Rock climbing is an adventurous sport that can be an interesting and fun workout or can even become a lifelong passion. This sport will bring forth the inner beast in you and will challenge you to become more determined and motivated in life. Media has portrayed rock climbing as a sport that is best suited only for the physically fit daredevils, hanging by a rope thousands of feet above the ground.
No doubt, you have to be strong hearted to try out this sport, but you can be an average individual with varying physical abilities who just wants to have fun and still excel at it. While this sport is fun and exciting, it is also a risky affair, but with the right gear and experience, you can smoothly enjoy this activity without any stress or injury.
Rock climbing is a risky activity that does require certain minimal skills or knowledge for entry, but with a little extra effort and diligent practices, one can easily excel in this sport. The learning curve of rock climbing is steep, but it helps to learn the sport with others around, who are equally eager to learn climbing or who can teach you about the sport.
Therefore, if by any chance, the thought of trying out rock climbing has crossed your mind, or you wondered how to start rock climbing, don’t worry!! Here is your opportunity to explore nature and push your physical limits to achieve some of the best experiences of your life. Read through our rock climbing beginners guide to learn everything you need to begin rock climbing. With a comprehensive guide to rock climbing, you will have enough knowledge to go about this sport.
Join a climbing gym
Rock climbing for beginners can seem overwhelming, but a climbing gym is the best place to start this sport. If you like, you can definitely try out rock climbing on real rocks with the help of a guide or experienced climber, but the techniques and the strength needed to excel are best developed in a climbing gym.
The best part about gyms is that they create different styles of routes and levels of difficulties that you may not encounter at natural destinations. This will help you to develop skills and train vigorously while being safe and secure. Additionally, climbing gyms are much easier to access than real rocks for most climbers or beginners since almost all major cities have these gyms.
Beginners may even find gyms to be intimidating, with other climbers who are very strong and complete the routes quickly. The walls covered in colored tape or plastic folds in different spaces of the gym may overwhelm you. However, while training, you should not be shy in approaching the staff or another climber for any kind of queries you make have. In fact, they should be happy to guide you and explain how to use the facility.
All that being said, there is a lot of difference between gyms and outdoor climbing. While gyms are comfortable and suit your specific needs, outdoor climbing will throw new challenges at you.
Differences Between Gym Climbing and Outdoor Climbing
When you land on the floor in a gym, there are foam mats present, so there is no risk of breaking a bone or any major injury.
When landing outdoors, you never know the kind of terrain you will hit. Earth is rocky, and it hurts to land directly. Bouldering landings need expertise and skill to protect yourself from injury.
At a gym, you will have your gym shoes, a harness, and a water bottle, maybe. That will pretty much sum up your entire gear. However, when you climb outdoors, you need to choose gear depending on where and what you are climbing.
Size of the group
When you have large groups at the climbing gym, you can organize social events or even crag with each other. When you climb outdoors in a large group, it can put pressure on the climbs if there is only one lead climber, and the others have to do run laps. It is best to climb outdoors with a single partner. Large climbing groups may even distract your mind, and you may lose focus and concentration.
Gyms are comfortable because there is good lighting, climate-controlled rooms, and so on. While climbing outdoors, you may face rain, sunshine, snow, or extreme heat. Wind can have a major impact on your climbing.
There are often loud songs being played at the gyms, so you have to scream or yell to communicate with others while climbing. Outdoor spaces are quieter, and you shouldn’t scream but instead talk softly, with reverence.
Approaching the destination
You simply need to park your car and lock it when you go to the gym. Whereas, when you are outdoors, you need to find a good parking spot, find the trailhead, watch for bears, etc.
Belaying, while possible outdoors, is much easier to learn indoors. At a gym, they will have belay stations already setup, where you and your partner (or trainer) can work together to train.
When you try this technique at the gym, you have to stand in the red square, and there are instructors who observe and correct you whenever necessary.
When outdoors, you may not know where to stand. If you stand very close or too far and suppose your climber falls on the ground, then you both are in trouble.
Additionally, when lead-climbing outdoors, you will need to setup your own anchors and ropes.
You can chalk on the gym walls whatever you want. But when outdoors, don’t make the mistake of drawing anything on the rock. If you mark any ticks, then make sure you run it off later. Chalk markings can cause deterioration of the natural rock formations over time.
Indoors, all routes will be clearly marked with grades. You will know exactly how hard a certain path should be, relative to your own skill level. Outdoors, however, you will need to try and “read” the whole route from the ground in order to find a path that will be suitable for your skill level. The last thing you want is to get halfway up a cliff and then find a spot that is impassable at your current skill level.
