Choosing a climbing rope for the first time can be overwhelming. What is the best rope? How thick? How long? Do you need dry treatment? Is there a difference for outdoor vs indoor ropes? And, why are some ropes more expensive?
In this guide, we’ll explore these questions and features you’ll want to consider when choosing your first rope. You’ll start to understand the connection between rope design, use and durability. You can find a short explanation of the technical specs at the bottom.
Kernmantle is the most common construction for climbing ropes available today. These ropes are made with two parts: an inner core (“kern”) protected by an outer sheath (“mantle”).
The core is composed of several twisted strands bundled together, which provides strength and absorbs most of the force when catching a fall. While the woven sheath serves to protect the core from abrasion and any ingress of dirt or rock grains.
More on construction with Adam Ondra:
There are two compositions of rope: dynamic or static.
Dynamic ropes have high levels of twist in the core strands that allow a rope to stretch under a dynamic load, reducing the force to a climber during a fall arrest. You will always use a dynamic rope for all types of climbing; sport, trad, ice, mountaineering, leading, top roping and multi-pitch climbing.
Static ropes have the least number of twists in the core strands resulting in very little stretch. These ropes are best suited for canyoneering, caving, rope access and rescue. They’re also used for specific static load tasks in rock climbing, like hauling gear or setting fixed lines for ascending and rappelling.
We can identify a lot about a rope from the labelling marked at both ends of the rope or the original packaging, like the diameter, year of manufacture, type of rope, length and certifications.
A single rope is the most common and easiest system for top-roping, sport climbing and single-pitch trad climbing. Single ropes are rated to hold multiple falls on their own. It’s a popular choice at any experience level from beginner to advanced because the climber and belayer only need to manage one rope.
Using one single rope is not ideal for situations requiring redundancy and rappelling on long multi-pitch climbs. Though two single ropes can be used in those situations, most people will choose half or twin ropes because using two single ropes is heavier and may limit shock absorption during a fall.
Half rope (aka. double rope) systems are lighter ropes rated to hold a fall on their own, but not multiple falls. Generally, these ropes are to be used in pairs and it's common to see them with a twin rope rating too. The climber ties into both ropes and alternates clipping the rope into pieces of protection. This creates redundancy, decreases rope drag on routes that wander or traverse, and allows for longer rappels.
It’s best suited for trad climbing, mountaineering, ice climbing and any multi-pitch routes where a route may wander. This is considered an advanced rope management skill; it is recommended to practice this belaying technique and communication on the ground beforehand.
Twin rope systems are two very light ropes used together to provide the same protection as a single rope. The leader would tie into both ropes and clip both strands into all pieces of protection. Unlike half ropes, one twin rope is not rated to handle large or repeated falls on its own. Most likely you will see twin ropes with only a twin rating.
A twin rope excels in their lightweight construction, allowing for this weight to be split between two people on long approaches (e.g. mountaineering and alpine climbs). It also provides the ability to rappel a full rope length and create redundancy like half ropes, but with a similar total weight as one single rope. Since both ropes need to be clipped into each piece of protection, twin ropes are not recommended for wandering routes. This is another advanced rope management technique that requires instruction and practice. Also, twin ropes require specific “alpine” belay devices that work with thinner rope diameters.
Triple-rated ropes are a recent development in ropes allowing for exceptional versatility. Often bought in pairs, these are all purpose ropes rated for use in a single rope system, a half rope system, and a twin rope system.
The main advantage with a triple-rated rope is when one of these ropes gets stuck or severed, you can continue to lead or rappel on one rope. These ropes also have great dynamic elongation to absorb force when used as twins. The downside is that these ropes are expensive and can sometimes weigh more than half ropes.
A common question is how long will a rope last? The answer depends, but as a rough guide: the thicker the rope, the longer it could last.
Generally, thicker ropes will have more core strands and a thicker shealth, which means it can handle a greater number of falls and offer better abrasion resistance. While, the thinner the rope, the less durable in terms of number of falls and abrasion resistance.
For a first rope, it's best to choose a diameter between 9.8 - 10.2mm. To understand diameter and suitable use, check the guide below:
With the highest number of core strands and thickest sheath, thick diameter ropes are the strongest and most durable. Though thick ropes add extra friction resulting in slower handling through a belay device, this trade-off is often preferred by newer climbers who are practicing belaying techniques. Best suited for gym climbing and top-roping outdoors.
(9.5 - 9.9 mm)
Medium diameters have a few less core strands to balance between weight and durability. A popular option for lead climbers in any skill range due to their ease of handling across a variety of devices. Best suited for outdoors, trad climbing and sport climbing. Comapred to thicker ropes, they show quicker wear when used to project climbs in the gym or top-roping.
(9 - 9.4 mm)
Thin single ropes have even less core strands and a thinner shealth because they're designed for when carrying less weight is a priority, like multi pitches and trad climbing. The trade off is that they’re not as durable and cannot handle as many falls as a thick rope. Best suited for onsight climbing, red-pointing, or any type of climbing where weight saving is a priority.
Half ropes range between 8 - 9mm in diameter. Twin ropes range between 7 - 8mm. Keep in mind that all belay devices have a recommended rope diameter for the device to operate. Always double check if your device is suitable for a half or twin rope.
NOTE: Handling is also affected by the rope diameter. A thicker rope provides greater friction and allows the rope to pass through a belay device slower. We recommend for beginners to start learning belaying techniques with medium to thick ropes as this allows for greater belay control & confidence when arresting a fall. Contrarily, thinner ropes tend to pass through a belay device quickly and often require advanced rope management skills or specialised belay devices.
Climbing ropes are available in lengths from 30 to 100 metres. The best length to choose is one that will help you maximise the time your rope remains usable for the type of climbing you’re doing. For most climbers, this is a 60 metre rope. Let’s talk about why.
