How to Build a Trad Rack
Updated: May 17, 2021
Check out my rack. I know what your thinking and you're a perv. We are rock climbers and when we talk rack it's our collection of trad protection, not boobs. But of course, there are a lot of puns to be had so have at it. The point of this write-up is to look at what I carry for most climbs and how I adjust depending on what type of route I am attempting.
When figuring out what protection you need for a route reading the guidebook description can give some clues as well as checking the route on Mountainproject.com. If it's a single pitch you can also give a look from the ground to spot placements.
When you don't have that data then you are going to need a mix of passive pro and cams to cover a broad rand of sizes and placements. This is what we refer to as a standard rack. It will cover most climbs other than unique situations like massive off-widths or sustained cracks where you might need six of the same sized as the crack is that uniform. If you ever go to Indian Creek, Utah then you better have friends you can pool gear with or just have a huge collection of cams.
Suggested Basic Rack
Here is a solid all-around rack that will work for most climbs. I will be referring to sizing based on Black Diamond Camalots as they are the industry standard, but you can use cams from DMM, Metolius, Wild Country, or even the much-revered Totems. What matters is that the same sizes are covered.
Nuts from #4-#11
Cams Full set from #.3-#3 with doubles from .5-2
8-10 Alpine Draws
Our home crags are Ontario limestone so for trad climbing, bombproof isn't what comes to mind, so I use a lot of passive protection as cams can slip out or shift the rock. A set of nuts from Black Diamond, Wild Country, or DMM will do just fine. My set is a mix of all three and I find the DMM has a slight edge in performance due to cut-outs on the back. It lets me fiddle it into some tricky placements. But I don't hesitate to place any of the others if that is the size I need.
A new addition to my rack is the Black Diamond Offset Stoppers. They give secure placements in flared cracks where regular nuts are a bit suspect. In fact, whether on Ontario limestone or Adirondack granite, I always seem to reach for my offset nuts first. I'm thinking of getting a double set this year and ditching the similar sizes of regular nuts.
My other type of pro I always have with me is Camp Tricams. They are cam-shaped nuts with a nylon sling attached to one end. When placed in a crack or pocket and the sling is pulled, they rotate to wedge in the crack. I started using these when I was too poor to buy a lot of spring-loaded cams but find uses on many routes, particularly in limestone pockets and horizontal seams like you see in the Gunks. Tricams can also be used as a passive nut doubling their usefulness.
Spring Loaded Camming Devices
Everyone just calls these cams. A pretty simple idea that when you pull the trigger the head gets smaller. Put it in the crack and will expand to wedge in place. Generally, you want to find parallel cracks or pods but with practice, you can find a lot of solid placements. Care must be taken to find optimal placements as cams can walk and can pull out. You can also place gear very poorly and only know it if you fall on it so before you are leading trad routes make sure you’ve mentored under an experienced climber or taken classes with a certified guide.
The most common ones are the Black Diamond Camalot so most guidebooks refer to the protection you will need on a route based on their sizing. There are a lot of good options. Each has its pros and cons. If you want to go down the rabbit hole, go on the mountainproject.com forum and read up on what cams people think are the best. More contentious than politics. Over the years I’ve used Black Diamond, Metolius Master Cams, Wild Country Friends, and CCH Aliens. If well placed all will hold a fall and are easy to place and clean.
All of my cams are currently Black Diamond Camalots C4 and X4. I’ve stuck with them as that is what I grew up using and have gotten used to the sizing so I’m more likely to pick the right one on the first try. You can mix Black Diamond with Wild Country and DMM cams as the color system match so a blue from either is close to the same size. Plus, Black Diamond is sold by everyone, so you are more likely to find a good deal on them. And maybe this makes me a fashionista but I kind of like my gear to match.