Rock Climbing Terminology
Before getting started, it is recommended to first learn the lingo. This is not an exhaustive list, and there are a lot more you’ll hear climbers use, but knowing these few will help you as you begin the adventure.
Belaying means using a belay device, which allows you to control the length of rope going to a climber and to prevent any falls. A belayer is a person who is belaying another climber. Essentially, to belay is to be hanging from a rope which is controlled by someone below you.
A rock-climbing route is called a segment or pitch. One rope length is used for one pitch.
It is a climbing route that is divided into multiple segments and has multiple pitches. It requires the rope to be reset progressively as the climber ascends.
Commonly used in both indoor and outdoor rock climbing. It means one particular path to climb.
It means an outdoor climbing spot that usually comprises of multiple pitches. The crag is an interesting spot to climb since you may have other climbers around you, and you can crag together.
Beta means pieces of information about a particular route. It could mean details on where to place your feet or tips on how to start climbing.
Pumped means to have swollen forearms due to overexertion on the climbing route.
This term is used to denote a bouldering route.
An anchor refers to a single point or a set of points where the gear is secured to tie the top and hold a fall.
Crux refers to the most challenging or difficult point of a climbing route.
- Crimp, sloped, jug, pocket, pinch
These terms are commonly used for the different types of climbing holds.
Send means to climb a route successfully without falling.
To flash a route is to climb it all the way on your very first try.
- Grading Scale
All rock-climbing routes are graded depending on the difficulty of the route. A combination of the single toughest move on the route (crux) along with the number of difficult moves in the route determines the difficulty of the route. There are two different kinds of grades for bouldering and roped climbing.
- Roped climbing
For roped climbing, a decimal number system is used. It starts with the number 5 along with a second number, which represents the difficulty level of the route. A plus or minus sign after the number or a letter (up to d) further subdivides the scale. Here are some examples-
- 5.9 – This scale is read as “Five Nine,” while
- 5.10a is read as ” Five Ten A,” and
- 5.12+ is read as “Twelve plus.”
The scale increases with an increase in the value of the second number. In this case, 5.12 is harder than 5.9, even though mathematically 5.9 is greater than 5.12. “d” is tougher than “a” (typically used for 5.10 and above) and “+” is tougher than “-“(used for 5.9 and below).
Bouldering has a much shorter route and hence has a different grading scale from roped climbing. It starts with the letter “V,” which is followed by a number that denotes the level of difficulty. Some grading scales have a “+” or “-” signs that are used to further subdivide the scale. The scale typically starts from zero.
For a beginner, bouldering routes from V0 to V2 and roped climbing routes between 5.4 to 5.8 is a good start.
Choosing a grading scale above your limit may overwhelm you, and may lead to non-completion of the climbing route. It is best if you choose a lower grading scale that you are confident about and gradually increase.
Choose Your Climbing Style
As mentioned above, beginners should start by joining an indoor climbing gym to get some experience. It is better to understand some different types of climbing when you are just starting out.
At every rock climbing gym, you will have two beginner level types of rock climbing- top-roping and bouldering. There will most likely be a community surrounding both types of climbing. The two types of climbing tend to attract people with differing personalities. For example, for large groups or for extroverts, bouldering is a good choice. Otherwise, if you wish to learn with just one other person or a friend, then top roping is a good option.
Types of Indoor Rock Climbing
- Top roping
Top roping is the easiest form of long-distance climbing. In this, you have to creep up tall walls (around 45 feet or more if you are climbing indoors) using a rope and is best done in pairs. A rope is tied to your harness and is fastened through an anchor attached to the ceiling. The other person (belayer) is on the ground and holds the other end of the rope to bring you down.
In the case of outdoor top-roping, it is best done in places where the rock quality is good, and you don’t have to bolt or where you can set the top ropes off trees.
Bouldering is another form of climbing but with a much shorter route (approximately 20 feet in gyms). This type is more social since many people can climb at once, so you have a lot of people creeping around you. For bouldering, you don’t need any harness or rope but only good acrobatic moves!!
When bouldering is done outdoors, portable crash pads are laid on the ground for protection. These portable crash pads are convenient as they can be folded into two and used as backpacks along the climbing route.
Types of Outdoor Rock Climbing
- Lead climbing
In this style of climbing, a rope is attached to the harness of the climber as she/ he climbs and puts up the protection( quickdraws) and starts clipping. The belayer gives the rope to the climber as needed.
