How to start rock climbing if you've never done it before
Learn the ropes, whether you're at the gym or on a mountain.
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Maybe you’re inspired by watching the Olympic athletes scale the climbing wall in Tokyo, or maybe you just want an activity that allows you to hang out with friends as you challenge your muscles in new ways. Whatever your motivations, rock climbing is a fun sport that can be as high stakes or low key as you want it to be—and you don’t have to be a super athlete to do it.
Get started with the rock-climbing basics
Climbing is a rewarding sport for people of all ages and abilities. “You can take young kids out—my son is turning five, he’s been climbing since he was three,” says Paul Heppner, director of guiding and retail at New England-based Rock Spot Climbing. “We also have a large population of older climbers in their seventies who still climb at varying skill levels.”
Still, if it’s your very first climb, you may prefer seeking out a climbing gym rather than an outdoor climbing spot. It’s possible to get going with a slab of rock outside with guide who’s willing to help you out, but gyms are the safest venue for most people to learn the basics. “You want to be able to focus on climbing and not all the technical stuff that is very important outside,” says Heppner. Gyms also have rental equipment that you may not have known you needed or want to buy for yourself right away, such as climbing shoes, harnesses, and chalk.
At the climbing gym, you’ll get familiar with two types of climbing: rope climbing and bouldering. Top rope climbing is probably what you envision when you think of a rock climbing gym. It involves a pattern of handholds and footholds on a wall with a cable anchored above it that you clip onto a harness around your waist. When you’re starting out, this will likely be with an "auto belay" system, or a cable that attaches to the top of the wall on one end and a harness around the waist on the other. It takes up slack as you climb, so if you fall, it catches your weight and slowly lowers you back down. Most climbing gyms have these systems installed, but you can call ahead to make sure. If they don't, you can schedule a session with an employee who will stand on the ground and belay you, by anchoring the climbing rope attached to your harness. They'll take up the rope's slack as you go up and lower you safely to the ground when you're done.
With bouldering, you don’t go up as high, and you don’t use harnesses or ropes. Instead, a cushy mat or crash pad is placed beneath the climbing surface, and climbers maneuver across the wall more horizontally than vertically. Most bouldering "scrambles" (or “problems,” in climber jargon) won’t be taller than 20 feet, but the lack of harness may feel scary to some first-time climbers, and a lesson with a gym staffer who can teach you how to fall safely is a good idea. Still, bouldering requires less gear and doesn't require another person to belay you, which may be appealing to others.
Understand the climbing and bouldering rating system
Top-rope walls and bouldering walls alike have number-coded routes to follow that offer a range of difficulty from easy to expert. The holds you're "allowed" to grab will be marked with colored tape. To know what you’re getting into, you need to understand the difficulty rating systems, which are different for each. The standard system for rope climbing in the United States is the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), or a system used to telegraph the difficulty of walks, hikes, and climbs on a scale from 1 to 5. Climbs that require a rope start at the number 5. With this number, difficulty is divided into decimals to signify increasing challenge. Gyms may start at a 5.04 or 5.05 (often marked without the zero as a 5.4 or 5.5) and go up as high as 5.11 or 5.12.
Bouldering uses something called the V scale. The V scale ranges from V0 on the easiest end to about V15 on the toughest (however, you won’t find 15 in most gyms.) The V scale and YDS are not interchangeable—a V0 is the rough equivalent of a 5.10, or a moderate to difficult climb. Some climbing gyms offer bouldering problems that are technically ranked below a V0, which is ideal for people who are just starting out.
Move with your legs
When you watch footage of expert climbers, it's easy to assume it all comes down to being able to hoist your body weight through the sheer force of upper body strength. Arm strength definitely helps—but the real star of rock climbing is the legs.
“It’s kind of like going upstairs,” says Heppner. “You can hold onto the hand railings for balance, but you’re using your balance and moving up the stairs with your feet. It’s the same thing with climbing—you don’t want to be pulling yourself up with your arms. They can be strong, but they’re not as strong as your legs.” He suggests positioning your hands to balance and focusing on using your legs to propel yourself up.
