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What was once considered a dangerous sport reserved only for elite athletes is quickly becoming a broadly known activity to do in your spare time, even if you’re not an elite athlete.
Getting started with rock climbing isn’t challenging thanks to its increasing trendiness. You can easily find basic climbing knowledge (you’ve found it, haven’t you?) and, if you live near a large city, initiate your journey in the safe, easy environment of a climbing gym. Otherwise, a local rock climbing guide can assist you in starting outdoors.
Before we get into the gear, beta, and basics, let’s cover the most important aspect. Why do you even want to climb?
Table of Contents
Why We Climb
Climbing is extremely “in” right now and it’s awesome that the sport is so accessible to so many people, but there’s more to it than just ascending a rock face.
Rock climbing can involve risk assessment, mental challenges, and problem-solving plus it can result in improved confidence, awareness, and overall happiness.
While it’s great if you’re getting into climbing because it’s the trendy thing to do nowadays, if you enter the climbing universe to experience the tricky mind games, the challenges, and the risks, you will gain so much more from this sport than just improved fitness.
Climbing to me represents more of a mental climb than a physical one because in putting yourself in challenging situations, you learn new things and you grow.
Besides the mental gains you’ll experience, climbing is a great way to improve physical fitness, upper body strength, and body awareness.
Even if you’re only climbing 5.7s or V0, climbing makes you stoked. It’s a rush of adrenaline and endorphins which inevitably makes you feel awesome afterward.
Types of Climbing
Bouldering is rock climbing–well, boulder-sized rocks. When you are bouldering you are only climbing a 20-foot wall and there is no rope, harness, or belayer involved. It’s just you, a pair of shoes, and the route.
When you are bouldering, you fall and land or jump down onto padded flooring (when in a climbing gym) or onto a crash pad (when climbing outside).
Because of this, bouldering is less scary for those afraid of heights but it can be much more dangerous for beginners. Make sure you practice falling with bent legs, rolling onto your back, and never falling back onto your arms.
When a climbing wall becomes too dangerous to take a fall from, then it’s time to bring on the ropes. Though you climb higher on ropes, you are much safer because you literally can’t fall when you’re on “top rope.”
In top rope climbing, the climber and belayer set up the rope through an anchor system at the route’s top, creating a pulley system.
For those afraid of heights, top roping may seem much scarier than bouldering but just remember that you literally can’t fall more than 1 foot or so on top rope. When you slip off the holds on the top rope, you simply sit into your harness and hang with your feet against the wall.
Lead climbing stands out as the purest form of climbing because it solely relies on your abilities to ascend the rock, with protection in place if you fall, yet no assistance while ascending.
The major distinction between top roping and leading lies in the potential for falls, although within certain protected limits. This aspect heavily involves risk assessment and mental barriers, establishing it as the gold standard of climbing, excluding free soloing (climbing without any protection).
Instead of the rope running from the belayer through anchors before reaching the climber in a pulley system, when leading, the rope goes directly from the belayer to the lead climber. As the lead climber ascends the route, they attach the rope to an anchor on the wall (the type of anchor depends on if it’s a sport or Trad route). Usually, bolts or anchors are placed every 8-10 feet.
Source: Fix.com Blog
For a brief moment when the lead climber reaches their bolt or gear placement, they are safe and can’t fall because the rope is then in a pulley system. As soon as the lead climber climbs past this anchor they CAN fall. The lead climber can fall double the distance they are from their last anchor plus top stretch.
Start Slow: Begin with easier routes outdoors, even if they seem simpler than your indoor climbs. Outdoor terrain can present different challenges.
For example, if a climber is 5 feet past their 3rd bolt (about 30 feet off the ground) they fall. There is 5 feet of slack out in the rope so they can fall 10 feet plus rope stretch (closer to 15 feet).
Lead climbing can be dangerous in some scenarios especially when bolts/placements are farther apart, however, lead climbing in general is not necessarily dangerous. Learning to lead in a gym can be a very safe environment and leading is essential if you want to ever transition to outdoor climbing on your own.
