How to Choose the Best Climbing Rope

Article By:
Cam McKenzie Ring & Jack Cramer

Last Updated:
Monday

The foundation of the basic rock climbing belay system is the climbing rope, and every climber (except for those pebble wrestlers) will purchase at least one, but shopping for them can be a bewildering task. There are so many manufacturers, with so many different models, including various lengths, diameters, weave patterns, and water repellent treatments — it can be hard to make sense of it all! To help you sort through the specs we took ten of the most popular climbing ropes on a summer road trip to see which were the best. We learned a lot about those specific ropes and have shared that knowledge in our Climbing Rope Review. Here we'll share some specific things to look for when selecting a climbing rope, and we'll break down the various terminologies used to help make your purchase that much easier.

The climbing rope selection at Desert Rock Sports in Las Vegas  NV. While this store has experts on hand to help you choose the right one for you  the array of choices is still overwhelming.
The climbing rope selection at Desert Rock Sports in Las Vegas, NV. While this store has experts on hand to help you choose the right one for you, the array of choices is still overwhelming.

Kernmantle Ropes


First created by Edelrid in the 1960's, the modern climbing rope consists of two layers: a strong inner core (kern) and a protective outer sheath (mantle). The strange word they create, kernmantle, basically translates to core-jacket. The core is composed of strands of nylon twisted together that provide a dynamic stretch when catching a fall. A tube of woven nylon fibers makes up the sheath that is designed to protect the core and resist abrasion. The two layers combine to produce a rope that is strong and durable, yet light and flexible. It is the proper balancing of these characteristics that produces the best climbing ropes.

String Theory: A kernmantle rope has two parts  the hollow tube of the sheath (green) and the twisted fibers of the core (white). At the bottom you can see how they are arranged in cross section.
String Theory: A kernmantle rope has two parts, the hollow tube of the sheath (green) and the twisted fibers of the core (white). At the bottom you can see how they are arranged in cross section.

Static vs. Dynamic


It is possible to make a rope that will not stretch when subjected to a sudden load. This is accomplished by reducing the number of twists in the strands of the core. The type of rope is referred to as a static rope and is popular in industrial and caving applications. Belayed climbing, however, necessitates the use of a dynamic rope that can stretch to provide a soft and safe catch. This rope needs to temporarily elongate under load to help reduce the force on the gear and participants during a fall.

Static ropes may look or feel similar to dynamic ropes at first, but their uses are entirely different. Climbers will occasionally use static lines in situations where no stretch is desirable, such as fixing ropes or hauling heavy loads on big walls, but they should never be used to belay. We only tested dynamic lines in this review, but all ropes are tested for their dynamic and static elongation, just to make things more confusing. If you're not sure if the model you are looking at is a static or dynamic line, see if the specs have a dynamic elongation rating. All UIAA certified dynamic ropes have to have it and it's displayed prominently on the packaging.

The Three Types of Dynamic Ropes


Dynamic ropes for climbing can further be divided into three categories, each with their own strengths and intended uses: single, twin, and half.

Single Ropes
The single rope system is the simplest and most common type. Each rope is rated to hold multiple falls by itself. The leader only has to tie-in to one rope and clip each piece of protection into just that rope. Also, the second only has to manage a single line and can use a convenient assisted braking belay device, like Petzl's popular GriGri 2. The deficiencies of this method are increased drag on wandering pitches, no redundancy, and the need for a second rope or tagline to complete long rappels.

Single ropes are the single most popular option for most rock climbers.
Single ropes are the single most popular option for most rock climbers.

Twin Ropes
The simplest of the two rope systems is called twin. In this system, the leader ties into two ropes and clips both ropes into every piece of protection while they climb a pitch, treating the two ropes as if they were a single. Neither rope is designed to hold a fall alone, but with their combined strength they can catch multiple ones. These ropes are usually very skinny, making it the lightest two rope arrangement, while also providing redundancy, and the ability to rappel a full rope length. Twins, however, are the least popular rope system because of the inconvenience of clipping both ropes and durability problems with thin diameters.

Twin ropes are thin and lightweight  but are only designed to be used in tandem and must both be clipped into each piece of protection.
Twin ropes are thin and lightweight, but are only designed to be used in tandem and must both be clipped into each piece of protection.

