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All the Different Types of Rock Climbing

Last Updated: December 28, 2021
Close-up on intermediate climber tying her shoelace

Rock climbing is one of the most popular ways to explore the great outdoors. Venturing to new heights can give you a superb new perspective on life and the world around you, all while having a lot of fun.

But how much do you actually know about the different types of rock climbing? Do you know your free climbing and bouldering from your sport and big wall climbing?

In this article, we'll discuss all these types of rock climbing and more. We'll give you first-hand insight into the different climbing disciplines so you can be the most knowledgeable person out on the rock.

Let's get started!

What is Free Climbing?

To get things started, let's first discuss what we mean by "free climbing," as this is the primary type of climbing that we'll talk about in this article.

Free climbing is technically defined as any type of climbing where you ascend a cliff or another physical obstacle using nothing but your hands and feet to help you make upward progress. You may still use a rope to catch your fall, as is the case in sport and trad climbing, but you won't physically pull on any ropes or protective gear that you have to help you move upward.

It's important to define free climbing from the get-go as it often gets confused with another type of climbing, free soloing. We'll talk more about what free solo climbs are later in the article. We'll also discuss what aid climbing is because it's the opposite of free climbing.

With that in mind, let's get right into our list of the different types of rock climbing.

Types of Roped Climbing

The first types of rock climbing that we ought to discuss are all the roped climbing styles. Some of these disciplines can happen either outdoors or in the climbing gym, but the important point here is that they all involve the use of a climbing rope for safety if the climber falls on a route.

Here's what you need to know about these different ways of having fun on a rope in the vertical world.

Lead Climbing

Lead climbing is a type of climbing that involves moving up a route from the ground up without having their rope pre-placed above them.

When lead climbing, the lead climber takes their rope and clips it into different pieces of gear (called protection). These pieces of protection are designed to stop your fall if you slip off a route and there are many kinds of protection that you might place depending on what kind of route you're on.

The benefit of lead climbing is that it lets you explore cliffs and crags that are very tall or very remote. By starting from the ground up, lead climbing also gives you a sense of adventure and wonder as you don't necessarily know what lies ahead.

However, lead climbing requires solid climbing techniques and a good understanding of how to place protection so that it stops your fall. Leading also comes with a much higher risk of serious injury because it normally involves larger falls than you might get in other disciplines.

Top Rope Climbing

Top rope climbing is effectively the opposite of leading. When top roping you'll have a rope attached to anchors at the top of the route before you ever leave the ground.

Having a rope fixed to the top of a route makes it much easier to climb as you don't also have to focus on clipping in your rope or placing gear as you climb upwards. Additionally, top-roping comes with a much lower risk of serious injury because the falls that you take tend to be very small.

As a result, top-rope climbing is very popular among beginner climbers. But it's also a fun way to test out very hard routes, especially at smaller crags or at indoor gyms. Many climbers begin their climbing career with top-roping because of the risk management advantages that come with using a top rope.

The downside to top roping is that it's limited in its versatility. A top rope climb can only be about 100 feet (30 m) tall because most ropes aren't long enough to top rope a taller rock face. Additionally, when you top rope while outdoor climbing, you need to be able to get to the top of the route on foot to set up your gear. This simply isn't possible at all crags.

Sport Climbing

Sport climbing is currently one of the most popular types of climbing on the planet. It is a type of lead climbing that involves clipping into fixed anchors (normally called bolts) on a route. You clip in using a set of carabiners known as quickdraws as you ascend up a rock face.

There are many reasons why sport climbing is so popular. One is that it requires relatively little gear, especially when done in indoor climbing gyms. Additionally, most sport climbers enjoy the discipline because the climbing style usually involves more acrobatic movements that can be really fun to pull off.

Plus, when compared to trad climbing (more on that in a bit), sport climbing has a much lower risk of severe injury. That's because these routes have fixed gear that's already pre-bolted into the wall for you to clip into. Although there's a risk of this gear failing, it's not likely to happen at a popular sport climbing area.