Sport vs Trad
Within the realm of Lead climbing, there are two different types of climbing and they refer to the types of anchors that are protecting you when you fall on lead: sport and trad (traditional). These are not essential to know when you’re climbing in the gym trad climbing only applies outdoors, but you’ll hear the terms thrown around a lot even in the gym.
In sport climbing, climbers encounter pre-placed bolts or pitons drilled or set into the rock or wall. When climbers reach a bolt, they attach one end of a quickdraw (pictured below) to the bolt and their rope to the other end of the draw, often called “clipping.”
People can usually climb a higher grade in sport climbing than in trad climbing because of the ease and speed of clipping in their protection. Trad climbing, as I’ll explain in a second takes a lot longer to clip your protection which requires more endurance.
All gym-lead climbing falls under the category of sport climbing. Pre-placed bolts are also used outdoors when it’s not possible to use the natural protection of traditional gear.
Trad climbing is much harder in many ways. To clip your rope into the wall, you must first carefully place your protection into the wall. This placement not only makes clipping your bolt take a lot longer, but it also involves a whole other realm of climbing knowledge like types of gear (camming devices and nut sets), what piece of gear will protect you best, where you should place your gear, etc etc.
What do the Numbers Mean?
Different countries use different grading systems. It can often be confusing to convert grades so to keep it simple I’m only going to talk about the USA grades. Grades are different for roped climbing and bouldering. Trad and sport climbing uses the Yosemite Decimal System and bouldering uses the Hueco Tanks system
Yosemite Decimal System
The Yosemite decimal system is used by the US and Canada. The grades start at 5.4 (being the easiest) and 5.15d being the hardest. Anything easier than a 5.4 is considered Class 1, 2, 3, and 4 scrambling. Once a grade becomes a 5.10, the letters A, B, C, and D are added, 5.10a being the easiest. After 5.10d comes 5.11a and so on. Beginner climbers with a moderate fitness level will probably be able to climb routes as hard as 5.8.
Bouldering (Hueco Tanks System)
When it comes to bouldering, almost all the world uses the same grading system except for one area of France and one area in the Peak District of England.
Bouldering starts at V0 being the easiest and V16 being the hardest. Because bouldering is done on a much shorter wall, the difficult routes in general are much harder. A V0 is technically the equivalent of a 5.10a, a V1 a 5.10b, and so on.
If you’re bouldering in a gym there are usually some VB routes that are easier than V0. These are most suitable for beginner climbers.
While you can learn to climb with a guided outdoor trip, the very basics of rock climbing are best learned in a climbing gym.
Basic Climbing Gear
Climbing gear, while generally expensive, doesn’t demand a full Trad rack, ropes, or numerous slings for a beginner’s start in the climbing gym. You only need four (well, really just one) essential things to begin…
1. Climbing Shoes
Climbing shoes are the very least you need to get started. As I’ll explain later in this blog, there are two main types of climbing: Ropes and Bouldering. To boulder, which involves no ropes, all you need is a pair of climbing shoes.
Climbing shoes in general are tight and uncomfortable and take some getting used to. More “Aggressive” shoes will be more uncomfortable so when you’re just starting, you’re going to want to look for the least aggressive, most flat-footed shoe there is.
Before purchasing a climbing shoe, you need to try them on because every brand’s sizing runs different and you usually wear climbing shoes 2-4 sizes smaller than a regular shoe.
If you’re not sure if you’re going to like climbing and are just trying it out, pretty much every climbing gym offer shoe rentals.
To ascend taller climbing walls using ropes, you’ll require a harness. Climbing gyms often rent harnesses, similar to climbing shoes, for newcomers to the sport.
3. Belay Device (ATC or Gri Gri)
A belay device prevents a climber from falling while using climbing ropes. Later in this blog, we’ll delve deeper into belaying, but gear-wise, a belay device stands as a crucial essential for beginners in rock climbing, particularly for those aiming to climb top ropes.
