Quickdraws, Sewn Slings and Bulk Webbing/Cord: How to Choose
Quickdraws, sewn slings (which include sewn runners, etriers, daisy chains and gear slings) and bulk webbing/cord are all basic gear needs of climbers. Here's an overview of what these items do and how best to shop for them.
Warning: Reading this article does not make you a climber. Always seek out competent or professional instruction if you're new to climbing.
A quickdraw consists of a sewn nylon extension with 2 carabiners. Multiple quickdraws are essential for leading bolted sport-climbing routes and useful for traditional leading, where you are placing protection such as cams and nuts. They are designed to attach the rope through anchor points during a climb. This is done to protect the lead climber and, at the same time, reduce friction by straightening out the line the rope travels during the climb.
How do they work? The top carabiner can move freely and act as a hinge. The bottom, rope-clipping carabiner is secured by a rubber insert (or a tightly sewn bottom carabiner hole) to allow for easy rope-clipping and to reduce the chance of the carabiner becoming cross-loaded along its minor axis (sideways).
Quickdraws come in many shapes and sizes. While inherently similar, there are nuances to each brand and model that make researching your purchase beforehand worthwhile. Your decisions include:
- Price: Quickdraws range from about $10 to $25 each. Why such a range? The more intricately a carabiner is shaped, the more expensive it becomes. A pricier hot-forged carabiner can be sculpted to give it strength where it needs it and shave weight where it doesn't. Dyneema sling material, as opposed to nylon, also jumps the price up. It is lighter, stronger and less bulky.
- Weight: Quickdraws range from around 60 to 110 grams. Weight is important and adds up because you may be carrying many quickdraws. Lower weight gives you an advantage in sport climbs or fast-and-light alpine climbs. On the downside, you usually end up with small carabiners that are harder to clip, especially if you have big hands, and a sling that is not as durable.
- Carabiner strength: An important point of comparison, strength varies from one quickdraw to another. It is rated in 3 directions: lengthwise (major axis), sideways (minor axis) and while open (major axis open or "gate open"). While all climbing carabiners pass UIAA and CE standards, carabiners do break from time to time. It is up to you to weigh the relative importance of carabiner strength. Gate-open strength and minor-axis strength are where you see the most variation. Generally, smaller and lighter carabiners are weaker, though this is not always the case. See below for why do carabiners break?
- Sling strength: This is a minimum of 22 kN whether you choose nylon, Dyneema or Spectra (see details under sling materials).
- Size and shape: The smaller the 'biner', the more difficult it can be to manipulate (i.e., unclipping the quickdraw from your harness clip and clipping the bolt or rope.) Carabiner shape affects ease of use as well, especially if you have large hands. Ideally, go to your local REI or other climbing shop to hold the carabiners and get a feel for how they will work with your hands.
- Gate open clearance: This refers to the width that the gate can open, plus the depth and shape of the bottom of the carabiner below the gate. Generally the smaller the carabiner, the less clearance it offers. Too little gate-open clearance may lead to your finger getting stuck between the gate and the carabiner body while clipping; too deep a clearance is just harder to clip. An ideal amount makes clipping the rope into the 'biner' much easier. Again, go to your local climbing shop and see what works for you.
- Wire gate vs. bent gate: Traditionally, the bottom, or rope-clipping half of a quickdraw, is a bent-gate carabiner. This allows for easy clipping. Wire-gate carabiners are slowly replacing the bent-gates because of their added safety in that they reduce the likelihood of "whiplash" and carabiner failure. (Some wire-gate carabiners have a subtle bend in the gate to aid in rope clipping. These are possibly the best of both worlds.) Neither carabiner is foolproof, but you can minimize this risk with careful use. See below for why do carabiners break?
- Wire gate vs. keylock: A keylock carabiner has a smooth notch where the nose of the carabiner and the gate interact. This keeps the carabiner from hooking and catching onto your harness gear loop, bolt hangers and other slings, any of which can be quite annoying. Some wire gates now have "hooded" noses that also avoid catching.
- Sling material: Quickdraw slings are usually made from pure nylon or nylon blended with Dyneema or Spectra. Spectra and Dyneema are both branded names for UHMWPE—Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene. Spectra and Dyneema are always white and only white; any color is the nylon blended in. They are inherently stronger than pure nylon, so they can be made much lighter and narrower while providing the UIAA-required minimum strength of 22 kN.
