Climber’s Hand Care Essentials : Flappers and Blisters and Tape, Oh My!

In Care & Maintenance, Pro Advice by Pete

As all rock-climbers know, from beginners to the elite, climbing is really hard on your hands. After each climb, my hands are covered in dirt, grime, old chalk, new chalk, a nasty chalk-sweat combo paste, and at least two gnarly looking blisters.

If you’re like me, then you’re probably tired of growing calluses, just for them to rip off in the middle of a run. So, in this article, I am going to go over some hand-care protocols to help us toughen up our hands and protect our hard-won calluses.

To do this, we are going to look at what we can do pre-climb, during the climb, and post-climbing. But first, here are some helpful distinctions before we make a start.

Since this article is all about hands, it is important to know what kind of hands you have. I have rather dry hands and I live in a dry area, but I sweat really easily, which makes chalk an absolute necessity for me. Because of those sweaty hands though, I don’t follow all of these tips and tricks.

This leads us to the second pre-start point: everyone has different types of hands, so what might work for one might not work right for another. If rock climbing is something to which you’re really committed or committing yourself to, then it is going to be worth it, in the long run, to tackle hand care now! Try each tactic, ask other climbers what they do, and take note of what works for you. Tally-ho!

Pre-Climb Actions

1. Lotion up your hands about two hours before you’re intending to climb.

You want to use a non-wax based lotion, and unless you have really sweaty or oily hands, you want to use a non-alcohol based lotion. Non-wax based because these are too effective before climbing. Think of trying to climb with Vaseline on your hands because that’s basically what would happen. Non-Alcohol based because alcohol will dry out your hands, making them more susceptible to rips or tears.
While some say that you should never use lotion, I disagree for a couple of reasons. First, if you’re a normal person, having to touch other people’s hands, then no one is going to want to shake or touch your nasty, dry, cracked hands. Everyone should use lotion! Second, moisturizing your hands keeps the skin elastic which is good for all the weird hand contortions we do in rock climbing.

2. Take the time to file down calluses.

Take the Time to maintain and control your callus size/thickness

This is tricky and should be done carefully. The goal is to make the thicker skin closer to the depth of your thinner skin. You want to do this because if you don’t, the thicker skin will pull on the thinner skin, thus causing your callus, or the surrounding skin, to rip.  You can use almost anything to file down your calluses: fine (220-grit) sandpaper, a nail file, or a pumice stone. In dire situations, you can also use the nail file within nail clippers.  If you want to go all fancy, we’d suggest a specialized callus remover.

Obviously, if you sand it all the way down, you probably won’t have a callus at all, so be careful. Remember that you can always sand down the calluses more during a climb if you feel it pulling or snagging.

While it might be annoying to have to find 5 minutes to file down your hands and take care of any other issues, it pays off when that callus doesn’t turn into a flapper; then start bleeding everywhere and more or less end your climbing session for the rest of the day, if not for several days.

A Chalk Primer:
Not all chalk is created equally! As such, what chalk you use will determine the amount of sweat on your hands, and therefore, how many blisters and scrapes you get. Chalk will not solve all of your hand problems, nor should it make them worse. It would be wise to note how much chalk you use, how long it stays active on your hand, how it stays on your hand during a climb, and how it feels throughout the climbing session.

While doing some research on chalks I found this great quote by Alex Johnson, professional Climber, two-time World Cup gold medalist, and five-time National Champion) “I often tell new climbers there’s no such thing as ‘too much chalk.’ The more chalk you use, the dryer your hands are, the more friction you have on the rock, and the less susceptible your skin is to getting blisters, because your hands are staying in one place, not over-gripping, or re-gripping multiple times because you’re slipping off. I chalk up before every time I pull on the wall.”

I also found this non-professional blind-test study on 7 different types of chalk. This study was done really well, especially for being outside of a lab, and you can read all about it on their website. To sum up their results:

High quality chalk in a specially designed climbing-specific chalk bag is a must

● Best Overall: Unicorn Dust by Friction Labs
● Best Value: Trango Gunpowder Climbing Chalk
● Best for Sweaty Hands: Black Diamond White Gold
● Least Irritating on Hands: Primo Chalk

If you have time during a lunch break, I would read the whole article. It was well written, informative, and brings up many interesting points about using chalks.  So, try out some of those chalks and see how they stick to your hands and assist in your climbing adventures. It is also good to note that your hands’ humidity will change when climbing indoors versus climbing outdoors. Just something to keep in mind if you move between the indoors and outdoors often.

Where My Calluses Grow?

