Choosing a climbing rope is a rite of passage for many new climbers. But, with such a packed marketplace, It can also be a daunting proposition. Our handy guide should hopefully point you in the right direction.
The State Of Play
We’ve never had it so good! With stringent standards and modern construction techniques, rigorous testing we now have ropes that are stronger, lighter and perform better than ever. But, that can also make it hard to pick the right rope for your needs. We hope our Choosing a Climbing Rope guide will help.
In reality this could be a very lengthy guide, so we have deliberately tried to keep it simple. Before making that final expensive purchasing decision we’d also always advise you to go and speak to a reputable climbing shop for advice. We have also focussed purely on ropes for climbing (leading and seconding). We will add some guidance on other types such as ropes for ski touring, hillwalkers ropes, pull cords and low stretch ropes in a different article.
When choosing a climbing rope you have three choices. Single ropes are designed to be used on their own. Double (or often called half ropes) are designed to be used as a pair. Finally, there are twin ropes which are also designed to be used as a pair. The difference between twin and double (half) is in the way the pair is used. Twin ropes are designed so both ropes will be clipped into each runner. With double (half) ropes they are designed to be alternatively clipped into runners. In the UK single or double (half) ropes are the most common types. Twin ropes are rarely used here and much more popular in Alpine contexts.
If you are starting out we would say choosing a single rope will give you everything you need for many adventures. Once you have become more experienced you might like to start using double (half) ropes.
Ropes will always be marked to show their category. Single ropes feature a number 1 in a circle. Double (half) ropes feature a 1/2 in a circle. Twin ropes feature interlocking circles shown in a circle (see the photo below).
The only other thing to note is that some modern ropes are categorised for either two or three of these uses. So, you can get ropes you will hear as being, for example, ‘triple rated’ (as shown in the photo). This is great as you could buy a triple rated rope as your first single rope. Then, when your experience level grows, add a double (half) rope and you have a pair for all situations. This also makes a great combination if you are travelling with your ropes and want lots of flexibility.
Modern climbing ropes are commonly made from a kernmantle construction. This combines the core (kern) which is made from thin coiled fibres coiled. Coiling the internal fibres means they can be shorter, but will stretch when a load is applied. The sheath (mantle) is a tough outer wrap that protects the inner core from wear and tear.
Some ropes are treated and some aren’t. These treatments are usually to reduce water absorption although some manufacturers add treatments to improve durability and abrasion resistance. For our purposes we are focusing on dry treatments designed to minimise water absorption. Some ropes have treatments added just to the sheath and others have it added to the core as well. These are usually described as double dry treated. If you are buying a dry treated rope we would always recommend getting one where both the sheath and core are treated.
Dry treatments help to stop water absorption. If water soaks into the rope it will make it heavier and it will take longer to dry. They will also be harder to use in a belay device. Above all that, though, ropes that become water logged are less safe and can freeze if temps are below freezing. The UIAA have created a standard for water repellency which is explained here. Only ropes with treatment to both the sheath and core can pass the test.
Whether you are best to choose a dry treated rope depends on the expected use. If you are going to use your rope in mountain environments or for winter climbing then dry treatment is essential. If you are just intending to use it on sunny cragging days it is unlikely to be worth the extra investment.
With increases in technology ropes have got thinner. This can be great in terms of pack size and weight saving. The way rope diameters can be shaved is partly by making the sheath thinner. This means the downside is that a thinner rope is likely to not be as durable as a thicker rope. It also means they could be more prone to failure if cut over a sharp edge. Having said that, Edelrid have done a lot of sharp edge testing on different rope diameters and it turns out there are various factors at play. It is worth watching the Edelrid video that we shared in our review of the Swift Protect Pro Dry rope here. There are single (or even triple rated) ropes as thin as 8.6 mm and increasing to around 10.5mm.
Some of the manufacturers have sought ways to manufacture thin ropes that will also offer improved durability or safety margins. An example is the Edelrid Swift Protect Pro Dry we reviewed here. This has Aramid fibres woven into the sheath to offer improved sharp edge protection. You obviously pay more for this technology, but it’s still a great innovation.
So, again the right rope diameter for you really depends on your anticipated use. If you are all about fast and light in the mountains then a thinner rope will shave weight and bulk. If you are planning to use it for general climbing on gritstone crags a thicker and more durable rope makes sense. In reality, there isn’t really a one rope fits all answer and many climbers will end up with a few in their gear cupboard. If you want a rope for all tasks we would recommend a medium diameter option such as a 10mm.
Ropes come in a variety of lengths. For a long time the standards have been either 50 or 60 metres and these are still a good option for many situations. However, you can nowadays also buy 30, 40, 70 or even 80 metre lengths (and probably others too).
The length you choose again depends on what you are doing with it and how many ropes you want to buy. Sometimes you will need the length to enable climbing long pitches or allow for lowering off a set length of sport route. At other times, such as for short routes on gritstone, having a long rope isn’t very efficient. It takes effort to pull through all the slack each time and also you will wear out a longer rope when it would be cheaper to wear out a shorter one.
If you were going to pick one rope for everything we’d suggest a 60 metre length. If you can, it pays to have a shorter cragging rope and a longer one for the mountains. For example, we use around 35 metre lengths for Peak District cragging and generally choose a 60 metre length for mountain adventures.
Modern ropes are very good at doing what they do. This means they will perform well and last well. However, they still need to be looked after. After choosing your climbing rope it pays to clean it periodically and we added a useful cleaning ropes guide here. It also pays to store it well and insect it regularly for damage. It is you lifeline to many great adventures and needs to be looked after.
If you are new to climbing you might also find our Choosing Climbing Nuts guide here. We also have a Choosing Carabiners (Part one) here and Choosing Carabiners (Part two) here. Finally, there is our Guide to Buying A Climbing Rack here.