February 24


Types of Climbing: Gym to Mtns, Sport, vs Trad,, Everything Rad

By Michael Bryant

February 24, 2023


What are the different Types of Climbing?

Do you get asked, or wonder the difference between free climbing and free soloing?

There are so many different types of rock climbing and styles of climbing that are not on rock at all. From pulling plastic to alpine, mixed, rock and ice climbing, there’s a way to get vertical for everyone.

In the beginning it was simply getting to the top, in modern times we’ve created and expanded on vertical terrain of all varieties.

Which Type of Climbing is for You?

I’m going to explain 9+ types of climbing here, many of which I’m sure you already know. But at worst, you can hand this out as a pamphlet to your mother or grandma so she knows you don’t do what Alex Honnold does when you tell them you’re going free-climbing. 

I think it’s worth the time to explain this very nuance in our climbing lexicon for those who don’t quite understand it yet. What is the difference between free-climbing, aid climbing and free-soloing?

If you have ever been seen holding a climbing shoe someone will eventually ask, “do you free-climb?” “Whoa that’s rad!” They may say. Yes you are but, they are just confused.

3 Types of Climbing: Free Climbing, Aid Climbing and Soloing

What is considered free climbing?

Free climbing simply means you use only the power of your hands feet. Or, whatever other body part it takes to move upwards.

99.9% of the time, free-climbers are roped up and placing gear along the way, just in case they fall. Whether that be cams, nuts, bolts and quickdraws. 

Is free climbing the same as lead climbing?

Free climbing and lead climbing can be the same style but also different. Free climbing as stated means that only the power of your body is used to go upwards. Lead climbing simply means that you climb with the rope hanging below you on your harness. Which is where the risk of longer fall potential exists, 

What is free solo climbing?

Free Soloing is one of the most simple types of rock climbing to understand. There is no rope, gear or partner to catch you. While they are still free-climbing (using the power of their bodies only).

You fall, you’ll likely be dead. Disclaimer The Adventure Lifers would never personally recommend this to anyone.

Aid Climbing

Aid Climbing is not free climbing because you are using the gear you place or that is already there to make upward progress. You essentially hang off of gear and place another piece higher to hang off of that, all the while standing in nylon ladders attached to you. More on that later.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s dig in deeper. Feel free to use the jump links below if you’re looking to understand a specific climbing style.

Most Common Types of Climbing

Gym Climbing

Gym Climbing

I suppose we will start here because in 2022 this will likely be the first type of climbing a person starts nowadays. It is a safe environment where you can explore bouldering, top roping and lead climbing all within the confines of a temperature controlled environment that smells a lot like feet. Jokes aside, pulling on plastic with people around to make sure you are learning safely is a good thing and it’s a great place to get strong or find a date.

Don’t get too cocky in the gym though, if you want to take your new biceps outside to climb there isn’t colored tape to guide you and the ground is a lot harder. I used to hate on the gyms a lot but now I’m weak and still crusty but they are a valuable resource for gumbies and pros alike.

top rope climbing

Easiest Outdoor Type of Climbing

Top-Rope Climbing Outside

Maybe you are ready to move out of the gym and have acquired some basic gear. It’s time to take to the hills and enjoy the nature and freedom that climbing outside offers. Top roping is the perfect place to start.

The most important skill you’re going to need is building a proper anchor. We’ll go deeper into anchors later on but its importance cannot be overstated in any form of climbing. Remember (SRENE) Safe, Redundant, Equalized, No-Extenstion.

Find a cliff that has safe and easy access to bolts that are already in place, or a LARGE tree and build your anchor in the direction you’ll be climbing. Feed your rope through at the middle and yell “rope” before tossing it down to your partner.

You can now walk back down or rappel if you have the skills and start climbing. You now have a top-rope anchor to climb laps on without having to worry about taking a fall any longer than a little rope stretch. 

