If you’re looking for fitness, fun and a healthy dose of adrenaline, then rock climbing is a worthy pursuit. Though it attracts its share of daredevils, rock climbing is also enjoyed by legions of everyday adventurers. If you’re reasonably fit and get yourself proper equipment and instruction, you, too, can become a rock jock.
Follow these steps to get started rock climbing:
- Find a qualified guide
- Identify the type of climbing you want to try
- Gear up
- Find your route
Step One: Find a Guide
Your first move before you set foot to slab is to find a qualified guide. Many people get their start with experienced friends, or you can seek out a certified instructor to teach you the ropes.
REI Outdoor School offers a range of rock climbing classes to get you started, or you can contact local climbing organizations or gyms for instruction.
Step 2: Choose a Type of Climbing
Rock climbing has a broad range of disciplines, with each requiring differing types of gear and training. Your choice of climbing style also helps determine the places and the routes you can climb. As a beginner, you’ll start out doing indoor climbing, bouldering or top-rope climbing outdoors.
For most people, this will be as a member of a climbing gym. Many colleges, public recreation centers and a few REI stores have a wall or freestanding pinnacle where people can try indoor top-rope climbing and/or bouldering. All of these places utilize artificial hand- and footholds placed to create routes of varying difficulty. Route setters can move holds easily, creating an endless number of new climbs on the same wall or pinnacle.
An indoor climbing gym offers many advantages for getting started:
- It’s a readily accessible, non-weather-dependent place to practice and work out.
- You can climb in areas where no outdoor climbing sites are available.
- It allows you to try the sport with rented gear before investing in your own.
This requires the least amount of time and gear. Though a few advanced routes can get pretty high, most bouldering takes you only as high as you can jump off comfortably. Climbers can traverse (move along the rock horizontally, parallel to the ground), thus working on strength and movement, without being exposed to a long fall.
Bouldering is a great introductory activity because it requires only climbing shoes, a chalk bag, a crash pad (to cushion your jump or fall off the rock) and an experienced spotter. You don’t need a rope or a harness. Outdoor bouldering areas are found around the country, and most climbing gyms offer an indoor version of the sport.
For more details see the REI Expert Advice article, Bouldering.
Outdoor Top-Rope Climbing
Top-roping involves anchoring the climbing rope to a spot at the top of the route, then climbing toward that anchor while another climber keeps the rope taut.
By having a solid anchor points and a taut rope, you’re minimizing the distance you fall if you slip off the rock. That’s why top-rope climbing is the first type of roped climbing you’ll do in both indoor and outdoor settings.
The term for the person who pulls in the slack as you progress (and holds the rope if you fall) is “belayer.” Belaying is a critical role, so your belayer should be a guide, instructor or a properly trained climber. You’ll also need to learn how to belay at some point because more advanced climbing teams trade off this responsibility.
More Advanced Types of Climbing
After you become proficient at top-rope climbing in the gym or outdoors, you’ll be ready to progress to lead climbing, intially on sport-climbing routes.
Outdoor sport climbing routes usually have bolts drilled into the rock and you use quickdraws to clip in as you progress. See Sport Climbing Basics for more information.
Traditional (“trad”) climbing is another option, although it also requires you to master the art and science of anchor placement. A trad route is one that has few, if any, permanent anchors. The lead climber protects against a catastrophic fall by placing protection—nuts or camming devices—into fissures in the rock. Quickdraws are used to connect the rope to the protection. See Traditional Climbing Basics, for more information.
Step 3. Gear Up to Climb
If you start out at a gym or climb with a guide, necessary equipment is usually provided. Some gyms or guides might require you to buy at least a few pieces of gear, though. And, eventually, you’ll want a full set of your own climbing gear.
Tip: Always inspect your gear before climbing—whether you own it or rent it. Frequent use inevitably results in some wear and tear. The advantage of buying your own gear is that you know its history.
Wear clothing that is not restrictive and won’t get in the way of you or the rope. Your clothing should breathe, wick sweat and dry fast so that you can stay warm and comfortable while climbing. If you’re climbing in the outdoors, also carry clothes for changing conditions just as you would for hiking.
Rock Climbing Shoes
Climbing shoes protect your feet while providing the friction you need to grip footholds. Most styles are quite versatile, but your climbing ability and where you climb are both factors in choosing the correct shoe.
Rock shoes should fit snugly but not painfully tight. The general rule is that closer-fitting shoes are the norm for more technically challenging climbs. See How to Choose Rock Shoes for more information.
Note: Rock shoes aren’t comfortable for walking long distances and doing so can ruin them. For the hike from your car to the base of your climbing area, wear approach shoes, trail runners or other appropriate footwear. Climbing shoes are for climbing only.
When climbing outdoors, you should always wear a helmet made specifically for climbing. Climbing helmets are designed to cushion your head from falling rock and debris, and some (though not all) are designed to provide protection in the case of a fall. They are generally not worn in a climbing gym since it’s a controlled environment.
A helmet should feel comfortable, fit snugly but not too tight and sit flat on your head. Helmets usually have a hard protective shell and an internal strapping system.
