A Full Guide To Rock Climbing Grades And Scales

A Full Guide To Rock Climbing Grades And Scales

When you first get started as a climber, it is integral to know what kind of courses you’ll find yourself on. You’ll always want to make sure that you have the technical capabilities and the experience to handle the trail that you’re about to climb, and one of the best ways is to check the grade.

Rock climbing grades and scales give the climber an idea of what to expect from a course before they get started, and understanding them is a crucial part of climbing safely. Of course, it can be a bit of a challenge to learn what all of the different grades mean, and some experienced climbers still need to look them up from time to time.

Rock Climbing Grades Explained

Before we get into the details, however, let's lay out the groundwork and ensure that all of our readers can follow along. We're going to take a look at what climbing grades and climbing scales are, and we'll also take a look at how they differ from each other in a few key ways.

A man rock climbing.

Climbing Scale

The scale (or rating) of a climb is a metric that is used to refer to how difficult it would be to complete. Many different climbing scales are used all around the world, and each of them can give you a reasonable idea of what to expect when you're about to tackle a climb.

Keep in mind that climbing scales won't always give you a perfect idea of a climb's difficulty, as everyone has some climbs that they prefer. A climbing scale is meant to be used as more of a guideline than anything, so don't expect it to be spot-on for every climb that you attempt.

Climbing Grade

This is a term that is often confused for the scale or rating of a climb, but the grade is a different metric altogether. When you see a climb’s grade, it is there to give you an idea of how long the climb will take, as opposed to how much of a challenge it will present for you.

Of course, there is the simple matter that longer climbs will require you to be a more proficient climber, as they will end up testing your endurance. On the other hand, you have to consider that you can string together a group of easy hill climbs, and they will be long enough to classify as one of the higher grades.

The Various Scales And Metrics

Now that we have covered all of the baseline info, we can get into the details that you need to know about climbing grades and scales. We'll cover a range of different ratings that are some of the most common and important ones to recognize and give you an idea of how they differ from each other.

The Yosemite Decimal System

The most common climbing scale that is used in America is the Yosemite Decimal System, and you’ll find that many national parks and other famous climbs use it. This is a five-class system, but the most important one to know is the fifth class, as that is used to denote full-gear rock climbing.

Class 1

Not yet a climb, an example would be walking on a trail or a path.

Class 2

Heading up an incline, many forms of hiking fall under this class.

Class 3

The incline gets steeper at this point, and this is where falling starts to become a concern.

Class 4

Even steeper than class 3 and using your hands starts to become necessary. The first class where equipment is recommended, with many climbers using ropes for safety.

Class 5

Genuine, vertical rock climbing, with belaying equipment and other safety gear.

Since all rock climbs fall under class 5, there is also a subcategory to give you an idea of how difficult a particular climb may be. When people refer to YDS (Yosemite Decimal System) ratings, they are usually talking about the subclass (written in the form of 5.xx) rating of a climb.

Rock climbing grades.

YDS ratings range from 5.1 to 5.15, based on how hard the climb is, with higher numbers denoting a more challenging climb. At the top end of the scale, you can have "climbs" that are rated at 6, though these are impossible without some support equipment like abseiling rope.

The subclassifications stretch another layer deeper yet, with the letters a, b, c, and d being used to further demonstrate the challenge of a climb. For example, if a climb is rated 5.3b, it will be easier than a climb that is rated 5.3c.

Climbing Grades

As we already mentioned, the grade of a climb will instead describe how long you can expect it to take as opposed to how much of a direct challenge it will present for you. There are a total of six rock climbing grades, though the latter two grades are not used as often as the first four since most climbs don’t stretch past a single day.

Grade I

Anywhere from 1 to 2 hours

Grade II

Up to 4 hours

Grade III

Between 4 hours and a day

Grade IV

A full day of climbing

Grade V

Two days of climbing

Grade V

Over two days of climbing

How Are Climbing Ratings And Grades Determined?

When it comes to grade, a suitably proficient climber will attempt the course and mark it as the amount of time they completed it in.

Climbing ratings often describe the most challenging point of a climb, which is known as the crux. Of course, different parts of the climb can have varied levels of difficulty, so there is also a system to show whether or not the challenge is constant. In a climb with a + mark, the difficulty is pretty consistent, but climbs marked - will be easier than the crux for the most part.


Climbing grades bouldering grades and scales can all help you determine whether or not you're ready to tackle a new course, and we hope that this guide has helped you out. Feel free to leave a comment down below and let us know what you think of our guide.