Rock Climbing - What to Know Before You Start

Rock Climbing - What to Know Before You Start

Are you looking for a new physical activity? You could be looking for some excitement. Rock climbing is an activity that is healthy, fun, and full of adrenaline.
Rock climbing is an athletic adventure that always seems to be just out of our reach. I mean, who doesn't want to be dangling 45 feet above the ground only held by a rope?

But it doesn't have to be that overwhelming.

Alex Johnson is a professional climber and a five-time US national champion. He mentions that "climbing is a very welcoming and accessible sport for beginners." You can't get discouraged, and you may be more apt to scale an indoor climbing wall.

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"It's easy to get discouraged — it happens to everyone — but the best way to improve is to keep trying," says Johnson.

Rock climbing is a workout, too. You have adrenaline pumping, you will be an aerobic workout, build upper-body strength, and improve your overall cardiovascular fitness.

Here are tips to help you get started on your rock climbing journey.

Find a Qualified Guide

Finding a qualified guide to show you the ropes is important. Seek out a certified trainer or buddy up with someone with experience.

Check around for local classes and sign up.

Choose Your Climbing Type

There are a lot of different types of climbing, and all of them have their own types of training and gear. Choosing a climbing style will help you determine the places and routes you'll be able to climb.

As a beginner, many professionals suggest starting out with indoor climbing, bouldering, or top-rope climbing outdoors.

Indoor Climbing

Indoor climbing is growing in popularity, while many colleges, public recreation centers, and a few gyms offer climbing facilities.

These facilities offer artificial hand and footholds to create routes of varying difficulty. Route setters can move the holds and create an endless number of climbing routes.

Indoor climbing gyms are great because they are readily accessible, they don't depend on the weather to be nice, and it is a nice place to practice and workout. You'll be able to climb in areas where you can't climb outdoors, and you can essentially try out the sport by renting gear instead of investing in your own.


Bouldering is a great start because it requires the least amount of time and gear. There are a few advanced routes that can get pretty high, but bouldering mostly takes you only as high as you can jump off comfortably.

The nice thing about bouldering is climbers will traverse moving horizontally on rocks instead of vertically. This means you can work on your strength, movement, and getting comfortable climbing without being exposed to a long fall.

You can get started bouldering with just some climbing shoes, chalk, a crash pad, and an experienced spotter. You won't need a rope or harness, and you can find outdoor bouldering areas around the country — with many climbing gyms offering an indoor version.

Outdoor Top-Rope Climbing

When taking up top-rope climbing, this will involve anchoring a climbing rope to a spot at the top of your route while you climb toward that anchor and another climber keeps your rope taut. A solid anchor point along with a taut rope minimizes the distance you can slip off of the rock.

This is why top-rope climbing is the first type of roped climbing you'll want to start within both indoor and outdoor settings.

The person that holds your rope taut is called a belayer and they are basically the person that keeps you from falling. Belaying is a critical role, so they need to be a guide and experienced. You'll end up learning how to belay at some point since more advanced climbing teams will trade this responsibility with other teammates.

Advanced Climbing

Once you get used to bouldering and performing some top-rope climbing, you can start learning how to lead climb on sport-climbing routes.

Outdoor sport climbing routes generally have bolts drilled into the rock and you can use quickdraws to clip in as you progress.

Traditional climbing is another option, but you're going to have to master the art and science of placing anchors. A trad route has a few — if any — permanent anchors. The lead climber protects against a catastrophic fall by placing the protection nuts or camming devices into fissures in the rock. You will then use quickdraws to connect your rope for protection.

Getting Your Rock Climbing Gear

Learning how to rock climb doesn't have to cost you an arm and a leg. You can start out with some shoes, chalk, and a crash pad, or you can rent everything.
As you progress and become proficient at top-rope climbing, your gym or guide may require you to buy a few pieces of equipment. But that's okay, you'll want to have a full set of gear of your own.

Before you buy or rent your gear, make sure to inspect it. Using the gear frequently inevitably will cause wear and tear. This is why buying your own gear is nice because you know its history.

Clothes for Climbing

You'll want to find some clothes that aren't restrictive but won't get in the way of the rope. Climbing clothes should breathe, wick sweat, and dry quickly so you can stay comfortable while climbing.

If you are climbing outdoors, it may be smart to carry extra clothes you can change into if the conditions change.

Rock Climbing Shoes

Climbing shoes are going to protect your feet and allow extra friction to grip the footholds. There are many styles of climbing shoes and most are pretty versatile, but your climbing ability and where you can climb will determine the correct shoe.

The shoes should fit snugly but not tight. The general rule of thumb is that closer-fitting shoes are the norm for more technically challenging climbs. Remember, these aren't going to be comfortable to walk long distances in... in fact, that can ruin them.

Hike from your car to the base of your climbing area in appropriate footwear and then change into your climbing shoes when you are ready to climb.

Climbing Helmet

Climbing helmets are designed to cushion your head from falling rock or debris, and some (but not all) are designed to provide protection if you fall.

While helmets aren't generally worn in a climbing gym because it is a controlled environment, you need to find one that fits snugly and comfortably. They use a hard protective shell and an internal strapping system that should hold the helmet flat to your head.

Climbing Harness

The only type of climbing you won't need a harness is for is bouldering.

Your harness consists of two parts:

  • Leg Loops - One loop goes around each leg and many harnesses allow adjustable or removable leg loops.
  • Waistbelt - This is the part of the harness that sits over the hips and needs to fit snugly.

