In a nutshell: Top rope and lead climbing are methods for protecting a climb. More specifically…

Top Rope climbing is when you climb on a rope that has an anchor already set up. This is how most gym climbing is rigged — there is a rope that runs from the belayer, up the wall, to an anchor, back down to the climber at the base of the climb.

Top-roping, when the rope is secured from above. Image credit 

Outdoors, you may set up your own top rope from the top of a rock climb (or ice climb). Broadly speaking: You get to the top of the cliff, set up an anchor, ensure the middle of the rope is through the anchor and then throw both ends of the rope down to the base of the climb.

Note: Not all climbs can be top-roped. Only climbs where you can get to the top of the route to set up the anchor may be top-roped.

Fall risk: While top-roping, your risk of a big fall is reduced as the anchor holds the rope from above which allows your belay to be fairly taut at all times. A fall will be quickly caught from your focused belayer.

For gear to set up a top rope you’ll need a few extra carabiners and slings for an anchor and a dynamic climbing rope.

To learn how to setup a top rope we tried to find some worthy YouTube videos showing how to set-up a top-rope anchor, but none of them really did it justice because of the many variables in each situation. The best ways to learn are from a guide, gym, outdoor club, or climbing mentor where you can interact, ask questions and gain in-person experience. You can learn to safely top rope in a day, though it’ll take longer to master all the top-roping anchor situations you may come across.

To get more top rope background before you go out, one of the better online resources is from Rock and Ice, although there are no photos/videos.

Lead climbing can be any discipline (sport, trad, ice, etc), and it requires you to clip into protection as you climb, to protect against a fall. You’re setting the rope up as you climb. This is generally considered more dangerous than top-roping because the potential for bigger falls is greater since the protection is often below you instead of above you.

Lead Climbing, when the climber is bringing up the rope. Image Credit.

Many gyms offer the option to lead climb. To lead climb you normally have to pass an additional safety certification. When lead climbing climbing in the gym, the quickdraws are pre-hung. You start climbing from the bottom of the route and clip the rope into the quickdraws (your protection) as you climb, to protect in case of a fall.

When a climber says they’re going “trad climbing” or “sport climbing” the general assumption would be that they’re lead climbing.

Fall risk: If the leader falls, the fall will be about twice the distance they were above their last piece of protection. The actual distance of the fall will also depend on rope stretch and your belayers abilities.

For gear to lead climb outdoors, the expenses rise as you’ll also need protection such as: quickdraws (if sport climbing) and cams/hexes/nuts (if trad climbing) or ice screws (if ice climbing).

To learn how to lead climb outdoors, it’ll take much longer than learning to top-rope (there is no exact amount of time as it depends on your experience, aptitude and type of climbing discipline you’re learning). The safest bet is to take a course from a guide or a climbing club, or learn from your climbing mentor in a space where you can interact, ask questions and gain in-person experience.

For reference, I took a climbing course in Seattle that taught trad/alpine climbing and it lasted about 6-months, including an overnight outing every other weekend.

Final note about top-roping versus trad climbing

As long as you’re taking the proper safety precautions, there is no right way to enjoy yourself outdoors, especially when climbing. In the past there has been a lot of judgement cast on climbers who like top-roping and that comes from a historic and rather elitist attitude.

If you’re scared to lead climb, that’s ok. Do the type of climbing that allows you to enjoy your time on the rock.

This post was inspired by the Quora question: How does climbing top rope, lead and trad differ.