Climbing Ropes: How to Choose
Many qualities make up a modern climbing rope. And many nuances make every rope slightly different from one another—from weight to handling characteristics. That is why it's worth taking a few minutes to read up on the options, and then make an informed choice for your type of climbing.
The Right Rope for You
As a professional mountain guide in the Alps, I have the luxury of owning over 15 ropes. All are hanging in my gear room; all are ones I actively use. That way I have the perfect rope for each day of climbing.
Of course, most climbers don't have such an arsenal of ropes. While there is a rope tailored to each type of climbing, you can actually do just fine with a well-chosen rope or 2. The most common rope out there is a 60-meter-long dry rope with a 9.8mm to 10.2mm diameter—a great workhorse or all-around rope that will work for many situations.
Comparing Types of Rope
The better suited the rope is to the climb, the more efficient and safe you will be. What follows are general guidelines; some ropes will not fall exactly within these ranges. All ropes offered by REI pass all UIAA criteria. For more information go to the UIAA Web site.
|UIAA Fall Rating|
|Workhorse Single Ropes||10.1-11mm||(65-77 g/m)||10-17 UIAA falls|
|All-Around Single Ropes||9.5-10mm||(60-64 g/m)||7-9 UIAA falls|
|Skinny Single Ropes||8.9-9.4mm||(52-59 g/m)||5-6 UIAA falls|
|Half Ropes||8-9mm||(41-53 g/m)||6-16 UIAA falls|
|Twin Ropes||7-8mm||(37-42 g/m)||12-19 UIAA falls|
|Static Ropes||9-13mm (commonly 7/16" and 1/2" diameter)*|
*Static ropes are not intended to be used for lead climbing and are not approved for that use by the UIAA.
A workhorse rope is one that will hold up to lots of use and abuse. It is good for routes with rough rock and edges. In conjunction with a thicker sheath, a fat rope will give you the most sharp-edge protection. Its larger diameter makes it easier to hold onto and less likely for a belayer to drop the climber; though it's less smooth with some belay devices.
- Ideal uses: Big walls, top roping, working sport routes, extreme use.
- Shortcomings: Heavy and big in your pack.
These are the meat-and-potatoes ropes. They are the ones most people will buy, because they are of average diameter, weight and fall ratings. Not too light, nor too heavy. They are the do-everything, go-to ropes.
- Ideal uses: Sport, trad, alpine (rock, ice and snow).
- Shortcomings: Not much, unless you are specializing in fast and light or thrashing up a big wall.
These ropes are flashy, trendy and skinny. Their light weight can make a big difference. Think long routes where you are turning over many belays, pulling in slack belay after belay; or in an alpine setting where you are coiling most of the rope over your shoulder to move together and switching techniques back and forth. Hard sport routes are also a great place to use this kind of rope. A word of warning, however: Be sure you can catch a fall with your skinny rope. Use a complementary belay device designed for skinny rope (preferably with a friction groove) and PRACTICE catching falls in the gym.
- Ideal uses: Fast and light for onsights and redpoints at your limit.
- Shortcomings: More risk of rope cutting over an edge. More difficulty in catching a fall—make sure you have a belay device that offers maximum friction and is rated for the diameter of your rope.
Shop REI's selection of single ropes.
These are a great option for long, wandering routes. Whether on rock, ice or mixed, half ropes offer many advantages. By alternating clips, you can limit rope drag. You can also limit the fall potential during a clip by pulling slack in the rope that is not running from the closest piece of pro. When it comes time to rappel, you can go twice as far by tying the 2 ropes together. And lastly, 2 strands of rope reduce the odds of your lifeline being severed either from a leader fall over an edge or from rockfall.
- Ideal uses: Wandering multi-pitch rock or alpine routes that you will need to rappel or might have to retreat part-way through.
- Shortcomings: More time and energy consuming to use due to the extra bulk and weight of 2 strands and while managing belay transitions. If you clip both strands to 1 piece of protection, the impact force goes up on the pro and on you (this is not recommended, especially on weaker gear).
Shop REI's selection of half ropes.
Another great 2-rope that is lighter and less bulky than half ropes. You can still rappel twice as far, like with half ropes.
- Ideal uses: Ice climbs and non-wandering rock climbs where rappelling is in the cards.
- Shortcomings: You have to clip both strands ALWAYS through each piece of protection, so there will be more rope drag than with half ropes.
Shop REI's selection of twin ropes.
