How to choose a climbing rope

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With all the different brands, hundreds of climbing rope models, multiple thicknesses and lengths, how do you know which rope to choose as your first climbing rope?

The purpose of this article is to help you understand the basics of choosing a suitable rope fo YOUR climbing needs by narrowing it down from the bunch. When choosing a climbing rope, there are a few things you need to know.

Now, let’s go over the basics.

Static vs Dynamic rope

Static ropes are sometimes used for climbing in situations when it is desirable that the rope won’t stretch. For instance, this can be when hauling equipment up a big wall, fixing ropes while mountaineering or ascending a fixed-line.

A static rope is NOT designed to take a lead fall and should NEVER be used in any situation where this might happen.

The rope needs to stretch (a.k.a. elongate) temporarily under a sudden load, such as a falling climber. When the ropes elongate, it absorbs the impact of the fall and gives a softer catch to the climber. Not only is it more comfortable taking falls on a dynamic rope, but it also softens the impact on the protection, such as quickdraws, bolts, trad protection, belay devices and so on.

Dynamic rope types

Single ropes

Single ropes are the most common type of rope used in climbing. They are meant to be used on its own, just as the name suggests. Some single ropes are also rated to be used as a half rope and/ or a twin rope (i.e. triple rated).

Single rated ropes come in many different lengths and thicknesses (diameters), making them suitable for a vast number of climbing disciplines. They are best suited for trad climbing, sport climbing, and top-roping. If you are buying your first rope, I recommend buying a single rope.

The biggest advantage of a single rope is the simplicity of the setup. It’s a lot more hassle-free when operating with just one rope, compared to belaying or clipping with two ropes simultaneously.

In this article, I’m focusing on single ropes because they are the most common and most recommended rope to buy as your first climbing rope.

Single ropes are marked with the number ”1” in a circle.

Half ropes

When using half ropes, you are tied to two ropes at the same time. When climbing with half ropes you are clipping one rope to protect you on the right side and clipping the other to protect you on the left side. You only clip one rope per quickdraw when climbing with half ropes.

The biggest advantage of half ropes is that it reduces rope drag on long routes or on wandering routes. There is also the back up of the other rope if something happens to the other one. Another advantage is when rappelling down a big wall, you can tie both ropes together and rappel the entire length of the rope.

Half ropes are thinner than single ropes and are ALWAYS meant to be used in pairs. Don’t mix different brands and sizes. NEVER climb with only one half rope.

Half ropes are marked with a ”½” inside a circle.

Twin ropes

With twin ropes, you are also tied into two ropes. The difference is, that when lead climbing with twin ropes, you always clip BOTH ropes to a single quickdraw.

Twin ropes are best suited for mountaineering, ice climbing, and non-wandering trad. Twin ropes have more rope drag than half ropes. On the plus side, twin ropes tend to be skinnier than half ropes and make for a less bulky and lighter system comparing to half ropes.

Twin ropes also have many of the same advantages and disadvantages of half ropes comparing to single ropes. A bit more hassle compared to the single rope, but a bit safer due to one rope backing up the other one. Remember that managing two ropes at once requires more skill from the belayer as well as the climber.

Just as with half ropes, don’t mix different brands and sizes and never climb with just one twin rope.

Twin ropes are marked with a sideways 8 (i.e. the infinity sign ”∞”) inside a circle.

Can you figure out what this rope is rated for?

Climbing rope diameter

After deciding which style of climbing rope you want, it is time to choose the diameter of the rope. In general, the thicker the rope, the more durable it is. Also, thicker ropes tend to be heavier, too.

For the first rope, I would recommend choosing a rope with durability in mind.

Thick ropes (heavy: 9,8-10,2mm)

The greatest advantage of thick ropes is durability. They can take more punishment when working on your project (read: falling a lot) and top roping. Top roping can take it’s a toll on a rope, especially when working on vertical to positive routes or other routes where the rope comes repeatedly in contact with the rock, for example when the anchor of the route is out of sight to the belayer. If you can’t see the anchor from the ground, the rope is likely going to be scraping on the rock on your way up (and down).