And while I’m down to only one, the Camp Ball Nut is a unique piece that is a mix of nut and spring-loaded cam. The ball part slides up the ramp expanding the range to fit small parallel cracks. The can protect cracks as thin as 3mm so sometimes it’s a literal lifesaver but if you fall on it, ball nuts can get welded into the rock, hence my only having one left. I can't complain as it did its job. What really stands out is that even the smallest size is rated to 8KN making it the strongest small cams on the market. I will be picking up a few more but like switching to your winter tires, I’ll probably wait until I need it and don’t have it before I put down the cash. Even as an adult, I’m still a dirtbag climber and hiker.
Slings and quickdraws
Unless a route is straight up a crack you will need to extend your placements to prevent rope drag and pieces walking as you climb past. If the route movement is minor, then a sport quickdraw can be enough but often you will need at least a 2-foot sling or even longer. This means some type of extension for each piece you place. With longer slings they can be carried over the shoulder or arranged as an alpine draw on your harness. How many you carry will depend on the length of the route and how many placements you expect.
I carry a mix of 30cm, 60cm, and 120cm slings with two carabiners so one end can clip the protection and the other can clip the rope. As an example, for a multi-pitch route, I might carry 10x 60cm alpine draws, 2 x 120 cm slings over the shoulder and 4 x 30 cm quickdraws for straight cracks or if I come across some bolts on the route.
Most of my slings are made of Dyneema since for the strength it is thinner and lighter than nylon. It is more expensive, and they have a shorter shelf life, but I don’t mind the extra cost for the saving space on my rack. I run almost everything on my harness so real estate is valuable.
You’ve climbed 150 feet up the first pitch of a nice 6 pitch route. You’ve found a nice ledge with a few cracks on the wall above it, so you decide to set up an anchor here. Once you’ve placed 3 bomber pieces you need to decide how you are going to connect them together, sharing the load and creating redundancy in case one piece was to fail.
At this point, I lead every pitch so an anchor kit of slings or cordalette allows me to set up quickly and belay up my second. Once they are up then they connect to the anchor, put me on belay, I disconnect and I’m off climbing again. I have two kits set up like this so once on the climb I’ve always got one free for the next pitch. What I run will vary depending on what type of set-up we are likely to encounter. I’ve outlined below my most common kits.
A lot of people will suggest making an anchor with the rope, which is a perfectly safe thing to do but since I lead almost all the climbs I do it makes for a pain to start the next pitch.
Pre-tied quad made from a 120cm Dyneema sling with two light locking carabiners for clipping the bolts and one HMS carabiner for tethering myself to the anchor. With an extra sling or two, it can also be used for gear anchors and as a rappel extension. When I go to a place like Red Rocks, where a lot of the belays are two bolts, I will use this system as it is quick to set up. I also use it for rappels on multi-pitch routes as it makes it easy to tether everyone.
3+ piece trad anchor
240cm Dyneema sling or 7mm accessory cord tied into a cordalette with a couple of locking carabiners– Easy to distribute the load between the pieces, create a redundant masterpoint, and with practice quick to setup. The long length can be of a lot of utility on the top pitch as sometimes there are only trees to sling for anchors at the top.
Belay device and Locking Carabiner – I run the Black Diamond ATC Guide most of the time but would run the Mammut Alpine Smart if I was belaying a leader very often.
Nut Tool – You’ve put your expensive cams or nut in a crack and now you want to move it someplace else. If it doesn’t want to come out with just some gentle pulling then nut tool to the rescue. Poke, prod, and pull. As the name states, you will use it for nuts more than anything else.
Rescue Kit – A couple of prusik loops, a spare HMS carabiner, and a knife can all come in handy if things go wrong. More important than the gear is taking some rescue courses so you know what to do if you get in a bad way. If you fall off an overhang and don’t know how to get back to the rock it can be a case of needing to call out the rescue squad even though you are unharmed.
The Wrap Up
Trad climbing is super cool but as you see it needs a lot of gear and you better know how to use it. If you are making the transition from gym or sport climbing consider taking courses with our friends at On The Rocks Climbing Guides. Leslie Timms and crew will set you down the right road knowledge-wise to be safe on the cliffs.
Cover Photo Credit: Ryan Mallory