Half Ropes
More complicated than the single or twin methods is the half rope system. Each half rope is rated to hold a fall on its own. They are skinnier than single ropes, which means they are less durable and cannot sustain repeated hard falls. In practice, the leader will be tied into both ropes and will alternate clipping each piece of protection with one of the two ropes they're tied in to. This provides a backup; should the first rope fail, they can be caught on the second. This system is more difficult to learn and creates rope management hassles, but it can greatly decrease drag if the leader is strategic about which rope they clip into particular pieces. Additionally, it can save time for a party of three by allowing two followers to climb simultaneously.

At the crag the consensus rope choice has settled on singles. In the mountains the debate still continues. Long pitches  wandering terrain  suspect gear  and mandatory rappels strengthen the case for twin or half rope systems.
At the crag the consensus rope choice has settled on singles. In the mountains the debate still continues. Long pitches, wandering terrain, suspect gear, and mandatory rappels strengthen the case for twin or half rope systems.

Further complicating this landscape has been the introduction of climbing ropes that are approved for all three systems. These are usually skinny single ropes by manufacturers who are willing to go through the cost and hassle of having their ropes tested for all three categories by the UIAA. The Petzl Volta is one example. We think this versatility is more of a marketing device than a practical feature. One of the greatest advantages of twin and half rope systems is the weight savings. This is sacrificed when the ropes must also be strong and heavy enough to be certified as a single rope. Two rope systems are great for particular applications like a party of three or routes with sharp edges that require a redundant system. Keep in mind that it is unsafe to combine twin and half rope techniques on any one pitch because it can cross the ropes and potentially damage them in a fall. Since these are such specialized and not widely used systems, we chose to test only single climbing ropes in our review.

Single Ropes Examined


Single ropes are by far the most popular system and the primary focus of our review. But they are not all created equal. When shopping for a single rope there are several factors to consider.

Diameter and Weight


Many shoppers focus on diameter when looking for a climbing rope, selecting the skinniest size their fear tolerance and wallet can handle. Manufacturers have responded to this behavior and begun to market thinner and thinner single ropes. But this trend ignores the reason why most climbers prefer a skinny rope in the first place: lower weight. Sophisticated consumers may have noticed that while rope diameters have gotten significantly smaller over the last few years, weight has only marginally decreased. This is because companies are weaving the sheaths tighter and tighter to reduce the diameter, but are still using the same amount of material to preserve the strength and durability. So the weight stays the same, while production costs and retail prices go up.

It is easy to understand why this is happening. Diameter is easier to see or feel in your hands than weight. It is also the primary metric used to advertise and discuss ropes. Black Diamond has now gone as far as naming their new rope line solely by their diameters. But, at the top of a long, pumpy pitch, extra ounces become the difference between sending and falling, not the diameter. The same is true in the mountains where carrying a heavy rope can sap your energy long before you even get to the climbing.

Testing out the new Black Diamond 9.9mm. No name  just the diameter. This is an effective naming system  as most climbers discuss ropes by their diameter anyways. It does overlook the other key associated feature  weight  though the "Black Diamond 64 g/m" doesn't have quite the same cachet.
Testing out the new Black Diamond 9.9mm. No name, just the diameter. This is an effective naming system, as most climbers discuss ropes by their diameter anyways. It does overlook the other key associated feature, weight, though the "Black Diamond 64 g/m" doesn't have quite the same cachet.

Additionally, there is no standardized way of measuring diameter. It is not uncommon for climbing ropes from different companies with identical advertised diameters to look and feel dramatically different. Some are measured under slight tension, others have a slight oval-shape, but the point is that diameter by itself is not a reliable way to differentiate ropes. It is far better to combine it with the weight to get a better understanding of a rope's construction and performance. Moving past that rant, you still need to buy a rope, and ropes are still marketed primarily by diameter. Here is an overview of how ropes can be roughly classified using this as a metric. Take weight into consideration after you decide which size category is right for you.

Thick Workhorse Ropes (9.8 — 10.2 mm or >60 g/m)
These are usually the most durable options and will most likely outlast the skinnier competition.

Ideal Uses: gyms, big walls/aid climbing, extended top-roping, locations with rough rock
Durable
Best value
Easier for newer climbers to handle
Heavy
Bulky
Sometimes too much friction

Ropes in our test that fall into this category are:
The heavier workhorse Edelweiss Curve Unicore Supereverdry will last longer than our tendons on this route.
The heavier workhorse Edelweiss Curve Unicore Supereverdry will last longer than our tendons on this route.

Medium All-Around Ropes (9.4 — 9.7 mm or 55-60 g/m)
Medium diameter ropes provide the most versatility and are also the most popular.