LIFER TIP: Don’t climb to one side of the rope too far or you will pendulum sideways to the center point of the rope. Likely scraping along the way, not fun.  


Bouldering is fantastic type of rock climbing in that it’s the cheapest form of climbing. Only requiring shoes, some chalk and a chalk bag. Climbers can definitely be cheap. It was known to be popularized by climbers playing around on rest days in Yosemite and Fontainebleau France during the seventies. Over the course of the years it has become a full blown discipline and training technique. 

Without a cumbersome rope or gear tagging along, climbers are pushing the limits of pure difficulty on small boulders. From a few super powerful moves to large “highball” boulder problems as they call them, difficulty is the goal.

But you don’t have to be the hulk to have fun and practice techniques. Just find some friends, grab your rock shoes and enjoy this type of climbing boulders in your own way.

Type of Trad Climbing

Traditional Climbing

Trad climbing is my favorite type of rock climbing. As it’s referred to, is one of the oldest and purest forms of climbing, not to mention my personal favorite. It means that the climber carries and places all of their own gear to safe-guard their ascent.

This is done by placing nuts, cams, slinging trees or horns, whatever place they can find to protect themselves incase of a fall. Often these routes have bolted anchors for lowering and general safety, but if you plan on doing multi-pitch trad climbing you will need to build your own anchors from your gear. 

These types of climbs definitely take the mental game up a notch. From planning out your rack before you leave the ground, to conserving pieces for use ahead and for anchors. It’s not too fun to be stuck in the middle of a wall with no gear that fits! 

Remember this is still free climbing, so the gear you bring along you hopefully won’t have to fall on. Make sure you get a solid mentor and practice placing all sorts of gear on the ground before adventuring too hard.

But once you walk up to a mountain with nothing but the rope, the rack and the shirt on your back and navigate it safely up and down. You’ll probably be hooked!

Building a Trad Rack? 

Check out this post about building a rack. Hopefully it helps you out. 

lead climbing

Sport Climbing

Sport climbing is a type of free rock climbing and lead climbing as well. You start from the bottom with your gear but this time it is only quickdraws on your harness for protection.

This is because a route developer has come before you and placed bolts to clip into as you ascend the route. The name sport climbing is fitting because not having to worry as much about your next gear placement, allows you to focus on the movement.

This became popularized in the 80s with some controversy but is now probably the most practiced type of climbing. By allowing climbers to focus on difficulty instead of keeping their head straight, sport climbing took difficulty grades to a whole other level.

There is no longer the need to follow cracks where protection could be placed. Climbers started ascending steeper and steeper faces in between the cracks. 

There are now unenumerable amounts of rock routes to attempt on more types of stone. This developed new climbing techniques and allowed a less dangerous form of entry into the world of climbing.

All you need is a rope, enough quickdraws, harness and shoes to climb routes.

So grab your spandex, shave that mullet in and start pimpin’ and crimpin’ your way to that next mono-pod. 

alpine climbing

Alpine Climbing & Mountaineering

Likely the eldest type of climbing, alpine climbing or mountaineering. Has been the conquest of man seemingly forever.

How many times have you thought, “I wonder if I can get to the top of that?” It’s in our blood but the modern scene is far advanced from the days of wooden ice axes and wool sweaters in the Alps. 

This type of climbing involves mountains, long routes and often snow, ice and rock climbing. The goal is to get to the top and nowadays in good style. A large variety of gear and techniques are required when climbing in the mountains.

Things such as route navigation, conditions, and weather knowledge are imperative when attempting big objectives. Gear such as crampons, ice tools, along with trad climbing gear may all be used on a single route. So knowing your sh*t is important. 

Some alpine climbs are done in a day. Others, such as in the Himalaya, may take months to conquer. Not for the faint of heart and often a type of climbing that requires immense tenacity and a whole lot of cardio.

Reaching the summit of a peak is a wonderful experience that you won’t forget. Just make sure to be safe on the way down, that’s half the battle. 

big wall climbing

Multipitch and Big-Wall Climbing

Multipitch simply means to climb until you reach a stopping point and then your partner follows you up. Then you keep going up, inch worming your way as long as the route goes.

