Buyer’s Guide: Ladders
Equip yourself with a reliable, top-quality ladder to tackle jobs around the home.
Replacing a light bulb in your foyer, hanging a family portrait, cleaning the gutters—there are some tasks that are just plain difficult (or downright impossible) to accomplish with your feet flat on the ground. Having a ladder handy means not having to visit the neighbor to borrow one or, worse, getting a leg up from nearby furniture (a safety no-no!).
But buying a ladder isn’t completely straightforward. Selecting one that’s too short, too flimsy to hold your weight (and that of your tools), or one that’s constructed in a way that doesn’t suit your next project—these are all common mistakes. Use the guidelines below to help you navigate each of these important considerations and decide on the best ladder for your needs.
4 Types of Ladders to Know
Ladders come in four major designs, all portable but each suited for different household projects, be they indoors or out, at low or high elevations.
These are the smallest type of self-supporting ladder—that is, they can stand on their own without a structure propping them up, as long as they’re rested on a level, non-slip surface. Measuring no more than four feet tall from the base to the top cap (the uppermost platform of the ladder), these foldable, non-adjustable-length ladders are ideal for one-person indoor tasks that require only a bit of a height boost. For example, the single climbable rail with one or more flat steps is all that’s needed to reach a top shelf or replacing a bulb. On most step-stool ladder models, every step can be climbed, including the top cap.
A-frame ladders are non-adjustable-length, self-supporting ladders that measure four to 20 feet tall when stood on a level, non-slip surface. Their height makes them suitable for most everyday indoor or outdoor uses, from installing ceiling fixtures to replacing first-floor windows or cleaning gutters on one-story homes. They can also be collapsed and stored compactly thanks to a hinged design.
- Front-step A-frame ladders have a single climbable rail with flat steps that successively narrow in width as they get higher. A rear rail, while present, is traditionally non-climbable. The top cap and the top-most step of the front rail are likewise non-climbable.
- On twin-step A-frame ladders, both the front and rear rails have steps that can be climbed by one or two people at a time, depending on the model.
Extension ladders are non-self-supporting ladders that require a structure such as a wall to prop up against. These ladders measure up to 14 feet when collapsed, but they contain one or more telescoping sections that slide up or down to extend them up to 72 feet to suit your needs. The lanky ladders are designed for one-person indoor and outdoor tasks such as painting siding, hanging outdoor Christmas lights, or cleaning the gutters of a two-story home.
SAFETY TIP: Because they contain square rungs or D-shaped rungs—considerably narrower steps than those found on step stools or A-frame ladders—rubber or other non-slip shoes should be worn to climb them. In addition, the ladders should always be rested at an angle of around 75.5 degrees from the supporting structure for optimal stability.
Multi-Position Articulated Ladders
So-called multi-use ladders contain hinges that can be positioned and locked in multiple configurations so you can use them as A-frame ladders, extension ladders, scaffolds, and more. The ladders are ideal for painting stairways or other indoor and outdoor tasks that require a combination of ladder positions. If painting a wall along a staircase, for example, you might need the ladder to lean against the wall extended at the base of the staircase, but fold into an A-frame position with legs of different lengths on the steps themselves. Depending on the configuration, the ladders can reach a height of up to 30 feet and can either be self-supporting or propped up against a surface.
SAFETY TIP: Always place the ladders on a level, non-slip surface, and ensure that you unlock/lock and reposition the hinges from the ground level—never while climbing the ladder.
Key Considerations When Choosing a Ladder
In addition to choosing a ladder type, consider the cost and features needed to safely, quickly, and effortlessly complete the task at hand.
Step stool ladders typically range from $15 to $50, A-frame ladders from $50 to $500, extension ladders from $100 to $600, and multi-position articulated ladders from $75 to $600. Budget picks aren’t always the best way to go: At the lower end of these ranges are shorter, lower load-capacity ladders made of less durable wood. Meanwhile, at the higher end of each range you’ll find taller, accessory-heavy ladders with a higher load capacity and a durable fiberglass, aluminum, or a fiberglass-aluminum blended construction.