- Sport climbing
Sport climbing is what most people learn when they are just starting out. In this, the climber clips the rope into the bolts while climbing. It is similar to lead climbing but with predrilled bolts for protection.
- Tradition (trad) climbing
Traditional climbing is like lead climbing but without the protections preplaced. The climbers use natural holes or cracks on the rocks for protection and equip themselves with specialized gear.
Most climbers prefer traditional climbing over sport climbing because of the adventure aspect of it. There is no prefixed or preplanned route in trad climbing, allowing the climbers to have the luxury of placing protection or gear wherever they want.
Trad climbing is without any set boundaries or markings, and the climber is free to explore fully. However, such freedom also comes with greater risks.
Another added advantage when climbing in traditional style is that climbers can follow the Leave No Trace principle since protection placed are removable, thus leaving the environment pristine for other future climbers.
- Alpine climbing
Alpine climbing demands a mix of certain skills from the climber since it includes a variety of terrain and extreme conditions such as snow or rain. These routes are mostly long and exposed.
- Aid climbing
This type of climbing includes different kinds of specialized techniques or gear. The climbers stand on gear placed on rock instead of using their legs and hands. This is done when the hand or footholds are too small and far apart.
Get your gear
The kind of rock climbing gear you need depends on how much you want to commit to the activity and the type of climbing you are into. Climbing gear can be expensive, and most people who are just starting out need not buy all gear at once. If you know what you need and can afford bulk buying, then great, otherwise you don’t have to. Your first purchases can be just a good pair of shoes, a harness, and a belay device. Once you start climbing regularly at the gym, you will get a rough idea of what you really need.
Listed below are some of the different kinds of gear that you will need to purchase once you get serious about rock climbing.
Shoes are one of the essential and crucial types of gear for rock climbing because shoes connect the climber to the rock. Choose a pair that is comfortable and is an old rounder at first. Once you are experienced, you can opt for shoes that best suits the type of rock climbing you are interested in. If you’d like help picking a pair of shoes, you can check out our bouldering shoe breakdown.
The harness is another essential gear consisting of a padded, reinforced waist belt and leg loops. The loops connect to the waistbelt through a reinforced belay loop. The harness connects the rope to the climber and comes in different styles and features, each suited to a particular type of climbing. When you first buy a harness, prioritize the features and comfort level rather than on weight savings.
The purpose of a rope is to protect or hold the climber if she/he falls. Ropes are mainly made up of two components- a sheath and a core. The core gives the rope it’s strength while the sheath keeps the core protected and aids in easy handling of the rope.
The type of rope falls under two basic divisions- static and dynamic. The sole purpose for a static rope is in anchoring, such as when rappelling or for dragging the gear up the face, but is never used to belay a climber.
Dynamic ropes are used for belaying a climber since they have more elasticity. They are designed to absorb the energy that is released by a falling climber. Dynamic ropes are used in all types of climbing, such as lead, sport, or trad climbing.
- Belay device
Belaying devices are friction devices that are used to adjust and control the length of the rope during the process of belaying. It solely works to save the climber from a fall by halting the rope.
Belay devices come in two kinds- passive and active. Passive belay devices are lighter and cheaper and rely on an initial hand friction brake to operate. While active belay devices are more expensive, they automatically assist in braking in case a climber falls, however, the drawback with active devices is that it could lead to the belayer being negligent because of the perceived automatic operation.
It is recommended that climbers first start off by using passive devices and then move on to devices with additional features. Without a doubt, advanced devices will have additional safety features, but it is best to master the basics before jumping onto the next level.
The helmet is another import piece of gear used to protect the climber’s head from falling debris or in case of a fall. While helmets are not worn in most indoor gyms, it is becoming a popular piece of equipment outdoors because of the risk of falling rocks. Helmets should have a solid build so that they can safeguard the head from any kind of injury.
This protective piece of gear is a connector that has metal loops and gates that operate with the help of a spring. There are two types of carabiners- non-locking and locking.
Carabiners that lock are used for crucial connections such as to safely attach the climber midway as he ascends the rope. They are more secure since they prevent the automatic opening of the gates during its use. The different locking mechanisms include screw gates, auto-locking systems, etc.
Non-locking carabiners are for simple connections, such as connecting the rope to protective gear.
There are a variety of carabiners that come with different sizes, shapes, and locking mechanisms for different purposes. Locking carabiners have proved to be much stronger than non-locking ones, and small-sized carabiners aren’t always a good choice even though you are saving on weight.