Trad Climbing (Traditional Climbing)

Trad climbing is similar to sport climbing in that it involves starting at the bottom of a climb and working your way upward while leading. However, with traditional climbing, you need to rely on your own gear for protection as trad climbing routes generally don't have fixed gear.

Unlike a sport climber, trad climbers rely on a wide variety of climbing gear, such as cams and stoppers, to help stop their fall off of a climbing route. Cams and stoppers are types of protective climbing equipment and they're placed in cracks along a rock climb.

When compared to sport climbing, traditional climbing lets a lead climber explore more remote areas and long multi-pitch routes that may not have pre-placed bolts. Some climbers also prefer the adventurous aspect of having to rely solely on your own trad gear to get through a climb.

But a trad climber also needs to be comfortable taking on the extra risk that comes with placing your own gear. While trad gear is very strong when placed properly, it's not always as effective in different types of rock or when a route is very wet or dirty. A trad climber also needs to be confident, strong, and have good technique because placing gear while on a climbing route is no easy feat.

Multi Pitch Climbing

As its name suggests, multi-pitch climbing is a form of climbing where a climber ascends a route that's more than one pitch long.

What does this mean, you might ask?

A pitch is technically defined as a section of a climbing route between two belay stations. A pitch can be just 20 feet (6 m) long or it can be as long as a single rope length, which is usually 200 ft/60 m.

When you go multi-pitch climbing, a climber will venture out onto routes that require more than one belay station. The lead climber will climb from the bottom of the route until the end of a pitch, create an intermediary belay station with an anchor, and then belay their climber up to the belay station. From there, the lead climber will repeat this process until they reach the top of the climb.

Multi-pitching is the opposite of single-pitch climbing. With single pitch climbing, you normally start at the bottom of a route, climb to the top, and then either walk or rappel down. Top rope climbing can be considered a type of single pitching, too.

Big Wall Climbing

Another type of climbing that requires a climbing rope is big wall climbing. Technically, big wall climbing is another discipline of multi-pitching, but big wall climbers take on routes that are substantially longer.

Big wall routes can be thousands of feet tall, such as The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite. The Nose is a famous route in the climbing community and it requires about 2,900 feet (800 m) of rock climbing.

Big wall climbers use much of the same gear as your standard trad climber, with some notable additions to their packing list. A classic big wall climb involves spending one or more nights on a cliff, so you generally need to bring portaledges (a type of tent that can be suspended from a rock face), and other camping supplies.

Big wall climbing is not for the faint of heart. It takes years for most people to build up the skill set that they need to take on tough climbing routes that are thousands of feet long. But it is certainly one of the more unique types of rock climbing on our list.

Types of Unroped Climbing

So far, we've talked primarily about the different types of rock climbing that require a rope. But there are a number of disciplines where you can climb without the need for ropes or other similar equipment. Here's what you need to know about these ropeless climbing styles.


Bouldering is a form of rock climbing where you climb routes that are very short (normally less than 20 feet (6 m). It actually started as a way to train for mountain climbing, but it quickly became a popular way to enjoy time out on the rock without the need for any gear besides climbing shoes.

When you fall while bouldering, you'll normally land on a soft mattress-like object called a crash pad. Crash pads are designed to soften your landing, though, as you can imagine, there's still a risk of injury when you fall off of bouldering routes.

Most indoor gyms now offer bouldering, too, and it's now one of the most common ways for people to get into the sport.

Free Solo Climbing

Free solo climbing is a unique discipline where climbers ascend routes without any protective equipment. All they have is a pair of climbing shoes and perhaps a chalk bag. Yikes!

Free soloing has become a particularly well-known form of climbing thanks to the exploits of famous climber Alex Honnold. Honnold became famous in the Academy Award-winning film Free Solo, where he climbed Freerider (a 2,900 ft/880 m route) on El Capitan without a rope.

As you can imagine, free soloing is not a particularly popular form of the sport (due to the high risk of severe injury or death if you fall), but it's practiced by a small group of very skilled climbers.

