Working in a gear shop, one of the most commonly debated topics was what pieces are required for building your first trad rack. Ask ten different climbers and you’ll undoubtedly receive ten different answers based around personal experience, rock type, price, climbing style and knowledge.
As this is an expensive endeavour, most new trad climbers aren’t looking to break the bank on a full rack and have probably researched the decision at great lengths. In an effort to offer information more substantial than “it depends,” I’ve laid forth three options. Assuming you already have a sport climbing kit, here are my suggestions on what you may want to consider purchasing first when building your first trad rack.
The Minimalist Trad Rack
A single rack of cams: Black Diamond Camelot C4 (#0.4-#3)
The Black Diamond Camelot C4 has long been regarded as the industry standard. They’re reliable, durable and easy to use. The double axle construction provides the Camelot with a large expansion range and great holding power. What’s more, they’re often synonymous with route beta (“be sure to bring along a #2”). A minimalist rack would consist of singles from the grey 0.4 to the blue 3.
A set of nuts: Black Diamond Stoppers (#4-#11)
Nuts, stoppers, chocks, wires. Whatever you choose to call them, you’ll need one set. Skip the micro sizes for your first rack and add them in later on as needed. Black Diamond Stoppers are disproportionately cheaper than other brands, making them an excellent choice. Their shape is rather uniform and they fit well in bottleneck constrictions. Other sets to consider would be the DMM Wallnuts or the Wild Country Anodized Rocks. Each have their pro’s and con’s so ultimately base your purchasing decision around price. As the numbering scheme differs from all brands, you’ll need roughly the equivalent of a #4-#11 Black Diamond. Look at the smaller sizes and you’ll notice a steep drop off in strength due to the fact that the smaller sizes use a thinner cable. Start your set just above this drop off.
Many first trad rack buyers are lured towards hexes and Tricams because of the reasonable price-point. It is easy to rationalize the merits of gaining an extra piece or two for very little cost, but I’ll argue against it. While I love my hexes and Tricams, and there are certain situations where they’re absolutely the best tool for the job, when building your first trad rack, skip the specialty pieces and purchase another cam.
The Standard Trad Rack
A full rack of cams: Black Diamond Camelot C4 (#0.3-#4, doubles #0.5-#2)
After purchasing a basic rack, consider doubling up on commonly used, medium sizes. This depends on the rock type you frequently climb on but doubles of the purple 0.5 to the yellow #2 is a good place to start. Adding a blue #0.3 and grey #4 is may also be advantageous. Unless you frequent desert splitters or have aspirations of big wall climbing, there aren’t many places that will require more than a single rack with doubles in the mid sizes but make sure you have enough gear to protect to your own personal levels of comfort.
Micro cams: Black Diamond X4 (#0.1-#0.3)
Micro cams, protecting cracks from 8mm-25mm, are one of the few ways gear can be used to safely push your grade. The ability to quickly and securely protect yourself with micro cams may assist you in climbing near your limit but not without special consideration. Micro cams have a noticeable decrease in holding power and strength vs their larger counterparts and a substantially reduced camming range. This means that in order to safely use a micro cam it is imperative that the placement is perfect as one millimetre could mean the difference between holding and blowing.
The technical nuances between micro cam manufacturers are aplenty and personal preference bountiful, but for my money the best bang-for-your-buck is the Black Diamond Camelot X4. A redevelopment and improvement upon the C4, it maintains a double axle construction for maximum range and holding power and a redesigned head that makes the total profile a complete lobe width narrower. A beaded armour cable allows maximal flexibility and prevents walking but consider extending all placements with micro cams as slight movements of the rope can walk the cam either out of a secure placement or into a placement so secure it is unrecoverable.
An added bonus of the X4’s is that Black Diamond maintained the colour scheme making it easy to identify the desired size. For your first standard rack look at purchasing the blue 0.2, yellow 0.2, and potentially the smallest red 0.1. If you’re seeking to double up cams, the grey 0.4 is a great choice for the x4’s but many find the purple 0.5 and green 0.75 to be floppy.