In general, you should choose step stool, A-frame, or multi-position articulated ladders for indoor projects requiring a lift of two to eight feet, and opt for an extension ladder or a tall articulated ladder for outdoor projects requiring a boost of 13 feet or more.
An adult standing 5’6″ can usually reach no more than four feet higher than the height of the ladder (i.e. you can reach an 8-foot ceiling from a four-foot-tall ladder). Consider the tasks for which you’d use a ladder and the heights you need to reach, then subtract four feet to come to the appropriate ladder height. If you have to strain your arms, stand on tiptoes, or exceed the tallest climbable step of the ladder to reach the desired height, the ladder is too short for your needs; consider a taller model of the same ladder type, or opt for a taller ladder type altogether.
The maximum weight a ladder can hold is known as its load capacity.
- Type IAA ladders can hold up to 375 pounds.
- Type IA ladders can hold up to 300 pounds.
- Type I ladders can hold up to 250 pounds.
- Type II ladders can hold up to 225 pounds.
- Type III ladders can hold up to 200 pounds.
When determining the ladder load capacity needed for your project, factor in your weight, the weight of anything you’ll be carrying with you on the ladder, and any tools or supplies you’ll store on the ladder (if the ladder has a built-in tray or shelf).
Of the three most common ladder constructions—wood, fiberglass, and aluminum—aluminum is the lightest and most resistant to corrosion. That said, it’s also a good conductor of electricity and not recommended for electrical work or use near electrical lines. Fiberglass, while heavier than aluminum, is stronger and more versatile since it’s electrically non-conductive and can, therefore, be used both in electrical and non-electrical applications. Either of these is still a better option than wood: Despite being the most economical, wood ladders are weaker than the others and electrically conductive when wet.
Many modern ladders include built-in accessories that boost ladder storage capacity, reduce strain, and protect nearby surfaces from the ladder. Popular accessories include the pail shelf, usually extending from the rear rail at level with one of the steps to hold paint buckets or utensils; ladder caps that slide over the rail ends to prevent damage to whatever surface the ladder is propped against; and podiums, or large platforms that take the place of one or more steps on the ladder to offer extra foot room during long or intensive jobs.
Our Top Picks
With a better understanding of which types of ladders meet your needs, check out our picks for some of the best ladders per category.
BEST STEP LADDER: Rubbermaid Lightweight Aluminum Step Stool
This climber offers just the boost (as well as a 225-pound load capacity) needed to complete your next small-scale household project. Despite its compact aluminum frame, the oversized podium and the built-in utility tray in the top cap offer plenty of foot room and storage space to get comfortable mid-air, whether you’re hanging wall art or Christmas stockings. A limited lifetime warranty is included to protect you from workmanship or material defects.
BEST A-FRAME LADDER: Louisville Ladder 6-Foot Fiberglass Ladder
This sturdy, six-foot-tall fiberglass frame is ideal for both indoor and outdoor jobs. Its design details—such as heavy-duty, impact-resistant, non-marring shoes—earn this 300-pound-capacity A-frame ladder high marks. Beyond the basics, the molded storage top stands out for being able to hold paint cans, screwdrivers, fasteners—taking strain out of tasks like painting and cleaning.
BEST EXTENSION LADDER: Louisville Ladder 24-Foot Extension Ladder
Boasting serrated, slip-resistant D-rung steps along its 24-foot height, this weather-resistant extension ladder with non-conductive fiberglass rails offers all the traction, height, and safety you need for at-home or even industrial use. Simple, smart features abound. For instance, the non-marring caps affixed to the upper rail ends keep siding, walls, and other surfaces free of the scratches or dings that ordinary ladders leave behind.
BEST MULTI-USE LADDER: Little Giant 22-Foot Velocity Multi-Use Ladder
The extra-large, fast-locking hinges and telescoping rails on this multi-position ladder allow you to use it as a stairway-step ladder, a 90-degree ladder, a twin-step A-frame ladder, or an extension ladder of up to 19 feet, all at a moment’s notice. Not everyone needs these capabilities, but for those who do, the Little Giant earns its place on our list thanks to its sturdy, shape-shifting aluminum construction and limited lifetime warranty.