A Beginner’s Guide to Types of Climbing

A Beginner’s Guide to Types of Climbing
  • Post category:Climbing
  • Reading time:8 mins read

Climbing has become increasingly popular in the last few years, and this increase in interest has lead to many new climbers picking up climbing shoes (it’s cool now) and heading for even simple routes. However, there are several different types of climbing out there, each with its own style and set of skills required.

If you’re a beginner you might want to give all of them a go, since they’re all very different and you’ll pick up some useful skills while having fun. If that’s the case then it can be difficult to know where to start or what level you’d need to be at in order to climb each type.

In this article, we’ll cover bouldering, traditional climbing, and sport climbing, as well as a brief mention of ice climbing and single pitch rock routes. We won’t be going into any great depth about them. Instead, we’ll give you a short description of each so that you can get an idea of what’s involved and the level of commitment needed.


For many climbers, bouldering is the entry point to climbing. A good pair of shoes and a crash pad will get you started in most climbing walls, so there isn’t much investment required other than your time. Bouldering involves short climbs done close to the ground with no harnesses or rope.

Traditional climbing:

Traditionally protected routes with a long history and usually multi-pitch (i.e. you climb up, set up a belay, and then climb further before setting up another belay to finish) although some traditional climbs can be single pitch (one rope length). Traditional climbing has a lower risk of injury than sport climbing (the next variety we’ll cover), but you will need to know how to place gear properly and safely, which takes time.

Sport climbing:

All the benefits of traditional climbing with the added perk of bolts already in place for quick clipping. The majority of trad climbs are now protected with bolts as well, so don’t assume you’re always going to need your trad gear. This means that sport routes can be climbed more quickly than traditional climbs and they often take the direct line between the two belay points rather than having a wandering path up to them.

Ice Climbing:

Moving over ice requires specific tools and skills. The ice can be anything from a frozen waterfall to a vertical sheet of ice on the side of the mountain (serac) that’s constantly growing and changing day by day. Icefalls are usually climbed in winter, but they often collapse before summer.

Single pitch rock routes:

Usually shorter than multi-pitch routes, these are usually climbed on the same day to the top and back down again. Good for people who don’t like heights or can’t handle long climbs (poor stamina).

Gym Climbing:

A great way to try out climbing and gain strength and skills without the physical commitments of the other varieties. Generally, indoor climbing is done in a climbing center or gym which often has many different walls and training rooms, even incorporating things like yoga and pilates.

Top-rope climbing:

Many climbers begin with top-rope climbing, as they can try the climb without the worry of falling and there is no need for a belay partner. With so little investment you might as well give it a go!

Lead Climbing:

Moving up a route above your last piece of protection means that you can fall further, which brings with it the benefit of knowing that if anything goes wrong at least your rope will stop you before hitting the ground. As well as having more danger, however, there is also more gear involved and the need to know how to place it properly and safely. It’s a very different discipline from top-rope climbing, so beginners may struggle with the transition.

Competition style:

In competition climbing, climbers are judged on a difficulty scale and their speed. There is a lot of equipment involved – from special shoes to a chalk bag – and it’s not just about being able to climb well, but being fast as well. It’s very different from other types of climbing and isn’t for everyone, but if it’s your bag, then get involved!

Free Climbing:

The purest form of climbing, free climbing is done without the use of ropes or harnesses beyond basic safety equipment like a helmet. As this type of climbing does not involve any protective measures, it requires the greatest amount of skill and experience.

Aid Climbing:

Aid Climbing is ascending with artificial means, usually gear (e.g. pitons, cams, expansion bolts, etc.), but it can also be done using a person to stand in for gear. Aid climbing is typically used when there’s not much natural protection and/or the terrain is too steep and blank to free climb safely. It’s an integral part of traditional climbing and requires you to have a thorough knowledge of gear placement.

Alpine Climbing:

Once thought to be the domain of professional mountaineers, more and more people are discovering the thrill of alpine climbing. It’s all about moving quickly on technical terrain, often with less equipment than its traditional counterparts. This style of the climb is suitable for anyone with a good level of fitness and experience.


An activity that involves climbing on steep terrain (where the angle is between 50° and 70°) that is often loose or broken, making it suitable for mountaineers but not climbers. It’s different from hiking in that scrambling requires you to use your hands to climb up the rocks.

Free Solo Climbing:

If you do this for fun, then you are either very brave or very stupid (or both!). This involves climbing without ropes and other safety equipment. There’s no backup in case of an accident, which makes it very dangerous (and illegal in most places). Not recommended for anyone other than professionals.

Outdoor bouldering:

A fun way to try out the sport of bouldering is outside. As it’s done without ropes, it’s a good introduction for those new to climbing and can be as serious or as carefree as you want.


A form of climbing that is very different from rock climbing and requires a lot of special equipment, not least of which is a helmet. As well as ropes and harnesses, caving requires the use of helmets, lights, knee pads, and elbow pads (at least), plus any other bits that might be required for the specific type of climbing you are doing.

Sport climbing:

Sport climbing is an activity that involves ascending or jumping off man-made structures. The routes are pre-set by the route setters and climbers follow these routes for their own personal challenges. It usually involves climbing up man-made structures like buildings, cliffs, bridges, and big boulders. Climbers might also need equipment like harnesses, belay devices, carabiners, and climbing shoes. It’s an activity that is becoming increasingly popular here in the UK.

Multi-pitch climbing:

Climbing routes that are longer than the standard one-pitch route. These can be anywhere between one and several hundred meters in length, with three or more pitches (the climbs are broken up into sections). This style of climbing requires climbers to ascend sections (or pitches) using jumars (which slide up along the rope when placed under tension), Prusik knots, or ascenders. This ensures that there is less chance of climbers falling between pitches. These multi-pitch climbs are usually done in alpine areas, but it’s also very popular with rock climbers in the UK.

Big wall climbing:

One of the most challenging types of climbing in which climbers attempt to ascend very big walls at altitudes in excess of one kilometer. They are usually done on massive cliff faces or large rock buttresses, with pitches that are much longer than conventional climbing routes.

The world of climbing is packed with variety and possibilities, so do some research into the different disciplines before you try climbing for yourself. You may find that one type suits you more than another or that you want to take two or three different types and combine them. Climbing just isn’t one-dimensional!

So that’s some quick information on each of the main varieties of climbing out there. As you can see they all vary widely in terms of commitment and risk, as well as growing in difficulty the higher you go. It’s a good idea to do a bit of research into each style before you first try it so that you know what to expect and how hard you might need to work.

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