Usually this is done with trad climbing gear but there are a growing number of bolted multipitch sport climbs being developed all over the world. This type of climbing takes you long, wonderful days of getting some serious air between your legs. Good clean fun. 

It is really amazing to get so high off of the ground, slowly or quickly. Gaining altitude and reaching perches the birds only set foot on. The key to multipitch climbing is to keep your systems dialed and communication clear.

It’s easy to get off route or to not hear or see your partner, which is one of the major challenges. It’s an advanced form of climbing that you need to work towards. 

BIGWALL Climbing 

The biggest, baddest, and most curbersome type of rock climbing. This is multipitch climbing that will likely take all day, depending how fast or slow you are. Grade 5+ big-walls can take multiple days to ascend.

These are the photographs you see of people hanging from their portaledges in Yosemite sleeping and dragging all of their supplies up the wall. That part honestly kind of blows, still worth it.

It is a lot if work, but getting to live in the vertical world for multiple days is one hell of an experience.

Pitches go by slowly and often involve a lot of aid climbing but this is an adventure, not a sprint. So enjoy it when you’ve found the right partner and acquired the skills necessary. 

aid climbing

Aid Climbing

As I mentioned before, aid climbing is defined by using the gear you have to pull yourself up and hold your weight while ascending. Sounds easy right?

Not so fast, it takes an enormous amount of gear to climb even 100 feet and aid climbs are generally big walls. So it’s a snails pace and a cluster of tangled ropes, gear and often dragging a haul bag along. A type of climbing for the patient. 

The process is simple. Place a piece of gear above you clip in, and climb up the nylon ladders (aiders or etreirs) so you can place another piece higher and repeat.

All the while banging your knees against the wall and managing 2 ropes. Think of it as vertical construction work. But when the route is simply too difficult to free climb, aid climbing is your only way up. Have fun!

me ice climbing

Winter Types of Climbing-Ice and Mixed

Ice climbing has come a long way in the last few decades, a lot in part due to advancing technology. Front point crampons and modern ice tools have revolutionized what humans can climb on frozen water. Still one type of climbing that kicks my hind end.

These sharp and pointy tools along with modern ice screws used for protection have people pushing the boundaries on pure ice and mixed routes of rock and ice.

These types of climbing are considered free climbing as well but it’s known in the ice climbing world as a sort of “don’t-fall” style of climbing. It is ice after all.

Mixed Ice and Rock Routes

Mixed routes now have some bolts if they aren’t covered up by frozen water, that are letting people climb wildly difficult faces using ice tools instead of their fingers. Madness if you ask me, or maybe I’m too skinny and cold to really get after it. 

If you’re dead set on it, get a solid mentor because techniques and especially conditions are key factors to ice climbing safely. It is fun, usually.

More Types of Climbing

Now I said I would explain 9+ but now that I keep writing there are so many different and obscure forms of climbing so I’ll throw you a little list here. As if there aren’t enough ways to monkey around already.

  • Deep Water Soloing
  • Free Soloing (not recommended, watch the movie instead)
  • Speed Climbing
  • Aid-Solo Climbing
  • Solo-Free Climbing
  • Simul Climbing

Did you find the Type of Climbing for you?

There you have it. I have loved the last 10+ years I’ve been climbing and it holds some of my favorite memories of companionship, fear, triumph and failure. It’s all a part of the game baby.

Where to climb next?…. Up I always say. 

Climb safe out there folks!

Michael Bryant

About the author

After a lifetime spent in the outdoors and 10 years in the outdoor sports industry, I figured out what I'm best at. Finding great mentors to show me the ropes. Without the Lifers that taught me all I know, I wouldn't be where I'm at, which is... "pretty solid" at most adventures outside.

Mentors are the best way to access the backcountry. Learn with us.