- Sling length: Quickdraws range from 10cm to 25cm long. The standard short length is 10-12cm. This works in most situations when the route is relatively straight. The standard medium length is 17-18cm. This is useful for reducing rope drag, especially when routes are more than 12 quickdraws long or if the rope is not traveling a straight path. The standard long length is 25cm. These are useful under certain unusual circumstances on a sport climb, such as an out-of-reach bolt during a redpoint attempt or a poorly placed bolt that is causing massive rope drag. These are also useful for traditional climbing when you are placing your own gear.
Shop REI's selection of quickdraws.
A: Several reasons.
- A carabiner of the quickdraw might be forced against the rock during a leader fall. In general, 2 scenarios can play out: 1) The carabiner gate opens and greatly reduces the overall strength of the carabiner, causing it to break under the force of a fall. 2) Or, even if the gate does not open, the carabiner might be loaded "over an edge" or against the rock so that the middle of the 'biner is being "bent" over and could snap. Mini 'biners are particularly susceptible to this. Solutions: 1) If you are worried about the gate being forced open by its contact against the rock, replace the offending 'biner with a locking one. 2) If you are worried about a sideways-loaded carabiner, use a longer quickdraw to clear the area around the rock where the carabiner is being loaded. Or, use an open circular sling and clip in the rope with 2 carabiners, reversed and opposed.
- The top carabiner might become stuck in a sideways position in a small piton hole or on an old bolt hanger during a fall. This jamming also introduces a "torque" to the loading that could cause it to easily break under the force of a fall. Orienting the gates of both carabiners away from the direction of travel can reduce this problem. Watch out for bolts that are sticking out too much from the hanger and the rock and interfering with carabiner movement. If you find a bolt like this, replace the top carabiner of the quickdraw with a locking carabiner.
- "Whiplash" from an "oscillating" force—think the great 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse—of the rope coming tight during a leader fall or from the carabiner hitting the rock during a leader fall. This can cause the carabiner gate to vibrate open and closed. A carabiner is much weaker open so there is more chance it could break if the full force of the fall comes at a moment when this is occurring. Wire-gate carabiners reduce the mass of the gate, therefore reducing this oscillation problem. A carabiner with a higher gate-open strength may bring peace of mind as well. Gate-open strengths range from 7 to 9.5 kN.
Q: Can carabiners also become unclipped?
A: YES! During a fall, the quickdraw could become unclipped from the bolt or the rope. This could be caused from 1) a twist in the quickdraw, or 2) The top carabiner getting caught in the bolt, or 3) The bottom carabiner being clipped into "backwards" or the gate facing the wrong way. Be sure to clip the top carabiner into the bolt and the rope into the bottom carabiner such that both gates are facing away from the direction of travel. And make sure not to "back" clip. "Back" or "backwards" clipping is when you clip the rope into the bottom carabiner of the quickdraw from "front to back" instead of the correct "back to front."
Q: What is "Z" clipping?
A: "Z" clipping is when you grab the rope that you are about to clip into a quickdraw from below the last bolt and quickdraw (instead of from above that last bolt). This can happen when bolts are close together and you grab the rope without paying attention to the location of the last bolt. The risk is usually not in a 'draw unclipping, but in your upward progress being suddenly halted as you fight against the rope as it goes back and forth through the 2 quickdraws. This can cause you to fall. If you do this by mistake, just unclip the lower 'draw to sort out the tangles. Don't forget to re-clip it as a backup once the rope is running straight again.
Q: How many quickdraws should I buy?
A: Most sport routes can be led with 12 quickdraws, so this is a good start. If you find yourself gravitating towards longer sport routes (more than 30 meters), you'll probably need 16 to 18 and some routes require 24 or more! Hint: If the route requires a 70-meter rope or longer, you'll probably need more than 12 quickdraws. Fortunately, many route guidebooks will tell you how many you need.
Q: What am I giving up if I buy the cheapest quickdraws I can find?
A: All quickdraws are UIAA and CE certified, but a bargain quickdraw means you might suffer a little in terms of performance, strength and weight. It might have a simpler, less ergonomic and slightly heavier shape. This may result in it being more difficult to manipulate (clipping onto or off of the rope and onto or off of your harness). Again, test them in the store to see which quickdraws work for you.