The downside of thick ropes is the weight. Commonly thick ropes weigh in at over 60g per meter. So a standard 60-meter rope weighs more than 3,6 kg or 8 pounds.

These thick workhorse ropes are also great for a first rope because they don’t accidentally slip through a belay device as easily as skinnier ropes can. Learning proper belay technique is safer and easier with thicker ropes.

Workhorse ropes are best suited for top-roping, working your projects and as a first rope when learning all the necessary skills sport and trad climbing require. I recommend not buying a top-of-the-line rope for your first climbing rope because you’ll probably wear it out more quickly than your next rope.

The Edelrid Boa 9,8mm is a nice handling workhorse rope

All-around ropes (medium: 9,4-9,7mm)

Advantages of medium diameter ropes include easy clipping, lighter weight compared to thicker ropes and more fluent belaying because the rope glides through the belay device effortlessly.

All-round ropes are less durable than workhorse ropes, but still commonly have a decent fall rating, which I’ll talk about more later on. Some climbers have a thick workhorse rope for working on routes before the redpoint and a separate sending rope which is of medium or even skinnier diameter.

Medium diameter ropes regularly weigh between 55 to 60 grams per meter. These ropes are fast and fluent to clip when going for that redpoint burn on your project.

All-round ropes require more attention from the belayer because of the slick handling properties, so I don’t recommend them as a first rope or for inexperienced belayers.

All-round ropes are great for all styles of climbing.

Skinny ropes (light: under 9,4mm)

Skinny ropes have similar strengths as all-around ropes do: fast and efficient clipping, the low weight of the rope and minimal rope drag when climbing long routes. They are also great for mountaineering when the minimal weight of your climbing gear is essential.

Handling skinny ropes requires experience from the belayer. Durability is not as good compared to workhorse ropes and all-around ropes.

Some thin ropes are triple rated so you can use them as a single rope, twin ropes or double ropes. Be sure to check the markings on the rope to see which style(s) it is rated for. Remember not to mix different brands or diameters when climbing with the twin rope or half rope system.

Climbing rope weight

The weight of the climbing rope can give insight into the handling properties. The lighter the rope, the slicker the handling.

So, how is it that some thinner diameter ropes weigh the same as thicker ropes? Here’s how: Slimmer ropes have been popular for the past few years. Rope manufacturers have reacted in weaving the ropes tighter to get to a thinner diameter.

With the thinner, tightly woven ropes, the amount of material used is almost the same as in thicker ropes. This means that the ropes are getting thinner with almost the same durability and fall number ratings, but the weight is not getting that much lighter.

If you want a thin AND light rope, best to check the weight as well, not just the diameter.

Climbing rope length

Nowadays a 70-meter rope is becoming the standard of climbing ropes. With a 70-meter rope, one can climb about 98% of the routes.

The 60-meter rope is still the most popular choice. With a 60 meter rope, you can climb about 95% of the sport routes, which is more than enough for a beginner. If the crag you normally climb at has long routes, maybe it’s best going with the 70m rope. For anyone else, I recommend the 60m option. If you’re uncertain about the length of a suitable rope for your local crag, ask one of the more experienced local climbers. They’ll probably be more than happy to help.

If you plan climbing ONLY at your local gym, you probably won’t need a 60m rope. Some go as short as 40m for solely gym climbing, where the routes are commonly shorter.

Cool picture by Marko Kauko, click to visit his instagram.

Fall rating

The fall rating is used to reflect how many big falls your rope can take and still be safe to climb with.

Ropes are tested in controlled conditions. The UIAA fall rating fall (standard in the industry) is a factor 1.77 fall. In numbers, this means that a 55kg weight is dropped from a height of 2.30m above a pre-clipped karabiner. A maximum fall is a factor 2 fall, so the testing is done close to the maximum. A climbing rated rope has to take a minimum of 5 UIAA falls.

Sound complicated and like gibberish? I know. It kinda does. The essential part of info from the fall rating is that the bigger the fall rating is (e.g. 5 falls vs. 9 falls), the more durable the rope is. More is better. Let’s leave it at that.

