We created this guide to help you get started rock climbing
Basic Types of Rock Climbing
- Bouldering Bouldering is rock climbing without the use of a harness or rope-ascending smaller boulders close to the ground, as well as complex routes to top out on (stand on top of) the rock. Bouldering crash pads act as thick pads to protect the climber in the event of a fall, usually with a spotting partner to help direct the climber to the pad and sometimes providing verbal guidance to available holds. The great thing about bouldering is the simplicity of it for you and a friend: shoes, chalk, and a crash pad. It takes some of the most fun and baffling parts of complex routes, and puts just the crux of that route real close to the ground. That way, you can puzzle it out repeatedly without having to tackle a crux in the middle of a big, long climb.
- Sport Climbing One of the most popular genres of climbing around the world, sport climbing is bolt-protected climbing on cliffs where gymnastic movement, pushing difficulty and having fun are the main goals. With closely spaced bolts, you can try hard, take falls and do wild and steep climbing while being relatively safe. There’s also lots of places where you can try easier routes and get comfortable before progressing up through the grades. As a beginner it’s one of the easiest ways to get into climbing, doesn’t require a ton of gear, and is great with a group of friends. For gear, you’ll need some of the same basics as indoor climbing, but you’ll also need your own rope, a rack of quickdraws, and a good pack to carry it all to the crag. We also recommend hiring a guide to teach you the basics, or look for a clinic at your local gym geared towards transitioning to outdoor climbing.
- Trad Climbing Ever wanted to climb El Cap or a desert tower? This is trad climbing (traditional climbing), and it involves placing your own gear and anchors for protection, and then removing that gear as you go up. This can happen on single pitch routes, or the longest, biggest walls on earth. If you are looking for adventure, this is where you’ll find it. You’ll need additional gear such as camming devices, stoppers, helmet, long slings, and a more comfortable harness and shoes. This style of climbing also requires a different skill set than indoor or sport climbing, so you’ll want expert instruction from a guide, or an experienced friend who’s willing to teach and mentor you. A good foundation in traditional climbing is also necessary for the next step into alpinism and climbing in the greater ranges around the world. Photo: Francois Lebeau Athlete: Jacopo Larcher Location: Yosemite, CA | Zodiac (VI 5.13d)
- Indoor Climbing Modern indoor climbing about much more than just climbing, and that’s being driven by a new crop of full service climbing gyms that offer yoga, weights and fitness equipment, specialized training boards, as well as cafe’s and co-working spaces. So while the climbing itself may be expansive and creatively constructed, your experience will probably involve a wider range of activities - and associated gear and apparel. You still need the basics - harness, shoes, chalkbag, and a belay device with locking carabiner - but if you are leading, you’ll need your own rope, rope tarp, and a larger duffel to keep it all in. Extras might include belay gloves, belay glasses, tape, and nutrition. You’ll also notice that climbing gyms are full of fit, young people so you might want to think about how you look - and most climbing companies have some excellent apparel that looks and functions equally well.
Tips for first time climbers
The best tips we have are: 1) Get some good instruction with a quick intro to climbing class at the local gym (BKB climbing gym in Chicago, Boston and NY has its beloved "Beginner to Badass" series for a very reasonable price); 2) Use your feet! Many think it’s all about arm-strength, but it’s more about balance and strength-to-weight ratio; 3) Climbing has a bit of danger to it, so be smart and take it seriously...but have fun with it!
- Shoe Fit If you are just getting started, it’s important to get the right fit. Climbing shoes are built for one thing - climbing rocks, and there’s a fine line between performance and pain. As a beginner, err on the side of comfort, and then progress to higher performance and potentially more painful shoe fitting - it’ll give your feet time to adjust and for you to find the right fit. A good rock shoe should fit like a tight glove - very precise, but not too painful. And remember the shoes will stretch and mold to your feet, so tolerating a little pain up front may lead to a really good fitting and performing shoe once it breaks in.
- Shoe Type There are a lot of varieties of shoes out there, for different types of climbing. Beginners will want something flat and comfortable, with a medium stiff midsole. Once you’ve been climbing a while and your foot muscles have gained some strength, you can try some more aggressive shoes that will allow you to be more precise with your foot placements, and stand on smaller holds. Generally speaking - sport, indoor and bouldering will all require softer, more sensitive shoes. Trad climbing favors a shoe that balances comfort and performance, and fit is critial here, as you’ll be wearing them all day and standing on your feet a lot more, so they shouldn’t be tight to the point of being painful.
- Shoe Features As a beginner, look for a flatter, medium stuff midsole. Velcro closure systems are nice and easy to get on and off. Some shoes are lined with canvas, and that will decrease stretch, while unlined leather shoes will stretch a lot. Laces are good and can add some support. Ankle coverage is great for crack climbing, but most beginners can get by with “low tops”. Rubber thickness will affect performance - thicker for more durability or stiffness, and thinner for a higher performance shoe. We like something in the middle that balances durability with performance.
- Our Advice Climbing shoes are one of those pieces of gear that we love - precision built for precision performance, and how we feel standing on our feet is crucial to how we feel climbing. It’s a huge part of enjoying the experience - so choose wisely and like we said above, focus on the footwork and your shoes and you’ll have more fun and be a better climber.
Additional Climbing Gear
- Chalk Chalk is used to keep your fingers and palms dry so you can grip different surfaces with less difficulty. A chalk bag with drawstring closure and waist clip is ideal for first time climbers. Some climbing gyms may require chalk balls over lose chalk, so make sure to check your local gym requirements/expectations when purchasing your first setup.
- Harness You may start with bouldering because of its minimalist nature, and some people stay in bouldering and can push those bouldering levels higher and higher. But most people will also want to try out sport climbing at some point, which is when you'll need a harness. Most harnesses offer the same basic features and the specifics won’t matter too much until you expand your climbing to include additional equipment. For now your main concern should be fit and comfort.
- Belay A belay device is essential for climbing safety, it acts as a brake on the climbing rope by applying friction to it. The device, in conjunction with the belayer's "brake hand" (which locks off the free end of the rope), helps keep tension on the rope and protects the climber on the other end. Some people prefer the friction of a pure cylinder belay device such as the Arc Belay Device from Cypher. Others prefer a smoother braking side that's tapered, such as the Black Diamond Pilot or Big Air XP. If you begin trad or multi-pitch climbing, you'll need a guide-style belay device, such as Black Diamond's ATC Guide or ATC Alpine Guide, so that you can clip into the device when belaying from above.
- Helmet Like most outdoor sports, a helmet is there to protect against any unforeseen dangers. In climbing these can include event such as falling rocks, hitting your head on an overhang, or even being whipped into a wall when lead climbing. The primary distinctions with helmets are use and weight, and for first time climbers we’d recommend a vented helmet with adjustable capabilities and a foam liner. The Black Diamond Half Dome is a great, low-cost helmet built mostly for protecting against rock-fall. A soft-shelled helmet like the Edelrid Shield II protects against rockfall on the top of the head, but also wraps the side of the head for when you get whipped sideways against the wall while lead climbing.