Deep Water Soloing

Deep water soloing can technically be considered a form of free soloing where you climb on waterside cliffs without a rope. With deep water soloing, the idea is that you can land in the water if you fall. In other words, the water acts as a sort of crash pad.

When compared to free soloing, deep water soloing could be considered less risky because you can simply fall into the water. But there's still a sizable risk of injury when deep water soloing, especially if you don't land correctly in the water.

Check out this awesome video of Chris Sharma, a celebrated sport climber, and boulderer, making the first ascent of one of the world's most famous deep water solo routes, Es Pontas, to learn more:

Other Types of Climbing

In addition to the different types of rock climbing listed above, there are a handful of other disciplines that you ought to know. These types of climbing don't necessarily happen exclusively on rock and they may not be what you think of when you picture a rock climber in their element. But here are some other ways that you can adventure in the vertical world:

Aid Climbing

Unlike free climbing where climbers make their way upward using nothing but their body, aid climbing is a discipline where you can use your gear to ascend a route.

During an aid climb, a climber will use an array of gear, including cams, stoppers, and pitons, to protect themselves and for assistance with an upward motion. Aid climbers will pull on gear to help them move upward through sections that are otherwise too difficult to climb.

Via Ferrata

Via ferrata could perhaps be considered a type of aid climbing on well-established routes. On a via ferrata, a climber will clip into a steel cable for protection and then use rungs or ladders that are bolted into the rock to climb upward.

This kind of route is very popular in Europe, but you'll occasionally find them in the US and Canada. Via ferrata is very popular because they allow you to go rock climbing on very long routes without the need for much technical equipment or specialized skills.

Ice Climbing

Although it doesn't technically happen on rock, ice climbing is a fun way to spend time outside during the winter months. When ice climbing, you make your way up frozen waterfalls and other similar vertical icy features using crampons and ice tools.

Ice climbers can climb either on a lead or on the top rope. When on lead, an ice climber needs to place specialized ice screws into the ice for protection. However, ice climbing is considered a particularly high-risk activity because the quality and hardness of the ice itself can affect the ability of an ice screw to catch your fall.

Mixed Climbing

Mixed climbing blends ice and rock climbing together into one unique discipline. It involves the use of ice tools and crampons to ascend routes with little or no ice.

Many climbers find that mixed climbing is one of the most difficult forms of the sport because ice tools and crampons don't always get great traction on rock. But it's a particularly challenging and fun way to climb in the winter.


Aptly named, mountaineering is a type of climbing that involves ascending routes in the mountains. A mountaineering route can be a mix of rock, ice, and snow climbing, but the objective is to reach the summit of a mountain.

There are many styles of mountaineering and a single climb can take anywhere from half a day to many months. In classic mountaineering style, mountaineers will establish intermediary camps on a mountain where they can spend the night as they make their way toward the summit.

Alpine Climbing

Alpine climbing is a sub-discipline of mountaineering that focuses on fast and light ascents. When alpine climbing, alpinists often have very difficult objectives that require more of an emphasis on technical skills. Many of these routes have extensive rock or ice climbing sections that can be just as challenging as anything you might attempt at a roadside crag.

Alpinism is considered to be one of the more risky forms of rock climbing because alpinists seek out such tough objectives. But, it's becoming an increasingly popular part of the sport as top climbers look to push the limits of what's possible in the mountains.

Climb On!

Whether you enjoy sport climbing, bouldering, free soloing, or alpinism, there are dozens of excellent types of climbing out there for you to enjoy. We hope this article helped you learn more about the various disciplines of climbing so you can make the most of your time in the vertical world.

Gaby Pilson is a professional outdoor educator and climbing instructor with over ten years of experience delivering outdoor experiences. She holds multiple outdoor safety and education certifications and specializes in guiding expeditions to the polar regions. Gaby also works as a Wilderness Medicine Instructor and Climbing Wall Instructor Course Provider.
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