Sport climbing is more accessible than traditional rock climbing, both in terms of location and in cost of outfitting. Its fun and often-competitive atmosphere, combined with the immediate gratification of completing many difficult routes in a single outing, draws newcomers to the sport and is a natural progression for gym climbers who want to take their skills to the outdoors.

What is Sport Climbing?

Sport climbing involves high-intensity climbing on relatively short routes. Its distinguishing characteristics include preplaced bolts and an emphasis on the physical aspect of the climb rather than the destination or summit.

Sport vs. Trad Climbing

Less gear required: Because the emphasis is on the moves, sport climbers don’t place their own protection, but clip into preplaced bolts with metal hangers. This allows the lead climber to progress upward without the worry and hassle of carrying a full rack of gear and placing protection like you would with trad climbing.

Accessibility: Sport routes can be found indoors or out, on nearby, accessible rock crags or on artificial walls at a gym or a competition arena. Climbers can enjoy being on the “sharp end” of the rope—that is, leading the climb—without knowing how to place chocks or camming devices.

Falling: When sport climbing, it’s normal and expected that you’ll fall, often repeatedly, as you work out a difficult move. In trad climbing, you would typically take care not to fall and stress the anchors you are placing.

Sport Climbing Route Ratings

In the U.S., the Yosemite Decimal Rating System is most commonly used to classify climbing difficulty on sport climbs. All sport climbs range from an easy rating of 5.0 to a very difficult rating of 5.15.

Just like with other styles of climbing, sport routes are rated by the hardest move on the route, so when a climb is rated 5.7 that does not mean every move is 5.7.

Class 5 climbing sub-categories
5.0-5.4 Easy A steep section that has large handholds and footholds. Suitable for beginners.
5.5-5.8 Intermediate Small footholds and handholds. Low-angle to vertical terrain. Beginner to intermediate rock climbing skills required.
5.9-5.10 Hard Technical and vertical, and may have overhangs. These hard climbs require specific climbing skills that most weekend climbers can attain.
5.11-5.12 Hard to Difficult Technical and vertical, and may have overhangs with small holds. Dedicated climbers may reach this level with lots of practice.
5.13-5.15 Very Difficult Strenuous climbing that’s technical and vertical, and may have overhangs with small holds. These routes are for expert climbers who train regularly and have lots of natural ability.

To further define a route’s difficulty, a subclassification system of letters (a, b, c or d) is used for climbs 5.10 and higher. For instance, a route rated 5.10a is easier than one rated 5.10d. Some guidebooks use a plus (+) or minus (-) rating instead of the letters.

Sport Climbing Gear 

Gear for sport climbing is light, streamlined and aimed at speed and efficiency. A bolted climb requires a rope, harness, shoes, quickdraws, helmet, chalk and a chalk bag.

Climbing Rope

Most sport climbers use a single dynamic climbing rope. For length, a 60m rope is usually sufficient, however, some modern sport-climbing routes require a 70m rope. It can be helpful to ask other climbers or consult a guidebook if you’re unsure what length rope you need.

Climbing ropes are sold as dry-treated or non-dry. The more expensive dry-treated ropes resist water absorption, keeping them supple and strong if you’re caught in a rainstorm or traveling on snow. Most sport climbers will pull their ropes and go home when it rains, so if you primarily sport climb, you can save some money and go with a non-dry rope. Learn more about climbing ropes in our article, Climbing Ropes: How to Choose.

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