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How to Choose Climbing Rope

When you start climbing, you may be surprised by the large selection of ropes. We carry rope for rock, ice, caves, rescue, and more. To help you buy climbing rope, here is expert advice from Charlie Townsend, manager of Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School.

Dynamic Climbing Ropes vs. Static Climbing Ropes

For climbing, always choose a dynamic rope. These ropes are designed to stretch in the event of a fall so that your body and your anchor aren’t absorbing the shock. Most dynamic ropes have a 30-40% dynamic elongation, which is the amount of stretch in a fall. Additionally, dynamic ropes have a 5-10% static elongation, which is the amount of stretch in the rope when weighted.

Static ropes are meant for building top-rope anchors, rappelling, hauling loads, doing rescue work, pulling cars from ditches, etc. They stretch very little (less than 5%); if you used one for climbing and took a fall on it, it could snap you like a twig.

One Climbing Rope or Two?

Dynamic ropes are available in three types: single, half, and twin. In most cases, a single rope is all you need. The single ropes we have run from 9.2 to 10.5 mm in diameter and are perfect for sport climbing, top-roping, and big wall routes.

Half ropes—sometimes called double ropes—are thinner, usually between 8 and 9 mm, and used primarily for multipitch trad routes, mountaineering, or ice climbing. When climbing on half ropes, the climber ties into the two ropes and the belayer runs both through their belay device. The ropes are clipped using double-rope technique, in which the climber alternates between the two ropes when clipping. This method significantly reduces rope drag on wandering routes, but it also requires your belayer to pay extra attention to rope management.

Similar to half ropes, twin ropes are also used primarily for multipitch trad routes, mountaineering, and ice climbing. Twin ropes are also thin, usually between 7 and 8 mm, but they differ from half ropes in how they’re clipped. Using twin-rope technique, the climber clips both ropes into every piece of protection instead of alternating.

Climbing Rope Diameter

Okay, so you're looking at dynamic single ropes—which diameter should you choose? The skinnier the rope, the less durable and forgiving it’s likely to be. Therefore, your first rope for top-roping and early lead climbs should be pretty beefy: say, something in the 10 to 10.5 mm range. It will put up with a lot of abuse, resist cutting over an edge, and probably last longer overall.

Once you get more comfortable climbing and handling the rope while belaying, you can graduate to a skinnier rope. Thinner ropes feel smoother, clip more easily, and cut down on pack weight.

Climbing Rope Length

Ask around at your local crag: will 50 meters do the trick? More often, you'll want 60 meters, as that has become the standard in most areas. Also, you can cut a worn bit off the end of a 60 meter rope and still have a decent length for most routes. At some newer climbing areas where anchors are being established using longer ropes, 70-meter ropes have gained popularity.

Climbing Rope Weight

The UIAA (Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme) serves as the industry watchdog to ensure that ropes given their seal have satisfied the technical criteria determined as appropriate. That means that elongation percentages, sheath slippage, and impact force are all in line with the UIAA's requirements. You should read up on all that stuff eventually, but in the meantime, as long as your rope has the UIAA label, you know you’re safe.

UIAA Specifications

The UIAA (Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme) serves as the industry watchdog to ensure that ropes given their seal have satisfied the technical criteria determined as appropriate. That means that elongation percentages, sheath slippage, and impact force are all in line with the UIAA's requirements. You should read up on all that stuff eventually, but in the meantime, as long as your rope has the UIAA label, you know you’re safe.

Fall Rating

The UIAA Fall Rating is a good gauge for comparing similar ropes. In their testing, the UIAA simulates a sort of worst-case scenario by tying an 80 kg weight to the sample rope and dropping it repeatedly over a carabiner-sized bar until the rope fails. The falls they simulate are unlike the falls you might experience, but the number is still useful for comparison: the higher the "falls held" number, the more durable the rope is.

Dry vs. Standard Climbing Rope

Most rope manufacturers offer some sort of dry treatment for their ropes, whether it’s applied to both core and sheath during the weaving process or just the sheath after the weaving process.

While dry-treated ropes can be more expensive than standard ropes, the treatment helps extend the life of the rope by discouraging the rope from absorbing water like a sponge, preventing dirt from working its way into the fibers, and allowing the rope to snake through carabiners with a bit less drag.

Dry-treated ropes are especially important if you’re ice climbing, since wet ropes freeze and lead to all sorts of problems. If you’re going to use your rope for ice climbing or mountaineering, go with one that has both core and sheath treatment. Ropes with dry-treated sheaths are perfect for long days at the crag (and weigh less on the way out if you get caught in unexpected rain).

If you need a rope just for climbing at the gym, though, go with a standard rope and put the money you save toward a better climbing harness or climbing shoes.

Climbing Rope Color

Rope color is a consideration for a few reasons. For one thing, you don't want a rope that's the same color as your partner's ("No, I meant the OTHER green rope!"). If you take photos, think about what will look good against the rock or which colors are just plain ugly.

Another important consideration is whether the rope changes color or pattern halfway through. Climbing ropes that are bi-patterned, or otherwise marked in the middle, are particularly convenient for rappelling, since you can quickly locate the midpoint of the rope. Some ropes also provide visual markings toward the ends for added safety.

Climbing Rope Price

It's pretty hard to find a lousy rope, as the UIAA wouldn't approve it and we wouldn't sell it. So, once you’re comfortable with the various choices outlined above, go with whichever rope offers you the right specs for a reasonable price. With experience, you might develop preferences related to subjective concerns such as feel and handling, but in the meantime, choose the right rope for the job, take good care of it, and learn about when to retire it.


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