I remember when I started climbing. I really didn’t know any climbers and none of my friends climbed. So there wasn’t anyone I could ask questions on how to start rock climbing.
The place where I got started didn’t really have a pleasant vibe to go ask stupid questions about climbing shoe sizing or how should I go about this new hobby I was trying to get into. I remember being lucky if I even got a smile at the counter when paying to go climbing. The place actually reminded me of Mordor from The Lord of the rings.
It was winter and freezing temps outside. The heat inside was just barely on the better side of freezing. Warming up was usually done running around and doing light climbing with our down jackets on. It was cold, but the friction was good 😉
A lot has changed since those days. Now when you walk into a modern indoor climbing venue, the hardest decision you have to make is what kind of coffee you want the part-time barista to brew you. Well not really, but you get the idea. Starting climbing is a lot easier these days. At least in the part of the world I live in.
I also remember having all these un-answered questions: Do you need to be in shape to start climbing? How many pull-ups do I need to be able to do before starting? Do I need to have an athletic background? What kind of clothes should I wear? How about the shoes? What kind of climbing is there?
So here is my advice for someone who has never been climbing but wants to go and see what it’s like. Here’s what’s nice to know when starting rock climbing.
Do I need to be fit before starting rock climbing?
No. You don’t need to be fit. No, you don’t need to be able to do a single pull-up either. It’s not that important. None of this really matters when you’re starting out. Climbing is not a power sport, it’s a technical sport. Sure, at some point when you get the hang of things and the technique is getting better, then you start benefiting from power as well. But before that, it doesn’t play a major part.
On the contrary, if just crushing everything with excess power from the start, it might even affect your climbing negatively in the long run. I’d rather start low and slow and take the time to learn the techniques first. All the power you will need the first few months (or even year) will come naturally when just climbing. And bouldering is good for power too, but we’ll talk about that further on. How to start rock climbing? Just start. The rest will follow.
The different types of climbing
Indoor climbing vs. Outdoor climbing
I recommend starting with indoor climbing because it’s way easier to start that way. You don’t need to have any gear of your own yet. Most indoor climbing gyms can rent you all the gear you need for a small fee. Actually, all you need to bring with you is a positive attitude, a will to learn new skills and to leave your comfort zone (like every time you try something new).
The biggest difference climbing inside vs. outside is that inside the ”routes” (sport climbing or top rope climbing) or ”problems” (bouldering routes) are artificially manufactured. This means that you can easily see each ”hold” (the things you grab with your hand) and ”foothold” (here you put your feet). Climbing outside it gets a bit more complicated. There might not be any visible footholds and you just have to put your foot somewhere. Sometimes there are good footholds and sometimes there is just one tiny pebble to place your foot (and hope it stays). Plus with climbing outside you will probably have to buy at least some gear before you even know if you like climbing.
Indoor climbing is a good way to start also because in every climbing gym there are easy routes or problems as well. Something for everybody. something to get the body and mind going and something to get addicted on. That is not the case at every ”sector” (an area where the routes or problems are located) when climbing outside. Some sectors might not have any easy routes. It can be quite discouraging if there is nothing within your capability to climb on.
Don’t get me wrong. Climbing outside is the bomb! For me it’s the best thing out there. And it’s what gets me motivated to train indoors. But for starting out climbing, it may be a bit challenging. Check the video to get motivated!
Bouldering is climbing relatively low from the ground on single boulders or short cliffs. Typically boulder problems are 3-5 meters (9-15 feet) high. Sometimes higher, sometimes lower. If you happen to fall (and you will at some point), a stiff mattress (inside) or ”bouldering pad” (outside) will catch your fall. When climbing outside, it is recommended to bring along a fellow climber who ”spots” (guides you down to the pad feet first) you in case of an unintended fall.
Most of the time, bouldering is considered more powerful and dynamic compared to, say, sport climbing. If climbers who mostly do sport climbing want to get a bit more power and fingers strength, they usually concentrate on bouldering for a certain period of time, to train on those weaknesses. Bouldering effectively strengthens ones fingers, arms, shoulders and core.
I recommend starting climbing with bouldering because it is so easy to start. Rent a pair of shoes, dip your hands in ”chalk” if you like (chalk is used by climbers, and weight lifters too, for keeping fingers and hands dry in order to get a better grip of whatever they are gripping), pick a problem you want to climb or holds that you like and start climbing. It’s that easy. Just start climbing. You can figure everything else out as you go along.
