Some Basics on Ropes

My first rope. Edelweiss Rocklight 9.8mm from

My first rope. Edelweiss Rocklight 9.8mm from

I remember when I first started leading routes outside, how excited I was to get my very own rope. I didn’t necessarily need one because I always climbed with people who had them, but there is just something about being able to own your own rope. For someone who is really getting into route climbing, it seems almost like a rite of passage. You see all these vibrant colors and interesting patterns, and it just makes sense. Then you go to look up ropes online or in the store, and your hopes and dreams sort of get crushed in the confusing world of different sizes, different types, different lengths, and sky high prices. You can’t really justify spending a couple hundred on something that may or may not actually be what you need.

Ropes are important too, since your life could be somewhat dependent on them. Which brings us to the next issue. Figuring out what rope to buy is only part of the puzzle, which in the beginning may seem like your entire puzzle. Then you realize there is all this talk on taking care of your rope. It’s not as simple as throwing it in your car and using it when you need it. I guess it could be, but that’s not really the best practice. Therefore, I’m going to attempt to help out any climbers dreaming of obtaining their first rope by providing a little bit of information on selection, and providing some rope care tips from storing to wrapping to washing.

Let’s start with picking out your rope. There are somethings for you to consider. The main question is where do you plan to be climbing the most? It is understandable that climbers dream of traveling a lot and doing different types of climbing. For that you may need different ropes, but since this is the first, think about where you will be the most often. Will you be pretty much constantly in gyms? Do you plan to mostly climb in a gym but doing some outdoor climbing when you can? Or are you solely going to be an outdoor climber?

red river gorge

The reason to ponder these questions, is to help you select the best size. If you are going to be almost always or always in the gym a rope that is 30m, might be the best call. Unless you go to a gym with really high walls, which seems rarer than the typical below 50 ft. The reasons for considering a shorter rope in this case is because it is cheaper, smaller (easier to keep with a gym bag or carry around), and just more practical. If you plan to do both gym and outdoor climbing or want the freedom to consider either, a 60m or 70m is probably about right. This will cover the height of many standard crags and gyms. However, if you want to go often to climbing areas that have large walls, you want to consider going up in your size. The size of the rope covers getting you up and lowering you down. Therefore a 150 ft cliff, will need a much bigger rope that a 45 ft gym climb. You want to think where you’ll be the most often and get that size. The more diverse your areas of climbing become, the more you might have to consider varying sizes, but if you are going to one type of place rarely, you may want to just consider a belay partner that has that rope instead of a full investment.

The average sport climber that climbs in the gym and frequents climbing areas of around 60 to 70 ft, would probably be happy with a 60m or 70m. It is not too overwhelming at the gym and allows for a high percentage of outdoor areas.

The next thing to consider is how thick it is. The average sport climber who goes to the gym or local crags would probably be happy with something between 9.6 and 10.2. To put it into perspective, most gyms I’ve been to use a 10.2. Most people I know with their own ropes use a 9.8. A thinner rope is often ideal for people who want the rope to be light weight for hikes, easy to feed through the belay device, and easier to clip in at quickdraws. Going too thin, might make you nervous. Thin ropes tend to have more rope stretch and while they may not necessarily be more or less dangerous, they may feel much more fragile. I’ve climbed on a 9.4 and while there were many benefits, it is mentally a little scary. It might not be ideal for a first rope. I’ve found personally 10.2 and higher seems way to thick to belay well especially as it starts getting older and they are heavy. I would recommend 9.8.

I’m currently not experienced with other forms of climbing such as ice, alpine, or caving, so I do want to add that if that is what you are into, my rope advice is likely not what you are seeking. My experience is with average sport climbing. However, if you have advice to share that caters to those forms of climbing, please feel free to post.

You’ll also see that ropes are dynamic or static. For a sport climber, dynamic is the way to go. It offers the stretch needed for lead falls to feel comfortable to you and safe for the gear. Having the rope be able to offer that stretch puts less wear and tear on it from falls. Think about your own body when you fall. If you are calm and your muscles are loose and relaxed, you fall with much less chance of injury than if your body is rigid, anxious, and clenched.

There are also the options of single, half, and twin. The average sport climber will be seeking a single rope. Half and twin are more commonly used with trad or alpine climbing.

Then there is bi-patterned, middle marked, or none. You technically could get away with any, but there are benefits. Bi-patterned and middle marked ropes let you know where the center of the rope is. Bi patterned does this by having two different patterns, with the middle where they switch. A marked one will have a black mark of some kind in the center of the rope. None obviously means finding the middle is up to you. The benefit of knowing the middle is when you are not quite sure you will have enough rope. If you are climbing on territory where you are certain your rope is long enough any is fine. When you are climbing questionable heights, it will help you to see you are at the middle of the rope, so you will not let your climber go higher. They wouldn’t have enough rope to get down if they go beyond the middle. It also helps in rappelling down since you need to know the middle to have equal sides. Many places and climbers encourage rappelling down as it helps keep the fixed anchors preserved for longer, so this may be something to really consider.

bi pattern

You can make a mark yourself through measurements, but it is a nice feature to have it done already, calculated correctly, and easy to see. You also would need to make sure you are using an appropriate marker so that it will not wash off or harm the rope.

