When I started climbing outdoors, I’d just finished Earth Treks’ Top Rope Systems I course. I was excited and wanted to start climbing outdoors right away. I didn’t know what to buy, so I just put together what I thought made sense.
Now I know. This is stuff I wish I’d known when I started out.
I climb top-rope mostly at Carderock, MD and Great Falls, VA, where top-rope anchors are set using burly static line wrapped around trees and large boulders.
There are a few kinds of climbing ropes. REI has a nice article about ropes.
I started with an all-around single climbing rope. These are dynamic ropes that are 9.5-10 mm in diameter and usually 60 or 70 meters in length. They stretch 30-40% when someone falls, and 10% when someone even just sits on the rope. But this got annoying quickly because if I fell from five feet up, I’d hit the deck from rope stretch alone. If I was halfway up, I’d lose at least 5 feet and have to re-climb that.
I really like the new semi-static ropes for top-roping. They stretch just enough to soften a top-rope fall, which is usually less than 1 foot, depending on slack. These falls also don’t shock-load the trees or boulders.
If I wanted one rope that does everything, I’d get an all-around climbing rope like my Mammut Infinity in 70 meters. But I top-rope often enough that it made sense to get a burly, semi-static rope. I have the Sterling ReVo in 40 meters, which is all the length I need for Carderock and Great Falls.
2. A Static Rope for Tying Anchors
Any burly (10+ mm) static rope will do. I use 100 feet of static rope for Carderock/Great Falls.
REI sells static rope by the foot. Brian tells me that Sterling sells odd ends cheaper than REI. Earth Treks also sells pre-cut static rope as part of a top roping kit.
Don’t buy rope at the hardware store! It is not designed for mountaineering and is much weaker than UIAA-rated static rope.
3. Two to Four More Locking Carabiners
I need 2 carabiners for my climbing rope to slide through my top-rope anchor.
I realized that biners last almost forever, so it didn’t make sense to be cheap. I own and love Black Diamond Magnetron Vaporlocks. They are light and automatically lock, making them idiot-proof. And now they come in cool black.
4. An Autoblock Cord
Falling from the top while setting up anchors is a common cause of death. This issue is personal for me. A friend of mine died looking over the lip before an ice climb. While finishing up your top-rope anchor, make sure you’re tied into the anchor with an autoblock cord.
Any 6-7 mm cordelette tied into a loop with a triple fisherman’s knot will work, but Brian and I both really love the pre-sewn Sterling hollow block loops in 19 in. They’re cheap, light, and do a better job of gripping the rope than cordelette.
If you buy two autoblock cords, then you’re all set for rappelling. The first cord will be your safety anchor. The second cord will be your autoblock in case you let go of your ATC during a rappel.
5. A Belay Device with Bite
It’s a little harder to stop falls outdoors than it is in the gym. You’ll be using a skinnier and probably a dry-coated rope that will want to slide through your ATC. Also, at Earth Treks, the rope wraps around the pulley at the top anchor twice, creating a hitch whenever the rope is loaded. You won’t have that extra help outdoors.
So, you will want a belay device with teeth. I think the ATC-Guide is a great choice. It’s versatile because it can also be used in guide mode for multi-pitch routes.
Another popular belay device is the Petzl GriGri 2, which automatically locks when the climber falls. My family owns one, but we never use it. It’s pretty heavy and it can’t be used in most rappelling situations. I would probably only use it if I was climbing with a friend that likes to hangdog for hours on end.
6. A Big Enough Backpack To Carry Everything
You will be carrying all of this, plus your shoes, your harness, at least a liter of water, and your lunch. Most people prefer to carry ropes inside of their bag rather than on top of it, if they can (but if their bag gets full, they secure the rope on top). This is a lot of gear, and a 15 or 20 liter backpack is not going to cut it. You will want a 30-40 liter crag pack.
A crag pack, which is usually the same thing as a summit pack, is different from a regular hiking backpack in that it is designed to be worn while climbing. Most crags involve some scrambling to access them. Crag packs are narrower than hiking backpacks and usually open only at the top.
I own the Petzl Bug, which is nice but at 18 L, it’s just too small to carry all my gear, so I don’t recommend it. (It might work if I divided the gear with a friend, though). Brian owns the Patagonia Cragsmith and says he is very happy with it. Black Diamond also carries crag packs and summit packs in different sizes.
7. Other things
I assume that you already own shoes, a harness, and a carabiner for belaying. See my post on gear for climbing indoors.
You probably want a helmet. People don’t use helmets at Great Falls and Carderock because there’s not much loose rock that could fall on climbers below, but if you move out to other crags, a helmet is a must.
I think you’d really like approach shoes, if you are willing to spend the money. These are sneakers or hiking boots with rock climbing rubber soles, so they make it easy to scramble around the crag without worrying so much about slipping. People say you can climb 5.9 in them. I’m not that awesome but I’ve climbed 5.6 outdoors in mine. La Sportiva and FiveTen are the major manufacturers of approach shoes. I have FiveTen Camp Fours and am happy with them.
You might want a rope tarp to keep your rope a little cleaner. I think these are much more useful than rope bags, because tarps are both cheaper and pack down smaller. I bought a rope bag that was well-reviewed, but I wish I hadn’t.
It’s nice to have a water bottle with a loop on it to clip into your harness.
8. What Not to Buy
Slings, runners, and tubular webbing can come in handy, but you don’t need them at this point. Tubular webbing is not as strong or abrasion-resistant as static rope.
Trad protection devices like nuts/chocks and cams/friends are often used for building anchors at other crags, but they are not a good idea at Carderock and Great Falls because the schist rock lining the Potomac is both friable and slippery. Protection either breaks out of the rock or slips out. We stick to using trees and boulders for anchors.
You don’t really need a rope bag, as I mentioned above. A tarp is both cheaper and packs down smaller.