Recently a friend asked me about building a trad rack and asked for advice on what to buy and what order to buy it if his budget only allows him to buy 2 cams per month. It was the way I built my rack 15+ years ago and if I had to rebuild my rack again this is probably how I would do it. This list is really just for fun and should not be taken too seriously.
There are 4 levels of importance when it comes to gear, A-D. This is not to say that D level gear is not useful or handy it’s just that if you’re on a budget it’s the last gear you want to buy. If you’re an impulse shopper it might help you to classify gear as such so when you come across a deal on that D Level piece you can say no; at least until you’ve built up your A Level rack. That piece will go on sale again, don’t worry.
A Level: The most useful and the most racked, almost no trad climb gets started without this gear.
B Level: Still useful and will most likely get racked on longer climbs but climbs can go without it especially if you’re willing to run it out a little more. On some climbs it will take the place of a couple of pieces from your A rack. You may rack all of your A and B level gear if climbing a long multi pitch with varying rock.
C Level: Route specific gear, you have a route on your tick list that you must do but it has specific gear needed to protect it. Extended range cams fit here as well.
D Level: The gear you buy when you are a true gear junky. Often times you find it on sale and think you’ll find a use for it but the reality is the only time you’ll rack it is when you feel you “have to use it sometime”, just because you have it. Hexes, I’m looking at you. This gear is useful and you will find a time to place it but that $100 you dropped on cowbells could have paid for an entire weekend in J-Tree.
My “A” rack consists of
- double set of BD cams from .3 to #3, one color coordinated carabiner per cam
- a single set of BD nuts from #4 to #13
- 18-20 60cm/24″ slings with one carabiner per sling, slung over my shoulders.
- 2 120cm/48″ slings, both clipped to the same carabiner, clipped to my harness.
- 8-10 loose carabiners
- 2 prusic slings
- nut tool
- Anchor set up
- Auto block belay device and Keeper type belay carabiner, no Gri Gri on trad
This would be my standard rack for any route over 100ft long and any multipitch, unless I’m going to Indian Creek (at the creek routes often require 6-8 of the same size cam). If I’m doing a shorter climb I’ll strip the rack down based on how long the climb is, how hard it is, what the size of the crack is, etc. If I’m in the mountains, like the High Sierra, I’ll take a few less cams and rack a few more slings as there are always horns and chalk stones to sling.
I am a big fan of BD cams however all of the major companies available in the US (I can’t speak for other countries) have good quality cams and should be looked at as well. My first rack was all Trango and they worked great. They were much lighter and a little less bulky. I only sold them because I had 4 sets of cams and a kid really wanted to get into trad climbing; he worked 2 min wage jobs so I cut him a good deal.
Now, a double set of cams can be hard to purchase all in one go for the climber on a budget. Breaking it down and buying a cam or two as often as you can will make this a lot easier. I built my rack over 15-16 years and if I had to replace it today I couldn’t buy it all in one go. This is the order I would buy an A Level rack in, as it prioritizes the most used sizes. If you live in an area where you can set top ropes or have shorter crags you can get out sooner. Always remember, the better you get at placing nuts the less cams you need to get out and climb. I am referencing BD sizes because that is what I have but you can find a size comparison chart if you’d rather cams from another company. Assume one carabiner per cam, I highly recommend matching the color to the cam color.
- a set of nuts from #6-#13
- #1 and #2
- #.75 and #3
- #.4 and #.5
- #1 and #2
- #.75 and #.3
- #.4 and #.5
- #.3 and #3
On a side note: I’m not a fan of using quickdraws in Trad climbing; this is not an ethics thing but a function thing. I feel that shoulder slings are more useful and they help prevent gear from walking. Every time I’ve been the second to a leader that uses quick draws or clips direct to the cams all of their gear has walked. That said everything is situational and one should never get in the mind set of how things are supposed to be. There is no “right way” to do something, there are plenty of wrong ways, but no “right way”.
Aliens, C3/X4 Camalots, Metolius TCU/Master Cams and other micro or supplemental gear fit into this level, as well as micro nuts. Small gear is light and useful; once you learn how to place it. You might not want to take big wipers on it, but I’ve climbed plenty of routes where a 00 TCU is my only piece of gear for 50+ feet, and I was happy as hell to have it.
Supplemental gear like gear from another company often will split sizes with your main rack especially in the smaller range. To supplement my BD cams I have a single set of Metolius Master Cams from #00-#6. Metolius sizes are just different enough that when the .5BD it too big and the .4BD is too small the #3 Metolius usually drops right in. If you preferred Metolius to BD you could use BD as you supplement. I also have a set of Metolius TCUs from #00-#4, these are useful for seams that open up and then close again like you see a lot in J-Tree.
3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th set of cams could be considered C level if you live near Indian Creek, or do a lot of clean aid, otherwise they’d be D level (if the creek is the only place you climb they become A Level). This level is also the extended range cams like the Omega Pacific Link Cams or the Metolius Super Cams. Offset cams and big cams fit in on this level as well as offset nuts and Big Bros.
I bought my BD cams originally to be my 3rd and 4th set of cams because I really want to do El Cap and needed more cams, I also lived near Indian creek and it is better with more of the same size cams. I sold off my original cams sure, but originally they were a C Level purchase. I have two #5s and one #6 that I bought to do a specific route. The weekend we were supposed to go climb the route my partner got sick and we never rescheduled. Three years later I have racked and placed these cams 4-5 times. I only rack them when I know I am going to need them. I got a deal on my two Metolius Master cams and I have to say they are very useful.
Hexes, Tricams, Ball Nuts, pitons and all the rest of the gear that has a place in climbing but only in specific places. One could probably climb their entire life without ever using this gear and be just fine. However, if you buy it you will use it, someday, because you have it. I used to have hexes but finally gave up the cowbells about 10 years ago. I have a set of Trango Ball Nuts, and honestly place them all the time, that I won them in a cam building contest on Rockclimbing.com back in the day.
Like I said this list is for fun and it really is up to you to make up your own list and prioritize it. Classifying gear could help keep you from making unnecessary purchases, at least until you have your A Level gear. My priority list has changes a couple of times over the years but my A Level has stayed relatively the same the whole time. There was a time when I would have considered cowbells to be an A or at least B Level but as the years have gone by I’ve stopped thinking it was cool to have my head up my ass.