Dry treated ropes can be great if you plan to ice climb or alpine climb with your rope. In average sport climbing, it isn’t necessary. The benefit to it is that in wet conditions or rain, it will not take on water weight which makes a rope heavy, difficult to use, and weaker. The reason it is not necessary for sport climbing, is that on average most sport climbers are not climbing in wet, rainy, or snowy conditions. If you plan to, you may want to consider dry treated.

For more information on rope selection, this article may help too:

Now that you might have a better idea of what rope to get, how will you store it and take care of it? There are some tips I’ve found useful.

rope bag

To start with, some kind of rope bag is helpful. You may be interested in one of the bags for sale, but if you are on a budget or not looking for an official bag, there are lots of things to use or make yourself. The idea is to keep the rope clean since dirt getting in it can minimize its safety and length of life. It can also mean really dirty hands when belaying, if that matters to you. If you want to make your own or get something cheap, I think a great idea is to put it in any bag like a back pack, duffel bag, etc, but have a tarp or rug to put down for the rope to lay on while you belay and climb. If you get an actual rope bag, you may still need this as well. I have a little tarp with my rope bag. The rope will get most of this dirt collection from being on the ground during climbing, so this is the important area to cover. Also some climbing areas may be muddy, a little damp, or really dusty and a tarp can cover this nicely. I’ve seen people with rugs too. This might weigh a little more, but you could easily get them cheap. You could probably use an old sheet or blanket too, though this might not help as much as a tarp material in damp conditions. The idea is to keep it off the dirt, so there is some room for creativity.

One trip to the red river gorge we got on a climb where the climber started on a ledge, traversed out off the ledge and then climbed up. The climb itself was in the sun and dry. The only place where the belayer could stand was right under a seeping section that was completely muddy and damp. In this situation having a tarp to spread is ideal.

One thing I like about the rope bag or having a bag for the rope, is that it keeps it nicely coiled and easy to flake out pre-climb. I always flake a rope even if I believe the bag has kept it from knotting just to be safe, but it moves a lot faster when there are not any knots. Depending on how efficient the bag is, you may save some time not needing to wrap it too. Of course, wrapping ropes can be fun too.

The bag I have, which is the mad rock bag pictured above, has a handle at the bottom and at the top. You can tie in both ends of the rope and it never gets tangled. Putting it in, coils it into circles because of the cylinder shape. I don’t have to even wrap my ropes anymore.

If your rope does get dirty, don’t worry too much. I’ve had the rope bag, tarp, and everything, and still found it collected dirt. Some of it is unpreventable. That is why there are ways to wash ropes. How you do this can differ. Some people buy rope wash and swear by its effectiveness. Some people daisy chain it and throw it in the washer or put it in a bag/pillowcase in the washer with some sort of rope wash or a light soap. I’ve heard front load washer is preferable. I’ve never personally done this, so you may want to consult someone who has or a website for more details. We washed ours in a bathtub with warm water and a mild dish soap. This worked, but it took a lot of time and was super messy, just as a warning. It takes a lot of washing of the rope and the tub, but if you are worried if your washer is safe or not, this could be the method for you.

Then you can find a cool, dry space to let it air out. Whether you use a washer or a tub, you want to let it air dry. Find someplace you can completely uncoil it. We used attic rafters for help hanging it all around. You might want to uncoil it on an old blanket or in an area that can get a little dirty as it may still have some dirt.

Another thing to know is how to wrap ropes. Experience gets people fast moving with this and able to create short cuts. When I do it, I leave a length of the rope on the ground for wrapping around at the end. Then I put it over my shoulders and use the length of my arms. I just keep wrapping it around the shoulder from hand to hand back and forth. Then leave another loose bit at the end. Both ends are hanging low, the rest of the rope is wrapped even. Then I use the ends to wrap around the rope and tie them together. There are numerous methods and variations.

Hopefully this will help get you climbing with your new rope!


2 thoughts on “Some Basics on Ropes

  1. I carry my old rope in the car for pulling other cars out of spots where they’re stuck.
    I like recoiling the rope after a climb. I’ll grab one and, then place it down in the clear. next, I’ll pull the entire rope through my hands, looking and feeling for any damage. At the end, I’ll grab both ends, flake it, then wrap it up with the two loose ends so I can wear it like a backpack.
    I get nervous climbing with people who don’t maintain their ropes.

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