Ideal Uses: Sport or trad climbing, multi-pitch, top roping, ice climbing, etc… anything!
Good balance between weight and durability
Better handling
A compromise for some specific uses

Ropes in our test that fall into this category are:
Medium all-around ropes  like the Mammut Infinity  are versatile lines for a variety of styles. They're good performers for harder sport routes  but not too heavy for long routes.
Medium all-around ropes, like the Mammut Infinity, are versatile lines for a variety of styles. They're good performers for harder sport routes, but not too heavy for long routes.

Skinny Sending Ropes (<9.4 mm or <55 g/m)
Skinnier ropes come with a high price tag and lower longevity.

Ideal Uses: Alpine climbing, hard redpoints, freeing big walls
Lowest weight and friction
Decreased durability
Care needed to catch falls

We did not test any of this category in our updated review. These are more specialized ropes that serve a niche market. We chose a variety of medium and thicker ropes to try and find the best all-around model available and to also provide good options for newer climbers.

The specs on a selection of bargain ropes  circa 1999. Note  how heavy and thick they were  and how cheap!
The specs on a selection of bargain ropes, circa 1999. Note how heavy and thick they were, and how cheap!

Length


During the foundational years of climbing, a 50 meter rope was the standard. The weight of a rack then composed of oval carabiners and chrome-moly pitons limited the amount of protection that could be carried and, accordingly, the sensible length of each pitch. Modern lightweight gear has reduced this burden and allowed climbers to safely protect longer and longer pitches. For a while, 60 meter ropes became the norm. Today, these are still the most common and are able to get you up and down lots of routes. But their popularity is beginning to wane as more route developers place anchors that require a 70 meter rope to lower to the ground. Furthermore, among strong sport climbers, longer routes are trendy and 80, 90, or even 100 meter ropes are gaining acceptance.

Our best advice to first-time shoppers is to ask your climbing partners what length is ideal for your area. At many locations, 70 meters will be overkill. Also, consider the type of climbing and intended grades. Generally, difficult single-pitch cragging or bold multi-pitch linking will require a longer rope, while the easier grades or more patient parties can get by with a shorter cord. For many locations, 60 meters will suffice, but if you can handle the extra cost, weight, and bulk, 70 meters might be more versatile. We personally usually have one of each length on hand, as our winter climber area tends to have shorter pitches and our summer crag longer ones.

The length you need depends on your main climbing area. We tested all 60 m lines in Ten Sleep  WY  and never had an issue  but other locales have longer routes that require 70 m and up ropes.
The length you need depends on your main climbing area. We tested all 60 m lines in Ten Sleep, WY, and never had an issue, but other locales have longer routes that require 70 m and up ropes.

Middle Marks and Bi-Patterns


Another important factor affecting the price and functionality of climbing ropes is the marking of the middle. Easy identification of the middle allows you to quickly thread the rope before a single rope rappel, or helps you measure whether you can safely lower a climber to the ground after a single pitch lead. There are a variety of middle marker options out there. The easiest to recognize is the bi-pattern, which will never fade! This is where each half of the rope has a contrasting pattern that is easy to visually differentiate. To make a bi-pattern rope, companies have to weave the separate patterns into one rope of the desired length, which takes time and increases the price.

A more affordable way for manufacturer's to mark ropes is to do it after they have woven super long lengths of one continuous pattern. Individual ropes can be cut off of this uniform spool to the desired length. The middle of each rope is then colored in some way. We like the idea, but in practice, this mark is too often a 6" long dull black smear that wears off quickly and is nearly impossible to see on a darkly colored or dirty rope. A few companies have recognized this nuisance and are now using longer-lasting methods with brighter colors. We applaud this.

Six different types of middle marks. From top to bottom: A factory bipattern  the rumble strip thread on the Mammut Sensor  faded factory middle mark  faded at-home marking pen  floss sewn through the sheath  and temporary chalk smears.
Six different types of middle marks. From top to bottom: A factory bipattern, the rumble strip thread on the Mammut Sensor, faded factory middle mark, faded at-home marking pen, floss sewn through the sheath, and temporary chalk smears.

If you ever need to mark a rope yourself, be it on a cheap unmarked rope, a worn away factory smear, or an asymmetrically shortened bi-pattern, there are several effective methods. A marking pen is one of the easiest, but use one designed specifically for ropes, not any old Sharpie, which may or may not damage nylon. This coloring will eventually wear away and need to be reapplied just like a factory middle mark. Some climbers foolishly use tape. This can jam in a belay device, or worse, slide away from the middle and dangerously change the mark. A more effective mechanical technique is to sew thread through the outer fibers of the sheath. Floss works well, although, this method can unsettle partners who haven't seen it done before.

