If you’re interested in starting your rock climbing journey this year but aren’t sure where to start, dig into our ultimate guide below and learn the ropes.
The idea of starting to rock climb might seem daunting. And sure, it can be a rocky sport to navigate at first. But beyond the initially frightening maiden climb, rock climbing is a social, enjoyable, physically demanding, and safe sport to take up. There’s plenty to learn, lots of ways to take part, and a thriving and ever-growing community of enthusiasts the world over. Rock climbing gyms are becoming more and more common, and more routes are being mapped and climbed every day. There’s never been a better time to jump into this sport, so get that harness on, get your knot-tying fingers warmed up, and let’s get climbing.
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Rock climbing used to be an inaccessible sport participated in only by enthusiasts who live in rock climbing hotspots. But with thousands of gyms all around the world and more cropping up every year, anyone can get into it. While it may look physically taxing, it’s actually pretty easy-going if you’re the active sort, and the difficulty gradings make it easy to step in at your level and begin building your skillset.
The rock climbing community is one of the most buoyant and welcoming communities in the outdoor sports world, so if you want to improve your fitness and strength, find some new friends, learn some new skills, have some laughs, and conquer that long-standing fear of heights (or maybe you just like heights, you weirdo), then rock climbing is a great choice. And because it’s now largely an indoor sport, you can do it all year, in all weathers. And best of all, there’s a low barrier to entry for both price and experience. What could be better? Of course, there are some things to bear in mind to start with.
While climbing is a really easy-going sport for beginners, it’s still pretty physically demanding. If you’re going to begin indoors, you’ll notice that different hand and footholds on the walls will have different colours. And while there are lots of holds on the wall, the different colour sets mark out the routes, and are graded by difficulty. Easier routes will have easy-to-reach holds that are larger, making it easier to put your weight on them.
However, even the easy grades will require some solid upper and lower body strength, as you’ll be holding yourself against the wall, using your legs to lift yourself up, and your arms and core to stabilise. As such, it’s important to consider this going in, so that you don’t have any sort of unrealistic expectation of how simple the sport is. This is added to by the discomfort of the harnesses for beginners, as well as the fact that you’re probably going to climb higher than you’d normally be comfortable doing. There are also the safety issues at play, because although top-roping is the safest way of climbing, it can still be dangerous if you don’t follow the rules.
Climbing is a great sport to take up, but it requires focus and discipline to do correctly, and some time to learn the right techniques, skills, and rules that’ll help you progress. So … still with us? Okay, great. None of that scares you? Perfect! Rock climbing is super fun and a great way to challenge yourself physically and mentally. So with that in mind, let’s get into the types of climbing you’ll encounter.
Climbing is usually divided into three main types, but as this is a beginner's guide, we’ll add in a fourth, known as Top Roping, which is the one you’ll likely encounter first if you start climbing indoors. However, knowing the other types will be important once you progress beyond the beginner stage, and knowing which is which will help guide your progression (as well as make jumping into conversations at the climbing gym easier!).
Top roping is exactly what it sounds like. A rope is fed down from an anchor point above, and prevents the climber from falling a long distance. At a climbing gym, top roping usually works by having a belayer and a climber using one rope, where the climber has it attached to their harness, and as they climb, the belayer (who stays on the ground), takes in the slack, keeping the rope taut. They feed this through their harness, and if the climber falls, the weight of the belayer prevents them from falling to the ground.
Top roping can also apply to single climber scenarios in the gym, where the climber has a rope attached to an anchor point at the top of the route, and as they climb, they take in their own slack to prevent a fall. On outdoor routes, a climber may secure a line at the top of the route, possibly around a tree or boulder, and then throw it down to the other climbers. In this case, they might be the anchor, with the rope looped around the tree or boulder (which can be useful for supporting the climber and preventing fatigue on long days), and help the climber out by adding tension to the rope with their bodyweight, or they might simply tie it off and allow the climbers to take in their own slack as they climb.
Traditional climbing is the oldest type of climbing and emphasises exploration, routing, technique, and problem-solving. Traditional climbing involves a lead climber tackling a face, and then placing protective gear into weaknesses like cracks, to create temporary anchor points to help prevent falls. They find their way up the face, choosing their own route, and place protection as they go, minimizing fall distance. Subsequent climbers follow them up, using their protection, and then the final climber removes the gear as they come up afterwards.
