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Rock Climbing: What is the Difference Between Free Climbing and Free Solo Climbing?

Solo Climbing?

Being a beginner in the rock climbing community can be overwhelming. There are so many things to learn- a few of those things being different styles of climbing, the differences between them, and the techniques involved in executing them properly. We are going to talk about a common question from new climbers or those who are curious about climbing in general and that is, “What is free climbing, what is solo climbing, and what are the differences between the two?”. Let’s dive in.

What is free climbing?

Free climbing is a term used to describe any style of climbing in which the climber does not use aids or tools for support. Support aids would include anything from ascenders to skyhooks to ladders. The support aids (referred to as “gear”) allow the climber to put their entire body weight into the equipment in order to ascend the wall. When free climbing the climber does not have anything to rely on to move up the wall but their limbs (and will to hold on). Typically you will find most free climbers (top roping, sport climbing, and trad climbing) do still have protection from a fall such as a rope, cams, bolts, quickdraws or any other protective gear. Where it gets confusing for beginners is in the look of it all because to the untrained eye it may seem as if they are using gear to get up the wall when in fact it is only gear to protect them from a fall (they can not use the gear in any way to ascend the wall).

What is solo climbing?

Solo climbing is a different animal entirely. Solo climbers do not use anything- even protective gear (no trad gear, rope, cams, or bolts) to keep them from falling. It is the most dangerous form of climbing you can get especially when it is taken outdoors but many die-hard climbers consider it to be the purest form of climbing and they train very hard to climb the way they do. If you want to see a master solo climber in action look to Alex Honnold or Dean Potter for awe-inspiring examples. Free soloing is forbidden in gym settings due to liability risks but out in mother nature, it’s fair game.

What makes them different?

Free climing

  • Uses protective gear to lessen the chance of serious injury or death

Solo climbing

  • Excludes any and all gear, even if it is protective

How to become a solo climber

If you are wanting to become a solo climber you will have to first find a training schedule that gives you the proper strength for climbing in general. After getting into good shape you will need to become highly skilled in both bouldering and free climbing. Bouldering will get you used to climbing without any gear while offering padding to catch you from below when you fall, and free climbing will allow you to practice indoors at the heights you will want to reach should you decide to start solo climbing. If you want to take training to the next level you can buy protective padding to allow you to boulder outdoors and start free climbing in the places you will eventually want to solo climb.

Whatever you decide to do as far as style of climbing, it is always important that you are realistic with where your current skill level is at and choose the right path to follow from there. Indoor gyms are full of knowledgeable climbers that can offer assistance and you can even assess your own skill level by following the colored routes in the gym that show the level of difficulty (green, for example, may be considered the easiest) in which you are climbing. Safety must come first and the mark of a true climber is the ability to know when they are pushing too far. If you are an aspiring climber, remember to work hard and use your brain and you will be gaining skill and strength in no time!

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