There are lots of different forms of rock climbing, from bouldering to multi-pitch trad climbing. Top rope climbing is what most people imagine when they think of climbing, as it’s the most commonly practiced in gyms around the world. You need to be careful though, most of us got addicted after our first top rope route!
Top Rope Climbing, or Top Roping, is a form of rock climbing where the climber ascends with the rope already through an anchor at the top. This is the most common type of climbing in indoor climbing gyms. Top Rope Climbing is optimal for beginners because it allows them to get a feel for rock climbing without as many risks, but also allows more experienced climbers to practice harder grades.
Top Roping is a great way to start rock climbing, but there are some things you need to know in order to be safe and have a great time. This article covers the basics of top rope climbing, including both indoors and outdoors, and where it fits in climbing overall.
Is Indoor Rock Climbing a Good Work...
Is Indoor Rock Climbing a Good Workout?
The Basics of Top Roping
Most people start out top rope climbing because it is safer than other types of climbing, and requires a lot less knowledge for beginners. New climbers really only need to know one new knot (and one friend who can belay) and they can start climbing. This includes people of all shapes, sizes, and even ages!
Top Roping involves a lot less gear than other forms of climbing like sport or trad, which makes it a lot easier to get involved in. Climbing gyms have helped to grow the popularity of rock climbing largely due to the convenience and ease of top roping.
How Does Top Rope Climbing Work?
The simplest way to describe top rope climbing is that two people are tied together with a dynamic rope that goes from the climber up to the top, through or around an anchor, and back down to the belayer. As the climber ascends the wall, the belayer pulls the rope through a belay device, shortening the length of rope between the two.
When the climber reaches the top of the route, the rope between them is approximately half of the length that it started out as. Should the climber fall along the way, the belayer and belay device stop the rope, which arrests the climber’s fall. Because the climber is secured with a taut rope the whole time, falls are usually only a few feet (1m).
What Gear do you Need for Top Rope Climbing Indoors?
- Climbing / Bouldering Shoes
- Rock Climbing Harness
- Belay Device (can be borrowed or rented from gym)
- Locking Carabiner (can be borrowed or rented from gym)
- Chalk and Chalk bag (optional)
- Belay Glasses (optional)
You Can View the Gear I Use and Recommend on our Gear Page.
For gym climbing, the only gear that you need is a good pair of climbing shoes and a harness. Climbing gyms supply the ropes and the anchors are permanent.
You can bring your own belay device and carabiner, but every gym I have been to will lend you one in exchange for collateral like your keys. For your first time, it’s probably best just to rent gear from the gym for a nominal fee of about $5.
See also: How Much Does Rock Climbing Cost?
What is the Best Belay Device for Top Roping?
The best belay device for top roping is the assisted-braking Petzl Grigri. Climbing gyms around the world have started requiring guests to use an assisted braking device for safety reasons, and the Petzl Grigri is the most common.
Amazon: Petzl Grigri 3
All climbers should be familiar and comfortable belaying with some sort of tubular belay device, the most common of which is the Black Diamond ATC. They don’t offer the added safety or complexity of the assisted braking feature, but come in at a much better price point.
Amazon: Black Diamond ATC XP
Top Rope Climbing Skills
Top roping is great for beginners because you can get a taste for the thrill of climbing without needing to take on a lot of risk or a heavy investment in time or money. Climbing gyms offer clinics that teach these basic skills, or you can get a friend to teach you. Here are the basic skills you need to master to top rope climb indoors-
- Putting on a Harness Correctly
- Tying a Figure 8
- Falling Correctly
- Belaying Safely
Top Rope Knot- The Figure 8
The only knot you need to know how to tie for lead climbing is a figure eight follow through. This is the knot that connects a climber’s harness to the rope.
It is really easy to learn, and should be practiced until it becomes second nature. With that being said, you should also get in the habit of always double-checking your knot before stepping onto the wall.
Tie the figure eight knot in the end of a rope by tying an overhand knot with an extra twist in it. The 8 shape should be obvious. Thread the end of the rope through your harness and retrace the 8 leaving at least a 6″ tail protruding from the top. It’s common practice to tie a backup knot with the tail, but isn’t completely necessary.
A climber, especially an outdoors climber, should really have a lot more knots committed to memory and available to use as needed. For a novice climber who is going with someone more experienced, or for gym climbers, the Figure 8 is sufficient.
For more instruction on tying a Figure 8 Follow Through, read my article What Knot Do You Use For Rock Climbing?