Q: How should I carry my quickdraws while climbing?
A: Most climbers clip their quickdraws to their harness gear loops, usually to the left and right front gear loops. You can orient the gates facing in or out—it's your preference.
- If climbing a chimney, you might consider racking your quickdraws on a gear sling so you can slide the whole bunch away from your hips when inching up the wall.
- Or, if you are going for that redpoint at your limit, you might duct tape a couple quickdraws to your leg and just pull them off! Or use a harness with racking grooves for easy clipping. These have a spot on each gear loop that you can simply pull a quickdraw from—no need to unclip the 'draw from the gear loop. Other harnesses have hook-and-loop tabs for the same purpose.
Q: Which way should I orient the carabiners on my quickdraws?
A: In most situations, it is best to orient the carabiners on your quickdraw facing the same way on the sling rather than facing them in opposite directions.
- Everyone agrees that you should orient the bottom carabiner away from the direction of climbing. This is to avoid the accidental unclipping of the rope during a fall.
- Most climbers and manufacturers say that you should orient the top carabiner gate facing the same way as the bottom. This helps reduce the risk of accidental unclipping of the rope or bolt. This is my personal choice and seems to be more common in Europe.
- However, some special circumstances may require orienting the 2 carabiners oppositely. This may be a problem if the bolt hole was not drilled deep enough and the bolt itself sticks out too far and you have a small-holed hanger. If you think this is a problem, replace the top carabiner with a locking carabiner.
Sewn runners, often called slings, are simply pieces of webbing sewn in different lengths. They are used like a quickdraw but are longer so the rope can run straighter. They can also be used to set up an anchor.
Comparing Sewn Runners
They come in a variety of lengths, widths and weights.
- Single-length runners are a very useful length, as they are 2 or 3 times longer than most quickdraws and the right size to wear over your shoulder.
- Double-length runners give you twice the length and can be worn doubled over your shoulder.
- Triple-length runners are good for looping large rocks and for connecting 3 protection points to make an anchor.
- Smaller slings can also be useful, especially in tying off pitons.
Common sewn runner widths are 8mm, 10mm, 18mm, 9/16" and 11/16", and they seem to get skinnier and lighter every year. Generally the thinner you go, the lighter and more compact your runners. The wider you go, the longer they will last and the less likely they will get cut or abraded.
Like quickdraws, runners are available in Dyneema, Spectra or pure nylon (see materials description above). Dyneema and Spectra blends are more resistant to UV degradation.
Sewn Runner FAQs
Q: Do I need sewn runners for sport climbing or just for trad climbing?
A: Sewn runners are most useful for trad climbing, where you are placing cams and nuts and the route winds back and forth. Some particularly crooked sport climbs may require single or double length sewn runners to minimize rope drag, but this is rare.
While quickdraws have their place on trad climbs, there are 2 good reasons to use single- and double-length slings (runners):
- To minimize rope drag with longer extensions from the protection points to the rope. This way the rope travels straighter and less like a Z.
- To keep the gear from inverting as you climb by it (or if you fall) and thus being pulled out.
Sometimes, quickdraws are useful on trad routes, especially in medium to long lengths. I might use them when I'm clipping fixed gear, like pitons left in place or after I sling a block. If the route is fairly straight and steep, and the gear is multidirectional and cannot be pulled out with an upward pull, I will use quickdraws and save valuable time on longer routes.
Q: How many and what length sewn runners should I buy for a trad rack?
A: If you are placing lots of gear, consider at least 12 single-length runners and 4 to 6 double-length runners. Plus, get 2 triples (or 2 cordalettes) for the anchors.
Q: How should I rack (carry) my slings?
A: You have a few options:
- Over the shoulder: Just slip them over the opposite shoulder of your gear sling, outside of the sling. Double the double-length runners and then slip them over.
- The alpine quickdraw: Rack single-length runners with 2 straight-gate carabiners ("non-captive" bent gates are more prone to cross-loading). Shorten them by passing one carabiner through the other and clipping 2 strands of the sling. You will be left with a short tidy "quickdraw" one-third the length of the runner. You can clip it short or extend it if necessary. Alpine quickdraws can be easily carried on your harness gear loops or your gear sling.