Your core also gets action as you maneuver over the holds. Because of this, it doesn’t hurt to have some foundational lower body and core strength—planks and squats are good general moves to build that up—but you don’t need to do much to prepare for your first climb. “I’ve worked with people who have never climbed, ever, and they can get to the top and start making progress,” says Heppner.
Wear the right climbing gear
You can buy clothes designated for rock climbing from outdoor retailers such as REI and Moosejaw. But you don’t need to get brand-new climbing apparel when you’re just starting out, especially if you’re going to a gym. Instead, you can wear any exercise clothes you already own that allow you move well, though Heppner says to avoid dresses if you plan on using a harness. (Fellow exercise dress lovers: We’re sorry.)
If you’re climbing outside, loose-fitting clothes made of lightweight yet durable material are the way to go. You’ll also need to dress for the weather and wear layers to account for outdoor and body temperature fluctuations.
One thing you will need to wear, regardless of where you’re climbing, are climbing shoes, which have slim, curved soles coated in rubber to help you hook your feet onto footholds. You’ll be able to rent these at any gym you go to, and when you’re starting out, it’s a good idea to take advantage of rentals so you can get an idea of how you like your shoes to fit. “General street shoes can be a little close on the size, but climbing shoes fit so snug that if they’re not the right size, you’re going to notice right away,” says Heppner.
If you’re looking to buy a pair for yourself, popular brands include Evolv, La Sportiva, and Black Diamond, which have entry-level shoes starting around $80 (less if you can get them on sale). When (and if) you decide to buy shoes, you’ll also be able to choose between Velcro and lace-up options. Heppner says most Velcro options are intended to fit extra-tight and be taken off between climbs. Shoes with laces fit a little looser and most people don’t plan on taking them off throughout the day.
Know what climbing accessories you’ll need
One benefit of climbing that dedicated climbers love to extol? You don’t need much to do it. One thing that can help out a lot, though, is climbing chalk and a bag that loops around your waist to put it in, so you can reach in and dust up your hands whenever you need. “The chalk does two things,” says Heppner. “It dries your hands if they’re getting sweaty and it increases the amount of friction between your hands and the climbing hold.” You should be able to rent a chalk bag if you go to a gym.
Heppner also recommends getting a climbing brush. This allows you to clear any chalk residue from other climbers. “Some holds get so much chalk on them that they get kind of greasy and slippery that it’s helpful to brush them to get some of the friction back,” says Heppner.
Finally, most people don’t wear helmets for bouldering or climbing indoors. But if you start rope climbing outside, a good helmet is a must.
Use your rock climbing manners
Climbing is a social sport, so it’s important to respect your surroundings and the people around you. For an indoor gym, this is relatively simple. “The biggest thing is just not climbing over people,” says Heppner. “Kind of like bowling, you don’t want to bowl right into someone. At the gym, it’s pretty easy—just being aware and taking turns when necessary.” Other than that, take heed of the gym’s rules to ensure you’re staying within bounds.
Outdoors, you may have to follow more etiquette rules. Many outdoor climbing spots are privately owned, so you should check up on specific guidelines for the area. You should also make a point of using the “leave no trace” mindset, or a series of principles that include planning ahead for your excursion, discarding waste properly, respecting wildlife, and doing your best to leave the area as you found it.
Heppner also recommends being honest with yourself about your climbing skills and limitations. Challenging yourself is fun, but not when it comes at the expense of other people and being able to use the spot you’re climbing on. In short: Be aware of your capabilities and do your best to stay within them.
If you’re not immediately scrambling up the wall like an Olympian, don’t sweat it. As long as you’re taking yourself up and down a wall in some capacity, you can consider yourself a climber. “That’s my favorite part of the gym, you can go in there and climb easy stuff next to a friend who’s doing harder stuff,” says Heppner. “It’s for all ages and abilities.”
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