An enhanced set of nuts: Standard set of nuts and DMM Offsets
Many people like to supplement their first set of nuts with a half set of a different brand as certain shapes tend to fit better than others in various locations. A personal favourite are the DMM Offset Nuts. Their asymmetrical shape and grooved sides make them fit where nearly nothing else will. You may also want to add another larger nut or two.
Once you have accumulated a complete set of cams and wires, now would be an appropriate time to add speciality pieces such as actively camming passive protection like hexes and Tricams based on your needs. Both are excellent additions to a rack, particularly if you expect to build a lot of gear anchors or climb in the alpine. Both cam be particularly useful in horizontal placements or in icy cracks were spring-loaded camming devices tend to slip.
The most popular sizes are the pink and the red but a set of Tricam Evo’s Black through Brown will cover a large range.
Hexes from Wild Country and DMM compliment the colour scheme of the Black Diamond Camelots and the larger sizes are a great way to double up on protection ranges without adding much weight or cost. Unless needed, the large blue and purple hexes are overkill.
The Luxury Trad Rack
A full rack of cams: DMM Dragon 2 (#00-#6, doubles #2-#4)
While the Camelot C4 maintain the title as the workhorse of the cam world, a number of upgrades exist, including the Camelot Ultralight and the DMM Dragon 2. While it is not necessary to spend the extra money for these expensive pieces, the offer significant weight savings. The Ultralights save 25% per piece for a total of 239g (0.4-4) but at an increased cost of $176. The Dragons feature an extendable sling requiring you to carry fewer alpine draws and have lobes designed to increase friction and holding power. These features come at an increased cost of $316 (0.4-4).
While expensive, the Dragons have become a personal favourite. A full rack of Dragon cams covering 15mm-115mm may consist of a complete set of the blue #00 to the grey #6. It is important to note that while the dragons and the Camalots are virtually identical in terms of colours and camming sizes, they are numbered differently. Be sure to double-check if you’re ordering online.
Micro cams: Fixe Aliens (#1/3-#1)
A cult favourite in micro cams are the Fixe Aliens. While expensive at $82 each, they feature a very narrow head profile and a softer metal lobe construction, enabling it to bite more in dubious placements. They offer the most flexible stem out of any of the micro cams and the Evolution model includes an extendable sling to reduce walking. While they employ a different colour scheme than the X4’s the smallest black(1/3) to the largest red (1) Aliens cover the same range as the red (0.1) X4 to the purple (0.5) but you get six aliens vs five X4’s. And the six Aliens weight 29g less.
An enhanced set of nuts – DMM Wallnuts, DMM Offset Nuts
If you’re willing to spend a few extra dollars, it is my personal opinion that the DMM Wallnuts are the best passive protection on the market. Their unique shape maximizes holding power by capturing small irregularities in the rock without making he placement difficult to clean. The smaller and larger sizes are made of different metal compounds to minimize weight while increase holding power and the clever overlap in sizes means you’re more likely to find the size that fits. It may cost $70 more for a complete set of Wallnuts.
Depending on the rock type a second or possibly third set of nuts may prove advantageous. DMM Offsets, Peenuts or Brass Offsets will compliments a rack of Wallnuts beautifully.
At this point, you can expand into various types of high-end specialty equipment based on your objectives and affinity for purchasing gear. Big Bro’s, Ballnuts, offset cams, huge cams, brass nuts and the like. While a standard rack will get suffice for most areas in North America, new climbers may double, even triple certain sizes based on comfort level. Seasoned veterans may feel confident with a minimalist rack. If you’re climbing near your limit it may be confidence inspiring to have a few extra pieces along but understand the trade off is increased weight and harness bulk.
Each of your cams will require a separate carabiner to rack on your harness, preferably colour-coded. Many companies sell rack-packs to match popular cam sets. The Black Diamond Neutrino is cheapest at $7 each and easy to handle. Camp also offers the Nano 22 in the same colours as the Camelots and weight 14g less than the Neutrino (36g vs 22g).
