Beginner’s Guide to Rock Climbing

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With the movie Free Solo premiering in 2018 and the sport’s world debut at the Tokyo Olympics last year, it’s no wonder rock climbing has been gaining more and more attention in recent years. Professional climbers like Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell and Emily Harrington have transcended the sport itself, inspiring novice climbers young and old to enroll in one of the many nearby gyms springing up across the country. Maybe you’re one of the many who want to give it a try, but aren’t sure where to start.

As with all things, getting into a sport like rock climbing can be a bit overwhelming. There are ropes to manage, harnesses to don, and a host of other technical gear to collect on top of the added danger (and anxiety) of climbing to lofty heights. At the end of this article, you will have basic rock climbing knowledge as well as information on the minimum equipment required to get started in this sport.

First, you will need to find a climbing gym in your area. A simple online search for “climbing gyms near me” should yield some results. Once you’ve decided where you want to climb, head to the gym and sign a liability waiver before buying a day pass for the facility and renting basic climbing gear like a harness, climbing shoes and chalk.

Most gyms offer four different types of rock climbing that you should know about:

Block

Bouldering involves climbing shorter walls about 10 to 15 feet high without a rope. Boulder problems mimic traditional outdoor climbing but focus primarily on powerful moves. Because you’re not tethered to any gear, you’ll hit the ground with every fall and land on padded mats. Ask the gym to show you proper bouldering techniques to reduce your risk of injury.

Self-belay

Self-belay systems are a great way for beginners to get on ropes and climb higher walls. They require minimal training (usually a 5-10 minute safety orientation) and are easy to use. Climber’s harnesses are attached to an automatic belay device that takes up the slack in the rope from the top of the wall as you climb. When you fall, the machine slowly lets you back down to the ground.

topprope

This type of climbing requires two people, a climber and a person who stays on the ground called a belayer. The rope is attached to an anchor at the top of the wall and both ends of the rope come down to the ground. The climber and belayer are attached to each end of the rope by the climber tying in and the belayer clipping into equipment called a belay device. As the climber ascends the wall, it is the job of the belayer to remove slack from the rope system and arrest the climber’s fall. Specific technical training is required for toprope climbing. A beginner’s course in prope climbing and belaying will be offered at the gymnasium and usually lasts one to two hours. This is a great opportunity to learn some climbing skills, but prop climbing should not be attempted without training for your safety and that of your climbing partner.

lead climbing

Lead climbing is the most advanced type of climbing in a climbing gym. It shouldn’t be attempted on day one, but can be learned as you progress through the sport. Lead climbers bring their rope with them as they climb and clip into the fall protection as they ascend the climbing route. It’s much more technical than ascent on prope and the act of belaying is complicated too. Gyms will have a technical skills course available to learn the nuances of lead climbing which is only available when the individual gym determines a climber is ready.

As you progress and assess your interests, you may want to buy your own climbing gear. This will not only save you money in the long run, but will also provide you with more convenience than rental equipment from the gym. That said, we don’t suggest buying gear before trying it in person, as climbing gear is very specific to individual users. Read on to find the basic gear you need (and the ones we recommend), from harnesses to climbing shoes and beyond. And if you want to try rock climbing without fully committing to the sport, consider options such as ClassPass that allow you to book sessions without signing up for a gym membership.

Petzl Corax Harness

Petzl

Ultimately, your first harness needs to offer plenty of comfort without breaking the bank, which is why this option, courtesy of Petzl, is just about perfect. This is a great beginner harness due to its entry-level price and versatility. The waist is highly adjustable to fit a range of sizes and the soft inner fabric reduces potential chafing on your thighs, allowing you to focus on the moves ahead. The waders also have slider buckles to account for differences in thigh circumference, giving you the freedom to dial in the right fit.

The Black Diamond Big Air XP Pack is the best belay device for beginners

Black Diamond Big Air XP Package

Black Diamond

A belay device will be used when you are on the ground to take up the slack in the rope and arrest your climbing partner’s fall. Some gyms already have these attached to each toprop, so you may not need to purchase one at first. Even so, it may be something you’ll want to buy if you’re planning on trying multiple gyms, as each gym’s system is slightly different. To complete a belay setup, you will need a belay device and a carabiner to attach it to your harness.

Our first suggestion, the Black Diamond Big Air XP Pack, is the most basic belay setup. It includes a tube type belay device and carabiner for a decent price. Some gyms require different equipment called an assisted breaking device that assists the belayer by arresting the climber’s fall, making the whole process easier. For this, we offer the Petzl GRIGRI and the Petzl Am’D Carabiner to attach the device to your harness. Be sure to check with your gym for their requirements before making a purchase, and as always, never use technical equipment without proper training.

We have included two different shoes here, as each brand’s fit may vary from shoe to shoe. Both options are great beginner shoes that offer plenty of comfort and support, as well as grip to match the moves you’re likely to make at the local gym. Which one you choose depends on what fits best on your foot, and it may take some trial and error to figure out which shoe provides a proper fit. We suggest trying on climbing shoes at your local gym store before ordering online, as then you can test out a range of options in one fell swoop.

The Organic Climbing Small Chalk Bag is the best chalk bag for beginner climbers in 2022

Small organic climbing chalk bag

Organic Climbing

Chalk bags are largely a matter of personal style. A wide range of colors and sizes can be found from brand to brand, giving you the opportunity to find one that matches your personality and basic needs. That said, we know the Organic Climbing Chalk Bag because it comes in a variety of colors and styles that can easily be mixed and matched. We also love the brand’s dedication to quality, functionality and aesthetics that set their chalk bags apart from the countless others at the gym.

Friction Labs Chalk is the best chalk for beginner climbers in 2022

Friction Labs Chalk

Friction Laboratories

This chalk is a bit more expensive than other brands, but it’s our favorite because it offers a confidence-inspiring grip and the material grips so well that you end up using less chalk per climbing session. It comes in three textures: thin, thick and super thick. The texture you choose is a matter of personal preference, so consider experimenting with each to see which one helps you on the wall.