When to Retire your Climbing Gear
Skip to the bottom of the page to find out the lifespan of your kit!
“A normal belay loop doesn’t fail [...] It was totally preventable.”
Jim Hewett, on the death of partner Todd Skinner who died when his belay loop broke whilst attempting a new free climb of Yosemite's Leaning Tower in October, 2006.
Whether you have a special system for storing your gear, or you just chuck it all in a bag and leave it in the boot of the car, at some point you will have to consider when to stop using certain items of climbing equipment.
The level of detail in the regulations that professionals in the climbing industry must consider and comply with may seem excessive to the recreational climber.
Sure your harness is getting on a bit and you found most of your nuts at the crag but, they look fine, right?
Compared to that attitude, meticulous usage logs, the noting of serial numbers and regular completions of formal inspections may seem ridiculous. Nevertheless, there are statutory requirements for those operating professionally to manage their gear in a certain way.
There may not be any such legal requirements for the recreational climber, but everyone could benefit from adopting some similar gear management and maintenance practices.
Regular gear checks are imperative. Here are six things to consider when inspecting your gear.
This is the most obvious one, if it’s clearly damaged, then it's time to get a new one!
What do we mean by damaged?
When checking gear, we are comparing it to its brand new counterpart. If it's cut, torn, ripped, cracked, discoloured, deformed, snapped, frayed, nicked, gouged, burred, abraded, crushed or broken in any other way - it's time to retire it.
Of course, some kit can be repaired.
You can get replacement trigger wires for broken cams, many manufacturers offer a 're-slinging' service to replace the slings on hexes and cams, and some rope damage can simply be cut off.
But beyond these examples, it's not advised that you attempt any form of home-repair on your climbing equipment.
(L) A cam sling critically damaged by abrasion on sharp Dartmoor granite - it stopped Matt hitting the floor though, so a worthwhile sacrifice!
Loss of Function
A functions test is key to assessing an item of equipment.
Does it still do the job it was designed for?
Does the the cam still move, the carabiner gate snap back, and the rope still stretch?
If not, you guessed it. It's time for a new one.
Wear and Tear
Sadly, climbing equipment is a consumable product.
Even under normal use, climbing gear wears out.
There is no way you can repeatedly load a stretchy rope, clip soft aluminium carabiners to hardened steel bolt hangers, or drag fabric slings over rough rock, without them eventually beginning to wear out.
Assessing the state of wear and tear from normal use is also key - if a section of rope is soft or hard (compared to the rest of it) or the sheath is “furry” - then it may be time to cut it shorter or retire it.
Slings are notorious for “furring” as strands of the material get caught. Once this wear has covered the full width of a sling, it’s probably time to say goodbye.
Environmental damage, such as UV degradation and corrosion from salt water (sea water or sweat) will also occur over time.
Ropes require careful monitoring as superficial sheath wear and tear may develop or hide more serious internal damage.
Climbing gear is made for climbing.
Towing a car with a climbing rope will stress it in ways that it was never designed for.
Using your climbing harness on the scaffold while you repaint the house, using slings for dog leads, or carabiners in your boating kit could all cause or hide damage.
Inappropriate storage can also be classes as misuse.
Keeping kit damp and dirty, allowing chemical contamination, storing in sunlight or outside the recommended temperature ranges, or cleaning equipment with certain products can cause significant damage.
Lost and Found or of Unknown History
If you find gear at the crag, we encourage you to always try and return it to its owner, if that's not possible, you've got some legitimate crag-swag on your hands!
Unfortunately, if you didn’t buy it new (even if you can find out it's age), then you can't know what use and misuse it has undergone.
As professionals, we're not able to justify using a piece of gear under these circumstances.
The same goes for gear purchased second-hand - you just can't know what it's been through.
In the event of the loss and recovery of your own kit. You need to be equally confident about it's treatment whilst not in your possession.
If the local wall has stored your forgotten harness with their kit for a week this probably means it’s still ok.
On the other hand if someone takes your rope home by mistake and, not wanting to own up, dumps it at the wall, you have no idea if it has been looked after properly.
If you lose and then recover something and can't account for its activities, you buy second hand gear, or you find some crag-swag, we cannot recommend that you use it.
If you've got through all the above points and have no reason to retire your kit, great!
There's only one thing left to consider... how old is it?
Equipment manufacturers put maximum lifespans on gear for a reason. Past that time/date, they cannot guarantee that their product will meet the required standards.
Fabric materials lose elasticity and plastic materials become more brittle over time, even if the gear is well stored and not in use.
All items of equipment come with information about use, care, and lifespan (which is another reason you should always buy new kit). Lifespans vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, so always check the label. The manufacture date of most kit can be found via its unique serial number or in a statement in the documents attached.
If it’s past it’s use by date - it’s time to retire it.
And remember, it’s a maximum lifespan, not a guarantee that it will last this long regardless!
To help you, we've compiled a comprehensive list of manufacturer specified maximum lifespans for most common and reputable gear used in the United Kingdom.