How to Clean Trad Gear
Maximize functionality and keep yourself safe
Climbing is a sport intricately woven with risk. When trad climbing, gear keeps you safe, and to ensure maximum functionality (aka safety), the spring-loaded metal devices known as “cams,” should be regularly inspected and maintained in great condition. That means keeping cams free of dust or salt build-up, gunk, and other rock particles. An annual or bi-annual cleaning will help your trad gear, and you, stay in smoothly functioning condition.
Taking care of your trad gear makes it last longer, reduces the financial burden of replacement, and saves resources from being used to produce new gear. You win, your bank account wins, and the planet wins. It’s a win-win-win—not to mention these devices might save your life.
Alison Dennis, a longtime climber, agrees. She’s an engineer, all-mountain athlete, and creator of the world’s largest database of climbing gear. In short, she’s a gear expert. In 2012, she founded the website Weigh My Rack (which hosts the gear tech specs’ database, as well as a wealth of informational blog posts, gear spotlights, and general climbing information). Soon thereafter quit her day job as an analyst with Boeing to make the digital platform her life’s major focus. After years of experience and educational instruction, she offers some tried-and-true advice on cleaning trad gear.
TL;DR (too long; didn’t read)
- Regularly inspect your trad gear for gunk build up
- Cleaning trad gear is cheap ($10 or less), easy, and quick (15 min, plus dry time)
- Keep your gear clean with proper storage techniques
Traditional climbing gear, “trad gear,” is like any other subset of outdoor equipment: it faces exposure to harsh elements that can affect performance over time. Keep your trad gear in tip-top shape and you’ll keep yourself safe from unexpected malfunctions.
“What’s most important is the inspection,” she says. You shouldn’t have to clean your camalots (“cams”) very often, maybe every-other year, she says, unless you’re climbing in environments—like sandy deserts or salty seasides—where tiny particles are known to frequently and quickly gunk up machinery. Regularly inspect your trad gear and you’ll be able to notice any developing wear-and-tear issues, bent wires, or the presence of dirt, grime, or gunk. If you notice the presence of dirty build-up, that’s when you know it’s time to clean. Be proactive, Dennis says, and your gear can stay in excellent condition for years and years to come.
[caption id="attachment_903" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Equipment list: small brush, wax-based lube, trad gear, mild dish soap, pot big enough for your gear.[/caption]
- Gunky trad gear
- Tiny brush*
- Wax-based lubricant**
- Mild dish soap***
[caption id="attachment_904" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Equipment close up: old toothbrush, dirty camalot.[/caption]
* A note on tiny brushes: An old toothbrush is perfectly fine! Metolius also sells a double-ended bouldering brush that can be helpful for super-tiny crevices, but for the most part, any toothbrush-sized brush will get the job done.
[caption id="attachment_905" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Cam lube—note: wax-based bike lubricants will work just as well![/caption]
** A note on lubricant: Wax-based lubricants don’t collect dust and dirt out, as oil-based lubricants (like WD-40) tend to do. Other options include teflon- or silicon-based lubricants. Denis recommends Metolius’ cam lube (the only climbing-specific lube on the market) but, she says, “any wax-based bike lube will be fine.” So, if you have some bike lube around the house, no need to buy the climbing-specific version.
[caption id="attachment_907" align="aligncenter" width="600"] An example of mild dish soap[/caption]
*** A note on “mild” dish soap: This simply means any dish soap that does not have bleach or other corrosive chemicals. Mainly this is to protect the webbing attached to cams, according to Dennis. Examples include: Meyer’s, Seventh Generation, Dawn, or any other eco-friendly soap.
It’s important to remove any obvious dirt particles before submerging the cams in water; this prevents the cleaning water from getting overly dirty.
- With the toothbrush, first remove any larger, loose particles visible within your cams.
- Take the pot and add enough hot water to submerge the cam’s metal components. This can be hot tap water, or water that was boiled and cooled enough to handle with bare hands. (Don’t put cams in boiling water.)
[caption id="attachment_909" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Fill a pot with hot (but not too hot) water, and submerge your cams.[/caption]
- Submerge cams in water, brush again to further remove any particles.
[caption id="attachment_911" align="aligncenter" width="600"] After rinsing in water, but before adding soap, give your cams another brush so that when the soap is added, it has a chance to clean all parts of the cam.[/caption]
- Add a few drops of dish soap (enough to make it lightly foamy), and brush again.
[caption id="attachment_912" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Add a few drops of soap to the water, just enough for suds.[/caption]
When brushing, “No need to go at it super hard,” Dennis says. “You don’t want to bend a spring. Do it like you’re brushing your teeth.”
[caption id="attachment_913" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Just a brush to clean all the crevices.[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_914" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Apply just as much pressure as you would to your own teeth: not too harsh, but not too gentle.[/caption]
- Rinse off all dish soap. ALL of it.
[caption id="attachment_915" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Rinse all soap from your cams. All of it![/caption]
- Shake off excess water, and let cams air dry. (Option to use a hair dryer on a heatless setting to expedite, but take note! Don’t use additional heat to dry cams.)
[caption id="attachment_916" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Let cams dry without any added heat.[/caption]
- Once completely dry, apply wax-based lube by injecting lube into and around all the springs and moving metal parts. Engage and disengage the cams to move the parts around as you apply, to distribute the lube.
[caption id="attachment_917" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Equipment close up: cam lube and camalot.[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_918" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Apply the lube directly to the cam, moving the springs and metal parts as you apply to ensure an even coating.[/caption]
- Let the lube dry (a matter of minutes), and you’re ready to hit the crag.
[caption id="attachment_919" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Wipe off any excess lube, let it dry (few minutes) and you are good to go![/caption]
Now, keep your equipment clean.
Despite Instagram popularizing the gear-porn image, with aesthetically pleasing walls of dangling color-coordinated carabiners and cams, Dennis says the best possible storage for trad gear is actually an opaque storage bin. “It’s uglier, but most efficient in terms of longevity,” she explains: “Dust doesn’t get in there.”
She also recommends bringing gear inside at the end of the day, and not leaving it in your car. “Cars are dirty,” she says. “Trunks can have all kinds of chemicals in the air that you don’t notice.” This likely wouldn’t cause any significant harm in the short term, but such exposure could add up in the long run.
If you do have a gear room, seal it off whenever construction is going on around the house, and Dennis says that too will help keep your cams in tip-top shape for whenever you’re ready to climb.
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.