How to Choose the Best Climbing Rope

Buying Advice
By ⋅ Senior Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab - Thursday October 17, 2013
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Starting a lead in Indian Creek, Utah with the all-around 9.5 mm Maxim Pinnacle.
Credit: Ali Feinberg

As a climber concerned with safety, a rope is the most important piece of gear (and one of the most expensive) that you will purchase. When faced with throwing down a large wad of cash and with placing your life on the line (literally) it is important to make the right choice, selecting a rope that will function correctly, be easy to use, and be worth the price. Here is our breakdown of the different options on the market and the characteristics to consider when buying a rope.

Kernmantle Construction

All modern ropes are made with a kernmantle construction, meaning a braided nylon core (kern) with a woven protective and abrasion resistant sheath (mantle) on the exterior. This construction is meant to optimize the strength, durability, and flexibility of a rope for climbing. Ropes with thinner sheaths tend to be lighter, however they don't last as long since it takes less time for the sheath to wear out.
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McKenzie Long using the Bluewater Pulse on Fairview Dome, Tuolumne Meadows. The Pulse has an extra durable 40-bobbin sheath, making it a perfect choice for multi-pitching over rough granite.
Credit: Luke Lydiard

Dynamic vs. Static

As the most basic classification of a rope, it is also one of the most important distinctions. A static rope is much less expensive than a dynamic rope, but it is not normally used for belaying a climber. A dynamic rope has stretch incorporated in its construction, so when a leader falls the force is reduced on the gear and the falling climber. Without this stretch, a fall could result in gear pulling or a broken back for the leader. A static rope is used for hauling gear on big walls, or fixing lines that will be jugged, not for actually climbing on.

Single vs. Half vs. Twin

It is imperative to know the rated function of your rope because it affects how you should safely use it. Some ropes, like the Metolius Tendon, are rated to be used several ways. (It is classified as a single, twin, and half rope.) All ropes when purchased are labeled with this information, as rated by the UIAA (Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme.)

Single Ropes
A single rope is rated to catch falls by itself. Most typical climbing scenarios, such as sport climbing, or single pitch trad climbs, require a single rope. Single ropes range in diameter from 8.9mm to 11mm.

Half Ropes
Half ropes are rated be used with a leader tied in to two ropes, alternating which rope is clipped into each piece of gear. In theory, halfs should not be used as twin ropes, (meaning both ropes clipped into the same piece of gear) because they are too thick. When both are resting in a single carabiner they rub against each other in an unfavorable manner. Twins are thin enough that this does not occur.

The half rope strategy is useful on zig-zagging trad climbs to reduce rope drag, or on a longer alpine climbs where two ropes are needed to rappel down. For parties of three, it is also common to lead a climb with two half ropes, and have two people follow, one on each rope, since halfs are strong enough to catch a top-rope fall. Technically each rope on its own could catch a fall (which is why one rope is clipped to each piece of protection) however, they are not meant to be led on alone. The second rope is there, clipped into the piece of protection below, in the event that the first one fails.

Half ropes are usually slightly thinner in diameter than singles, ranging from 7.7mm to 9mm, so together are much lighter than climbing with 2 single ropes.

Twin Ropes
Twin ropes are the skinniest of all ropes, reaching as small as 7mm. Twins are meant for the leader to be tied in to two ropes, and clip both ropes into each piece of protection. They should not be clipped separately since the ropes are not rated to catch a fall by themselves. Twins are useful since together they are lighter than climbing with 2 halfs, and can still be used as two ropes for getting down.

Dynamic Single Rope Features

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11 climbing ropes out for a tough day of gear testing
Credit: McKenzie

The most common type of rope used for climbing is a dynamic single rope, but there are many options to consider within this category, such as length, diameter, pattern and dry coating. In order to select the ideal rope for you, consider all the possibilities.

Diameter and Weight
With recent advances in technology, rope diameters have been getting increasingly skinnier (and thankfully, so have belay devices.) Where a rope with a diameter in the 8mm range used to be considered a twin or a double, now are now single ropes on the market at 8.9mm!

