What are the Types of Rock Climbing?

You will often hear me say across our website that I believe rock climbing has a place for just about everyone. With so many types of rock climbing, how could there not be? But choosing the right form for you is a completely different story. That’s why I’ve compiled this tell-all guide to the different…

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You will often hear me say across our website that I believe rock climbing has a place for just about everyone. With so many types of rock climbing, how could there not be? But choosing the right form for you is a completely different story.

That’s why I’ve compiled this tell-all guide to the different types of rock climbing. Free climbing, bouldering, ice climbing and so much more… we’ll cover it all in today’s article.

But first, what is rock climbing?

What is Rock Climbing?

Rock climbing is a sport where individuals climb man-made or natural rock formations. It can be done indoors, outdoors, snow or sun, with or without equipment, alone, or with a partner. With so many variations, I truly believe that this sport has a place for just about everyone.

How Many Types of Rock Climbing Are There?

There are at least 23 different types of rock climbing. The different types of rock climbing include aid climbing, free climbing, bouldering, lead climbing, sport climbing, traditional climbing, top rope climbing, ice climbing, mixed climbing, deep water solo climbing, crack climbing, simul climbing, free solo climbing, big wall climbing, single pitch climbing, multi-pitch climbing, competition climbing, speed climbing, lead climbing, slab climbing, overhang climbing, indoor climbing and solo coimbing.

Aid Climbing

Aid climbing uses gear not only for protection, but also to help ascend the climb. Equipment climbers may use includes daisy chains, pitons, or cams just to name a few. Some use aid climbing through the entire climb, or while others only during especially difficult sections of the route.

Many individuals in the climbing community see aid climbing as pointless as it takes the natural challenge of the climb away, but others see it as a way to experience climbs that would otherwise be near impossible due to terrain or experience level.

Personally, I’m appreciative of aid climbing as it allows rock climbing to become a more inclusive sport. Who doesn’t want more people to share the joy of rock climbing?

Free Climbing (Free from Direct Aid Climbing)

Free climbing, also known as free from direct aid climbing, is a form of rock climbing where any equipment used is for protection only and may not be used to help you ascend the route. However, this does not make them a requirement. Some sub-genres of free climbing such as top rope climbing and lead climbing allow you to use ropes for protection while others such as bouldering, deep water soloing, and free soloing do not. Free climbing can be among the most dangerous types of rock climbing.

Bouldering

Bouldering is a short and methodical form of free climbing that can be done indoors or outdoors. Unlike in some forms of climbing where participants can use any hold available to them, boulderers typically follow a set route of specific holds.

Bouldering routes are usually very short, ranging from around 7 to 15 feet. Though occasionally bouldering problems can be higher. Completing a bouldering problem between 15 and 40 feet is called high balling.

In bouldering the only protective equipment used are foam mats called crash pads which are used to soften falls and flatten terrain. 

Types of Rock Climbing
Bouldering – Types of Rock Climbing

Bouldering is appealing to many climbers because of its need for so little equipment. All you need to get started is a crash pad, climbing shoes, and chalk. When bought used, it can cost you as little as $100 to get started. When you opt for a climbing gym and rentals you could enjoy the sport for less than $20!

Bouldering is one of my favorite types of rock climbing because of its technicality. I love a good challenge.

Lead Climbing

In lead climbing, the climber attaches their rope to anchors as they ascend. Usually a belayer stands at the base of the route controlling the tension of the rope.

Lead climbing has two main subgenres. These types of rock climbing are sport climbing and traditional climbing. The climb’s sub-genre depends on whether the climber is using pre-fixed anchors or if the climber is placing the anchors themselves.

Sport Climbing (Bolted Climbing)

This subgenre of lead climbing is the most popular form of outdoor climbing. It consists of pre-fixed permanent anchors that climbers clip their rope onto using a quickdraw (two carabiners connected with webbing) instead of placing their own anchors like in traditional climbing. 

There is a great divide in the climbing community as to whether permanent anchors are ethical or not. Those who oppose permanent anchors, known as clean climbers, worry about the effect the drilling and hammering has on the integrity of the rock. Drilled and hammered anchors can leave cracks in the rock which pose a threat not only to climbers but to on-lookers as well. 

Traditional Climbing (Trad Climbing)

Unlike in sport climbing, traditional climbers place, and then remove their own anchors while ascending their climbing route. One of the most common forms of protection in traditional climbing are nuts. Nuts are metal wedges attached to a wire that fit into cracks, the climber clips their quickdraws onto the wire to secure themselves. 