Sport climbing usually involves the timing of pre-determined routes, hence the ‘sport’ element. Climbers will tackle different routes which already have bolts installed, and loop themselves in using quick draws. They follow these routes, hooking in as they go, and work in pairs, with one climber belaying from below, using their bodyweight as an anchor if there’s a fall. Because this type of climbing has a focus on speed and technical difficulty, there’s a competitive element at play that isn’t so prevalent in the more community-focused traditional climbing sphere. Though it’s extremely difficult, with climbers vying for speed records, and attempting what’s known as ‘flashing’, which is climbing a route for the first time with no falls or mistakes.
Bouldering is all about problem-solving and fun. Climbers move without ropes and attempt to scale a small cliff or boulder (up to 20ft or so usually). Crash mats or inflatable mats are placed below the climber to cushion any falls they may have. This is a fun, community-focused type of climbing where climbers will tackle the same route, or different routes up the face and help each other spot handholds from below. Many climbing gyms will have specific bouldering areas with large crash mats on the floor.
When you begin your climbing journey, the idea of choosing one of the above types can be pretty daunting. How are you supposed to know what you’ll enjoy doing before you do it? This is the beauty of the indoor climbing gym movement, because many gyms will have top rope climbs for beginners or those who just like top roping, and they’ll have sport climbing routes, too, if you want to practice that! Some will even have specific areas to practice traditional climbing as well, before you take it into the wilderness. And we’ll explain why below.
Learning to climb indoors is a great choice for any newcomer to the sport. And that’s because you get to practice in a controlled environment. When you start top rope climbing, you are rigged in by an instructor, the knots are double-checked, the equipment is safety-tested, and the anchor is rock solid. And you also have someone telling you to take up slack if you forget! This means you can get a real feel for climbing and belaying with the minimum amount of danger possible.
The same goes if you find somewhere that lets you learn trad methods of climbing. The holds and cracks you can practice with are going to be strong enough to hold your gear, and you, again, will have someone watching you, instructing, and checking your work. The same goes for sport climbing. You can hook into the bolts on the way up with confidence that they’ll hold.
Once you venture into the outdoors, you’re either trusting in the strength of the rock when you put protection into a crack, or your trusting in whoever put that bolt in the face. And over time you’ll learn to read the rock in a way that’ll let you know if a crack is going to hold. And you’ll be able to tell if a bolt is going to be sturdy enough to take your weight in a fall. But to begin with, learning indoors at a climbing gym is the best option. At least until you gain enough experience and learn the skills that’ll keep you safe out there.
Now it’s time for some schooling! Before we go any further, let’s go over some other basic terms you’ll encounter in this world and what they mean. This will help you to gain a better understanding of the different disciplines, as well as helping you better understand the information being relayed.
Speed climbing is the competitive practice of racing another climber up an identical route as quickly as possible. This is an Olympic sport, alongside sport climbing and bouldering, that focuses on raw power, explosive strength, and beating the other climber to the bell no matter what.
If sport climbing doesn’t get your heart racing, what about doing it with no ropes? Free climbing involves climbing with no safety gear or ropes, and is reserved for the most insane climbers out there. Free climbers often fall to their deaths, but the elite among them engage in free-soloing, the act of tackling a face or route without anyone with you, and no one spotting. Just you, the rock, and the eagles. Makes my hands sweat just thinking about it! Don’t believe this is a real thing? Look up the documentary ‘Free Solo’. You’ll be amazed … and horrified. Enjoy!
Routing is the term given to the process of finding a route up a face for the first time. Whether a climber is in a totally new place, or just finding a new route up a known face, routing is the process they’ll go through. It employs creativity, problem-solving, and a way to climb against yourself, and the rock. Many experienced climbers enjoy this more than anything else.
What goes up must come down! Rappelling is the act of moving backwards over a cliff, and then letting the rope out and abseiling down the face to the ground. If a climber has climbed up and anchored a top rope, they’ll usually rappel down to the ground afterwards, and then simply pull their rope down.
Like every other sport, rock climbing does require some specific gear to progress. But you’ll be glad to know that in the beginning, you can use normal trainers and gym/activewear. Indoor climbing centres will loan out harnesses, ropes, helmets, and provide chalk for you to use. So, really, if you want to get started, there’s nothing standing in your way. But once you get the bug, you might want to invest in some more fit-for-purpose equipment.
