From safety tips to gear suggestions, this guide to beginner rock climbing has everything you need to know to tackle your foray into the vertical.
Rock climbing is everywhere these days. From the Dawn Wall to your Instagram feed to the new gym going up in town, climbing is no longer the fringe sport it once was. Kids are starting to climb almost before they can walk, and now more than ever, there’s no reason for you not to give it a try as well.
However, climbing can be one of those intimidating hobbies to begin. Many ask, “How do I get started?” citing fear and feeling overwhelmed with gear and safety as huge barriers to entry. We get it, and so what follows is everything you need to know to get out on the rock.
Before you startThe term “rock climbing” encompasses a great number of disciplines, from bouldering to big wall climbing, to mountain climbing and mountaineering. Before you begin, it might be important to first identify what style of climbing you are interested in, or perhaps to ask, “Why do I want to climb?” Do you want to summit peaks, boulder at your local gym, or perhaps learn to lead climb at the local crag? Do you want to make friends, be outdoors, or get in shape (or all three)? Once these questions are answered, you can work out the potential steps you’ll need to take to get there.
Below (in the Sport vs. trad vs. bouldering section) we attempt to inform this decision by breaking down the various styles of climbing; each has its own specific culture, gear, and learning curve.
How to get startedClimbing is a complex sport: it’s potentially expensive to get into, difficult to find mentors, and can be dangerous if not done correctly. With the evolution of climbing gyms, however, it’s easier than ever to give climbing a try: just grab a friend and head to the nearest gym, rent a pair of shoes and a harness, and jump on the bouldering wall.
However, if and when your progression leads you to climbing on ropes and outside, technical skills become essential to safety. Many choose to learn from friends; however, safety is so important that we recommend enrolling in a formal class. The easiest and best way to learn the essential skills, which include belaying and tying proper knots, is by taking an introductory course at your local gym. Or, if you’re interested in climbing outside or even more specifically climbing in the mountains, seek out a class either through your gym or a local guide.
Indoor vs. outdoorThe first indoor climbing gym opened in Seattle in 1987. Now just 30 years later, there are 430 gyms across the nation, with over 50 more in construction at the time of writing. Areas like the Denver metropolis have as many as 10 gyms, all stuffed to capacity each day. Whereas climbers used to be a tiny community of mostly adult men with access to the wilderness, the climbing gym revolution has brought climbing to the masses. It’s safe to say that more people now climb indoors than outdoors.
The climbing gym has developed its own culture, and climbing inside - “pulling on plastic,” as climbers often say - is vastly different from climbing outdoors. It is arguably safer, much more convenient to access, and far more social; for these reasons, the gym is an excellent place to begin climbing. Gym passes cost anywhere from $6 to $30/day, with monthly memberships being the best option for those who go regularly.
Outdoor climbing takes place on boulders, on cliff bands, and in mountains - anywhere where there is solid rock, climbers can be found. Some of the most popular types of rock to climb include granite, sandstone, limestone, basalt, and conglomerate blends. Each of these kinds of rock has its own style of climbing, from overhanging jugs much like gym climbs, to technical slabs, to splitter cracks.
Climbing outdoors demands a higher level of expertise than climbing in the gym, as there are more variables and dangers on real rock. Weather can be a factor, as well as rock fall. Climbers will also need to possess a great deal more gear to climb outside, including their own rope and harness, quickdraws or other protection, a personal anchor and locking carabiner, and a helmet. Although many climbers begin in the gym, some learn to climb immediately outside, most commonly with the help of a guide or an instructional course.
Sport vs. trad vs. boulderingRock climbing is generally broken down into three categories: sport climbing, traditional (trad) climbing, and bouldering. Climbers tend to specialize in or prefer one discipline over the others, though many climbers participate in all three.
Sport climbing is a style of climbing where the leader attaches quickdraws to pre-existing bolts, looping the rope through the quickdraws for protection while ascending the cliff. Sport climbs are often one-pitch climbs where the leader then comes back to the ground after fixing the rope to the anchor, though in some cases these climbs might continue up larger faces for multiple pitches. As a discipline, sport climbing focuses on difficult movement, endurance, learning to face fears, and risking a fall (and being caught by the rope, of course!).