Extending the sling on DMM Dragons or Fixe Aliens is identical to an alpine draw and I found using notchless carabiners to be the most convenient. Black Diamond makes the Oz, which uses a metal hood to keep the nose smooth but I prefer the DMM Chimera, which hot forges the nose and maintains a thinner profile.
You’ll also required a carabiner to carry the nuts. This is one time I prefer having a notched carabiner like the Black Diamond wire oval to snag the wires and prevent dropping but whatever you have will work.
Make sure you also have a nut tool to remove stubborn placements. They all work.
Assuming you already have a rack of sport climbing draws, you don’t require anything different. Some quick draws, like the DMM Alpha, feature longer, lighter slings and lightweight, wiregate carabiners making them ideal for trad climbing but don’t worry about purchasing a second set of specifically for trad. Bring an appropriate number based on the expected length of the climb.
Traditional climbing means occasionally placing gear in places away from your desired direction of travel in order to find the best way to protect yourself. This often necessitates the use of longer slings to keep the ropes moving in an optimal line and quickdraws may not be enough. Extending placements will also help prevent pieces from walking. When building your first trad rack you’ll need a few alpine draws consisting of two carabiners and a 60cm (shoulder length) sling. Some people carry a few draped over their shoulders with a single carabiner on each for quickly clipping cams, as each cam already includes a carabiner. This method works but requires carrying a few extra non-locking carabiners to clip nuts, bolts or pitons.
Straight forward crack climbing may not require many but wandering routes like those found in the Rockies may require upwards of ten. I would suggest beginning with six alpine draws and adding more as need. Premade soutions like the Black Diamond Oz or the Edelrid Mission can save a few dollars but you can make your own by using old quickdraw carabiners and a new sling. Nylon works but is bulky and cumbersome. Dyneema is preferred.
Something to consider, if you climb in areas where fixed protection and old pitons are bountiful, bear in mind the shape of some carabiners can be very tough to slot through the eyelet, particularly with small angles. I use the Petzl Ange, DMM Chimera and Edelrid Pures almost exclusively for this reason. For the same reason, I avoid the Black Diamond Hotwire, OZ and other hooded varieties like the plague.
Occasionally alpine draws aren’t enough to reduce rope drag so be sure to include a few longer slings if the route wanders or features a number of large roofs. A double length sling (120cm) or two, each racked on a single, lightweight carabiner are handy.
Anchor Building Material
This requirement depends completely on the types of routes you plan to climb. If you’re climbing nothing but single pitch trad routes with rap bolts you will not need anything more than typically used for a sport climb. However, as you progress into multipitch climbs requiring gear anchors, more anchor building material is required. A 240cm dyneema sling is handy, as is a bundle of cordelette, however I prefer to reserve mine for emergencies. Be sure to include a few extra non-locking carabiners.
The absence of fixed gear makes trad climbing substantially more involved and knowing methods of self rescue is imperative. A five meter length of seven millimetre cordelette has a myriad of different usages from improvised rope rescue, building anchors, ascending ropes or as rap tat.
Multipitch or Alpine Climbing Essentials
Building Your First Trad Rack
What you need when building your first trad rack is a hotly debated topic and the source of many an online forum spat. Ultimately the decision hinges upon your personal preferences, skill level, climbing locale and budget. If you’re venturing to an area that requires more equipment than you currently own, consider borrowing or combining racks with a friend. Not everyone needs a quad rack. If you’re considering different brands of cams, I’ve found this link to be quite helpful in comparing the weight, strength and camming ranges of various brands.
Consider this article a basic template for single pitch trad climbing. The gear requirements increase when multipitching, particularly if you’re building stations. If you’re venturing into longer multipitch climbs or more committing alpine climbs you can find a full list of my recommendations for each here.
These are suggestions based on countless conversations with people and what I’ve found from personal experience. Trad climbing is inherently dangerous so before venturing out with your shiny new rack, consider taking a period and apprenticing under a seasoned trad climber or better yet, enlist the help of an ACMG guide for proper instruction. Comment below to let me know what you’d add or remove if you were building your first trad rack. Have fun and be safe!