Climbing shoes are a lightweight but sturdy piece of equipment with a specific design to help aid climbers find and keep holds. They have harder rubberised soles with high levels of grip, as well as a hard corner at the toe so you can ‘hook’ into smaller holds. Find a pair that’s comfortable for you, and suits your specific climbings style and interests.
Ropes save lives. Designed to prevent nasty falls, ropes really are a climber's best friend. They are divided into two main categories — dynamic and static. Dynamic ropes have an element of elasticity and are able to absorb the energy of a fall and lessen the impact when you run out of slack. Static ropes are used in anchoring systems, for hauling gear up walls, and for rappelling, but never for belaying a climber.
A standard climbing harness will be comprised of a waist belt and two leg loops, which are connected to the waist loop by a strengthened belay loop. There are a variety of harnesses designed for different types of climbing, prioritising different features depending on the style they’re made for. For your first harness, go for something comfortable and versatile.
Belay devices are a piece of climbing gear that cause friction in the rope while belaying. They allow the belayer (the person feeding the rope to the climber or taking slack in as they ascend) to control the rate at which the rope moves through their harness, and allows them to easily stop it in the event of a fall. They are also used while rappelling and resting on the wall during a climb.
These devices come in both active and passive forms, with passive belay devices always requiring input from the user to brake the rope, while active devices kick in automatically if the rope starts moving too quickly.
Carabiners are metal loops with a spring-loaded gate that allows the user to quickly hook in to a rope. Simply push the carabiner onto the rope and the gate will snap closed behind it. Carabiners are used everywhere in climbing, and come in both locking and non-locking forms. Non-locking carabiners are used when you need to hook in and release quickly while climbing, whereas locking carabiners are used for anchoring and top-roping systems where their fixture is more permanent, to eliminate the risk of any anchor points or protective gear failing.
Draws are used to connect the climber’s rope to a piece of protection while climbing. A quick-draw is a piece of kit comprised of two non-locking carabiners connected by a short piece of webbing. They mey also be connected by a longer piece of webbing, which allows them greater versatility. Shorter quick-draws are useful for sport climbing so they don’t get in the way, while longer quick-draws are great for trad climbing where the extra length means better usability in a wider variety of situations.
Protection or ‘pro’ devices allow climbers to place temporary anchor points on a face during a climb. Passive protection devices like nuts act as a choke when tension is placed on them by using the natural shape of the rock, while active protection devices like spring-loaded cams convert tension into pressure against the rock, locking them into place.
A climbing helmet is much like any other helmet. It’s designed to protect the climber’s head from falling debris like rocks or dropped gear from climbers above, as well as protecting a climber’s head in the event of a fall. Experienced climbers will often not wear helmets, but as a beginner, you absolutely should wear a helmet both indoors and outdoors.
While not a pre-requisite, belay gloves are very useful when a climber has a long day of belaying, rappelling, and hauling gear ahead of them. They prevent rope burn, and provide greater purchase on the rope when you need to stop a fall, gently let out or take in tension, and generally handle a rope.
Chalk is a fine white powder that climbers use to absorb moisture from their skin and the environment. Sweat is the biggest issue for many climbers, and can cause slips and falls even on dry days. As such, climbers will usually have a pouch attached to the back of their harness that they can dip their hand into mid-climb.
Crash mats are a necessity for any boulderer. Inside climbing gyms, the bouldering area may be made entirely of crash mats, but in outdoor settings, bringing along inflatable or packable crash mats will likely save your ankles and legs from some nasty injuries.
When you start off, all the knots you’ll need to know how to tie will already be tied for you. Harnesses, anchor points, and top ropes will already be rigged up so you can get a taste of climbing before worrying about anything else. But as you progress, and take your climbing outside the gym, you’ll quickly realise that knots are an essential part of climbing safety. As such, we’ll run through the three most common ones below.
Known as a stopper knot, the Retrace Figure Eight stops a line from running through a piece of hardware, like a carabiner. The rope is fed through the hardware and then looped around the rope in a figure of eight. The rope is then fed back around again, retracing the first figure eight. Check out this video below.
The Clove Hitch is another simple knot that is very useful for attaching a rope to a carabiner or anchor. Able to be one with one or two hands, this knot involves taking the rope and clipping it into the carabiner, then, taking another loop of the same rope, and doing the same thing to create a fast and secure knot. Check out this video below.
