How to build your first trad rack

Hurts, Arapiles
Making the transition from sport to trad is a steep learning curve, and one of the most puzzling obstacles is the composition of a trad rack. Unlike a standard quiver of quickdraws, the contents of one’s trad rack are a bit of a personal statement.

It’s kind of like examining musical taste – although certain folks might like the same genre of music, no two record collections will be the same. Traditional climbing protection is very much the same. Literally everyone you climb with will have a different rack, even if they climb very similar styles.

It therefore goes without saying that any advice given as to purchasing your first rack is subjective and very much open to debate. The following is my take on the subject. Your mileage may vary.

One common piece of advice that I’ve heard given to aspiring tradists is to build your rack gradually. This piecemeal approach to purchasing trad gear is, to my mind, problematic. In theory, it spreads the financial hurt of what is admittedly a pretty hefty investment. In reality, it doesn’t really fly. Buying protection piece by piece is kind of like being given your internal organs in an instalment scheme – sure, you can live with one lung, one kidney, half a liver and parts of your brain missing, but do you want to?

Personally, I feel like there’s a base level that should be established if anything approximating safety is going to be achieved. Half a rack is just as good as no rack at all. If there are two things I learned in the Army, it’s these:

  • That anything less than good will get you in trouble, and anything good and above is considered “Bare Minimum Standard”
  • That everything should be made into a three letter acronym, therefore “Bare Minimum Standard” is written BMS.

Therefore, the BMS Trad Rack, according to me, is as follows:

Don’t worry, I’m going to break down each component of these and explain why you need them and what your options are. I’ll also talk about additional items that might suit your first trad rack but aren’t in the BMS rack.

Nuts:
Also known as wires or stoppers, nuts are the backbone of any trad rack. Passive gear is an essential tool in the trad climber’s arsenal, as it allows for placements which impart less force on the rock than active pieces. In conditions where the structural integrity of the rock is questionable, this becomes a major consideration.

A single rack of wires is not only useful, it’s relatively cheap. There’s no reason not to own a set. There are many brands out there and it’s hard to know which you prefer before using them, so maybe try to borrow some from your friends before purchasing your own. If you can’t arrange that, don’t stress… they all do more or less the same thing, and you’ll quickly become accustomed to whichever product you find yourself with.

I use Black Diamond Stoppers, which are more or less standard issue. DMM Wallnuts are a fantastic (some would argue better) alternative and are roughly similar in weight and price. A budget option can be found in the Trango Chockstones, but the two-tone colour system leaves a lot to be desired in my opinion.

Don’t worry about offsets at this stage. If you don’t know what an offset is, then don’t worry about that either.

SLCD’s:
Spring Loaded Camming Devices, or cams for short, are the next most important staple of the modern trad rack. They revolutionised clean climbing techniques with their ease of placement in parallel cracks. Sadly, they aren’t cheap, but they’re definitely worth it.

Essentially, what you’ll want is a standard rack of Black Diamond C4’s – #0.3 to #3. These sizes will hold you in good stead for the majority of applications. Camalots have a strong double-axle design and a smooth trigger action. I haven’t recommended anything fancy at this stage (e.g. micro cams, link cams, larger sizes) as these are things you’ll use rarely and can always add to your rack as time goes on.

An excellent alternative to the BD range is the DMM Dragon Cam, but a word of caution – these suckers are expensive. If you’re able to afford them, go for it, they’re a nice bit of kit. The only problem I have with the Dragons is that the stem has no thumb loop, making it a little harder to operate under duress. Another option are Wild Country Friends, and although they have improved significantly in recent times, I still wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend them.

Whichever option you go for, I recommend two things to save yourself a bunch of heartache:

  • Stick with one brand for a uniform colour scheme.
  • Rack them with colour-coded carabiners.

Nut Tool:
A non-negotiable tool of the trade. Ensure you get one with a flat bottom so you can hammer away on it with biners, rocks, your head etc.

The BD Nut Tool is simple, light, cheap and doubles as a bottle opener. What more do you want? Omega Pacific makes a fancy one with a little wire gate, and DMM makes a decent option too. At the end of the day, this one is all about personal taste.

Alpine Draws:
Can’t I just use my sport draws? The short answer is no.

But the longer answer is that as a sport climber, you rarely need to worry about rope drag. Most sport climbs follow a direct vertical line and drag is rarely an issue. Trad climbs, especially adventure routes, can wander around a lot. When the rope is forced to zig zag, it can create huge levels of friction. No Bueno.

You can minimise the dreaded peril of rope drag by extending your pieces. This is achieved by using an alpine draw, which you can learn how to make here. You’ll need two wiregate biners and a double length sling for each draw. Sport draws will still come in handy, especially in single pitch scenarios, but I recommend starting out with at least 5 alpine draws. Eventually, you’ll want to build up to 10-15 alpine draws, but you can achieve this over time.

Additional Items:
I can already hear the cries of dissent: “Lol! This dweeb!! I’d like to see him climb Sparkling Ebola at Buttfloss Canyon without 3x #6’s, 7x pink tricams and a pair of monkey fists!”

Of course, the BMS rack isn’t intended as a silver bullet for all trad climbing situations, but it’s a good start. For specific locations, you may want to consider supplementing the BMS with a few additional items. A few examples:

  • Arapiles locals may find a double rack of wires handy
  • Frog Buttress climbers might want to invest in a rack of hexes, or at least some of the larger sizes
  • A set of microcams and RP’s might sooth the nerves on Tibrogargan

Eventually, your goal should be to build up to a double rack, as well as a few specialty pieces depending on your local area and the prominent style. Here are some other thoughts:

Small Gear:
If you’re going to purchase some microcams, I recommend BD X4 Camalots, especially if you’re already running Camalots in the more popular sizes. When you begin to double up on sizes, you can also consider some of these as your second piece (e.g. 0.3 to 0.75). The single-axle configuration allows for more versatility, and the X4’s are definitely superior to the cheaper C3’s. Some folks swear by Aliens or Metolius Master Cams, which have a lot going for them in the way of flexible stems and the latter features a nifty little colour-coded range indicator for the “placement impaired” among us. Personally, I prefer to keep my colour scheme uniform so I stick with Camalots. RP’s or Micronuts are useful, and in some places might be considered a necessity.

Big Gear:
I suggest that if you’re introducing yourself to trad climbing on offwidths, then you’re not being particularly kind to yourself. If you do find the need for these in your early days, beg, borrow and steal to supplement your rack. If you eventually take a shine to wide cracks, you’ll want to start purchasing #4 to #6 Camalots and maybe even some big bros, but I’d wait out on those…

Niche Items:
I don’t recommend tricams, ballnuts, link cams, offsets or anything fancy to the fledgling trad leader. When the time comes that you find that you need them, you won’t need advice on which to buy. Personally, I do recommend a rack of hexes as a secondary addition to the BMS. That’s not a popular choice these days, but the satisfaction of a bomber hex placement can’t be beat. Learning how to effectively place passive pro in your early outings can only set you up well for the future.

And that, as Forrest Gump said, is all I have to say about that. What’s in your rack?

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
November 2017

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?