- Doubled and girth-hitched: With a double-length runner, you might triple it before girth-hitching it. A girth hitch is a simple hitch where you "loop" the sling over something, in this case another sling, then pass one end through the other and cinch it down. You can girth-hitch a bunch of quickdraws over another sling acting as a gear sling or on your back gear loops for occasional use. This is an excellent trick, especially if you don't need slings with carabiners (in alpinism, for example, if you are slinging horns and blocks).
Shop REI's selection of runners.
Also called "aiders," these are essential for aid climbing. They are basically little 1" nylon webbing ladders with 4 to 8 steps for moving upwards once you have clipped a piece of gear. Nowadays, they are always sewn together, but back in the day, Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard had to tie their own together with bulk sling.
For general aid climbing, get 1 or 2 pairs of 5- and 6-step aiders. These usually have reinforced steps with an extra half step at the top to get extra high for your next aid placement. Look for hand loops to help you pull up and bounce test, ballast loops to clip a little with onto if it is really windy, and a comfortable design with reinforced steps so it is easy to get your feet in and out of.
Q: How do you set up etriers for aid climbing?
A: For fast-and-light "easy" aid climbing (A 1), 1 etrier for each foot suffices. For more technical aid climbing (A 3), 2 etriers per foot make moving up and hanging out on your etriers much more comfortable. Other considerations:
- Each etrier should be connected to you by a daisy chain. This way you can't drop it, and you can also rest on your daisy chain by hooking it with your fifi hook. Girth-hitch each of your 2 daisy chains through the tie-in point of your harness with the larger looped end of the daisy chain. Clip the other end to the top of the etrier with a locking carabiner.
- You make upward progress in aid climbing by clipping your etrier to the protection above you. Clip a locked locking-carabiner to the nonlocking carabiner that your top piece is in.
- For "jumaring" or climbing directly up the rope, you just add the ascenders to the locking carabiner. Adjust your daisy chains to the correct length, and you are ready to go.
Q: How do I carry etriers while I am free climbing?
A: If you are changing back and forth from aid climbing to free climbing just clip off your etriers on the back of your harness while leaving them rigged.
Q: Are there any other uses for etriers?
A: One or 2 etriers can be just the thing when you are free climbing on a route that has a few moves above your ability. Just pull out the etrier, clip it in and aid climb over the hard section. This is called "French free" climbing. Consider a small alpine aider—available from several manufacturers—that comes stuffed in a tiny stuff sack and can be clipped to a gear loop on your harness.
Shop REI's selection of etriers.
Daisy chains are an essential component of an aid-climbing setup and work hand in hand with etriers. Daisy chains connect the etrier to the harness so you can't drop the etrier. This allows you to rest on the daisy chain by hooking it with your fifi hook.
Comparing Daisy Chains
For general aid climbing, buy 2 of different colors to easily identify each aider and make sure they are both longer than your "reach." The Dyneema ones are lighter, less bulky and more resistant to UV.
Daisy Chain FAQs
Q: What's this I've heard about a new faster system of daisy chains and etriers?
A: Yes, there is a new system popular among speed aid-climbing aficionados that uses buckles instead of ladder rungs or daisy loops. It is fast and infinitely adjustable, but many top aid-climbers still prefer the traditional versions.
Q: What about other uses?
A: Daisy chains are also nice at the top of a sport climb as a temporary "rest" anchor while you set up a top rope. Be sure not to permanently attach a daisy chain to the belay loop as this creates excessive wear to the belay loop. Instead, a daisy should be girth-hitched throughout the rope tie-in point and removed after each climbing day and inspected for wear.
Shop REI's selection of daisy chains.
Gear slings are padded pieces of nylon webbing that you wear over your shoulder to carry all your protection, slings and quickdraws while trad climbing. They are more or less essential if you plan on leading trad climbs where you'll need to carry nuts and cams. The other option, carrying your gear on your harness gear loops, is limiting. There's usually not enough space and, if you are climbing laybacks, corners or chimneys, it's better to be able to slide your gear out of the way so it doesn't interfere with your climbing. There is nothing worse that shimmying up a layback or chimney with a harness-racked Camalot that is pressed into your hip and not allowing you to get closer to the wall.