But what do you do on the top of a pinnacle after ignoring all these options when you realize you're facing ten rappels with an unmarked rope? The answer is simple, yet unknown to too many climbers: chalk. You will still have to measure the middle when threading the rope through the anchors the first time. Then mark the middle using a small pebble of the white stuff from your chalk bag. Use your fingers to really grind it in. Separate zebra stripes help make it obvious. Be sure to reapply at every other anchor or so because it will wear off. And, as you should anytime you're rappelling, always visually watch the ends of your rope and tie a knot in them.

Dry Treatments


According to the manufacturers, a wet climbing rope can lose a significant amount of dynamic strength, up to 30%. A thoroughly soaked rope also adds substantial weight. Therefore, it is definitely best to try to keep it away from water. Moisture, however, cannot always be avoided. Sudden rain showers, wet slimy seeps, or ice climbing in general, can all get your rope wet. To prevent it from absorbing moisture, a water-repellent coating can be applied to the fibers during the manufacturing process. Each company seems to have their own name for their proprietary treatment, but in our experience, they all perform about the same. A combined core and sheath coating is superior to a cheaper treatment of only a core or sheath.

Dry treating has further advantages beyond simply keeping a rope dry. These coatings also reduce friction—both on the surface and inside the fibers—which decreases rope drag and extends lifespan. Generally, a non-dry rope will be a little cheaper than the dry version. However, aside from exclusive use in the gym where dirt is limited, we feel the higher cost of a dry rope is justified by the performance benefits.

Ice climbing is one situation where dry treatments become important. Not only can the ice warm up and melt but the rope is often flaked directly onto the snow where it doesn't take long for moisture to soak in.
Ice climbing is one situation where dry treatments become important. Not only can the ice warm up and melt but the rope is often flaked directly onto the snow where it doesn't take long for moisture to soak in.

UIAA Specs


Any rope sold for climbing should be approved by the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) and include on the packaging the scores measured for each of the few required tests. While it may be tempting to geek out on these numbers, it is most important to just know that the rope is UIAA certified. We will try to explain the tests as best we can, but for a complete explanation see the actual UIAA Safety Standards.

UIAA Fall Rating


This test uses an 80 kg (176 lbs) weight attached to a 2.6 meter length of rope. The weight is repeatedly dropped from a height of 2.3 meters and takes a 4.6 meter fall, creating a harsh, 1.77 factor fall. The final fall rating is simply the total number of these falls a rope was able to catch before failing. These falls are extremely severe and unlikely to occur often, if at all, in a real world setting. In fact, there has yet to be a confirmed case of a UIAA approved climbing rope failing from the force of a fall alone. Therefore, as long as a rope passes the UIAA minimum 5 fall requirement, we believe this number is of little importance. It certainly doesn't mean that you can only take 5 "regular" falls on your rope (less than 1 fall factor), and if you do take a "hard" fall (1.77 factor or greater), you'll want to consider retiring that rope regardless.

Some have argued that this number can indicate the overall lifespan of a rope; a higher number equating to more durability. While it would be convenient if this were true, in our experience ropes are more often retired from damage to the sheath (partial or full core shots), or declining handling, than from an actual reduction in strength. A good example of this contradiction is illustrated by the Sterling Fusion Nano IX (9 mm) and Sterling Marathon Pro (10.1 mm). Both withstood 6 UIAA falls, but the Marathon Pro's higher weight, diameter, and massive sheath makes it undeniably more durable. To summarize, we think the fall rating number is a good a measurement of core strength, but does not tell you much about the most likely cause of retirement, the sheath.

Impact Force


Impact force is the amount of force exerted on the weight during the rating falls, in kilonewtons (kN). The lower the number, the lower the impact will be on you during your own falls. Additionally, a smaller impact force will also reduce the load on the top piece of gear. For clipping beefy bolts this is of little consequence, but it could be an important consideration with questionable gear or when ice climbing. In practice, though, the weight and actions of your belayer can have an even greater effect than the rope on whether a catch is "hard" or "soft."

While the stretchiness of this dynamic line will help dissipate the force of this whipper  so too will the actions of the belayer.
While the stretchiness of this dynamic line will help dissipate the force of this whipper, so too will the actions of the belayer.