You'll be able to tie into ropes efficiently and securely since all harnesses have two front tie-in points designed for threading the rope and typing in — one at the waist and one at the leg loops.

The tie-in points are different than the dedicated belay loop, so make sure you buckle your harness correctly for your safety.


Gymnastics, powerlifters, and rock climbers all use chalk to improve their grip by keeping the sweat off of the palm of your hands. Choose chalk that matches the color of the rocks you are climbing if you want to lessen your environmental impact.

Chalk is generally carried in a small pouch on your waist.


While many people use a carabiner to hold their keys or use them at work, these strong light metal rings have a spring-loaded gate that allows you to connect your climbing rope to pieces of your climbing protection like bolts, nuts, and camming devices.

You can also use carabiners to make quickdraws and to attach your gear to loops on your harness. For most beginners, the first carabiner you'll buy is a locking carabiner that is designed to be used with a belay device.

Belay Device

A belay device helps the belayer control the rope. When you use them correctly, the belay device will increase the friction that will allow you to catch a falling climber.

It will also allow you to pay the rope out gradually as the climber advances or you can reel in the slack smoothly.

The two most common delay device styles are an assisted-braking and a tubular design. You can always rent or borrow a belay device as you learn, but they are essential for any climber.

Climbing Ropes

Rope will likely be provided for you as you begin learning how to climb, but there's not a piece of gear that's more important to a climber than their rope.

There are two basic categories of rope:

  • Static - A relatively stiff rope that does not have much elasticity. These are used for rappelling and rescues.
  • Dynamic - This rope has elasticity worked into it. It's designed to absorb the energy of a fall.

Your climbing rope will need to pass the UIAA tests that regulate the number of falls a rope can hold, along with the impact force and the dynamic elongation.

Climbing Protection

You won't need to worry about this while you are a beginning climber since you won't be setting anchors or placing protection on the route.

Understanding them, though, will make you a well-rounded climber. Become a proficient sport climber first, and take classes as you progress to place protection.

Advanced climbers will often refer to this as "pro," which is a group of devices in trad climbing to secure climbing rope to a rock. When placed properly in a crack or hole, pro will prevent a climber from falling a significant distance. Protection includes cams, chocks, and nuts that are often referred to by trade names like Stoppers, Hexcentrics, and Friends.

There are two basic types of protection that come in a variety of sizes:

  • Passive - These are made from a single piece of metal and don't have movable parts. An example would be a Hexcentric nut.
  • Active - These units will have movable parts like a spring-loaded camming device that can adapt to fit a variety of cracks.

Crash Pads

You're going to want to pick one of these up for yourself since they are the dense foam pads that are placed under you to help cushion your fall or jump.

Learn the Ropes

As you learn how to climb, you're going to start wanting to venture out into the great outdoors.

Choose Your Route

In the United States, the Yosemite Decimal Rating System is predominantly used to rate the climbing difficulty of a route. The technical climbing portion of the scale runs from 5.0 to 5.14 — with the difficulty increasing as the decimal portion increases.

For the most part, you're going to be put on climbing routes rated in the 5.1 to 5.5 range. As you progress to intermediate levels, you're going to be climbing in the 5.6 to 5.10 range. The most difficult to impossible routes are rated 5.11 to 5.15.

A rating of 5.10 could also have an A, B, C, or D attached to further delineate the level of challenge you're about to face.

For bouldering, the scale is a little different. There's a V Scale that ranks routes from V0 which is the easiest, to V16 which is the hardest.

Use Your Core

Believe it or not, climbing doesn't require as much upper-body strength as you think. Your core strength is most important.

If you have experience in sports like gymnastics, Pilates, or yoga, you could have a leg up on someone without any experience. You'll need to recruit your fingers, hands, core, arms, shoulders, and back mostly.

Keep Your Arms Straight

When you carry your groceries in, do you try to bend your arms? You probably keep them straight.

It's much more tiring trying to keep your arms bent while carrying groceries, and climbing is the same way. When you keep your arms straight, you'll become more efficient when climbing.

While you keep your arms straight, you'll want to keep your legs bent — this helps push yourself up with your lower body.

Learn the Lingo

Being able to communicate properly while climbing is important. You need your belay partner to be on the same page as you, so here are a few basic climbing commands you'll likely encounter.

Climber - "On belay"
Belayer - "Belay on"
Climber - "Climbing"
Belayer - "Climb on"
Climber - "Take" (if you want a break)
Belayer - "Got"
Climber - "Lower"
Belayer - "Okay, lowering
Climber - "Off belay"
Belayer - "Belay off"

Plan Your Climb

Planning out your hand movements and identifying all of the footholds before you start to climb is a smart idea. Climbers will often mimic movements to help identify the correct, or most efficient, way to use each hold while they are still on the mat.

Once you get more experience, you'll be able to recognize sequences better, which is a great skill to have. Look for clues like which holds have chalk on them, or if they have rubber marks from shoes. This can give you an insight into an efficient path.

Climbing Etiquette

When it comes to anything, knowing the proper etiquette keeps you from encountering an embarrassing or otherwise fun time.

Just like putting your weights back when you are done, there are a few things you should avoid when climbing.

Don't Crowd - Don't start climbing the same route at the same time as someone on the route next to you. People need a little space on the wall, so give them time even if your paths don't cross. Give them at least a third of their climb up before you start.

Don't Step on the Rope - Your rope is your lifeline, so you don't want to tear it up. While this may not be a big deal indoors, you don't want to pick up that bad habit.

Don't Make a lot of Noise - Think of climbing more like yoga instead of your personal record deadlift attempt.

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