A 60 metre rope is a common choice for climbers as it can be used for routes indoors and outdoors. It’s not too long that it would be a hassle to maneuver around with shorter gym routes, and it’s the most common length required to climb single-pitch routes outside.
However, this might not always be the best length for you. If you’re looking to understand if you need a shorter or longer rope, here’s a guide to rope length and use:
How the sheath is braided is one of the main factors affecting handling, abrasion resistance, and flexibility. Climbing ropes are found in two main braid systems:
A tandem braided sheath is the most common braid type as it provides a soft and flexible feel to the rope with great knotability.
A simple braided sheath has a tighter weave, improving abrasion resistance and reducing friction forces. The tighter weave can feel less flexible at first. These ropes are great for experienced climbers who want added durability when outdoor rock climbing.
Note: Due to the lower friction, we recommend only experienced belayers use these ropes because they feel slippery and handle faster through a belay device.
A dry treated rope (aka. “dry-rope” or “complete shield”) has a water-repellent coating on the sheath, the core, or both. The dry treatment is designed to prevent the core strands from absorbing liquid and expanding, keeping the rope from weakening when climbing in wet conditions (e.g. climbing near the ocean or in snowy conditions).
Not all dry treated ropes are made with the same waterproofing technology. You can find dry treatment applied to different levels of the rope:
All in all, most climbers will choose untreated ropes (aka. “standard”, “non-dry” or “classic”) simply because there aren’t many situations that involve getting a rope soaking wet. However, you might want to consider some of the indirect benefits to dry-treated ropes:
Treated Ropes & Abrasion Comparison Test:
Many ropes come with a dark-coloured middle marker indicating the middle of the rope (e.g. a 60 metre rope will have a mark at 30 metres). The downside of a middle marker is it will fade overtime and need to be marked again. We recommend using rope markers approved by the rope manufacturer to avoid chemical damage to the rope.
A bi-pattern or bi-colour rope changes pattern and/or colour half way down the rope. If you are looking for a dedicated multi-pitching single rope, these types of ropes make it super easy to identify the middle of the rope. The downside is if the rope is used to project climbs and is cut shorter on one side, then the centre will need to be marked with a rope marker.
**First off - no matter the price - only use dynamic ropes that are UIAA rated and certified for use in rock climbing and/or mountaineering. All ropes we stock in our stores must have this certification labelled. Don't run the risk of purchasing ropes without this certification because it may not have gone through the proper testing required for rock climbing.**
Price range and features is a way you can assess quality. Unlike clothing, you can’t just slap a premium price on a rope and hope for the best. Rope's take a significant amount of raw materials, production time, technology, and product design to manufactuer, which is often reflected in the price.
The data below is taken from Mammut's Abrasion Resistance test of their rope range over 500 cycles. The Mammut "Classic" is the base model with a 40 bobbin count sheath priced at $289, while the Mammut "Workhorse" / "Sender" models have a thicker sheath with a 48 bobbin count starting around $449 with a dry treatment. Even though the Mammut 9.0mm Sender is a thinner rope, it's higher quality shealth and dry treatment feature lends it better abrasion resistance over the 9.5mm Classic. Similar abrasion resistance quality could be seen between a high quality shealth "9.9 Workhorse Classic" and a dry treated rope with normal sheath "9.5 Dry"; choosing between these would be down to use and handling preference as dry treated ropes tend to feel stiffer.
Mammut Abrasion Resistance Test
Number Of Cycles
Now, this doesn't mean that you should spend more money to get the best rope. Better abrasion resistance is useful for advanced applications (i.e. mountaineering, trad climbing, multipitching etc.). Though it does add to the life of a rope, in most cases a good value rope will work great for your first rope.
I like to think of the first rope like getting your first car. It's a learning rope, there will be a few abrasion scratches or cuts in the process. Getting the right rope for your intended purpose and how it's maintained is super important to the rope's durability. Here are some of the things to note:
Rather than choosing a rope with the best reviews, think about choosing a rope that suits what you're climbing, how you plan to use it, the budget you have, and how you want it to feel. Just remember, you’re may end up thrashing this rope and probably not look after it as best as you could, and that's totally ok.
The technical stats & symbols on ropes help users understand the technical capabilities that each rope has to offer. When comparing similar ropes, it often helps to understand the following:
Number of UIAA Falls: the number of falls the rope held during the certification test. UIAA Fall test is a factor of 1.77 (falling below your belayer) with the following masses until failure:
Max Impact Force (kN): the measure of a ropes elasticity and ability to absorb the energy generated in a climbing fall Kilonewton (kN).
A higher Impact Force (IF) will result in more energy being applied to the belay system and protection. A lower IF is better in a situation where the protection is less than ideal, resulting in a softer catch and hopefully putting less stress on the system.
Static Elongation (%): the amount of stretch difference between a 5kg and 80kg load UIAA maximum amount for single ropes is 10%. UIAA maximum amount for half (single strand) or twin (two strands) is 12%. Useful in relation to projecting a climb or managing ground falls at the start of a climb.
Dynamic Elongation (%): the amount the rope stretched in the standard dynamic test. UIAA maximum for all rope types must be at or below 40%. This test is performed at the same time as the Falls test. Results are in an extreme situation so we can assume this is the maximum elongation.
Weight (g/m): how many grams a rope weighs per metre. Useful when comparing ropes from different brands Can give you a gauge for how durable a rope may be.
Sheath Slippage: A 2 metre sample of rope is run back and forth between an apparatus which pinches it. It goes through 5 cycles and should experience no more than 20mm separation between the core and the sheath.
If you want to read in more detail the exact way the UIAA specifies that dynamic ropes be tested to meet its requirements you can find it through the link below: https://www.theuiaa.org/safety-standards