These excel in situations where you don't want the rope to stretch. The first time I climbed El Cap, I was so worried that the dynamic rope we brought for jugging (rope ascension) was going to be cut while rubbing over an edge that I wouldn't budge. Finally, I was reassured by my partner that the rope was running cleanly and padded if it was running over an edge. Only then did I cut loose from the belay station and swing into the void to begin vertiginous process of climbing the free hanging rope.
- Ideal uses: Rappelling, rescue and big-wall ascending—any time you are lowering, ascending or pulling a load up with the rope.
- Shortcomings: Not to be used for climbing as these ropes are not designed, tested nor certified for those types of loads. (See related Rope FAQ below.)
Shop REI's selection of static and rescue ropes.
Rope Construction Glossary
Here are terms that describe parts of a rope:
- Sheath: The protective braided cover of the rope. It keeps the core from getting dirty, abraided or cut, and it adds some strength and shock absorption as well. Sheaths comprise between 30-40% of a rope's mass. The thicker the sheath, the more it resists cutting and abrasion, especially over an edge.
- Core: The inner twisted core strands of the rope. It provides the majority of the strength and shock absorption.
- Kernmantle: A combination of a pair of German words, kern meaning core and mantle meaning sheath. This type of construction is used as opposed to old climbing ropes that were just 3 to 4 strands twisted together and with no protective sheath.
- Sheath weave patterns: These different patterns create nuances in handling and durability.
- Filament: The thinnest thread from which a rope is woven. Usually it's "Nylon 6" and is purchased on spools by the rope companies.
- Yarns: Twisted groups of 4 to 6 filaments that make up braids.
- Braids: Yarns bundled together to make the core. Half the braids twist one way, half the other. The sheath is then woven around this bundle.
Rope Characteristics and Qualities Glossary
You should know these terms about rope selection and usage:
- Dynamic: A stretchy rope for rock climbing that absorbs force during a fall.
- Static: A rope for rappelling, rescue and rope ascension that stretches very little.
- Single: A rope that is made to use singly.
- Half: Also known as a double rope; you climb with 2 half ropes of the same brand and model, alternating clips.
- Twin: Unlike half ropes, you climb on 2 twin ropes always clipping both strands.
- Length: Ropes are between 30 and 80 meters long, the most common length being 60m.
- Bicolor: A change in weave pattern that clearly differentiates the 2 halves of the rope and easily identifies the midpoint.
- Middle mark: The use of black dye or thread to easily identify the middle of the rope.
- End warning marks: A dye or threads showing that you are coming to the end of the rope.
- Suppleness: A supple rope handles more easily, but tends to wear more quickly. Pick a supple rope for glacier and alpine travel when you will often be traveling with coils tied off over your shoulder.
- Rope diameter and weight: This refers to the weight of the rope and how it responds in your belay device. See above for a look at the different diameter/weight categories and pros and cons of each. Rope weight is usually listed as grams/meter; diameter in millimeters.
- Dry treatments: Water-resistant coatings are often applied to the sheath and to the core fibers as well. This makes a rope more water-resistant, stronger and last longer. When the fibers absorb moisture, the rope loses its rebound characteristics and weakens. Furthermore, ropes slide better when treated.
UIAA Criteria and Testing
The UIAA (Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme) is the international mountaineering and climbing federation that creates safety standards to which all climbing ropes must adhere. Independent labs are responsible for carrying out the tests. All ropes carried by REI pass the UIAA tests. See The UIAA Web site for testing details. The main UIAA criteria:
Number of falls: This indicates how many UIAA falls the rope can hold before failing. The lab falls create much greater force than a real climbing fall; therefore it is mostly a comparative value. A rope rated for 5 falls will probably not break after 5 falls unless it is old and very worn out. (See our discussion of rope care.) Always closely inspect your rope after a severe fall and consider retirement if any damage is detected.
Impact force: The amount of force, measured in kiloNewtons, that the first UIAA fall puts on the falling object. The idea is to make a rope that has the least amount of impact force without going above the UIAA's required maximum elongation figures. Less impact force will put less force on you, your belayer and your protection during a fall, decreasing the chance of injury, belay failure or protection failure.
Static elongation: Sometimes called "working elongation," this is the amount of stretch in the rope with a 176-lb. weight hanging from it. Linked to dynamic elongation and impact force, this figure is most important in top roping or hauling.
Dynamic elongation: The amount of stretch in the rope after the first lab fall. This is linked to static elongation and impact force. The more a rope stretches, the less impact force there is when a falling climber is caught. The UIAA caps the maximum dynamic elongation to 40% of the amount of rope that is out. If you fell on a bungee cord, there would be even less impact force, but much more risk of hitting a rock ledge.