Top roping vs. leading
There are basically two types of climbing involving a rope. When ”top roping”, a climber is tied to a rope which goes up to a top rope anchor (located at the top of the route you are climbing) and from there back down to your climbing partner who is ”belaying” (using a belay device that relies on friction to stop the rope when used correctly or automatically locking up like a brake to stop the rope and thus catching the falling climber). When top roping, the climber can not take a big fall because the belayer takes in the slack of the rope when the climber progresses up the route.
The other type of climbing is ”leading”. When leading, the rope runs from the belayer directly to the climber. The climber clips the rope to fixed bolts with a ”quick draw ” (two carabiners connected to each other with a short sling or dogbone, the top carabiner clips to the bolt and you clip the rope to the bottom carabiner) or places removable trad gear to cracks and such, when progressing up the route.
In order to advance up a route while leading, the climber must climb above the previous protection point. If falling without being able to clip the next quickdraw or piece of protection, the climber will fall at least twice the distance to the previous bolt or piece. For example if you are four feet from the previous protection, you will fall eight feet down plus a bit more due to stretching of the rope.
This can be quite exciting and brings a whole new element to climbing compared to top roping. Also, a ”ascent” (doing a route purely) of a route is not valid untill it has been climbed by leading.
It is strongly recommended to take a course concentrating on basic belaying techniques and top roping before heading to the wall. Climbing can be dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. Practise your belaying skills and learn the right techniques properly from the start.
Only once you have the proper belaying technique and feel comfortable top roping, can you start thinking about leading. It is also recommended to take a class on leading. It is also good to practice clipping a quickdraw on the ground first before starting up the route. Get to know the process first indoors before going leading outdoors.
Sport vs. Trad
Sport climbing differs from trad climbing with the way the protection is placed. Sport climbing uses pre-drilled permanently fastened bolts for protection. Trad climbers take the gear with them from the ground up and place the protection on the lead in natural cracks and such. I will not cover this any more thoroughly, because it is not likely a new climber will start with trad climbing.
Trad climbers do not usually use pre-placed gear. When sport climbing, it is ok to have all the necessary quickdraws pre placed on the whole route. That way the clipping is a lot faster because you only have to clip the rope to the pre placed quickdraw. When climbing on your limit, it can make all the difference. Both sport and trad ascents are done on the lead (i.e. ”sharp end”). Trad is propably not the most popular way on how to start rock climbing.
Rock climbing shoes
Ok. Now we’ve covered the different disciplines of climbing. I guess it’s time to get into the gear part. So, what do you need when starting out? It depends on what type of climbing you want to do. If you start with bouldering indoors, all you really need is a pair of shorts and a t-shirt to climb in. Like I said before, you can rent the shoes when starting out.
Then after climbing a few times and knowing that this is what you want to do, I’d start thinking of getting my first pair of rock climbing shoes. Luckily I’ve written an in-depth article about choosing the right pair of rock climbing shoes. You can find it here.
Bouldering is pretty straight forward concerning gear, and specially indoors. Good to have items are a good pair of climbing shoes, some chalk to keep the hands dry, a container of some sort to hold the chalk and a brush for brushing excess chalk off the holds.
Chalking up before a boulder problem can have a significant impact on the climb. People are different and some have more sweaty hands than others. My hands are on the more sweaty side of things so I tend to use chalk quite a bit (which is not necessary a good thing). But I am careful to brush the holds after I’m done climbing.
I’m also very picky with my chalk. There are many different manufacturers out there. Some are better than others, but this is mostly a matter of preference and how sweaty your hands are. My favourite brand is Friction Labs but anything will work fine when you are starting out.
A climbing brush is nice to have too. Some climbers like to use tooth brushes but there are (of course!) specially designed brushes for the task. Generally speaking, brushes with nylon bristles are used mostly indoors and natural bristles (like boars hair) are used outdoors. Natural bristles are a bit more gentle to the rock. If brushing excessively with nylon on some types of rock, the holds can get quite glassy and lose its natural texture that enhances friction. It would be nicer to preserve the rock for future generations too.
Anyway, there is likely multiple types of brushes sold at the indoor climbing gym you are starting out at. Everybody has a favourite brand, mine is Sublime brushes. Lapis makes a good brush as well.
There are several types of bags to hold the chalk you just bought. One can carry a smaller chalk bag strapped to the waist or have a bigger bouldering chalk bag at lying on the ground that fits two hands at once. Matter of preference. When top roping and leading, it is nice to have the chalk with you when you climb.