Learning to Fall
A fear of heights, or rather, a fear of falling from heights, is usually the hardest thing for new climbers to overcome. It just doesn’t feel natural to be 10 meters off the ground with only a thin rope between you and a couple of broken legs. Most top rope injuries are banged up knees and scrapes because people fall incorrectly.
When you fall climbing you need to push away from the wall. This is contrary to the natural response of grabbing the wall, but it’s how you keep your hands and knees from getting scraped or banged up. Practice ‘falling’ from low heights so that you feel comfortable up higher. Keep your feet out in front of you so you can keep your body from hitting the wall.
Additionally, this is how you will get back down from the top of the wall. Let go of the wall and and walk down it with your feet out in front of you. When your belayer keeps the rope taut, you won’t fall more than a few feet if you slip.
How to Belay for Top Rope
- Thread rope through belay device, ensuring correct orientation
- Check your setup, as well as your climber’s to ensure everything is secure
- Pull the rope through the device with your brake hand (right)
- Grab the rope with your other hand (left) below your brake hand
- Slide your brake hand up the rope towards the belay device, never letting go
- Repeat, keeping the rope taut, until the climber reaches the top
- Lower the climber by feeding slack into the device or carefully releasing the cam on the assisted braking device, never letting go with the brake hand
Some climbers like to have the rope tight at all times, while others like a little bit of slack so it feels more like lead climbing. The most important thing to learn, practice, and engrave on your mind is for your brake hand to never leave the rope. Each belay device works slightly differently, but the main principles are the same- friction!
Top Rope Climbing vs Lead Climbing
When you walk into a climbing gym you are likely to see several different areas devoted to different styles of climbing. There is always a bouldering area or cave, where climbers practice technique and strength on shorter routes called problems. On the taller section of wall you will see two types of routes- some with ropes hanging down from them and others without.
Lead climbing, as opposed to top rope climbing, is where the climber brings the rope up with him or herself securing it to the wall along the way. This involves significantly more risk, and much more expensive gear! There are two types of lead climbing: sport climbing and trad climbing.
With lead climbing, the climber and belayer start out with a short segment of rope connecting them directly instead of going up through the anchor. Instead of pulling slack out of the line, the belayer feeds rope out as the climber ascends.
The climber clips the rope to the wall every few meters so that if she fell the belayer would stop the rope and arrest the fall. This continues until the climber reaches the top of the wall.
The main difference between lead climbing and top roping is the length of the falls a climber can potentially take. With rope rope climbing, a fall is usually only the stretch of the rope or about a meter.
Essentially, you can stop and rest at any time without any consequences. With lead climbing however, the fall includes the factor of how far above the last piece of protection the climber is times two plus the increased rope stretch due to a longer fall.
Sport Climbing and Trad Climbing
Sport climbing, which is what you see in climbing gyms as well as the outdoors, is where there are permanent bolts along the route up to the top. Climbers clip the rope through quickdraws (see: How Much Weight Can a Quickdraw Hold?) to capture their progress as they ascend the wall. It is usually safer than trad climbing because bolts are more permanent.
Traditional climbing (trad) is where climbers use an arsenal of different pieces, called nuts and cams, to create their own protection as they ascend. Trad climbing is more natural, as climbers use cracks in the cliff face to set up gear instead of using pre-drilled bolts.
The downside (or upside, if you ask a trad climber) is the higher risk. A falling climber can dislodge gear from the wall which can lead to serious accidents. Trad climbing doesn’t exist indoors.
Top Rope Climbing vs Bouldering
Indoor climbers split most of their time between top rope climbing and bouldering. Many climbing skills translate over to bouldering, and vice versa. Here is how they compare on a more detailed level-
Is Top Rope Climbing Safer than Bouldering?
Bouldering has a higher injury rate than top rope climbing because the falls are usually farther than the few feet you fall due to rope stretch. Also, the landing on the ground or a pad is a lot harder than landing on a bouncy dynamic rope.
Bouldering injuries often consist of rolled or broken ankles and sprained wrists, as well as strained fingers. You would have to be trying really hard to have a serious injury bouldering. See also: Is Bouldering Dangerous?
Top rope climbing doesn’t have as high of a rate of ankle or wrist injuries because falls are softer and are more controlled. Top rope climbing does have a higher risk of serious injury though because you are up so much higher than bouldering. A fall from up high could cause serious injury or even be fatal. Proper techniques and equipment mitigate this risk.
For more information about Top Rope Safety, read my article: Is Top Rope Climbing Safe?
Is Top Rope Climbing Easier than Bouldering?
Bouldering and climbing routes have a wide range of difficulties, so you can’t really compare the two. Bouldering generally requires more strength and precision, whereas climbing requires more endurance and mental fortitude. They share a lot of the same skills and techniques even though they are fundamentally different.
