At the gym today, a climber referred to "back-stepping" for a move that I would have referred to as a layback. I said, "I would have called that a layback," and he said, "Yeah, the difference is kind of subtle." (Clearly nobody is talking about back-stepping the rope, which is simply a mistake.) This guy is a 5.11 leader, so I assume he knows what he's talking about.

Can anyone explain the difference?

Does back-stepping simply mean turning your body sideways, while a layback implies using your arms to apply pressure at your feet and gain stronger friction?

2 Answers 2


I find myself in agreement with the definitions listed on Climbing.com, so I have excerpted them here:

Backstep n, v : To press your shoe’s external edge onto a foothold and drop the knee lightly, thus bringing the sole’s bottom-outside in contact with the rock and your hip in; often opposed against your other foot’s big toe, off which you resolutely push. Unlike a Lolotte (drop knee), the less aggressive backstep typically exploits footholds below knee level.

Lieback n, v : To lean horizontally (sideways) off a hold, often a crack, and walk the feet high in opposition.

To me, simply sideways to the wall is not sufficient to call a move back-stepping. For example, if my right hip is against the wall, and I extend my right foot forward to place it on a hold, I would simply refer to it as using the "outside edge". But if I moved my right foot backwards to reach a hold, I would consider it a backstep.

I find it hard to confuse with a lieback, as the nature of the lieback is to have your feet in front of you, usually pressing against the same feature against which your arms are pulling.

Source: http://www.climbing.com/skill/climbing-dictionary/

On a related note, a question about what to call "leg behind rope" was good for about 5 pages on Mountain Project, collecting a variety of suggestions, some more amusing than others.


The difference is in the footwork, you back-step (what I always refer to as dropping your knee) while face climbing, but you can do it while you are laying back.

A classic layback is like when you're climbing a crack while smearing your feet against the wall:

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Back-stepping is when you turn your hip into the wall so that you can get a toe or the outside edge of your foot up onto a foothold on the face of the rock so you can keep you balance closer to the wall and reach higher.

As I said, you can back step while laying back if for example you were in a layback and found a good foot hold next to your hip. Moving your foot back to that foothold is the back-step.

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