Rope inspection will be the most helpful step in determining when to retire your rope. Knowing what to look for during rope inspection and the potential rope downfalls will allow you to increase your ropes longevity as you learn what situations to avoid. If you want to learn more about the general rules of rope age, you can read more about the 10 year maximum recommended lifespan in this post.

Fortunately, it is quite straightforward to inspect a rope for damage.

Check your Rope for Damage

The goal: To look at and touch every inch of the rope checking for any abnormalities and damage (described further below).

While you’re moving the rope through your hands, flex the rope and make sure the rope always bends/curves evenly, and there are no sharp/uneven bends. A sharp bend means there is damage to the rope.

How to Inspect a Climbing Rope (When should I retire my rope?) 1

The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) has put together a short and simple video that gives a concise description of how to inspect your rope and the signs that indicate severe damage:

Signs and Symptoms of Damage

Stop climbing on your rope if any of these are present.

  1. Chemical Contamination:
    • If the rope has at any time come into contact with chemicals, particularly acids and bleach, but also any household cleaners or alkali substances, retire the rope. Remember that these chemicals can easily fatally damage a rope even when they are not visible.
    • In the majority of rope failures that involve chemical contamination, the owner is not aware of the contamination and did not know how or where the contamination occurred. It’s important to always know where and how your rope is stored. Be vigilant about keeping your rope away from chemicals and be extremely wary of any staining or bleaching of the sheath.
    • Tip: Avoid storing your rope in the garage if it could be exposed to chemicals.
    • Tip: Avoid transporting your rope uncovered in the back of your car as this could be a place where there are contaminants from transporting grease, harsh chemicals, batteries, machinery, or even simple appliances.
  2. Cut Sheath
    • This is often the easiest to spot and the most dangerous: Retire if the sheath is damaged or cut and the core is visible.
      photo courtesy of Backcountry.com: www.backcountry.com
      photo courtesy of Backcountry.com

      The most basic and the most important thing to remember when estimating the state of your rope’s sheath is, that not even one yarn in sheath is broken. By saying, “broken,” I mean that one yarn must literally be interrupted (due to cut, abrasion or other). If such thing happened, put the rope out of service at once. Single filaments of the yarn can be damaged (rope looks fuzzy). This rope is not dangerous for immediate use. On the other hand, you must not be able to see the core through the thin sheath (for the reason that so many fibers are broken). If that’s the case, do not use your rope anymore.

      -Singing Rock

  3. Extremely Fuzzy Sheath
    • More fuzz = less sheath protecting the core. The above quote by Singing Rock mentions if there so many fuzzies in one spot that it has completely broken through one of the woven strands, it’s time to retire.
    • Most fuzziness is not a problem/OK, if there is enough abrasion to expose the core, or take a “chunk” or rope out, it’s time to retire (photo examples later in this post).
  4. Sheath Slippage
    • This is when the sheath has slipped noticeably which creates significant bunching or, even worse, sections of sheath that contain no core.
    • At gyms, you might notice this happening with the shared top-ropes at the end of the rope near where you tie in – all the bending has created an overuse situation. That part of the rope should be cut off and discarded removed as it does not have all the material necessary to catch a fall.
    • Many companies use glue or special weaving techniques to prevent sheath slippage.
  5. Sponginess
    • The rope feels spongy in sections which indicates severe damage to the core. Most often this will occur at the ends of the rope where you tie-in. If this is the case, you could cut (shorten) your rope to eliminate the spongy parts and escape retirement.
  6. Stiffness
    • Stiffness could be from chemicals contamination or UV rays. UV rays in particular accelerate aging and are often felt as stiffness and seen as a lightening/discoloration.
    • Tip: It is particularly bad to dry your rope in full sunshine after it has got wet in the rain or after washing.
  7. Deformations
    • Retire if strong deformations are present such as bulges, inconsistent stiffness, or nicks.
  8. Extreme Loading
    • British Mountaineering Council recommends that if the rope has ever been subjected to extreme loads, such as any whipper with a fall factor higher than 1 it should be retired or at least demoted to top-rope duty only. Note: the BMC PDF source location was removed and we don’t have another link yet.
  9. Extremely Dirty
    • If the rope has become contaminated with grease, oil, or tar it’s time to retire. There’s no telling what’s happening to the core of the rope that you can’t see.
    • Keeping your rope out of the dirt and sand will help prevent abrasive grains from working their way through the sheath and into the core where they can abrade the fibers. Even sand / grit can make their way to the core of the rope and cause abrasion that can be hard/impossible to see, which is one reason it’s important to keep your rope clean.
    • Note: Dirty ropes are harder to handle as they may not move/bend as expected.
    • Note: A dirty rope will wear out carabiners and belay devices faster.
  10. Burns
    • Retire if heat, abrasion, or friction burns have caused damage, making the sheath stiff in areas. Heat can also damage the core and significantly compromise the strength of the rope. In addition to stiffness / hard sections, you’ll likely notice a translucent, melted, glassy, or singed (brown/black) look to the sheath.
    • Extreme friction is the most common way for a rope burn to happen and is most prevalent when two ropes (or a rope and webbing) rub together. Like if you were to lower off webbing (bad) instead of rappelling (ok) versus rappelling via a rap ring / carabiner (best).

Here’s a page from Beal’s rope rulebook (that we can no longer find online since their site upgrade), that shows some good examples of the rope deformations mentioned above:

Image Courtesy of Beal: http://beal-services.info/anglais/EPI_CONTROLE.pdf
Courtesy of Beal

Petzl also has some nice examples of when to retire:

How to Inspect a Climbing Rope (When should I retire my rope?) 2
This image is a screenshot from Petzl’s PPE Inspection PDF.

Did your rope fail the test?

Why not make your next rope a sustainable one?

You can see the most Sustainable Ropes in this blogpost.

Rope Retirement all Comes Down to Inspection

An inspection doesn’t mean you need a pen and clipboard, nor does it need to take a long time. In fact, it can take very little extra time if you inspect your rope before each climb as you flake it out, and after each climb as you pack it up for the day. While you’re belaying, take note if you feel or see any inconsistencies in the rope, and inspect that area closely after the climb. This simple practice of being aware of the current condition of your rope could save your life.

If you want to really geek out on rope age and how that relates to retirement check out our post that goes into rope age and longevity.

Or, if you realize it’s time for a new rope, check out every single rope that’s sold in the US and a majority of the ropes sold in Europe at WeighMyRack.com/rope. There’s over 560 rope options when you include different lengths, patterns, and dry treatments.


This post is sponsored by REI as part of an Educational / Sustainability Series. This sponsorship means if there are specific products mentioned in the post, we’ll link them to REI’s product pages when possible. Also, if there is a relevant sale period, we'll talk about that too. All words are solely the authors and have in no way been altered because of the sponsored nature of the post.

Other sponsored posts you may find interesting:

  • Sustainable Climbing Ropes
  • Sustainable Climbing Shoes
  • Sustainable Climbing Slings
  • Sustainable Climbing Harnesses


  • And if you need new gear, you can possible save some bucks at REI
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    Alison Dennis

    Alison Dennis

    Alison (she/her) runs WeighMyRack from her 17' travel trailer. She is currently touring the US and would love if you contacted her to meet up to talk about climbing, climbing gear, or if you have any fun and/or ridiculous adventure in mind.

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