When thinking of going for a bouldering session outdoors, it might be a good idea to buy a bouldering pad. Most likely you can rent a pad from your local climbing gym to try bouldering outdoors. In the long run it is nice to have your own pad. Like with every piece of gear, there are several different pads to choose from. Pick one that you are comfortable carrying and that fits in your car (if you have one). My all time favourite brand is Organic Climbing, just because the foam inside tends to outperform the competition. There are other good choices too. Ask around at the gym. Everyone has their favourite. Bouldering pads are meant to feel stiff or even hard. They are not designed to be comfortable. They are designed to take the impact in case of a fall. The stiffer, the better in my opinion.
Top roping gear and sport gear
I cannot emphasize this enough, learn the proper belaying and safety skills first under supervision either taking a specialised course or with a skilled and experienced climber. Safety over eagerness.
When top roping the two most important piece of gear is of course the rope and harness. The thickness of the rope is commonly measured in millimeters. I recommend buying a rope in the 10-10,2mm range. You are likely to take a few falls when starting out. And it is likely that your rope handling skills aren’t top notch yet. So no use buying an expensive thin rope. Go through the ranks with something a bit more inexpensive and after a year or two, buy a rope that better suites your needs as a climber.
Also, buy a rope bag you can carry your rope with. They usually come with a built-in tarp. The tarp protects your rope from dirt and debris. When taking in slack from the climber, try to coil the rope on the tarp, instead of directly letting it rest on the ground. It will keep your rope cleaner and extend its life span.
Harnesses come in different sizes and shapes, depending on the style. There are several ultra light harnesses that all the top dogs use, but I’d buy an all round harness. The likes of Black Diamond ?? or Pezl Corax. They are splendid for every discipline of climbing. Again, with experience after a few years you know what you want from your next harness. Spending a lot of money to buy the best and lightest gear the market has to offer at the very start of your climbing career might not be the best move. But it’s up to you.
Carabiners and quickdraws
You will also need a few locking carabiners and a few slings to build top roping anchors. And a belay device. Some like to belay with a tube style belay device and some (majority?) with a self locking device (like one of the most used Pezl Grigri). This again is a matter of preference. Use what you and your climbing partner feel comfortable with.
When starting to climb on the lead you will also need quickdraws. Some like thinner and lighter dogbones on their draws and some thicker ones that are more comfortable to grab when working on a route. Again, up to you. I will not get into trad gear in this article.
In my opinion one of the most important and also probably the most overlooked piece of equipment you should buy is a helmet. When leading it is easy to get your feet tangled in the rope in case of a fall. You could possibly be thrown up side down and hit your head on the wall. A helmet also protects the belayer in case a rock falls from the wall. Loose rocks are quite common at some crags. A helmet is a cheap insurance to buy. Nowadays helmets look pretty cool too. Choose one that fits your head and wallet the best.
Because people like to compare things to other things, it is natural that routes and boulder problems are graded to make the comparing a bit easier (but not always). But to complicate things, the grades are not same in all of the world. And the grading can also differ quite a bit from crag to crag.
The initial grade of a route or boulder is given by the climber who has climbed it first. This first ascentionist proposes a grade that he or she feels is appropriate. Then the grade is either confirmed by the next person (or persons) or they suggest another grade that they feel is better.
Basically a grade is given based on feeling, so it is not always an accurate system. For instance, if a boulder problem has one reachy move that feels really hard, it may not be as hard if you are a bit taller. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. A route that is hard for you may be really easy for some other climber who excels in that type of climbing.
Grades in North America
In North America bouldering is usually graded with the Hueco scale i.e. the ”V” system. The grades run from V0 up to V17 where 17 is the hardest. Sport climbing uses te Yosemite Desimal System ranging from (easy) 5.0 to (hard) 5.15d. The letters come into the system starting from 5.10 (5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 5.10d, 5.11a,…)
Grades in Europe
In Europe bouldering typically uses the Fontainbleu scale (Fontainbleu is in France, one of the first places where bouldering began). The Font scale ranges from 4 to 9a with a combination of numbers, letters and plusses (6A, 6A+, 6B, 6B+, 6C,…) In Europe sport climbing uses typically the French scale, which is similar to the bouldering Font scale. This ranges from 4 to 9c. These are just the basic four grading systems most commonly used.
Of course almost every continent has their own system, but these are good for reference. Trad climbing has its own grading too. But lets not get into that. Here is a in-depth take on rock climbing grades from Wikipedia.
So, now we’ve covered the basic questions you may have about rock climbing, types of rock climbing, the gear needed for those disciplines and the basic grading systems. But keep in mind that this has only been a scratch from the surface. These are the very basics. We haven’t even touched the actual climbing part. The techniques and all. But you are good to go with this. Just start. Go to the gym, pull on the shoes and get started. But be aware, climbing can be highly addictive.