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Rope Reviewing
Credit: McKenzie

The thicker the diameter, usually the stronger the rope is and the longer it will last, however it also gets heavier. Certain situations, such as big wall climbs, call for a thick and burly rope where weight doesn't matter much. Other times, you want the lightest rope you can get away with. Most of time, it will fall somewhere in the middle. The ropes in this review fall into three general categories:
  • Thick Diameter Workhorse Ropes — (10.4 10.2 - 10.1mm)
These fat ropes that can handle tons of abuse and generally hold more falls than thinner ropes.
Good For: big walls, aiding, extended top-roping sessions, projecting.
+ long life, lots of friction when catching a fall
- Heavy, bulky, not as smooth handlling
  • Medium Diameter All-Around Ropes — (9.9 9.8 9.7 - 9.5mm)
These are the most versatile ropes, and can be used for any climbing discipline.
Good For: Sport climbing, alpine climbing, aid climbing, multi-pitch climbing…. you name it! Perfect first rope.
+ Can climb anything
- Not a specialty rope
  • Skinny Sending Ropes — (9.4 9.2 - 8.9mm)
Skinny ropes are the ultimate "light and fast" climbing accessory.
Good For: hard redpoints, all day alpine or multi-pitch routes, freeing a big wall.
+ Supple, lightweight
- Shorter life, require a more attentive belay to catch falls

The most obvious question when buying a rope: 50, 60, 70, or 80 meters? Some climbers have recently bragged about buying a 100 meter! "Yes, it came on a spool." A 50 meter rope might get you by somewhere old school like Yosemite or Tuolumne, but many places require longer ropes to get you back to the ground. Sixty meter ropes have been the standard for a while, but now that doesn't even cut it a lot of the time. Many newer sport crags are being developed with the idea that almost everyone has a 70 meter. Increasingly, 80 meter ropes are being used at tall crags. However, if you plan on climbing in shorter pitches, extra rope is heavy and cumbersome. The added weight and time spent on rope management will slow you down. Ideally you would have a 60 meter for multi-pitch and alpine climbs and a 70 or 80 meter for sport climbing and cragging.

Bi-Pattern, Middle Mark, or None
A bi-pattern, or bi-color rope is one that has 2 distinct colors or patterns on either end to make it easy to find the center. Alternatively, many ropes with a single color or pattern come with a printed black mark in the center. This can become difficult to see once your rope becomes worn or dirty. Bi-pattern ropes make finding the center easy even after the rope is dirty. (If you choose a Bluewater rope, or another brand that doesn't come with printed middle marks- you can buy a special rope marker to make one of your own, don't just use any old sharpie.)

Having a bi-pattern or middle-marked rope makes the arduous process of rapping off a long climb so much easier and safer to have a quickly visible mid-point. This feature also allows the belayer to easily calculate how much rope is remaining and inform the leader. Bi-patterns are more expensive, and sometimes seem like a luxury, but they can be very helpful when multi-pitch climbing.

One detail to note is that once you trim the ends of your rope, the middle point may no longer be accurate. Make sure you remember how much shorter your rope may be, and set up your rappels accordingly.

Surface Treatments
Many ropes come with the option of different surface treatments, such as the Teflon coating found on the Mammut Infinity and the Metolius Tendon, or the many ropes that come with a dry coating option.

Dry coatings can be a fantastic feature, especially if you plan to ice climb or alpine climb with your rope. If a rope takes on water, it takes on unwanted weight- and it can be a lot of weight. It also becomes fatter, more difficult to handle, and according to BlueWater, loses up to 30% of its strength when soaked. A dry rope doesn't take on that weight and makes it easier to continue climbing, (or bail!) in unsavory weather. Dry coatings also resist dirt and protect ropes, making them last longer than they would otherwise. However, even when you buy a rope with a dry coating, it eventually wears off. The dry coated Mammut Revelation is wonderful to handle, even if it gets a little damp. After about a year of frequent use our testers got caught in a sudden rainstorm in Tuolumne Meadows and had to bail off the climb. As they rapped down the "dry rope" had droplets spurting out from the water logged rope through the belay device. Don't let that deter you from getting a dry coated rope if you think you will need it. Some ropes always come with a dry treatment, and others come with the option of a dry treated rope or a standard non-dry rope. Dry coatings tend to cost a little more, but still are worth it if you are likely to be climbing in wet conditions.
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McKenzie Long rope testing in Patagonia.
Credit: Luke Lydiard

For more information, Sterling rope has an interesting climbing rope technical manual (PDF) that answers many frequently asked questions about rope construction, rope care and rope terms.

Single Dynamic Rope Specs

When you purchase a rope, it comes with a list of numbers and specs. But what do these mean? And do they matter? Here is a quick glossary of what these numbers measure.

