How Do You Know When to Retire Your Climbing Gear?

Unfortunately, climbing gear isn’t immortal. Fabric starts to wear thin and fray, metal often chips and gets rubbed down, until eventually you start to wonder if it’s even safe to use your equipment anymore. So how much time should you give your gear until you finally decide to retire it?

The answer is…it depends.

Knowing when to switch out your equipment so you can be confident about your safety doesn’t have to be a guessing game (not that you’d want it to be anyway!) So to help you save money and have peace of mind while playing on the slab, we’ll share some of our tips below on how to know when to retire your climbing gear.

Key Takeaways:

  • Gear retirement varies by type, with fabric gear having different lifespans than metal gear.
  • Check your rope regularly for tears, discoloration, or flat spots.
  • Inspect your harness for rips, tears, or fraying, and retire it after 7 years.
  • Metal carabiners can last for decades unless damaged.
  • Replace a helmet if it experiences a significant impact, cracks, or if straps and webbing are damaged.
  • On shoes, check for rubber wear, thinning, or separation of seams as signs for replacement.
  • Cord and webbing should be retired if ripped, frayed, discolored, or burned.
  • Many climbing items can be recycled if they can’t be repurposed.

When to Replace Your Climbing Gear

There’s no universal checklist that you can mark off for all your gear to see if it needs to be retired. Fabric wears out faster than metal, for example, and sometimes a nick in your carabiner isn’t the end of the world. A tear in your rope, on the other hand, would have catastrophic consequences.

So it seems only fitting that your climbing gear would be placed in different categories. And to start, we’ll talk about your rope, which is in a class of its own.

Replacing Your Rope

man rappelling down a rock wall

You really shouldn’t be taking chances with any of your equipment, but this is especially true when it comes to your rope. None of your other protection is even relevant if you don’t have a rope, which means you should treat it like your baby and check it for damage regularly. 

Flake it often – meaning, you should run it through your hands from end to end, checking for any tears in the sheath or damage to your core. Also look for discoloration, flat spots, or extremely fuzzy areas. If any of these problems exist, it’s probably time to say goodbye, and get yourself a new rope.

Otherwise, determining when to retire your rope is fairly dependent on how much you use it. Have you taken a really big, load bearing fall? I would suggest you get a new rope. Do you climb on it at least once a week? Using it for a year is a good benchmark. Most of you will likely be able to make it last between 2-5 years with moderate use, but still make sure to check it for damage before every climb. If the rope has never been used, it’s generally recommended that you retire it after a decade.

Replacing Your Harness

woman leaning back on a climbing rope to rappel

Next, we’ll talk about your harness. Like most of your fabric gear, continually check it for rips, tears, fraying, or other signs of excessive wear. If any of these things exist, it’s time to retire your harness.

As a rule of thumb, you should say goodbye to it after 7 years, regardless of what condition it appears to be in. If you’re constantly outside climbing in the elements, it’s best practice to get a new harness after a year or two. The sun exposure will degrade the material over time, meaning there might come a point where something gives way when you don’t want it to. And we don’t want that happening!

Replacing Carabiners

two black diamond carabiners laying next to each other on a sidewalk

Carabiners are a different story compared to your fabric gear. Since they’re made out of metal, they’re lifespan is significantly longer than most of your other gear – assuming they don’t get damaged in any way, you should be able to use them for several decades. However, keep an eye out for some of the following problems:

  • Metal burrs and sharp edges. If you have sharp edges, that probably means there’s a crack in your carabiner. Or at the very least, there will be shortly. Cracks threaten the structural soundness of your gear, making them unreliable and dangerous to use. Retire your carabiner immediately if it shows signs of any of these.
  • Excessive wear. Sometimes the metal on a carabiner can literally be rubbed thin. With your rope constantly passing across it, grooves can occur over time, thinning the metal and making it weaker. Also, if you use quickdraws or carabiners for anchor building, the narrow edge of the bolts can dig into your gear. When weighted, this will wear down the material over time until you eventually have to retire it.
  • Faulty gate. Being able to reliably open and close the gate on your carabiner is crucial. If you can’t close the gate, there’s the chance that the carabiner will unclip from whatever you attached it to. If you can’t open the gate, you or some of your gear may be stuck in an unpleasant situation for quite awhile. Even if you can force your gate open or closed with a bit of effort, it’s time to find a new home for it, and get some new ones for your collection.
  • Faulty locking mechanism. Along the same line of thought as the last bullet point, you’ll want to make sure that your locking mechanism works on the carabiners that have it. If it’s broken…well, then you might as well just have a regular carabiner for as much good as it’s going to do you. Retire right away if you aren’t able to lock or unlock your carabiner.

