10 Types of Climbing

All of the Different Categories and Styles of Climbing

A climber edges up a route on a toprope on Elevenmile Dome in Elevenmile Canyon. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

What are the Types of Climbing?

Climbing naturally divides into several distinct categories, with each using its own particular techniques, tools, and environments. There is a lot of confusion among beginning climbers as well as non-climbers about all the different types of climbing.

Climbing ranges from hiking up steep rocky mountain slopes to scrambling without a rope up easy but steep terrain to technical rock climbing using climbing equipment like a rope as well as practicing climbing skills like belaying.

Added to the mix is climbing on indoor walls, bouldering up small blocks of rock, and climbing ice climbing up vertical frozen waterfalls. 

3 MAIN ROCK CLIMBING DISCIPLINES

Rock Climbing divides into three separate disciplines: traditional climbing, sport climbing, and bouldering. Rock climbing can be done both indoors at a climbing gym or outdoors on real rock cliffs. Climbing is done in groups of two or more, using technical climbing equipment like harnesses, rock shoes, carabiners, quickdraws, cams, and a rope. Rock climbers use basic climbing skills like belaying or holding the rope for another climber as well as rappelling, which is when a climber makes a controlled slide down a fixed rope.

TRADITIONAL CLIMBING

Traditional Climbing is the art of ascending rock walls and cliffs that are protected with gear that is both placed and removed by the climbing party. Traditional climbing is the original style of climbing and is considered to have the least impact on the rock resource since equipment like cams and nuts, which are placed in cracks in the rock surface, is not left behind on the cliff.

Traditional climbing is also adventure climbing since the climbers start at the base of a cliff and climb to the top or summit, stopping at regular rope-length intervals (called pitches) along the way to belay each other.

Read more: What is Traditional Climbing

SPORT CLIMBING

Sport Climbing, using permanent anchors placed in rock, is a climbing style that emphasizes gymnastic movement, difficulty, and safety.

Sport climbing routes are preprotected by the first ascent party, who drills a hole in the rock surface (with a hand drill or a portable power drill), and places a sturdy metal construction bolt into the hole. A bolt hanger, used for clipping a carabiner to the bolt, is attached to the bolt. Sport climbing is a fun way to go climbing, especially since most sport routes are less than 100 feet long (half the length of a 60-meter rope). Climbers go one at a time, either lead climbing or toproping the sport route and ending at preplaced bolt anchors partway up a cliff. Their belayer lowers them back to the ground from the anchors.

Read more: Essential Skills to be a Sport Climber

BOULDERING

Bouldering is the ropeless pursuit of short difficult problems on boulders and small cliffs. Bouldering is all about busting hard moves close to the ground, usually without a rope (although a rope can be used on highball problems). Boulderers place a crash pad, a thick layer of foam, on the ground below the problems so that they have a safer landing zone than the ground if they fall. Bouldering is also a safe way of training by yourself, particularly at a climbing gym.

Read more: The Art of Bouldering

TOPROPE CLIMBING

Toprope Climbing is scaling both cliffs and artificial walls with the safety rope always anchored above, creating a safe environment and minimal risk.

Toproping is the usual way that new climbers learn to climb, especially outside. Most indoor rock gym routes are climbed with a toprope. A toprope route is set up by a climber either leading a sport or trad route from the base to a set of anchors, where the rope is attached with locking carabiners, or by scrambling around from the side to the top of a cliff where an anchor is built and the rope is attached to carabiners

Read more: Learn Basic Toprope Climbing Skills

FREE-SOLO CLIMBING

Free-solo climbing, also called soloing, is climbing cliffs without a rope or other climbing equipment. The climber, using minimal gear like rock shoes, chalk, and a chalk bag, relies only on their climbing skills to ascend the face to the top. The stakes are extremely high since a fall results in severe injuries or more often, death.

Free-solo climbing should not be undertaken by anyone except the very best climbers who have a high level of skill, strength, and a cool head.

Read more: The Dangerous Allure of Free-Solo Climbing

SCRAMBLING

Scrambling is climbing easy rock faces and ridge, usually in the mountains, either with or without a rope. Scrambling requires basic climbing movement skills, including using hands and feet, as well as other skills like belaying, descending, and rappelling. Scrambling is fun but is also dangerous since it is easy to get off route in the mountains and onto technical terrain that requires a rope and climbing equipment.

Read more: Learn Basic Rock Scrambling Skills

AID CLIMBING

Aid Climbing is ascending steep rock faces with the use of specialized climbing equipment that allows mechanical upward progress rather than free climbing with hands and feet. Aid climbing is the opposite of free climbing, which is using only what the rock allows to progress up. Anything goes in the aid climbing game since climbers can place pitons, cams, and nuts to attach the rope and themselves to as they climb upwards. If a free climber grabs a carabiner or any piece of equipment to make progress, it is called a French free move and is considered a point of aid.

Read more: 

INDOOR CLIMBING

Indoor Climbing is climbing preplaced handholds and footholds that are bolted on artificial walls at indoor climbing gyms. Most beginning climbers learn the ropes at indoor rock gyms. It is easy to learn important climbing skills, including the basics of climbing movement; how to use different kinds of handholds; how to improve footwork; how to belay; and how to lower down. Most of the routes in rock gyms are toprope climbs, with the rope always above the climber so that they are not injured if they fall. Most gyms have a selection of lead routes so that a climber can learn the basics of lead climbing and how to clip the rope into quickdraws. Gyms also have bouldering areas so that climbers can practice hard moves or boulder together in a social situation.

Climbing competitions are always on artificial climbing walls so that routes can be easily changed.  

Read more: Learn to Climb in an Indoor Gym

MOUNTAINEERING

Mountaineering, also called alpine climbing or alpinism, is climbing mountain peaks from the Rockies to the Himalayas using both rock and ice climbing skills. Mountaineering adventures range from steep hikes up mountain slopes to climbing faces plastered with snow and ice using climbing tools like crampons and an ice axe. Mountaineering requires many climbing and outdoor skills, including belaying, rappelling, routefinding, weather prediction, descending, avalanche safety, snow climbing, ice climbing, and good judgment. 

Read more: Defining the Sport of Mountaineering

ICE CLIMBING

Ice Climbing is the chilly winter pastime of scaling frozen waterfalls and icy gullies using crampons and ice tools. Ice climbing, a specialized winter climbing activity, is very tool intensive since the climber relies exclusively on equipment to ascend steep ice. 

Read more: How to Practice Ice Climbing Techniques