Trad climbing is the most rootsy and historical form of climbing, in which the leader climbs weaknesses in the rock (generally, cracks) and places gear in these weaknesses that will hold the rope in the case of a fall. Although trad climbs can be single-pitch routes like the majority of sport climbs, they often ascend features that are more than one rope length and end at a summit (these are called “multi-pitch climbs”). Trad climbers generally love long and adventurous days of climbing in wilderness areas, focusing on movement, logistics, technical rope and gear skills, and partnership.
Bouldering is perhaps the most modern form of climbing, and certainly the fastest-growing. Boulderers ascend boulders or short cliffs (generally 20 feet and under), using pads and spotters at the base for protection instead of ropes. Bouldering is a form of climbing that focuses on difficult movement and problem solving, and is more social than the other disciplines.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention a few other forms of climbing: aid climbing, alpine rock climbing, speed climbing, and deep water soloing. Pick your poison (or shall we say passion): each has its own set of joys and challenges!
Choosing a climbOne of the first things you’ll learn when starting to climb is how to choose a route that suits your ability level. In the gym, climbs generally are labeled with a difficulty rating; outside, climbers use guidebooks and often a phone app called Mountain Project to identify the difficulty of climbs. In the U.S., climbs are rated using the Yosemite Decimal System; in short, 5.3 is a very beginner climb, and 5.15 is an expert-level route. These ratings do not denote danger, only difficulty.
As a beginner, you’ll most likely be choosing routes 5.7 and under, and often routes that can be top-roped. Top-roping means that the climber establishes an anchor from the top of the climb so that the rope is already in place, rather than leading the route from the bottom. Many routes in the gym are set up with top ropes; outside, climbers can often hike to the top of the cliff or feature to drop a rope down over the climb.
GearEach discipline of climbing necessitates a different set of gear. For all types of climbing, however, a beginner will need a pair of climbing shoes. For just starting out in the sport, we recommend finding a comfortable pair of climbing shoes (don’t be persuaded by the salesperson at your local gear shop to purchase painfully tight shoes). Delicate footwork will come later in your climbing career; for now you will just be developing an ability to stand on your feet and trust the rubber of your new shoes.
All climbers will generally want to carry a chalk bag and chalk as well, which they will either wear around their waist or keep on the ground (sometimes the case while bouldering). Climbers dip their hands into chalk to dry off sweat and keep them from slipping off the rock.
Boulderers will need the above two pieces of gear, in addition to a bouldering pad (and friends with bouldering pads!). Bouldering pads are placed in the fall zone of a boulder problem, and the more the merrier (and safer!).
To climb on ropes both in a gym or outside, climbers will need a climbing harness. Climbing harnesses come in a range of weights and specifications - some for sport climbing in particular, some with larger gear loops or more padding for trad climbing. Harnesses need to be replaced every few years for safety reasons, so we again recommend purchasing an affordable harness and replacing it when you have a better understanding of your needs.
Along with a climbing harness, it is essential to own a belay device and locking carabiner. This equipment will enable you to belay your partner in the gym or outside, and rappel if needed.
If climbing outside, a helmet is extremely important in case of rock fall.
The above-mentioned gear provides the basics for personal gear needed for a day of climbing or bouldering, either in the gym or with an experienced and well-equipped partner. If you are looking to buy gear so that you can be fully self-sufficient (and not need a partner or a group with shared gear) you’ll want to also purchase a climbing-specific rope (60-70 meters, 9-10mm in diameter, dynamic), a personal anchor (PAC) or daisy chain, extra locking carabiners, cams, nuts, quickdraws, and slings.
It is extremely important to buy new gear or to know the history and age of the gear if acquiring used. Both soft materials and metals degrade over time and with wear and should be carefully assessed before using.
Rock climbing techniques
- Climb with your feet. This is perhaps the most important - and most overlooked by beginners - technique in rock climbing. Our lower bodies are much stronger than our upper bodies and as much as possible while climbing, you want your weight to be on your feet.
- Keep your weight on your skeleton: When hanging from holds, try to keep your arms straight, rather than flexed and sucked in close to the wall. This way, your muscles have a chance to rest rather than being constantly engaged.
- Maintain quiet feet: Climbers often get scared or hurried, scraping around with their feet and wasting energy to find holds. The next time you go climbing, find a route that is below your limit and attempt to climb it with feet as quiet as possible. Pick a foothold, place your foot on it, and step up, all with the utmost of intention and calm.
