Pro Beta for Outdoor Top Roping

Jasmin Pillai takes us through the basics of outdoor top rope climbing...

It’s a new year and, therefore, time to try new things!

You’ve been climbing in the gym for a few months now. You walk around proudly displaying your top rope belay tag to friends, eager to climb anything with an available rope.

Your next goal is getting outside onto real rock… the only problem is you don’t know where to start (how does the rope even get to the top of a climb in the first place?).

Never fear! All the tips below will help you embark on your first top rope session while keeping you safe and having fun!

Get the psych going with this classic piece of climbing cinema!
Disclaimer: This video is purely for comedic entertainment; don’t try this at home!

Top Rope vs Lead Climbing:

While top roping, your anchor is one set place at the end of the pitch which will always be above you. When you lead, you have multiple points that anchor you to the wall and as you ascend, sometimes you will be in line with your anchor, before pulling up your rope to clip into the next, which will be further than your last. As there is more gear and technique involved to be able to lead climb, it can feel quite overwhelming.

When top roping, you can just climb upwards as the anchors are already fixed for you, which makes it a great way to transition from indoor climbing walls to real rock as it removes the pressure while allowing the necessary exposure you need to become accustomed to new terrain. It also allows friends and family to participate in a climbing session in a safe way if they are new to climbing.

 Here are a few things you need to know before heading out on your top roping missions…

1. Get some help from

If you do not know how to lead climb, you will need at least two people who are seasoned lead climbers (a.k.a. people who know how to lead and know how to lead belay) to help you out. One person will climb up clipping draws as they ascend, the lead belayer will give them slack as they climb up higher, it is imperative that you are with people who know how to lead confidently, for your safety and theirs.

Some crags have access to anchors from the top of the crag, but, again, it is advised that you go with someone who is a seasoned climber, who you trust to set the anchors up. If you find a crag like this, where you become comfortable setting up your own anchors, you will no longer need to rely solely on people who can lead climb to take you out.

We always recommend getting in touch with a certified mountain guide when learning any new climbing skills, as they can set everything up safely for you and teach you if you’d like to learn – check out our South African guide directory here.

2. Preserving anchors

Anchors are the two chains or bolts found next to each other at the top of a single-pitch climb. Ropes running through them continually, especially when top roping, cause the bolts or chains to wear down faster, it can also be very unfriendly to your rope depending on the type of anchors.

Most routes that are available for us to climb outside have been put up on the route setter’s personal dime. They have spent time and money on the equipment to make that route accessible for you. In return, please do your utmost to preserve anchors. 

Check out the best practice for rigging an anchor with your own gear in GoodBETA’s Outdoor Top Rope Safety blog.

Following these methods means that if you have a large group of people top roping, the anchors will be protected from wearing down, extending their lifespan for many others to use!

3. Choosing suitable routes

Routes need to be assessed before setting them up on top rope:

  • Are there any edges that your rope will be running against continually?
  • Are there trees and rocks that could cause serious damage to you if you come off the route and swing into them?
  • Is the route extremely overhanging?
  • Will the rope interfere with other routes on the wall?

If you answered yes to any of these questions then the route is probably not suitable to set up a top rope on. You are looking for a route where nothing will catch on your rope while you are climbing and descending.

Lower angles such as slab and vertical walls are more suitable for top roping as you do not swing out when you let go of the rock if you need to rest. Overhanging routes need to be set up to back-lead if you do not want to lead the route.

Back leading is very similar to top rope in the sense that the anchor is coming from above the climber. The main difference is that a top rope set-up only has anchors at the top of the climb, whereas when a climber back leads they climb past multiple anchors that need to be unclipped as they progress on the route. If a climber falls or needs to rest on back lead, the last anchor point will hold them – this is especially useful for overhangs as it keeps the climber close to the rock. Back leading is also a great way to become acquainted with using quickdraws and can be a stepping stone to learning how to lead in the future.

The diagram shows the difference between top rope (left) and back leading (right) on an overhanging route.

The diagram also shows why top rope is not ideal if you are climbing in an overhang. If the angle of the rock is steep enough you could hit the ground.

4. Crag etiquette

If you are planning to set up a top rope on a popular climb that will be up for a while, ask other climbers at the crag if they are okay with you doing this. Most people will be fine if you allow them to make use of the top rope too. Sometimes people will opt to lead the route and put the top rope back up for you once they have.

It’s all about being aware that there are other climbers around you, and being respectful of each other and sharing the space.

Other safety tips for top roping:

  • Try to stay within a meter from the bolt line when you are climbing a route. Climbing off-route can interfere with other people climbing on neighbouring routes. It can also potentially dislodge loose rocks and increases your chance of pendulum-ing when you fall, as the angle increases from your anchor.
  • Never ever grab a bolt hole!!! If you fall with your finger in a hanger or bolt hole, you run the risk of seriously injuring your finger or even losing it, if you fall.
  • If you are scared do not to grab your belayer’s side of the rope. If you fall with your hands clinging onto rope you could give yourself rope burn.

Get Out There!

Your first session outdoors will be very different to climbing in the gym, but being out in nature, hearing the birds sing and breathing in fresh mountain air will have you hooked immediately. If there is something to commit to for the new year, it is to get outside and touch some rock – we are rock climbers after all!


Jasmin Pillai has been climbing for 17 years; when she was younger she was heavily into competition climbing. She now route-sets and coaches at various gyms in South Africa.

Her latest inspiration is finding the best pairing when it comes to climbing, wining and dining in a day. 

Follow her adventures at Climb · Wine · Dine

Jasmin Pillai
Jasmin Pillai