Edge fall: While no longer a UIAA–tested characteristic, this spec is worth considering for big-wall climbs. You want your rope to resist being cut when it is waited over a sharp edge of rock. Basically, the thicker a rope and the thicker its sheath, the better it will do in the event of an edge fall.
Q: I want the lightest rope possible to redpoint my project/or for a fast and light alpine route, but what am I giving up?
A: When you get below 56 g/m (around 9.4mm) you start compromising in 2 important categories: 1. The ability for the belayer to easily catch the fall (make sure you have an increased friction belay device with a notch to make it easier to hold smaller ropes). 2. The lighter and skinnier rope will wear out quicker when hang-dogging (taking repeated falls). It will lose its stretch and its ability to absorb force. It is also more likely to be cut over an edge. (Hint: If you come to a pitch where you are worried about the rope cutting over an edge if you fall, consider doubling the rope up. You will only be able to lead half the original length, but will have two half ropes and much added security. This should only be done with ropes rated 1 and 1/2.)
Q: How does climber weight affect rope choice?
A: The most important issue with a heavier climber is the ability of the belayer to catch the fall. Make sure the belay device is made for the rope's diameter and has high enough friction. Practice catching falls in a non-hazardous environment (steep gym routes with padded floors). It's also true that the heavier the climber, the more wear and tear on ropes. Both impacts and lowering forces are higher which will contribute to a shorter lifespan for the rope. Heavy climbers looking for good durability should consider the heavier and larger diameter ropes in any given category.
Q: Is there one rope that will fit all my needs?
A: While it is true there are many specialty ropes out there, if you are looking for one rope that you can get the most from, think about a single rope between 9.8 and 10.2mm and 60 or 70 meters long.
Q: I am on a budget. How can I limit the cost but still get what I need?
A: If you are sport climbing, consider buying a rope that is not dry treated. Yes, it is true a wet rope is actually weakened. But if it rains when you are sport climbing, you are probably just going to pull your rope and go home. A wet rope will regain all of its original characteristics once dry. See my rope care discussion.
Q: I am worried about being lowered off the end of the rope. Should I buy a 70 or 80m rope to help avoid the problem?
A: If you have a large backpack and don't mind the extra weight on your knees and your pocketbook, go ahead. Otherwise, always have your belayer tie into the end of the rope or at least tie a big knot in the end. For most multipitch climbs, if you want to be more efficient at belay transitions, don't go longer than 60m. Certainly, there are modern sport climbs that demand a long rope. However in most areas it is not necessary.
Q: I just want to top rope. Can I save money and buy a static (low elongation) rope?
A: This is NOT recommended for 2 reasons:
- Static ropes are not designed to catch falls of great force.
- A top-rope fall CAN generate the same force as a leader fall.
Static ropes are designed to have a static elongation of a maximum of 5% with many as low as 1% (as compared to a dynamic single rope of between 5-10%). And dynamic elongation is not even measured, whereas for a dynamic rope it is between 35-40%. Due to these different criteria for a static rope, it will have higher impact forces.
Slack can build up in an instant due to inattention while belaying, a quick and unanticipated movement by the climber or on a traverse. This could shock-load the system and would be more likely to lead to climber injury or belay failure. Static ropes are ideal for rappelling, rope ascending, and raises and lowers in rock rescue.
Q: Will a static rope be good for my window washing or tree trimming business?
A: Neither static nor dynamic climbing ropes are tested to OSHA standards and therefore should not be used for these purposes.
- Uncoil your new rope carefully to avoid twisting it. After unwrapping it, hold it like it is on a giant spool and have your partner pull the rope off the spool and stack it in a random pile. If a rope is very twisted let it hang free and encourage the twists to unwind. Note: Some manufacturers package their ropes in a way that eliminates the need to do this.
- Coil your rope with a "backpack" or "butterfly" coil to avoid twists. Stack the rope in the palm of your hand or behind your neck and rather than looping it over your neck, go back and forth, putting a bight of rope on the one side, then the next. Cinch the rope in the standard way.
- When working a route, switch ends that you tie into after a fall. This gives the fallen on end time to "rest" and regain its elasticity between falls and distributes the wear evenly between the 2 ends.
- The ends of a rope often get the most wear. With a 70m rope, you can cut the ends periodically if they are worn or abraded and still have a rope you can work with.
- Learn the Munter hitch; it can come in handy if you drop your belay device.
- With a skinny single rope, make sure both you and your partner have appropriate belay devices. Practice catching falls in the gym first.
See Michael's pointers on Caring for Your Rope.
Remember: Climbing safety is your responsibility. Expert instruction is absolutely essential if you're new to climbing.