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Types of Ladders Buying Guide

A ladder in a framed, unfinished house.

Updated January 20, 2022

Marc M.

By Marc M.

The right ladder makes your work easier and safer. Learn about different ladder types, including extension ladders, step ladders, multipurpose ladders, attic ladders and scaffolding.

Match Your Ladder Size to Your Job

There are many types of ladders to choose from, and it’s important to find one that’s the right size and length for your project. Be sure you know your maximum reach height when shopping for your ladder. Using a ladder that’s too short or tall can hamper the safety and efficiency of your work.

  • Stand no higher than two steps down from the top of a step ladder. Typically, this means a 5-1/2-foot person with a vertical 1-foot reach can safely access a point 4 feet beyond the length of the ladder.
  • An extension ladder needs to be several feet taller than the height you need to reach.
  • The highest standing level that’s safe is four rungs from the top of the ladder.
  • The sections must overlap at least 3 feet on ladders up to 36 feet in length, and as much as 5 feet on longer ladders.
  • The ladder should be at the correct angle, with the base 1 foot out from the surface it rests against for every 4 feet of height to that point.
  • When the ladder rests against a surface, such as a roof line, it needs to extend 3 feet beyond the top support point.
  • All of these factors combined mean you should look for an extension ladder 7 to 10 feet longer than the highest point it’ll rest against.
  • Make sure you keep three points of contact when climbing, descending or working (two hands and one foot or one hand and two feet on the ladder at all times). Read more on Portable Ladder Safety.

Ladder Load Capacity Ratings

Load capacity, or duty rating, indicates the weight a ladder can handle. You may also see this referred to as a performance rating. To determine the load capacity, include the weight of the user plus the weight of any tools and materials. Look for the following ladder ratings:

  • Type IAA ladders have a load capacity of 375 pounds.
  • Type IA ladders have a load capacity of 300 pounds.
  • Type I ladders have a load capacity of 250 pounds.
  • Type II ladders have a load capacity of 225 pounds.
  • Type III ladders have a load capacity of 200 pounds.

Ladder ratings are provided by the American National Standards Institute.

Step Ladders

A close-up of a locking step ladder.

Step ladders have an A-frame design, with spreaders that lock to hold the two sides in the correct position. Typically, steps run up only one side of the ladder, but twin-step ladders allow the use of both sides. Step ladders are a good choice if you don’t have a nearby surface that can support an extension ladder and are often used for indoor projects, such as installing a ceiling fan or painting crown moulding.

Platform ladders, also called podium ladders, are step ladders that have a standing surface at the top instead of a traditional step. A rail extends above the platform, providing an extra point of contact for the user. These ladders are designed to provide additional comfort and security when working at a fixed height.

Versatile telescoping step ladders have an adjustable A-frame design. You can set up these lightweight ladders in multiple configurations and use them on stairs.

Extension Ladders

A man climbing an extension ladder.

Extension ladders have a base and one or two upper sections that slide up and down to allow you to reach different heights. Locks keep the ladder extended to the desired height. Larger extension ladders include rope and pulley systems that allow you to extend the ladder more easily. The lower section usually has pivoting feet that adjust to provide stability at various angles.

Extension ladders require a surface, such as a wall or a roof line, for support. They’re usually available in larger sizes than step ladders, making them a good choice for outdoor projects, like cleaning gutters or painting the outside of a home.

While different in design from standard extension ladders, telescoping ladders also extend to reach various heights. These ladders collapse together for storage and transport. Straight ladders are similar to extension ladders but have only a single section. Extension ladders with three sections often have a smaller storage footprint than two-section models of the same length.

Multi-Position Ladders

A close-up of a combination ladder.

Multi-position ladders, also known as combination ladders or articulating ladders, give you extra versatility and can be a good investment if you have varied needs. Depending on the model, a multi-position ladder can work as a single- or twin-sided step ladder, an extension ladder, or a ladder you can use on stairs. You can configure some models to work in pairs as support for scaffolding.

Ladder Materials

Aluminum ladders are corrosion-resistant, strong and lightweight, making them a durable choice that's easy to maneuver and carry. Aluminum ladders also conduct electricity, however, so don’t use them when working on electrical projects or near electrical lines.

Fiberglass ladders are strong and durable. When clean and dry, they don’t conduct electricity and are the right choice for electrical projects and work near electrical lines.

Other materials, such as steel, wood and plastic, are often available with step stools, which are smaller than standard ladders and designed for tasks that don’t require a lot of reaching.

Attic Ladders

Reclaim your empty attic for storage space by adding an attic ladder. They’re an economical solution to your storage problems, and you can also usually install them in a day using basic tools and materials. There’s some heavy and awkward lifting involved, so plan to have a helper for this project. The mechanism is usually the folding type, but scissor and sliding types are available. The materials are aluminum, steel or wood.

It’s very important to know the weight capacity and height (number of steps) you need. You must also measure the opening carefully since you’ll need to build a frame in the roof joists to support the ladder.

Library Ladders

A rolling library ladder makes a definite style statement. In addition to libraries, these also work well in kitchens, pantries, lofts or anywhere you need to reach upward. Look for kits that include the wooden components, rollers, rails (curved rails for corners are available) and hardware to attach the unit.

Ladder Features and Accessories

A folding work shelf on some step ladders lets you keep tools and materials within easy reach. You can also purchase trays, platforms, buckets and paint cups that work with some models.

  • Some step ladders have notches and holes to hold tools and compatible accessories. Bungee loops for holding tools are also available.
  • A leveling system on some extension models means you can adjust the ladder to accommodate uneven surfaces. Some ladders have a built-in bubble level to check the adjustments. You can also purchase levelers to attach to compatible ladders that don’t have the built-in system.
  • Some extension ladders have feet with serrated edges you can drive into the ground for added stability.
  • A stabilizer is an accessory that attaches to the top of an extension ladder. It extends the support points of the ladder outward and, depending on the size, can span across a window.
  • End covers are foam add-ons for the top of extension ladders. They help prevent the ladder from damaging a wall.
  • Carrying cases are available for telescoping ladders to protect and make the ladders easier to transport.
  • Look for storage hooks or hangers designed to hold ladders and keep them up and out of your way. You can use ladder jacks — supports that attach to an extension ladder — to construct a temporary scaffolding stage (requires two jacks and two ladders).
Tip

Before purchasing and using accessories, make sure they’re compatible with your ladders.

Scaffolding

A scaffolding ladder is best suited for construction and building maintenance. Buy sections or individual components to create a system to suit your needs. A scaffolding system includes the frame plus planks and stages.

Rolling and portable scaffolds, which consist of a frame and one or more platforms for standing, are a good choice for people who change positions frequently.

When working at higher levels, add-ons such as guard rails and outriggers provide more security and stability. While safety requirements vary with the type of equipment you have, below are a few general tips to keep in mind when using scaffolding. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use and safety.

  • Don’t exceed the equipment’s restrictions for height, weight or number of people using the equipment. Factor in the user’s weight, clothes and gear, and any tools and materials that’ll be on the equipment.
  • Inspect all components for damage. Don’t use damaged equipment.
  • Keep work surfaces clear of clutter and debris.

Caution

Always check for overhead power lines. Never use metal equipment near energized electrical equipment, lines or wiring.

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