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The Maxim Equinox on top of the Mexican Hat.
Credit: Jeff Fox

UIAA Fall Rating
The UIAA rating is a measurement of strength, and it uses worst case scenario, severe falls. The rating is the number of falls a rope can take without failing, but these falls are not equivalent to a normal climbing fall. It is simulated with a 120 lb weight attached to the rope, then dropped from 7.5 feet above a clipped carabiner, with a simulated belay less than a foot away. This creates a fall with far greater forces than a typical climbing fall would generate. The higher the rating, the stronger the rope. If a rope has the UIAA rating of 8, it means that it will likely take more than 8 falls, because it withstood 8 of these worst case scenario falls. Usually the higher rating means your rope will last longer before needing to be retired, however your rope should always be inspected because a single fall or belay over a rough edge could damage your rope.

Impact Force
Impact force is the measurement of force placed on a falling object during the first UIAA test fall. The lower the impact force rating (in kiloNewtons), the less force is applied to the falling climber, ie the softer the catch. So if you are hoping for a cush catch, look for a rope with a low impact force rating.

Static Elongation
A measurement of how much the rope stretches while statically hanging with a 176 lb weight on the end.

Dynamic Elongation
A measurement of the amount of stretch in the rope during the first UIAA lab test fall. The more stretch, the lower the impact force, and therefore the softer the catch. The UIAA sets a maximum amount of dynamic elongation at 40% of the rope. Any more than that, and the danger of falling too far (and possibly decking or hitting ledges) becomes too great.

When to Retire Your Rope

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Frightening core shot on pitch 17 of El Cap. If the sheath of your rope is ever worn enough to expose the core, it's time to start thinking about purchasing a new rope.
Credit: McKenzie Long

Just as important as knowing what kind of new rope to buy, is when to give up the ghost on your old rope. Climbing ropes are the piece of gear that should be replaced most frequently, and is also one of the most important pieces in the system for keeping your life in tact. Ropes should be inspected on a regular basis.

The sheath is the outer protection of your rope, taking more wear and abrasion than the core. Fuzziness of the sheath is normal, but once it reaches excessive amounts of unraveling, it is time to hang up the rope for good. Keep an eye out for any single spots with extra damage to the sheath or any melting of the sheath due to the friction of a fall. These spots indicate instances where the rope took a big hit, and the core may be damaged. If the core ever shows through the sheath, retire your rope, or if it is on an end, trim that section off.

The core is the strength of your rope, and if it is damaged, the ability of your rope to catch a fall is compromised. Inspect your rope by running it through your hands feeling for any soft spots, stiff spots, or flat spots, all of which indicate damage and are a good sign of need for a new rope.

The ends of your rope get fuzzy, and the sheath will sometimes slip a bit one way or the other, either exposing the core at the end, or bunching the sheath at the end. The life of the rope can be extended with careful trimming and re-sealing of the trimmed end with a lighter or hot knife (to prevent more sheath unraveling.) Make a careful note of how much shorter your rope is, and remember that if you only trimmed one end, your middle mark no longer signifies the center of the rope. Don't make the mistake of lowering a friend off of your newly trimmed rope.

Obviously, your rope is intended to catch falls, and a lot of them. However, once you start taking falls with a lot of force, such as falling past your belay without much rope out, then your rope may be approaching the end of its life. If you take any fall generating forces that qualify as higher than a factor one, then you should consider retiring your rope, no matter how new it is. (Fall factor = distance fallen, divided by amount of rope to catch fall.)

Shelf Life
Another thing to keep in mind is that nylon has a shelf life. If it is never exposed to sunlight and outdoor elements, it is still only expected to last ten years. Since your climbing rope will be seeing a lot of the outdoors, obviously the nylon in it will not make it that long. Even if you don't uncover any particular weak spots on your rope during an inspection, after a few years your rope is ready for retirement. Time to make a braided floor-mat or donate some fixed lines to your favorite hiking trails or Yosemite climbs.
McKenzie Long
About the Author
After graduating from University of Cincinnati with a degree in graphic design, McKenzie moved to the mountains to spend as much of her time climbing as possible. It started with an internship at Alpinist Magazine and a move to Jackson, Wyoming where she fell in love with the peaks of the West. Now she lives in Mammoth Lakes, California and runs her own freelance design business, where she is constantly balancing work and play.

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