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Buying Tips

How to Build Your First Trad Rack

You are just getting into trad climbing and on a limited budget. How do you build your first trad rack? There are lots of cam options and all sorts of other fancy gear out there and everything is rather expensive… What should you buy first?

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You are just getting into trad climbing and on a limited budget. How do you build your first trad rack? There are lots of cam options and all sorts of other fancy gear out there and everything is rather expensive… What should you buy first?

The list is actually pretty manageable: a set of cams, finger-sized to hand-sized (more on that below), with a carabiner for each; a set of nuts; eight to 12 alpine draws (which means that many shoulder-length slings and twice as many non-locking carabiners); a nut tool; and something with which to build your anchor (e.g. a cordelette). That should get you good and off to the races. Below, we’ll talk about cams, nuts and alpine draws.

There are different schools of thought in terms of cobbling a rack together. “Don’t ever buy used gear! It’s dangerous. Buy new!” says your all-the-gear-no-idea friend who always pays full retail price; “Only buy super cheap cams from used bargain bins and the Mountain Project forum,” your dirtbag pal might tell you; “Don’t buy any pro—just booty it all!” your dumpster-diving friend will chime in. Who is right?!

None of these approaches is necessarily wrong (except the last one, ultimately, because that’s just unrealistic). You want to be careful buying used gear—it’s not like you can go look up some sort of CamFax like you can with that 1992 beater Toyota Tacoma you’re eyeing—but you shouldn’t automatically write it off.

That being said, when buying new you know what you’re getting and you know you’re getting the best that modern climbing companies have to offer versus some weird rigid-stemmed thing from the early 1980s. For those reasons, we lean towards buying new versus used when building a first trad rack. You’ll be gripped enough up there on your early leads—you don’t want to also be worrying whether or not that used cam you bought off of Steve at the gym, held together with paper clips, is going to explode when you fall on it.


Cams are a critical component as you build your first trad rack. Get cams that fit the most common-size placements. (And don’t get the super ultralight models that’ll cost you an arm and a leg.) These are units in the .4- to 3-inch range, or fingers-to-hands size. 

Cams that fit micro or fist-sized (and larger) cracks are useful, to be sure, and you’ll want them as your skills improve, but when you are starting out, they can be dead weight on your rack. If you can afford it, double up on the 1.5- to 2-inch range. Skip the half sizes if money is tight—whole sizes might (check the listed ranges) overlap enough from unit to unit to cover you, at least for now.

A starter rack of this sort will likely cost about $550 for the cams.

Several good brands and models to consider:

Black Diamond Camalot C4 — Start at $65 each

Tried and true, the BD Camalots have been through multiple iterations and they are some of the most reliable cams on the market. Don’t get us wrong, the Ultralight versions are sick; but they’re not at all necessary as you’re learning the dark art of trad climbing.The standard C4s will last you a long time. 

Black Diamond's new C4 cams are lighter than the old ones

Metolius Ultralight Master Cam — $60-65 each

Ignore for one moment what we said about not shelling out the extra cash for ultralight models as you begin building your rack; because, well, Metolius’ standard cam at this point has ultralight in the name! Their Metolius Ultralight Master Cams are another model that have evolved through the years and, in the U.S. at least, it’s pretty common for climbers to fall into either the BD camp or the Metolius camp—neither is wrong. These cams are great.

Metolius Ultralight Master Cams are a good option for cams as you build your first trad rack.

Wild Country Friends — $405 for set of #.4-3 inch sizes 

It doesn’t get more classic than Wild Country Friends. The original camming device, invented by Ray Jardine in 1978. They’ve come a long way from the rigid-stemmed versions he was using in Yosemite, and they’re still popular around the world. If you want to learn more about the history of how Jardine invented the Friend, and about the mechanics and physical principles underpinning spring-loaded camming devices, check out the Wild Country Cam Book!

Wild Country Friends are a good option for cams as you build your first trad rack.

Trango Flex Cam—$53 – $60 each

Another good option for the price. Something that you can get familiar with before springing for bank-breakers. You likely won’t see as many Trango Flex Cams out in the wild as you Camalots or Metolius Ultralight Master Cams, but their price point makes them super attractive to the climber dipping his or her toes into the trad end of the pool.

DMM Dragons —$230 for set of #2-4

Dragons—the regular-size progenitors of last year’s new Dragonfly mciro cams—are  solid great cams. One drawback is that the lack of a thumb loop means that you’ll never really be able to go aid climbing with these (but then again, aid climbing is just silly), but those who wield them tend often use nothing but. They have fantastic action. Dragons are a bit more expensive that other cams—so not as many beginners are going to opt for them—but you’ll be able to grow with these as a trad climber.


Nuts are simple, light and inexpensive compared to cams and work perfectly well in all but parallel-sided placements, which are, in any case, the domain of the seasoned crack climber. 

Remember that long-before there were cams, climbers were doing hard, clean free-climbs using nothing but chocks. The ability to place a good nut will pay dividends on climbs with more irregular placements. 

Having at least one full set of nuts on your rack is a no-brainer. 

Some of our faves:

Black Diamond Stoppers — $110 for a set of #4-13 sizes

Black Diamond Stoppers are a good option for nuts as you build your first trad rack.

Metolius Ultralight Curve Nuts — $150 for set of #1-10 sizes

Wild Country Rocks — $95 for set of #1-10 sizes

Alpine Draws

Unlike most sport climbs that stick to a fairly direct path, traditional routes—be they single- or multi-pitch—frequently wander more, following the weaknesses in the rock that allow for traditional protection. As such, it’s often critical to extend your pieces with slings to prevent rope drag. 

That’s where alpine draws come in. An alpine draw is a sling—single or double length—with a couple of biners. The beauty of the alpine draw is that you can extend it or use it in its shortened state. Both work.

You can buy pre-assembled alpine draws or make your own from the component pieces. Up to you. You’ll probably want somewhere in the range of at least 10 of these eventually—on some climbs you’ll want considerably more—but you can start with fewer and work your way up as your building your trad rack.

Here are a few solid options for pre-assembled alpine draws:

Trango Phase Alpine Draw — $88 for 4-pack

alpine draws are an important piece as you build your first trad rack

CAMP USA Mach Express Dyneema Alpine Quickdraw — $90 for 4-pack

Black Diamond MiniWire Alpine Quickdraw — $20 each

Things You Don’t Need When You’re Just Starting

There’s certainly nothing stopping you from getting these, but as you build your first trad rack there’s really no need for any of the following (unless you’re way bolder than most beginners). These things all have a place eventually, but for now just ignore ’em and spend your money on things you’ll use!

— Ball Nuts

— Micro Nuts

— Micro Cams

— Cams 5 inches and above

— Big Bros

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