There are multiple different types of belay devices but the most common are an ATC or Gri-gri. ATCs are much cheaper but gri-gri’s have an “auto-blocking” feature which can be good for beginners because they self-lock. In the rare case that the belayer lets go of the brake strand (explained later), the gri-gri will brake on its own (Auto-blocking).
4. Chalk & Chalk Bag
Chalk is not necessary to get started, especially if you’re a beginner but it could be nice and I’d consider it an essential. Plus, chalk bags are like an expression of who you are, ya know. It’s like the stickers on your water bottle. Below are some chalk bag designs from our favorite brands (8b+, Organic Chalk Bags, Evolv, or Prana). Don’t forget to buy some chalk to go with it too.
Belaying + Tying In
Belaying is used in any roped climbing. In top-roping, you can learn how to safely tie into the rope and belay a climber in only 10-15 minutes, it’s that easy.
The basic principle of belaying on top rope is a pulley system as mentioned before. The rope runs from the climber where the rope will be tied into their harness, up the wall through an anchor system and back to the belayer. The belayer puts the end of the rope through a belay device. As the climber climbs up, the belayer keeps the end of the rope tight by pulling down on the rope, feeding it through their belay device, and taking up the slack.
Source: Fix.com Blog
The most important thing to remember is to never let go of the brake strand which you’ll learn in any belay lesson. Auto-blocking means, to some, extent, that you could let go and it would break on its own, but I don’t recommend testing the theory.
Outdoor climbing often presents more mental challenges. Focus on maintaining calmness, refining technique, and staying resilient on tougher climbs.
To tie in, no matter what form of roped climbing, you will always tie at the end of your rope into your harness using a figure eight knot followed by a “Yosemite follow through” or Fisherman’s knot.
Most climbing gyms will require you to pass a belay test before allowing you to top rope. Most climbing gyms have cheap belay lessons you can take or you can watch our YouTube video below to learn how to tie in and belay.
Lead belaying and climbing require much more climbing experience. A lead belayer is in a much higher risk scenario and it’s much easier to make mistakes when lead belaying. See more about this in How to Start Climbing Outdoors (coming soon).
Lowering Off the Route
When top roping, no matter how high you go, you will have to lower off your route by letting go of the wall and sitting in your harness. Your belayer will then slowly lower you down.
Many beginner climbers are nervous about fully sitting in their harnesses. The best advice is to trust your harness. To make lowering easier, position yourself closer to a seated stance, lean your shoulders back, and place your feet in front of you on the wall. Because this can be so nerve-racking for beginners, especially those afraid of heights, I highly recommend getting comfortable hanging/sitting in your harness and practice lowering down when you are only a few feet off the ground.
Now that you have a good understanding of how to start to rock climbing, you can hit the your local climbing gym with confidence to get on the wall.
You don’t necessarily have to start climbing in a gym though. If you want to climb outdoors hire a climbing guide and they’ll make sure you have an awesome time at the crag while teaching you the basics of climbing.
Transitioning from basic indoor rock climbing to outdoor climbing is a thrilling step. You don’t need to tackle 5.11 grades; even starting at 5.9 is common. However, there are crucial aspects to grasp before venturing outdoors. Discover how to start rock climbing outdoors and make this transition a rewarding experience.
Recommended: How to Rock Climb (Falcon Guides) by John Long
While the blog does cover themes of important essential aspects of learning to rock climb, I still recommend this How To Climb guidebook. We used this book when we started and it’s especially good if you want to learn more about climbing technique, lead climbing, and outdoor climbing.
Disclosure: We are not guides and this blog is not a course to tell you how to belay or lead climb. This is just an overview of climbing for informational purposes which means, Climb At Your Own Risk.
- Intro to Rock Climbing: 3 Ways to Find out if Climbing is for You
- 6 Best Beginner Climbing Shoes
- 6 Simple Steps for Mastering Your Adventure Mindset
- Best Beginner Sport Climbing Destinations Around the World
- Beginner-Friendly Climbing Destinations in Europe
- 3 Great Beginner Climbing Destinations in Colorado
- 5.8 Climbers Guide to City of Rocks, Idaho
Got questions about the basics of climbing? Feel free to let us know in the comments section below!