The main purpose of chalk is to absorb any form of moisture, such as sweat from the climber’s hand. The chalk is stored as a powder in a bag that is attached to the harness.
- Belay gloves
Belay gloves are protective gear that can save the climber and belayer’s hands from rope burn. These gloves are a great help when rappelling.
- Learn to tie a knot
Learning the skill of tying a knot is an important skill every beginner should know when they first learn how to start rock climbing. There are different kinds or types of knots, each serving a specific purpose. While most knots are meant for a single purpose, there are some that can be used for multiple purposes.
- Communication is key
The rock climbing process can be taxing, and such situations call for absolute clear communication to reduce stress or avoid any accidents due to miscommunication. Good communication between climbers will increase transition efficiency and further ease the process.
While climbing in crags, you may have a number of other climbers along with you. At such times, start by calling out your partner’s name first and then communicate. This will ensure that other climbers are not distracted by our message. To confirm receipt of a command, respond to any command with a “thank you,” followed by your partner’s name.
- Hire a guide
Hiring a good guide can give you a safe rock climbing experience as you first start with outdoor climbing. They will boost your confidence and teach you tricks and techniques you may not be aware of. There are many guiding services located everywhere close to outdoor rock climbing destinations.
While choosing one, it is best to opt for guide services that are certified by the American Mountain Guides Association or the International Federation of Mountain Guides. There are some other professional guides that are not AMGA/ IFMGA certified, but being a beginner, you may find it difficult to distinguish reputable from non-reputable services.
In order for a guiding service to be AMGA/IFMGA certified requires the guides to pass tests that assess their knowledge and skills on rock climbing and self-rescue operations. The guide is tested on her/his ability to ensure a safe and enjoyable rock climbing adventure.
Almost all guiding services offer rental climbing gear, and they are equipped with all technical gear. A guided trip is a full day or a half-day event. Wear clothes that are breathable and comfortable at the same time. It is best to opt for a layering system and dress up according to the weather. Don’t forget to carry a bottle of water and some snacks, but also check with your guiding service of the required equipment you need to carry.
Guiding services can also customize the trip according to your needs and likes; it is a good option to share your expectations or gears with your guide before starting off.
- Learn a few rock climbing techniques
Learning a few different rock climbing techniques can immensely help you as you begin your rock climbing experience. Here are a few techniques that’s can help-
- Let your skeleton bear your weight
As you climb and hang on from holds, remember to keep your hands stretched straight rather than keeping them close to the wall or your body. Avoid flexing your muscles, so that your muscles can relax and not be constantly engaged.
- Engage your core
Make sure that you work enough on your core and build it strong. A strong core enables stability and balance on the wall.
- Climb with your feet
Climbing with your feet is what most beginners fail to learn or do. In fact, all beginners should learn how to climb with your feet because our lower body is much stronger than our upper body and hence should be used as much as possible while climbing.
- Rest whenever possible
Resting while climbing is very important, and when you see an opportunity, make sure you rest. Stretch out your arms and shake your muscles. This is usually necessary when you have longer routes to cover.
- Don’t panic
Most climbers will panic when they can’t find a foothold or waste their energy by scraping around while searching for footholds. You should choose a climbing route that is below your limit and climb it quietly with your feet. Stepping up on a foothold with calmness and quietness will boost your confidence.
- Engage in a positive mindset
While climbing, there is an enormous mental component that is involved. Your mind needs to be stable and confident at the same time. If fear is an issue, then make sure you have checked all safety measures before you begin to ascend. Keep boosting your mind by talking positively to yourself and be determined or motivated to complete the route.
Most importantly, learn to breathe as you climb or while you rest. It will help you calm your mind and increase your focus. Breathing will supply a good amount of oxygen to your brain, and that can help you from getting nervous or scared.
Rock climbing is a super adventurous and fulfilling experience that everybody should try in their lifetime. It opens the heart as you explore the world through this sport. Most people may be intimidated at first, but once you try it, there is no turning back.
Rock climbing gear plays an important role in allowing you to either enjoy the activity or decide on never doing it again. The number and the kind of gear you choose may become complex as you start your outdoor expeditions. The advice here is not to buy gear in bulk since you are a beginner and may not have much idea of your particular requirements.
Gyms are a great place to start your rock climbing experience, but nothing can beat the experience you get when you actually start climbing outdoors. Choosing a good indoor gym is also crucial as you begin the process. Make sure the gym is equipped with all the basic necessities. One of the best ways to enable yourself for outdoor climbing can be through professional guide services or by taking lessons that teach you the basics of rock climbing.