Replacing Your Helmet

woman with a rock climbing helmet on while belaying

I was recently climbing at the local crag here in Minnesota when I saw a sight that still makes me cringe. A few routes over from me, a man was about 70% of the way up the wall on a top rope, when he pulled off a good sized rock. His belayer wasn’t looking up, and he didn’t shout out a warning, so the rock landed right on the belayer’s head. Thankfully there was a helmet in between them that took most of the impact, but I shudder to think of what might have happened if there wasn’t any protection in place.

Some climbers aren’t fond of wearing a helmet, but the risks of falling rocks (or falling on your head) are very real nevertheless. Hopefully you don’t find yourself in a position where you end up taking quite a few hits to your noggin, but if you do, you’ll be glad you were wearing a helmet. However, if the impact is great enough, it can crack or dent your gear. A big enough blow could compress the foam padding inside your helmet too, rendering it useless if you were to get hit again. If you see any severe damage like this, it’s time to get a new helmet. The same is true if the straps and webbing are badly frayed or torn.

Replacing Your Shoes

climbing shoes with tear forming

Out of all your gear, it’s likely that you’ll need to replace your shoes the most often. After all, every time you make a new foot placement, you’re wearing out the rubber on your shoes until there’s practically nothing left! For aggressive climbers, they’ll be lucky if they can get a year out of their shoes before they need to resole or buy a new pair. For the occasional gym climber, perhaps 3-4 years isn’t too far fetched. Take a look at your shoes every so often to see how they’re holding up, to determine how much more life you can squeeze out of them. Is the wear and tear starting to build up? Can you see that the rubber is pulling away at the seams, or getting thin in some places? If so, it’s probably time to start considering some other options.

Now, there are ways for you to extend the life of your shoes. Sloppy footwork that scrapes on the rock (or synthetic holds) will naturally wear down the material on your shoes a lot faster than clean foot placement. The less you can rub your shoe against other objects, the longer you’ll be able to go without spending money on a repair or replacement.

Replacing Your Cord and Webbing

Cord and webbing follow a similar guideline as rope: if it’s ripped, frayed, discolored or burned, it’s time to replace. Also, if they take a massive fall, it’s always a good idea to get some new ones.

So what do I mean by “cord and webbing”? Well, basically any piece of fabric gear that we haven’t already covered already. This would include cordelette that you use in anchor building, the hollow block you use for rappelling, or any other similar item that would be bad if it teared (which is basically everything). Gear that’s small or used infrequently is still gear that you trust with your life. Don’t get complacent with it just because it’s not one of your main items, like your rope, harness, or carabiners.

Disposing of Old Gear

man in a yellow helmet tied into a rope while rock climbing

But here comes the real question. Now that you’ve determined your gear is unusable for climbing purposes, what are you supposed to do with it?

The great thing about climbing equipment is that it’s really multifunctional. Take your old rope and use it as a leash or clothesline, if you aren’t keen on letting it go just yet. I took some of my old cord and turned it into a camera strap, and there are plenty of other creative ways to make use of it. Carabiners are handy in almost any circumstance, whether as additions to your keychain or clips for your water bottle. And if you can’t find another way to use your gear, most of the items are easily recycled. 

Meet the Author!

By the age of 20, Spencer had already tackled some of the most famed mountain ranges in Europe, Asia, and North America. His mission is to help others accomplish their own outdoor-related goals, even within the time constraints of a 9-5 job and a busy life schedule.

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