Stretch


The elongation of a climbing rope is measured under two different circumstances. Static is the amount a hanging rope stretches when the 80 kg weight is added. Dynamic elongation is the length of stretch when the same 80 kg weight undergoes the first UIAA test fall. For the label, both are converted to a percentage, so a 60 meter rope with 7.5% static elongation will stretch 4.5 meters (~15 ft) under an 80 kg load. This is a good spec to look at when shopping for a rope specifically for top roping, or one that you will be jumaring up. In those instances, the less static elongation, the better, as you will conserve time and energy by not having to fight the stretch when belaying or jugging. Dynamic elongation appears to be closely correlated with impact force, and the same considerations for marginal protection should apply. Additionally, the more dynamic elongation, the further you'll go in a fall, which is something to consider if you have a stretchy line and there's a potential for a ground fall or hitting a ledge.

If you're purchasing a line specifically for top roping  look for one with less static elongation (5-7.5%). It'll be easier on your arms  and safer for the climbers.
If you're purchasing a line specifically for top roping, look for one with less static elongation (5-7.5%). It'll be easier on your arms, and safer for the climbers.


Sheath Slippage


This UIAA test pulls 2 meter segments of rope through an apparatus that exerts pressure from multiple angles to measure the amount that the core and sheath stretch compared to each other. Sheath slippage can be an annoying real-world problem as the two parts separate during rappels, creating floppy, sheath-only ends that necessitate chopping. But we're not sure if this test is an effective way to measure it. All of the ropes tested received a 0 mm score except the BlueWater Ropes Lightning Pro, which got 1 mm. We didn't experience any slippage during our testing period, but it can start to occur later in a rope's lifespan.

Other Considerations



Sheath Proportion


Although it is not a UIAA requirement, many manufacturers are now including a sheath proportion number on their packaging. This is the portion of sheath relative to core by weight. We were hopeful that this could start to provide some insight into durability, but that insight turns out to be limited. First of all, it is too easy to focus on only the number. A thinner rope with a higher sheath percentage might have just as much material in the sheath as a thicker rope with a lower number. So sheath proportion is really only useful when comparing ropes of similar weight. Secondly, as one rope designer explained to us, the durability of a sheath is affected by more than just the total amount. Yarn type, denier, and thickness combined with the carrier count, twist levels, and dye process can all have a significant impact on sheath longevity. It is still a number to consider if you're specifically buying with durability in mind, but we didn't see considerable differences in our field tests between the lower and higher percentages (35-42% range).

Price


During the testing phase of this review, we spoke with many climbers about the qualities they look for in a climbing rope. By an overwhelming margin, the most common response was low price. This is somewhat surprising when you consider that we all trust our lives to our climbing ropes, literally. But the UIAA has done such a good job with their certification process that there is almost no concern of purchasing an unsafe rope. Furthermore, many performance characteristics of ropes—handling, catch, durability—are difficult to measure or articulate, so a lot of shoppers have shifted their focus to the most tangible metric: cost. If you're a part of this frugal group, we have a simple suggestion for you.

Shop the sales, but be wary. There are many websites that offer deals on ropes at sharp discounts off MSRP. Often this is due to an ordinary overstocking mistake, but sometimes it's because of an actual quality issue that results in a rope no one wants to buy. It could be unpleasantly stiff handling, a sheath prone to slipping, or any number of legitimate defects. Whatever it is, you can elude these lemons by checking reviews before any sale purchase. It doesn't have to take long. From our experience, the majority of climbing ropes perform at a satisfactory level. The few bad apples mixed in should be easy to spot with just a glance at what other people think.

The 'Value' section we include for each rope reviewed is based on the manufacturer's suggested retail price. Consider the opinions we've written, but if a lower scoring rope can be found at a substantial savings, it might be your best option. OutdoorGearLab generates revenue through clicks to the retailer links we have included on our pages. If you appreciate these reviews, do us a favor and follow the links to any great deals you might see shown here.

Cam McKenzie Ring hard at "work." It's a tough job  and we're happy to do it!
Cam McKenzie Ring hard at "work." It's a tough job, and we're happy to do it!

Cam McKenzie Ring & Jack Cramer
About the Author
Cam McKenzie Ring began climbing over 20 years ago and considers herself a Jill-of-all-disciplines. She has climbed Camp 4 boulders, El Cap big walls and many things in between (except for ice - as she prefers to climb in a tank top). After working for Yosemite Search and Rescue for five years she "retired" to Las Vegas, where she can be found out on the rocks with her two little boys in tow.

 
 

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