Please remember that this article is no substitute for proper instruction from a suitably qualified and experienced instructor. Have a look at my website for the courses I offer.
Perhaps this is a brave topic to write about. It's almost emotive for some people, and based on personal preference rather than anything factual! Therefore, I must say, before you go out and spend thousands on a rack, climb with as many other peoples' gear as possible first so you can decide what you prefer using! This rack and information is based on my own gear and for every person who agrees with what I've listed, I can guarantee there will be 2 who disagree! Hopefully this article will steer you in the right direction though.
The most important thing to remember is that your rack should be flexible and change depending on what you're doing. There is definitely not a one size fits all rack. My rack for guiding somebody on Idwal Slabs will be completely different to my rack when climbing a 1000m long multi-pitch route in the Alps! Knowing what to take, and what to leave behind, comes with experience and research prior to climbing a route.
I will focus on a standard beginners rack for somebody who is starting to climb outside, this is the equipment that my clients use when learning to climb, and what I recommend they buy in the future. The rack I recommend will be ideal in most situations, unless you have a weird obsession with climbing off-widths or something – in which case, there's nothing I can do to help you! If you plan on turning up at the crag with this gear, I think you will be able to adequately protect most routes up to HVS, as long as nothing too specialised is required! (I've climbed E2 on this rack, plus a couple of smaller cams.)
This is the personal kit that each climber will need to carry (Where appropriate, I've listed alternative female models – based on recommendations from friends). This is also a suitable list of equipment for just seconding somebody, whether on a single or multi-pitch route.
Something with enough gear loops for trad climbing. I used to prefer 5 or more loops, but recently I've been using a harness with just 4 and find this is normally enough + much simpler! I recommend something like the DMM Renegade 2/Puma 2 or the DMM Mithril/Venture. It's super important to try before you buy though, and definitely hang in the harness in a climbing shop.
Helmets have become so light and well designed over the last couple of years, that there really isn't an excuse for not wearing one when trad climbing. I would recommend the Black Diamond Vapour or Vector, or the Petzl Meteor or Elios (W's version available). You can't go wrong with anything from one of the major manufacturers. Certain models will last longer than others, due to their construction. A Petzl Elios is a bit hardier then a Petzl Meteor, because of the shell it has – do your research before you buy! Again, try them on first to make sure they fit your head!
Just like harnesses and helmets, it's really important to go to a proper climbing shop and try shoes on before you buy them, and get advice from the guys working there. V12 in Llanberis is my go to place, the staff there know even more about climbing shoes than the companies who make them! I personally love my 5.10 Anasazis (Anasazi Low Volume is great for women's feet) for everything from long trad days to steep bouldering, but Scarpa + La Sportiva make similar shoes which might fit you better.
Chalk helps dry your skin out. Loose chalk or a chalk ball is fine, but it isn't really required on routes below VS, and excessive chalking looks rubbish. Please consider it's use before coating your hands in it!
Belay Device + HMS Karabiner
There's hundreds of different belay devices available, anything from the major manufacturers will be fine, but its worth making sure it has two slots to allow you to use half ropes, which are common when climbing in the UK. Also consider the diameter of the ropes you will be using, and make sure your belay device is suitable. I personally love my DMM Pivot, it's a versatile device which is lightweight + seems to work better than other equivalent devices. Something like the DMM Mantis or Black Diamond ATC-XP will also do the job, or if you're intending on multi pitch climbing, pay extra for a DMM Pivot, Petzl Reverso, or Black Diamond ATC Guide and get a Mountaineering Instructor to show you how to use it! I personally use a DMM Aero HMS with my belay device which is a good size, and balances weight and strength/longevity nicely.
3x D-Shaped Karabiners + 1x HMS Karabiner
You will need these in order to attach to a belay. D-Shaped karabiners go on the gear, whilst HMS karabiners allow you to attach yourself to the gear using clove hitches. I prefer the slightly larger DMM Boa for the HMS, whilst the DMM Aero Offset D or DMM Shadow are great D-Shaped karabiners.
You want to try and avoid leaving your shiny brand new nuts behind if your partner gets them stuck in a crack – you will normally be able to extract them using a nut key.
2x 5mm or 6mm Prussik loops
Whether abseiling off a mountain crag or in to a sea cliff, or helping a stuck or injured partner, prussik loops are very versatile and useful things to have on your harness. Much debate occurs over 5mm vs 6mm cord – I use one of each and rack them together on a screw gate karabiner, such as a DMM Shadow. The cord should be used to create a loop, tying the ends together with a Double Fisherman's. Using a prussik to protect an abseil or rescue a friend is a complicated thing to do – please seek proper instruction first! Abseiling is something I cover on all of my courses.
