Free Climbing vs Free Soloing: Definitions and Differences

When I talk to my friends who don’t climb I am always reminded of how much lingo and jargon climbers have. Free Climbing vs Free Soloing is one of those that sound like they should be really similar, yet really aren’t.

Both styles of climbing have been brought to mainstream sports attention in recent years. With Sport Climbing debuting at the Olympics in 2021 and the movie Free Solo bringing that style of climbing to National Geographic.

So, let’s dive into the differences between these two styles of climbing!

Free Climbing vs Free Soloing – The Differences

Free climbing, which is broken into several styles, is the art of climbing a wall with a rope tied off to safety spots along the route to catch you if you fall. Take away the rope and safety equipment and you get Free Soloing, just you and the wall.

When most people think of rock climbing, they are thinking of free climbing. Free climbers wear safety harnesses attached to a rope and are belayed by another climber or helper. Helmets are also commonplace. None of these things can be used to help you scale the wall though.

Free climbers don’t pull on their rope to help them ascend, place added pieces of protection for grips or handholds, or grab onto man-made items along the route. Just your hands and feet to get you up a wall.

Climbing gyms are all set up for Free Climbing with a top rope. They’ll often have bouldering walls as well, but the big attraction for most is the free climbing.

Free soloing, on the other hand, is probably the most dangerous form of rock climbing. Especially when done on big walls, climbers ascend routes that are hundreds, if not thousands of feet tall with nothing but themselves and a chalk bag. Falls in this style of climbing is almost always fatal. As you can imagine, not many people participate in free soloing!

As similar as their names are, free climbing is the most common form of rock climbing with several sub-disciplines under its umbrella. In the grand scheme of things, free climbing is fairly safe. Free soloing is the least common, and most dangerous form of climbing.

What Does It Mean To Free Climb Something?

One of the most common expressions in the climbing world is the term “Free’d”. This almost always means that the person speaking free-climbed the route in question. This means that they got from the bottom of the route to the top only using hands, feet, skill, and strength. Any gear they were using was simply used as protection against a fall.

You also might hear people talk about a ‘clean’ route. This simply means they didn’t fall. They never used the protection and accomplished the route from bottom to top without any mistakes or falls.

Why is it Called Free Climbing?

Free climbing is a fairly new discipline in the rock climbing world. Traditionally, aid climbing was the only way to reach the top of a peak or route. Thus, free climbing got its name because you climbed “free” of aiding devices.

Aid climbing, on the other hand, pretty much allows you to scale the route by any means necessary. This could mean drilling bolts into the wall for hand and foot holds, “aiders”, or special shoes that helped you hike up the wall, and even placing stairs along the route to make it repeatable.

The biggest knock on traditional aid climbing is it normally left things behind on the rock. Stairs, bolts, and other aid were set in place and never removed, permanently scarring the landscape.

In the 1960s, with the invention of sticky rubber climbing shoes and chalk, many routes that were only done with aid before started to be free’d. Slowly but surely the climbing world shifted from being mostly aid climbing to mostly free climbing.

Type of Free Climbing

In the world of free climbing, there are two major types of climbing, trad, and sport.

Trad climbing uses removable nuts, cams, and anchors rather than permanent safety anchors to catch a climber in case of a fall. Normally you will climb with two or more people on a route while trad climbing. The lead climber will set the protection and the last person will remove them to leave minimal damage to the wall and route.

Lead climbing presents unique challenges. Lead Climbers are often climbing above your last tie-in point, meaning falls can be further, with more force, and potentially more dangerous.

On top of that, it is vitally important that the nuts and cams are set properly with consideration for the type of rock you’re on, the angle of a potential fall, the force of rope pull, and other factors. Gear that fails and pulls out of rock can create a chain reaction. This is where most serious injuries in trad climbing occur.

Sport climbing is done on established routes where the tie-in points are bolted into the surface. Most commonly you’ll find this in climbing gyms, but it is not contained simply indoors.

It’s been fun to see sport climbing has really emerged in the last twenty years and turned rock climbing into a legitimate sport in the world’s eyes. So much so that it debuted in the Olympics in Tokoyo in 2021. Here is a replay of the event!

Free Climbing vs Free Solo – Wrap Up

As you hopefully understand now, the comparison of free climbing vs free solo is pretty self-explanatory. Free climbing is the most common form of rock climbing and free soloing is fairly uncommon. The names may be similar, but the climbing styles are far apart!

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Our writer/editor and youngest team member, Nick is in school for journalism with a minor in climbing. Just kidding. There is no minor for climbing. We wish though!

Nick has the benefit of being fairly new to the world of climbing, and thus is able to look at our content and make sure we explain things in a way both experts and people who have never put foot on a wall will understand!