12 Tips for Leading a Trad Climbing Route

Learn how to lead climb

Ian Spencer-Green climbs a crack at Turkey Tail in Colorado
Use strategy to lead hard cracks like "Quiver and Quill" at Turkey Tail in Colorado. Stewart M. Green

Lead climbing, especially on traditional routes where you place gear and often have to find the route while climbing, is difficult and sometimes scary and dangerous. If you are a novice climber, then you need to practice leading a lot to gain confidence as well as the skills to make smart and safe judgments about placing gear, establishing belays, and finding the route on the cliff.

Here are 12 essential tips to help you learn how to lead climb and to both create and follow a smart leading strategy.

1. Pick Routes That Are Within Your Technical Climbing Ability

It’s best to go down in difficulty and to lead easier routes than what you can top-rope climb or sport climbing routes protected with bolts that you have led. Lead only easy trad climbs that are three or four grades easier than your best efforts. If you’ve top-roped a 5.10 route, start out leading 5.5 and 5.6 trad climbs—you’ll be safer and have a lot more fun than doing something harder.

2. Consider a Strategic Approach

First, you should assess your proposed route by standing back from the cliff and looking at it and then eyeballing it from the base of the cliff. Start with single-pitch routes that are easy to look at and where you can see all the features on the rock.

3. Look Where the Route Goes 

Follow crack systems and lines of face holds on vertical sections or slabs; where chalked holds are located; where possible placements for cams and nuts may be found for protection; where you could possibly bail if needed; and where you will belay.

4. Study Your Guidebook

Read the route description and look at a topo of the route for beta or information about the climb. Figure out where the route goes up the cliff. Routefinding is an essential skill that every traditional climber must learn. If you get off route while leading, then you may find yourself in difficult and dangerous terrain with poor protection and no retreat.

5. Figure out What Gear You Need to Bring

Consider your proposed route from the base. Check the guidebook for recommended equipment that you might need. Do not, however, rely strictly on guidebook rack advice. Make up your own mind on what you need to bring on your trad rack and remember that the sin is not in bringing too much gear but not bringing enough.

6. Plan Where You Will Place Your First Couple of Pieces of Gear

Do this before you leave the base of the route and start climbing. Make sure you get enough gear in down low on the route so that you will not take a grounder if you fall. Rack those first pieces on the front of your climbing harness so they are ready to be pulled off, quickly placed, and the rope clipped in.

7. Plan Ahead as You Lead

You should know when to place gear to protect yourself at crux moves and to protect the second climber coming up. Remember to always place enough gear to protect the second on traverses. It is usually a good idea to put several pieces of gear in before a hard sequence of moves so that you will be safe in case one fails in a fall or gets knocked out of the crack by the movement of the rope. Redundancy of gear and placing multiple pieces keeps you safe.

8. Climb Quickly and Efficiently

Do not waste time on easy sections because you are afraid to make the moves, just do them and save energy for the crux sections and places where you have to hang on to place gear.

9. Downclimb Hard Sections

If you are getting pumped or think you are off route, find a stance where you can shake out and recover before trying the crux again. Look for those rest stances as you climb so you know where they are if you have to downclimb. If you can’t find the route, do not commit to doing moves that can’t be reversed. If you need to retreat back to a stance to find the correct line, you do not want to risk taking a big fall.

10. Do Not Over-Place or Over-Cam Your Protective Gear

Don't make it difficult for the seconding climber to remove or clean the gear. It is easy to pick the wrong cam for the crack if you are pumped or scared. Try to stay calm and collected while you assess what you need to place for pro.

11. Keep Your Climbing Rope Free

Avoid tangles, snarls, and knots. Use plenty of slings on your cams and nuts to avoid rope drag. Make sure that you climb with the rope over your leg whenever possible to avoid flipping upside down and hitting your head if you fall off. Always wear a helmet to protect your soft skull.

12. Keep a Cool Head and Your Wits About You

Many lead climbers let the fear of falling psych them out rather than managing their fear and working through those fears. Remember that fear of falling and the unknown can paralyze you and actually make you make unsafe decisions. Also remember that if you don’t feel up to leading a route or pitch, then retreat back down. Ask your partner if he wants to take the sharp end and lead the route, then lower down with the gear in place. Otherwise, you need to build a proper and safe anchor to lower or rappel back to the base of the route.