Traditional climbing used to be known simply as climbing, but with the development of pre-fixed climbing routes, a distinction became necessary and thus trad climbing was born. This is among the most popular types of rock climbing.

Top Rope Climbing

With top rope climbing, an anchor is placed at the top of the route that a rope runs through, usually controlled by a belayer at the base of the climb. When you self-belay, this medium is referred to as top rope solo climbing, and is much more dangerous than regular top rope climbing since there is no one to spot you. 

When done with a partner, top rope climbing is seen as one of the safest rock climbing variations as the distance you’re able to fall is very short. Top rope climbing is among the most popular types of rock climbing in indoor climbing gyms.

Ice Climbing

Types of Rock Climbing
Photograph of Ice Climbing by Nick Gosset – Types of Rock Climbing

In ice climbing, participants ascend structures of ice, such as frozen waterfalls or glaciers. This form of climbing is appealing to many because of the climb’s ever-changing nature. However, they can also be very difficult as the environment can be unforgiving and much of the equipment is unlike any other denomination of climbing.

One piece of ice climbing specific equipment is crampons. Crampons are large metal spikes that go over top of your shoes to gain better traction. Crampons may be used in mixed climbing, but it is generally advised against as it will dull them faster. However, other tools such as ice axes may be used in areas that do not have ice. This is called dry tooling. 

This form of climbing is often included in the broader sport of mountaineering which refers to many outdoor activities done on a mountain including skiing, hiking, and climbing. 

There are two sub-genres of ice climbing, alpine ice climbing and water ice climbing. Alpine ice climbing is defined by its mountain environment, while water ice is created by a flowing source of water that is frozen, such as a waterfall. 

Ice climbing can be among the most dangerous types of rock climbing.

Mixed Climbing

Mixed climbing is the blend of ice climbing and rock climbing. The varying terrain creates a unique challenge for climbers as they must carry equipment for both environments. Mixed climbing generally follows the Waterfall Ice Rating System despite the routes not being completely covered in ice.

Deep Water Soloing

Deep water soloing, also known as psicobloc, is a form of free climbing. However, instead of falling onto rock, you fall into a deep body of water. Because of this, it is one of the most dangerous types of rock climbing.

Deep water soloing’s origins are in Mallorca, Spain in the 1970s.  It has since expanded to become a global phenomenon and can be found nearly anywhere in the world. 

Crack Climbing

Crack climbing is a form of rock climbing where the climber follows a crack in the route which ranges from the width of a finger to large enough for you to fit your entire body in. It is normal for routes to follow cracks because it creates natural places for protective equipment to be installed. 

Like other disciplines, crack climbing has its own techniques that make it distinguishable. An example of this is hand jams, where the climber inserts and bends their hand to fill the crack and push themselves upwards. This technique can be painful for beginners, but crack gloves can help to prevent abrasions and make the experience more comfortable. 

Simul Climbing

Simul climbing occurs when two or more people are attached to the same rope. An example of this is running a belay. This method poses a plethora of dangers because if one climber falls, the other can be unexpectedly pulled from their position. That is why it is crucial that climbers be of the same or similar skill level. 

This genre creates an opportunity for a social aspect in a rather solitary sport. 

Free Solo

Free soloing is characterized by its lack of protection. No ropes or harnesses, just you and 100s of feet of rock and open air. This is by far the most dangerous form of climbing.

Free solo climbing differs from free climbing in that solo climbing simply means that you are climbing by yourself, without the aid of a belayer, while free soloing does not allow any form of protection or aid. 

You may recognize this as the type of climbing famous climber Alex Honnold, the first person to free-solo Yosemite’s El Capitan, is known for. He also co-wrote the book “Alone on the Wall” with David Roberts and has a National Geographic documentary called “Free Solo” detailing this feat. Please note that this link is not an affiliate link.

Types of Rock Climbing
Free Solo Climbing – Types of Rock Climbing

Big Wall Climbing

This form of climbing is a long route that takes more than one day to complete. Typically, a team of climbers work together to carry necessary equipment and sleep on route in a collapsible cot called a portaledge. Some climbs can take up to weeks to complete such as routes on eight-thousanders (the 14 mountains whose summit are more than 8,000 meters above sea level). 

Single Pitch Climbing

Single pitch climbing accounts for a route’s distance that is half a rope length. Since the climb is so short, single pitch climbing is seen as a safe alternative to multi-pitch climbing routes, and thus, a good starting place for beginners. Single pitch climbing can be integrated with either the sport or traditional style of climbing.

