or ‘pearabiners’ and a handful of D-shaped carabiners.
The different ‘autolocking’ locking carabiners are certainly enticing, but we recommend starting out with at least a majority of the tried and true screwgate locking carabiners until you better understand the nuances and limitations. of the autolocking mechanisms.
Eventually, you’ll want about 10-20 locking carabiners, but to start out, aim for about 5 of these.
2. Nut tool
It might seem like an insignificant little thing, but when your or a friend get a nut or a cam stuck in the rock, you’ll certainly be happy that you have it.
Most nut tools have essentially the same function, so there’s no need to splurge significantly here - you can even buy one used. What’s really important is that you know how to use a nut tool so you don’t lose too much of your new rack on your first few climbs.
If you can afford it, we actually recommend getting two nut tools, so that both you and your climbing partner can have one.
3. Slings and runners
If you’re a sport climber, you might already own a set of quickdraws, but for trad climbing, you might find that you need something a bit more versatile to deal with the rope drag on wandering routes.
You’ll want to get yourself a selection of different slings and runners, but it can be pretty difficult to choose between all of the options.
When it comes to slings, the main difference that people see between models is the material that they’re made out of - either nylon or Dyneema.
Nylon slings are the tried and true climbing sling as they are both versatile and strong. They’re equally at home as part of an alpine draw as they are as part of a quad anchor or as a way to extend a rappel. They’re also cheap, which is a genuine benefit, but they are usually bulkier and heavier.
Dyneema slings, on the other hand, are a somewhat newer material that is incredibly strong - so strong that manufacturers can use up to 60% less material with Dyneema to create a sling that’s just as strong as a standard nylon sling.
That being said, they do have a much lower melting point than nylon, which makes them unsuitable for use as an autoblock, klemheist, or other friction hitches.
Ultimately, though, it’s important to be honest with yourself about what you’re going to be using your slings for. It might be tempting to kit yourself out with a whole rack of Dyneema slings, but they have specific uses that may not be best for your particular needs.
Regardless of what you choose to buy, we recommend having at least a handful of nylon slings in a rack of about 10 total slings in the beginning.
A handful of quickdraws might also be useful, but they are less versatile than alpine draws if you start venturing into larger terrain and you may find you use them less often in a trad environment once you eventualy have a rack of 20-30 slings.
4. Nuts/Passive Protection
Nuts, chocks, stoppers. Whatever you call them, they effectively refer to the same thing: the original artificial climbing hardware for protection on climbs.
These little hunks of metal may not be as sexy as a new rack of cams, but their ability to slot perfectly into constricting cracks without the weight or price tag of cams makes them worthy of space on your rack.
Purchasing a set of nuts doesn’t have to be an arduous, time-consuming chore. While there are certainly differences between the major models, any standard set of nuts will serve you well in the long run.
We recommend focusing on the most used nuts for trad climbing and avoiding the aid-only micronuts until you’re ready to start aid climbing.
Most manufacturers sell their nuts in a ‘set’, though that means different things for each brand. DMM Wallnuts come in a set of 11 while BD stoppers come in a complete set of 13 or a classic set of 11. Either will do.
Finally, we’ve gotten to the topic you’ve all been waiting for: cams. The main obsession of most climbers looking to build a rack is the cams, but it’s important to realize that a rack is made up of much more than these fancy devices.
That being said, cams are a critical part of most modern climbing racks and they’ll be the item that has the largest impact on your bank account, so it’s important to do your research here. Cams are perfect for parallel-sided or slightly flaring cracks (depending on the model you buy) so they work in places that nuts just won’t.
Eventually, you’ll want a set of cams, but to start out, you probably don’t need a double or triple rack, nor do you necessarily need the smallest or biggest sizes. Although every brand has a different sizing system, we recommend getting the following gear in the equivalent sizes to these Black Diamond Camalot C4s and C3s:
- C3 Red 1
- C3 Yellow 2
- C4 #.3
- C4 #.4
- C4 #.5
- C4 #.75
- C4 #1
- C4 #2
- C4 #3
A rack in those sizes should serve you well for everything from finger-sized to moderately-sized hand cracks. When starting out, we recommend getting these sizes first (with particular emphasis on the C4 #.4 through C4 #2) and getting the other sizes when you can. While Black Diamond C4s are often considered the gold standard of cams, Metolius, DMM, Wildcountry, and others also make solid alternatives.
Get out and climb!
At the end of the day, building a full rack can take a long time, especially if you have limited funds for the investment.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, as this gives you time to thoroughly research your next purchase. Our advice? Start building a rack that’s satisfactory for most of the places you climb and look to climb with other more experienced climbers for a while until you’re able to complete your rack.
A rack is only useful when it’s out on the rock, so it’s important to stay focused on the end goal and only buy the things you really need.
As you use the rack more, you’ll get a sense of what gear you like and don’t like and this can guide your future purchases.
Buying a rack is a marathon, not a sprint, so embrace the process and have fun!