Impact force

PETZL presented it nicely on their website: ” The impact force of a rope is the force transmitted by the rope to a mass in the standard test. The measurement is made at the falling mass, climber side.” In other words, it’s how hard the fall feels to the falling climber.

The impact force is tested in clinical conditions with a blunt metal mass. In real life, the force of the fall is a number of numerous factors like rope slippage in a belay device, belayer giving a softer fall by going along with the fall, unstable protection and so on.

This can give some insight into how dynamic a rope is, but I wouldn’t be too concerned with the impact force rating when choosing one of my first climbing ropes.

Dry treatment or not?

There are basically two different types of dry treatments for a climbing rope. The more common (and cheaper) dry treatment is achieved by treating only the sheath (outer part) of the climbing rope.

The second and more expensive way is to treat the sheath AND the core (inside part) of the rope. The difference between the two is price, durability and water absorption. A dry treated rope is in no means waterproof, it merely absorbs less water.

Core vs. sheath treatment

A normal, untreated rope, absorbs 40-60% of the water of its own weight. A sheath treated rope absorbs 30-40% and a core AND sheath treated rope absorb often less than 5%, which is the UIAA (yes, again the UIAA) dry test standard.

So why should you consider in paying 30-50 bucks more on a dry treated rope? A dry treated rope is more durable than a regular rope. It keeps cleaner because it’s resistant to dirt as well as moisture. A dry treated rope often feels thinner than it actually is. When belaying, a treated rope is less likely to lock an auto belay device, such as a Petzl Grigri, when it is not intended (e.g. feeding rope to a lead climber during a clip). Also, dry treatment reduces rope drag on long routes.

If you often climb in wet conditions, dry treatment in a climbing rope is definitely a must. A dry treated rope is safer in wet conditions because a wet rope decreases its ability to absorb an impact. The less water the rope absorbs, the better.

If you are not sure whether you’ll like rope climbing or don’t have the extra money, go with a non-treated rope. If you don’t mind spending 30-50 bucks more, go with a treated rope. Smoother handling and increased durability are worth the extra money.

Other features

Middle mark

Most climbing ropes have a darkly dyed mark in the middle of the rope. A middle mark helps identify, yes you guessed it, the middle of a climbing rope. A middle mark is essential when rappelling.

Middle mark on the Beal Stinger III 9,4mm

Bicolor, bipattern

Some ropes identify the middle by changing the color or pattern of the rope in the middle. For example, half of the rope is yellow and the other half is green.

End warning marks

Some ropes thread a black yarn into the pattern towards the ends of the rope. This helps identify the end of the rope and is helpful when rappeling or lowering a climber.

Some manufacturers mark the ends by threading an extra yarn towards the ends of the rope. This feels like little extra bumps and is recognizable while belaying.

Price?

Climbing ropes cost anywhere from 110 (85€) US dollars to over 300 (270€). A good beginner single rope without extra features can be bought at around 130 bucks (120€).

Generally speaking, the more features you want, the higher the price will be. When buying your first rope, I’d recommend spending around 120 dollars. After you learn to handle the ropes properly and recognize what features you value, then go and spend more money.

Final word

The most important to questions to ask yourself when buying your first climbing rope are: What type of climbing will I be doing (e.g. trad, multi-pitch, sport, top-roping, ice)? Where am I going to be using it the most (local crag with long routes vs only at the gym)? For what features do I want to cough up extra bucks for (dry treatment, different middle marks, high-end brand vs cheaper)?

And if you don’t have the answers to any of the questions above, I’ll make it easier for you. Buy a dynamic, single rated rope that is 60m long with a diameter of 10,0mm at weighing around 62 grams per meter.

Don’t get caught up in choosing the absolute best climbing rope from all the different brands and types of ropes. The number of alternatives can be quite dizzying. Chances are that you probably won’t notice the difference anyway. Choose one that feels good and gets on with the climbing part. You’ll be fine.

Thanks for reading! If you have questions or comments, I’d be happy to hear them.

 

Related articles:

How to start climbing outdoors

How to choose a climbing shoe

How to start rock climbing [Guide]

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