Multi Pitch Climbing

Multi-pitch climbing includes routes that are multiple pitch lengths. Like in single pitch climbing, multi-pitch climbing can be done in the sport or traditional style. 

Competition Climbing

Competition climbing occurs primarily on indoor man-made rock climbing walls. Competition climbing made its debut at the 2020 olympics held in 2021 which helped to solidify the validity of the sport. There are four official forms of competition climbing; speed climbing, bouldering, lead climbing, and combined. The combined form simply means that any of the following forms are joined together. 

Speed Climbing

In speed climbing the objective is to complete the route in the shortest possible time. Thanks to the IFSC, the International Federation of Sport Climbing, we have standards that ensure a fair competition. These standards include; the route taking place on a 15 meter wall ( a little over 49 feet) with a 5 degree overhang and that each climber’s route consists of identical holds and routes.

Bouldering

Competition boulders complete multiple 15 foot problems over a set time span. The objective is to reach the final hold in a stable position with both hands on as many problems as possible. 

Lead Climbing

Finally, in competition lead climbing, competitors climb a 15 meter wall in a 6 minute time span. In this form, anchors and quickdraws are already set and are mandatory for the climber to use. The aim is to reach the highest hold possible without falling. If there is a tie, the fastest time wins. 

Want to read about these forms of climbing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? Check out our article “2020 Tokyo Olympics Sport Climbing Medalists“.

Slab Climbing

Slab climbing is a form of rock climbing where the route is at an angle less than 90 degrees in reference to the ground. The slabs are divided into two sub-groups; low angle slabs (less than 70 degrees) and high angle slabs (between 80 and 89 degrees).

Overhang Climbing

Overhang climbing is the opposite of slab climbing. It is defined by its route being at an angle of more than 90 degrees in reference to the ground. This form of climbing is especially difficult because of the lack of opportunities for rest.

Indoor Climbing

Indoor climbing is a form of rock climbing completed on man-made climbing walls. The floors of indoor climbing gyms are typically cushioned to break falls and because of the controlled environment, indoor climbing is generally safer than outdoor climbing. 

The first indoor climbing gym was opened in 1987, allowing rock climbing to become more accessible to a larger demographic. Thanks to the development of indoor climbing gyms, the sport of rock climbing has experienced exponential growth. 

Solo Climbing

Solo climbing simply means that you are climbing alone without the aid of a belayer. This form of rock climbing covers a variety of sub-genres including but not limited to bouldering, competition climbing, and free solo climbing. 

How Do I Decide Which Types of Rock Climbing are for Me?

As you can see, there are many types of rock climbing, each more unique than the last. When choosing what medium to pursue, there are various factors to consider. However, with dedication, the average Joe can become a seasoned climber. 

Here are some questions you can ask yourself when deciding what form or rock climbing to pursue;

  • What types of rock climbing are available in your area?
    • Did you know that California has the most indoor climbing gyms? Some indoor types of rock climbing include bouldering, top rope climbing, auto-belay climbing and lead climbing.
  • Do you have any experience in fitness?
    • If you’re a novice and have little experience in athletics, aid climbing might be the place to start. Looking for other types of rock climbing? I started off in bouldering, though I had some history in fitness as a hockey player.
  • Are you a risk taker?
    • If you love risk and have experience in climbing, consider one of the more dangerous types of rock climbing free soloing. If you tend to bear on the side of caution, consider the safer types of rock climbing like bouldering or indoor rope climbing. 
  • Do you have a partner to climb with?
    • If you’re a beginner without a climbing partner, solo types of rock climbing might be the right fit for you.
  • How much money are you willing to invest?
    • The different types of rock climbing vary greatly in cost. If you are looking for an affordable way to get into the sport, consider joining a climbing gym. For a small cost, you can use their facilities and rent gear. If you have a larger budget, you can spend thousands getting the most elite gear. Maybe you could even explore the types of rock climbing known for beautiful locations like trad climbing and bouldering. The cost is really up to you!
  • Would you prefer to climb indoors or outdoors?
    • If you’re looking for a controlled environment, indoor climbing might be for you. But if you like to spend time in nature like I do, consider one of the outdoor types of rock climbing like bouldering or big wall climbing.

As I’ve already mentioned, bouldering is one of my favorite types of rock climbing. I began a little under a year ago and have since fallen in love with it. I love how it provides an opportunity for me to spend time outdoors and how it challenges me to ascend the climbing grades. I also enjoy the ambiance and sense of community in the climbing gym. Everyone just wants to see each other succeed.

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