3x 120cm slings
Useful to always have on your harness, or racked around your chest. Can be used to abseil off a route, clip into somebody's belay, or in self rescue situations. I recommend DMM 8mm Dyneema slings, as they're nice and thin and lightweight. I don't like big bulky slings cluttering up my harness! I carry these slings around my chest with a DMM Phantom clipped to each of them.
As long as each climber carries the above equipment, you should be able to second each other and deal with most routes and situations. Things like nut keys can be shared, but I generally forget and it's probably easier to both carry one. Slings can also be swapped over between the leader and the second, but again, I always forget.
The following rack would be carried by the leader whilst they climb. Remember, certain things might not get taken on every route – I wouldn't ever take hexes on a route with small cracks, for example, or 14 quickdraws on a 10m route at Stanage! It takes experience to be able to adjust your rack depending on the route. Gain as much information of the route from the floor by looking at it and deciding what you might need. On a short gritstone route, I might not bother with the Offsets, whereas on a 40m pitch in North Wales, I would! Whilst you're deciding what to carry, it's always better to play it safe and take more, than to risk it and not have enough gear to adequately protect yourself. I always try to think about what gear I didn't use on a route, and then decide if I can just leave it on the ground next time.
This is the gear that I would usually take to the crag with me (Sometimes I will add some smaller cams and smaller nuts if I'm climbing above E1/2):
1x Set of DMM Wallnuts Size 1-11 (Split over 2 snapgates)
1x Set of Wild Country Rocks Size 3-7 (On one snapgate)
1x Set of DMM Alloy Offsets (On one snapgate)
1x Set of DMM Torque Nuts (Split over 2 snapgates)
6x DMM Dragon Cams Sizes 0 – 5 (Each on a separate snapgate)
6x DMM Phantom 25cm Quickdraws
4x DMM Phantom 18cm Quickdraws
4x 'Slingdraws' (Each use 2x DMM Phantom snapgates + 1x DMM 60cm 8mm Dyneema Sling)
The rack I've listed isn't necessarily the cheapest, but I think it's probably the most versatile you can buy at the moment. However, I do appreciate not everyone wants to spend a fortune on their rack initially. It's worth remembering that you can split a rack with a regular climbing partner. One of you could buy the cams, whilst the other buys the nuts and quickdraws. If this isn't possible, or you want your own rack, then swap out some of the lightweight things above for slightly heavier 'versions'. For example, DMM Demon cams are cheaper than DMM Dragon cams, you could even start off without cams, as many people do, relying on hexes more instead.
On shorter routes, you can get away with just 1 set of nuts, however I think that you are always better with a set and a half, which just gives you more options. I would carry 1 full set, and then double up on sizes 3-7, as they are the most popular sizes. I would take these on almost every route. I see offsets as an optional extra, on certain rock types they are brilliant and seem to go in everywhere! On others, I rarely use them. If the pitch is long, I will take them, on a shorter pitch on the grit, I might not bother.
I very rarely carry hexes in my personal climbing, I find them bulky and the noise irritating! It's also rare to find a hex placement where a cam (or large nut!) doesn't also work. However, they can come in useful on low grade routes, and are a good alternative to cams if you can't afford them initially. They are also much simpler to place than cams, which is helpful whilst you are starting out! I would recommend buying cams sooner rather than later though.
Quick to place, and stronger than people expect them to be, as long as they are well placed and well extended, they're great! They also mean certain routes are now much safer than they would have been when they were first climbed! There's a variety available, the most popular seem to be DMM Dragon cams (extendable sling is a bonus!) or Black Diamond C4s (Feel a bit more solid than the Dragons + have a nice thumb loop) - It's worth looking out for the offers! I always carry 4 cams (Size 0-4) and carry smaller or bigger sizes too if the route seems like it may need them. I rack all my cams on individual (colour co-ordinated!) snapgates.
I prefer longer quickdraws when trad climbing. Short quickdraws seem a bit pointless as they don't really make much difference to the length of a fall, but make a big difference to rope drag. I find the smaller carabiners on the DMM Phantoms fine for both Summer and Winter use, and their lack of weight and bulk makes a big difference over a full size karabiner. The extendable quickdraws are really useful for reducing the drag on a long pitch and they also work as a sling for threads, spikes or pegs, where they can be better than a longer sling. I don't take 14 quickdraws on a 10m gritstone route, but I sometimes add more to my 14 if the pitch is long, or weaves around a lot. Make a judgement, do you really need to place a piece of gear every metre? Don't forget that your cams will have a snapgate on them too, so you won't always need to clip a quickdraw onto them.
I'll be writing an article specifically about ropes, which will be released on my website and Facebook page shortly. Keep an eye out for it!
Where to buy?
You will generally receive better service and be talking to more knowledgable staff at an independent outdoor shop, compared to a high street store. For example, V12 in Llanberis, or Needlesports in Keswick which are both excellent shops and will be able to offer good honest advice. Please support these smaller shops and resist the temptation to order online where it may be cheaper!