See How to Choose a Climbing Helmet for more information.
Unless you are bouldering, you need a climbing harness. A harness consists of two basic parts:
- Waistbelt: This sits over the hips and must fit snugly.
- Leg loops: One loop goes around each leg. Many harnesses conveniently offer adjustable or removable leg loops.
Your harness allows you to tie into the rope securely and efficiently. All harnesses have two front tie-in points designed specifically for threading the rope and tying in, one at the waist and one at the leg loops. Generally the tie-in points are different than the dedicated belay loop. Buckling your harness correctly is essential for safety.
The right harness model depends on the type of climbing you plan on doing. See the REI Expert Advice article, How to Choose a Climbing Harness, for more information.
Just like gymnasts, climbers use chalk to improve their grip. Chalk absorbs perspiration on your hands. To lessen environmental impact, it’s good form to use a chalk that matches the color of the rock you’re climbing. Chalk is carried in a small pouch slung from your waist by a lightweight belt.
Learn more by reading our article about how to choose chalk and chalk bags.
These strong, light metal rings with spring-loaded gates connect the climbing rope to pieces of climbing protection such as bolts, nuts and camming devices. They are also used to make quickdraws (used in lead climbing) and to rack (attach) your gear to the gear loops on your harness.
For most beginners, the first carabiner you’ll buy is a locking ‘biner designed to be used with a belay device.
See How to Choose a Carabiner to learn more about the many types of carabiners used in climbing.
This is used to help the belayer control the rope. Used correctly, a belay device increases friction that helps the belayer catch a fall, lower a climber, pay the rope out gradually as the climber advances, or reel in slack smoothly. The two most common belay-device styles are tubular and assisted-braking.
The first few times you climb you may not need to have your own belay device (you can rent or your guide will provide one), but it is one of the essential pieces of gear that you’ll eventually want to own.
See How to Choose Belay Devices for more information.
No piece of gear is more important to a climber than the rope, though again, when you’re just starting out, the rope will likely be provided for you. As you progress, where and what you are climbing will determine which rope is best for you.
When you’re ready to purchase your own rope, read How to Choose a Climbing Rope for in-depth details.
That said, when you’re getting started, it’s helpful to know there are two basic categories of rope:
- Dynamic: This is a rock climbing rope because it has elasticity worked into it. It’s designed to absorb the energy of a fall—even though the force of a fall can be very large.
- Static: This is a relatively stiff rope that, unlike dynamic rope, does not have much elasticity. It is used for rappelling and rescues.
All climbing ropes must pass the UIAA tests that regulate the number of falls a rope can hold, the impact force and the dynamic elongation.
As a beginning climber, you won’t be setting anchors or placing protection. Understanding what it is and learning how to do it, though, will make you a more well-rounded climber. You’ll want to be a proficient sport climber first, and then take classes to learn the proper way to place protection.
Often simply called “pro,” this group of devices is used in trad climbing to secure a climbing rope to the rock. Placed properly in a crack or hole, pro prevents a climber from falling any significant distance. Types of pro include cams, chocks and nuts, often referred to by trade names such as Stoppers, Hexcentrics or Friends. In an earlier era, pitons were often used.
Each of the two basic types of pro comes in a variety of sizes:
- Active: These units have movable parts. An example is a spring-loaded camming device (SLCD) that can adapt to fit a variety of cracks. To learn more, see Active Rock Climbing Protection: How to Choose.
- Passive: These pieces are made from a single piece of metal and have no movable parts. An example is a Hexcentric nut. To learn more, see Passive Rock Climbing Protection: How to Choose.
A must for bouldering, these dense foam pads are placed under the climber to cushion a fall or jump.
Step 4: Choose a Route
In the U.S., the Yosemite Decimal Rating System is predominantly used to rate climbing difficulty. The technical climbing portion of the scale runs from 5.0 through 5.15, with the difficulty increasing as the decimal portion of the rating goes up.
Very broadly, easier climbing routes are rated in the 5.1 through 5.5 range. Those are the types of routes your instructor will put you on initially.
When you progress to intermediate through hard routes, ratings are in the 5.6 through 5.10 range. The most difficult to seemingly impossible routes are rated 5.11 through 5.15. Ratings of 5.10 can also have an “a,” “b,” “c” or “d” attached to further delineate their level of challenge.
Bouldering ratings are a little more varied, with the V Scale being one of the more common, and ranking routes as V0 (easiest) through V16 (hardest).
To learn more, see Climbing and Bouldering Rating Systems.
Find a Place to Climb
You can find descriptions of routes of all difficulty levels at the Mountain Project.
Remember: Safety is your responsibility. No internet article or video can replace proper instruction and experience. Make sure you’re practiced in proper techniques and safety requirements before you climb.
Contributing REI experts: REI Outdoor School Instructor Gavin Bridgeman (Los Angeles, Calif.) is a CWA CWI (Climbing Wall Association Climbing Wall Instructor) and an AMGA SPI (American Mountain Guides Association Single Pitch Instructor).