Bouldering problems are often overhung, which calls for a lot more upper body strength. Because bouldering problems are shorter, they usually require more strength and fancy techniques. You usually end up lifting more with your arms than with your legs.
Top roping, on the other hand, takes more sustained moves. The hardest part for beginners is to overcome their fear of heights. Routes usually have one difficult section called the crux, but the rest is not as hard.
The nice thing about top roping is that you can take a break at any time. Top Route routes are usually vertical instead of overhung because of rope drag.
Top Rope to Bouldering Grade Conversion
Bouldering and climbing have different rating systems, and certain regions of the world use different systems as well. Although it isn’t perfect, the chart below is useful for comparisons between the two scales in the US, the YDS rating system for climbing and the V scale (Hueco) for bouldering grades.
Top Rope Climbing (YDS) Bouldering (Hueco) 5.8 – 5.9 V0 5.10a/b V0+ 5.10c/d V1 5.11a V2 5.11b/c/d V3 5.12a V4 5.12b V5 5.12c/d V6 5.13a V7 5.13b/c V8 5.13d V9 5.14a V10 5.14b V11 5.14c V12
Climbing routes require a lot more sustained moves and endurance, but usually don’t take the same brief bursts of strength. A climbing route is usually rated based on its most difficult move, so you never know if the whole route is hard or just one section. This makes it really hard to directly compare bouldering to regular climbing, but this is still a useful comparison.
Is Top Rope Climbing Just for Beginners?
Top roping has a reputation for being just for beginners, but that isn’t always the case. It is nice for beginners because of the lower risks and feeling of security, but is really for everyone. There are several different benefits that advanced climbers can get from top rope climbing.
Climbers can top rope routes that are normally above their comfort zone because a good belayer can help them through crux sections an inch at a time. This way climbers get a feel for harder grades without risking bad falls or leaving gear behind on the wall. You can probably climb at least a grade harder when on top rope than you would lead climbing.
Another benefit of top roping is that climbers can work through difficult sections over and over again, practicing crux moves until they get them down. This is how professional climbers push the hardest grades in the world- rehearsing difficult moves until they are committed to memory.
Top rope climbing is a lot faster than lead climbing since the route is already set up, so it is great for bigger groups on one or more ropes. Big groups often go to a crag, rig top ropes on a bunch of routes and then take turns climbing everything. A day like this basically turns an outdoor crag into a climbing gym so it’s easy to get a lot of laps in and an excellent workout.
Essential Gear for Top Rope Climbing
Gearing up for rock climbing can be really expensive, but fortunately top rope climbing requires a lot less gear than sport climbing or trad climbing. If you climb indoors all you need is a harness and shoes- you can usually get a carabiner, belay device, and rope from the gym for free.
Outdoor climbing requires a lot more gear though, because there are a lot more risks to address. Fortunately, you can borrow or share a lot of gear with climbing partners starting out.
Personal Gear for Top Rope Climbing Outdoors
- Climbing Harness
- Climbing Shoes
- Climbing Helmet
See Also: Do I need a Helmet for Rock Climbing?
Shared Gear for Top Rope Climbing Outdoors
- Dynamic Climbing Rope
- 1+ Locking Carabiners
- Belay Device
- Personal Anchor System
- Chalk & Chalk Bag (optional)
- Belay Glasses (optional)
A personal anchor system can just be a sling with a pair of locking carabiners, but it’s a crucial piece of equipment if setting up the anchor from the top so that you don’t slip or trip on the edge. You should always secure yourself when you’re rigging an anchor near an edge, since lots of accidents happen that way.
The most complicated setup a safe, equalized anchor. There are lots of different options for anchors, the most simple being a pair of quick draws. Other times they’re made up of several locking carabiners and some extra rope, slings, or tubular webbing.
Is Top Roping Free Climbing? Yes, top roping on any sport or trad route is considered free climbing, because it uses no artificial aid like bolt or webbing ladders. Climbers reach the top by only using the rope as protection.
Can You Top Rope by Yourself? Some advanced climbers use camming devices to climb on a top rope by themselves. They use an assisted-braking device as a belay. It’s not recommended by gear manufacturers, but can be done safely.
Can You Top Rope with a Static Rope? Gear manufacturers do not recommend using a static rope for rock climbing- not even top roping. Some climbers use a static rope for top roping because they tend to last longer and the dynamic feature is not usually necessary when top roping.
What is the Best Belay Device for Top Roping? The best belay device for top rope climbing is an assisted-braking device like a Petzl Grigri. The internal camming mechanism helps to catch the rope if the belayer loses focus.