An extremely simple knot, the Girth Hitch, or Strap Knot, is used to create an anchor point by passing one side of a loop around or through an object, and then passing that end through the inside of the loop and pulling tight. This is a fast and safe knot to keep on hand for a variety of situations. For a tutorial on this and lots more useful climbing knots, check out this playlist.
When you first start off, you’ll no doubt struggle, and be sore in places you’ve never been sore before. First-time climbers will likely experience arm pump, death grip, knocked knees, full-body shake, and all sorts of other weird aches and pains. As such, we’re going to cover some basic things to expect, and how you can prepare yourself for them.
There’s one old rule that many climbers swear by, and that’s climbing with your bones. It may sound odd, but one of the fundamental skills of climbing is delegating the supporting your weight to your skeleton to give your muscles a rest. Try to keep your limbs straight when stopped, to let your tendons and joints bear your weight, rather than your musculature. You’ll find it much easier to regain your breath and energy.
Lifting with your legs is also a golden rule. While it’s super impressive when pro climbers haul themselves along inverted spaces using finger holds and arm strength alone, for us mere mortals, we need to use our legs for the heavy work. Your legs are much stronger than your arms, and you should use them for the pushes where you can, thinking of your hands as a route-finding and balance-providing set of tools, rather than rocket boosters to get you up the wall.
One of the best warmup and strengthening exercises you can do to prepare for climbing is to do extended stair lunges. From the bottom step, reach up with one leg to the second or third step depending on your height, and then pull your weight up using the front leg (try not to bounce off the back leg!). Alternate as you would with regular lunges. This gets the body used to bearing your weight on each leg and is a great yet simple strengthening exercise anyone can do.
Pull ups, chins up, and hangs are another great way to train the joints, muscles, and ligaments for the stresses of climbing. Find a bar of some kind, and then work to do a pull or chin up. If you can’t do any or you managed just one, that’s fine! Instead of letting go, hang on to the bar for as long as you can to help train your grip strength and endurance, a key skill for any climber!
There are a few golden rules to keep in mind when you’re learning to climb! While indoor gyms may have their own in-house rules, while you’re out in the wild, keep these things in mind to ensure a fun time for both you and others.
As the climbing community grows, more and more newcomers are arriving. Whether you’re one of them or a more experienced climber, always put in what you get out. Help and engage with those around you, offer guidance and support, and be a good person. Everyone was a first-timer once, and being social and helpful is a great way to improve the community as a whole.
If you enter an area that has no trace of humans, then leave none behind. Take all trash, broken gear, and everything else with you. And if you see someone has left something behind, pick it up and take it home. Help keep our spots beautiful and clean!
Climbing in large groups means that you risk monopolising a route or making it difficult for other climbers to access an area. Small groups work best for communication and they also keep the rock free for others.
If another climber wants to tackle the route you’re on, share your rope and let them jump in. Be a good person, and you might even make a friend!
Never intentionally dislodge loose debris to throw it down, and never drop equipment. Doing so can seriously injure or even kill another climber or belayer.
Safe and slow is always the best way to go when you’re getting started. Double-check your harness, your knots, and everything else. And if something doesn’t look right or you’re not sure, ask someone! And if a more experienced climber is offering advice, you’ll be smart to take it. Climbing takes a lifetime to learn and is impossible to truly master. Learn from those who’ve made your mistakes already!
Indoor climbing centres and gyms are the lowest consequence way of getting into the sport, and should be everyone’s first stop! A simple internet search for ‘Climbing Gyms’, ‘Climbing Centres’, or ‘Indoor Rock climbing’, should result in a slew of places where you can cut your teeth. Most cities have one or more gyms, and many smaller towns now sport their own facilities too. One of the perks of climbers being the rural types!
Give them a call or reach out on social to ask about beginner classes, group sessions, and how to get involved. Or if there is no gym nearby, check out social media to see if any local groups operate nearby. What we don’t recommend is buying gear and getting started alone! This can be dangerous, and it’s best to learn from professionals.
Well, there you have it, our ultimate guide to getting on the wall for the first time! Climbing is a hugely rewarding and enjoyable sport that will test your mental and physical capabilities, challenge your creativity and problem-solving skills, enhance your strength and endurance, and teach you that you were capable of more than you ever imagined.
And with a buoyant community of kind and generous people helping it grow every day, there’s never been a better time to limber up and get climbing! For any more questions or queries, reach out to our team at email@example.com and we’d be happy to help!