Comparing Gear Slings
Gear slings come in a few variations, from single slings (adjustable and not) to double shoulder slings, which are most commonly used for aid climbing. Make sure you buy a gear sling that is comfortable for you and fits. Most adjust to fit a wide range of sizes.
Gear Sling FAQs
Q: Do I need a gear sling for sport climbing?
A: Fortunately, no! Sport climbing is all about freedom of movement and going light. Most sport climbs are face climbs where you don't need to wiggle through chimneys or press your hip against the wall during a layback. So it is OK to rack your gear on your harness gear loops. Besides, you won't have much gear anyways, just a few quickdraws.
Q: What is the best way to rack my trad gear on my gear sling?
A: Generally you rack nuts first, then cams, then quickdraws or alpine quickdraws. Nuts are usually racked 3 to 6 per carabiner, whereas cams usually have 1 carabiner per piece. Other scenarios:
- Double sizes can be racked on one carabiner or separately but clipped to each other for organization.
- If you are climbing larger cracks, chimneys and corners, you might want to not rack anything on the sides of your harness for increased comfort and range of motion.
- If you are mostly on face climbs, you might rack some of your gear such as quickdraws and spare carabiners on your harness gear sling.
Q: When do I need to use a double gear sling?
A: Gear slings that allow you to carry gear on both sides of your torso are primarily for aid climbing, where you often have at least twice as much protection. While comfortable for this, they are not recommended for traditional climbing because it is more difficult to move your gear around from side to side to get it out of the way for climbing in chimneys or corners, for example.
Shop REI's selection of gear slings.
Bulk Webbing and Cord
Every good climbing shop has spools and spools of bulk webbing and cord. It is a great place to make specialty items such as cordalettes, prussiks and tied slings, as well as to buy larger sections to rig top-rope anchors.
Bulk webbing comes in "climbing specification" and "military specification." Climbing spec is thicker, heavier and slicker, whereas military spec is thinner, lighter and has a rougher surface texture. Both are very durable, but climbing spec is the stronger choice. The most common widths are 1", 11/16", 9/16" and ½". Bulk webbing is only available in nylon, because Spectra and Dyneema webbing are so slippery that they cannot hold a knot and need to be sewn closed. Tie your nylon webbing with a water knot and make sure you leave long tails (at least 2" long).
Cord is usually nylon and comes in diameters of 1mm all the way up to 9mm, sometimes greater. The most useful sizes for accessory cord are 5mm, 6mm and 7mm. Spectra can sometimes be found in specialty uses, such as threading large nuts.
How Much Cord Do I Need?
- Rappel prussik: One meter (3.3 ft.) of 6mm cord tied into a loop with a double fisherman's knot makes a perfect prussik cord to use as a backup brake while rappelling.
- Glacier travel prussiks: This system can be used either to climb a rope up out of a crevasse, like an inchworm, or rig a rope-pulley system to pull a climber out of a crevasse. It consists of a waist prussik and a foot prussik. For the waist prussik, use about 6 feet of 5mm cord (since glacier ropes are skinny, 6mm cord will not always grip). Alternatively, I might use a 3-wrap prussik of 6mm cord for more holding power on thinner ropes. For the foot prussic, use about 10 to 15 feet of cord depending if you want 1-foot or 2-foot loops). The lengths depend on your height and what configuration you use for the foot prussik.
- Cordalette: You can use 16 to 20 feet of 6mm or 7mm cord for everything from connection protection (to make a single-point anchor system for a multi-pitch belay station) to a foot prussik for glacier travel (to load a releasable backup hitch for self-rescue or crevasse rescue).
- Tied slings/runners: These are a handy addition to a rack full of sewn slings. They are useful as a protection point or rappel anchor by tying around trees or chalk stones or by threading through holes in the rock. Every complete trad rack should have 2 to 4 single- and double-length slings made from nylon webbing. (About 6 feet makes a single length and 10 feet makes a double.)
- Tie-offs: An aid climber will want small ½" webbing loops that are 3" to 5" long. These are ideal for girth-hitching pitons that cannot be hammered in all the way. For this you want thin "military spec" webbing as it is the least bulky choice and can really cinch onto the piton.
Shop REI's selection of webbing and cord.