Climbing 101: the types

NOTE: Climbing is a dangerous sport which may result in injury or death if done incorrectly. We are a bunch of very enthusiastic amateurs. These articles are based on our experiences and gear requirements in climbing. They are not meant to replace the expertise of professional trained guides. If you are unsure about anything it is best to seek the opinion of a professional.

So you’re going climbing with your mates this weekend and you don’t want to sound like a punter? We have got you covered in a series of climbing posts

First up let’s talk about the different types of climbing.

1) Bouldering – Indoor/Outdoor

Bouldering is usually done on short walls with limited height risk and can include moving horizontally along, or vertically up the wall. All you need is a pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag. Because the walls are smaller, you don’t need any safety ropes or a harness. If you are doing this at a gym you can usually hire the stuff you will need. Over all bouldering is a very accessible form of climbing.

Bouldering is a great activity for all levels of climbers. It is perfect social weekend activity because it is great fun and low-cost. If you are new starting out or heading outdoors for the first time, have a chat to the team at your local bouldering gym. Get them to show you how to spot each other, and grab a bouldering mat for the day (outdoor only).

More experienced climbers might use bouldering to build strength and improve their technical climbing. Many of the “problems”, as they are called, are short and difficult. Don’t let this deter you! Get out and have a go.

WMSS runs a bouldering night every Wednesday at Northside Boulders so if you’re keen to try it out, meet us down there and take advantage of the WMSS members only discounts.

An example of outdoor bouldering.

2) Top Roping – Indoor/outdoor

Top roping is a very safe way of getting into climbing. There can be a significant height risk but with safety ropes involved you shouldn’t have any worries. Top-roping involves tying yourself to one end of the rope. The rope goes all the way up to the top of where you’re climbing, through an anchor of some sort and then back down to your belayer. The rope is always taught so any falls you have will be very small and mostly insignificant.

There are plenty of opportunities to top-rope climb in Melbourne (and elsewhere). Most indoor gyms have gear hire available (harness, carabiner, shoes, chalk). One of our favourites is North Walls in Brunswick. Be sure to check them out and keep an eye out for our WMSS member nights coming soon.

North Walls Indoor Climbing

If you think you might pursue it for a bit longer we would recommend you get your own gear. This will save you money in the long-term and give you the peace-of-mind the shoes you are wearing have not been shared around 300 other sweaty people.

An example of top roping with a climber wearing a harness, attached to a rope, suspended from the anchor at the top of the wall. The other end of the rope is on the ground secured to the belayer and belay device.

If you are keen to try your hand at outdoor top-roping you can always jump on a tour like the WMSS Climbing Weekend to the Grampians. It is definitely worth your while! To go outdoors by yourself, you will need more gear and knowledge. On the packing list is a climbing specific dynamic rope, carabiners and some static rope or slings to set up an anchor. Doing a bit of research or a course learning how to set safe anchors is a good idea before you go.

3) Sport lead climbing – Indoor/outdoor

Sport lead climbing is most people’s next step after top-roping. If you have ever been to a gym and wondered what those funny looking things are on the wall with a carabiner on both ends, they are quickdraws and they are for sport climbing.

Similar to top roping you have a belayer and safety ropes, so it is quite a safe way of climbing. The difference is your rope doesn’t go all the way up the top to anchor before it comes back to you. The rope goes directly from you to your belayer and you have to clip the rope into those quickdraws as you climb. This means that you can fall a bit further than top-roping. You will fall as far as the last quickdraw you clipped into plus that distance again.

If you are keen to pursue indoor sport climbing that is great! You will need to invest in climbing specific dynamic ropes and a belay device. Most climbing gyms will require you to pass a lead climbing competency test before you get going. North Walls Indoor Climbing offers a two day Lead Course Introduction (see link above) and they have a great range of sports climbs to get you started. Otherwise, contact your local gym to see what they have available. Be aware you will probably climb a grade or two lower when sport lead climbing compared to top-roping (the grade refers to how difficult the climb is to complete).

An example of indoor sport climbing featuring the quickdraws attached to the wall

Outdoor sport climbing is a little more complicated again. You will need to grab yourself some quickdraws and make sure you go to somewhere that has sport climbing available. You will use attach the quickdraws to the bolts or “protection” that have been laid out up the routes on the rock. Before you climb on an outdoor sport route, check out the quality of the bolts – you never know when they were checked last.

An example of sport climbing outdoors. The climber is using ‘protection’ pre-placed on the rock.

4) Trad climbing – Outdoor

Trad or “traditional” climbing is only available outdoors. Trad climbing is very similar to sport climbing except there are no bolts in the rock already. It requires a lot more knowledge than the other forms of climbing in relation to setting up anchors. This means you will need to place your own “protection” and this requires extra knowledge to recognise what will and won’t hold you if you fall. You use a mixture of gear depending on the situation like slings, cams, nuts, hexes, tricams, ball nuts and Big Bros… the list goes on!

If you want to get into trad climbing we definitely recommend jumping on a course or chatting to someone who really knows their stuff and going with them. Placing trad protection is incredibly important and practice and knowledge is key.


There are many other forms of climbing, see below!


Not really climbing. More a way of getting back down a climb or getting into the start of a climb. Abseiling requires a belay device and some climbing rope that you can lower yourself down.

Aid climbing

This form of climbing uses aid devices like ascenders to scale big walls without actually having to climb the whole rock.

Ice climbing

Like rock climbing but on ice. Obviously, you can’t hold onto ice so you need to chuck crampons on your feet and ice axes in your hands. Not a lot of ice climbing in Australia unfortunately.

Alpine climbing

Proper big mountain climbing. It can be a mix of rock and ice climbing. Best to do a mountaineering or alpine climbing course before you pursue this one.

Free soloing

No ropes, big risk! This is just rock climbing without any safety net. Only for the bravest of people. We don’t recommend climbing like this. If you want to see what it’s all about, come to the WMSS screening of Free Solo. An amazing and stressful movie about the first free solo ascent of El Capitan.


DWS or deep water soloing is like free soloing except over water so if you fall you shouldn’t injure yourself. There is some world class DWS close to Australia in South East Asia. A great experience if you get to try it.


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