- Rest when possible: Resting is perhaps as important as any skill in climbing. On a long route, when a stance presents itself, drop one or both arms and use the opportunity to shake out your muscles and recover.
- Engage your core: Work on building a strong core for balance and stability on the wall. At times, as much as we want it to be involuntary, engaging the core will need to be a very intentional decision.
- Breathe: Have you ever gotten Elvis leg, when you’re scared or tired and your leg won’t stop shaking? This is the result of not enough oxygen in the body. Practice breathing deeply with each move as you climb and as you rest. Breathing is also an essential technique for calming the mind and focusing.
- Engage in positive self-talk: As the saying goes, “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you can’t.” There is an enormous mental component to climbing that is essential to acknowledge and grow. Recognize what you’re telling yourself as you climb. If fear is a huge issue for you, learn to identify the facts of your safety. Climbing has an incredible amount of life lessons to teach us if we are willing.
Climbing etiquette and tips
- Kindness goes a long way. Climbing gyms and crags are becoming more and more crowded, and the sport is becoming more and more social. As a beginner, add to the community by having friendly and positive interactions with those around you.
- Take care to adhere to the principles of Leave No Trace. You will often be climbing in a fragile wilderness area - please leave it as you found it. Respect closures, pack out trash, erase tick marks, stay on trails, and park and camp in established areas.
- When climbing in a popular area, do not monopolize a route. If others want to climb the route that you are on, cycle your group through and move on, or give others an opportunity to use your rope.
- In the same vein, try to travel in small groups of 2-4 people. Large groups can be unruly and unfairly dominate a crag.
- When climbing up high on a cliff or peak, be aware of climbers below. Do not drop rocks or gear, and take care when climbing in loose terrain not to dislodge anything.
- When behind a slower party on a multi-pitch climb, pass with care and consideration. Have a conversation with the other party, and only pass if safe.
- Safety is number one. If an experienced climber at a crag or on a climb seeks to give you advice, be open to hearing it. It takes years to learn the ropes (literally) of climbing, and there is much we can learn from others if willing.
Safety adviceWe wholeheartedly recommend taking a course taught by professionals before attempting to climb or belay on your own. Climbing is inherently dangerous, though when done correctly can be very safe.
After all of the proper skills have been learned, it is still incredibly important to stay on top of safety at every moment. Before leaving the ground, or transitioning from climbing to lowering/rappelling, there are a number of safety checks that must be completed.
- Climbers and belayers should check that each of their harnesses are secure and doubled back, and that their helmets are tight and fastened correctly.
- Climbers should check to see that their rope is properly looped through their belayer’s belay device, and that the belay device is through the belay loop of the harness and locked.
- Belayers should check their climber’s knot to make sure that it is a proper figure-8 and tightened close to their harness.
- The climber and belayer must make sure they know the plan for when the climber reaches the top of the climb. Will the climber be lowered or rappel? Confusion in this area has been the result of all too many accidents in the climbing world, and can be mitigated with a simple conversation.
- Proper climbing commands should be communicated. What will the climber say if they want the rope tighter? What will they say if they are ready to be lowered? Agree upon short commands and be clear and concise in communication.
- Ropes are essential to climbing safely, along with a proper belay, protection, helmets, and anchors. We do not recommend climbing without ropes or pads, as the margin for error is too small.
Final tipsSafety, gear, and logistics can overwhelm the new climber, but once these facets are in place and understood, a new climber can begin to enjoy the sport. With all technical jargon aside, we leave you with our four top pieces of advice as you embark on your journey with climbing:
- Take a break: Climbing is HARD, and will initially use muscles that lie dormant in your body. Don’t push yourself too much, or you will risk injury. Enjoy the process and be patient - it won’t be long before you are feeling much stronger and competent, but the journey is as important as the destination.
- Climbing legend Alex Lowe once said, "The best climber is the one having the most fun.” It’s not about the numbers or the summits, it’s about the enjoyment of the challenge, adventure, and partnership.
- Find reliable and safe partners: Your partners will make or break your climbing experience. Make sure you trust your partners to keep you safe, but also place an emphasis on finding partners with whom you enjoy spending time. The experiences that you will have with your partners will be bonding and life-changing, and can lead to deep and lasting friendships.