**Also another random callus note: Where you climb will dictate where your calluses grow; I know it sounds weird, just bear with me. If you’re always climbing indoors, your hands will build calluses to compensate for that. This is especially true when climbing outdoors. I live pretty close to Joshua Tree, which is awesome, except that the rock there is mostly granite and is really hard on your hands! Some of my friends and I have planned a trip to Zion this summer and we’re stoked for many reasons, one of them being that the rock there is considered substantially softer than the rock in Joshua Tree. So the calluses that we’ve built up in Joshua Tree might not be as helpful in Zion because the rock will rub us in a different way than the rock in Joshua Tree has.

During a Climbing Session:

1. Use Lots of Chalk. 

As Alex Johnson suggested, “there’s no such thing as too much chalk.” So make sure to apply chalk generously, but evenly, on your hands before and during each climb. This will increase the friction between your hands and the rocks, and decrease the amount of sweat your hands produce through the run or problem.

2. Don’t be afraid to stop and file down a callus mid-climb, almost anything is better than getting a flapper!

A flapper is when a callus only rips off partially and it’s left flapping on your hand. Most climbers perform self-surgery on their hand and snip off the excess skin with a pair of nail clippers. Take a look below at some non-medically proven advice to handle a flapper or burst blister or any other kind of small, shallow skin injury.

**A note on blisters, scrapes, flappers, and other random skin injuries.
Almost every climber gets blisters, or at least tears in their skin. Here is my way of handling those minor skin abrasions:
(Again this is not medical advice, just me sharing my experiences and the general consensus of others. If the injury is deemed serious, you should seek immediate medical attention.)

● First, I clean out the wound, especially if it’s bleeding, with some soap and water.

● Second, I will remove any excess skin so I can properly gauge what has happened.

● Third, I apply instant band-aid. This will sting. I have built up a tolerance to it so I hardly feel it, but everyone else I talk to says that it burns. That being said, this stuff is freaking AWESOME! I use it for everything because it works fast, is transparent, and seems to aid in the healing process. What this stuff does is produce a thin, transparent layer on top of the cut, thus protecting the abrasion and stopping the bleeding. It also allows you to continue on with your life, and possibly your climb, because it is waterproof. I have received some shallow cuts before, swiped this on, taped up, and continued to climb. Eventually, you can peel off the instant band-aid, like a thin layer of film.

● Fourth, if I am still climbing, I will tape over it and get back to climbing. If it is a session-ending cut, then I will pack up and head home. Sometimes if I am brave I will put lotion on even with the raw cut because my hands are so dry sometimes, but I try to be gentle with my hands after one of these cuts. Over the next couple of days, I will keep an eye on the cut to make sure it is not getting worse or infected.


Post-Climb Actions

1. Wash your hands immediately after climbing!

The multitude of reasons why should be apparent after your climbing session. I would go as far to say that if you don’t need to wash your hands, then you didn’t climb hard enough.

2. Apply some wax-based hand salve.

This should not be done every night, but it can be done once or twice a week; again, it all depends on your hands and how dry they get after climbing. There are three types of salves that I have heard quite a bit about lately:

Climber’s Hand Creams are the best way to treat your battered digits!

  • Climbskin
  • All Good Goop
  • Joshua Tree Climbing Salve

I have not tried any of these, but they all look awesome. I am especially excited to try the multitude of Joshua Tree Products that they have for different activities.  Since these salves are very thick, it is suggested you cover your hands with socks or gloves as to not get the salve everywhere.

An extreme alternative:

Apparently, if you have really sweaty hands, or are climbing aggressively, the pro tip is to cover your fingertips with what amounts to Milk of Magnesia. When I saw this I was baffled and also had a good laugh, for a couple reasons. First, I always thought of it as an oily substance because we would use it when I played water polo as an aggressive sunblock for days spent in the pool. (I stopped using it because it made me break out really badly.) Second, in its cream form, it is also used as diaper rash ointment, so all you parents out there can just swipe this from your baby pack whenever you need to dry out your tips. Third, in its liquid form this is a laxative, so that’s fun!

You can buy ‘climbing edition’ Milk of Magnesia or you can buy diaper rash cream. They’re basically the same and the latter won’t set you back $10. If you go this route, be careful and make sure to tape up after applying the cream lightly to your skin.

Extra Tips:

● Try to avoid hot water. (maybe?)

Many fastidious rock climbers try really hard to not allow their skin to soak in water because it can soften the skin too much and cause calluses to disappear or fall off. I also read about people who worked in water, underwater or played aquatic sports that never had these problems so it’s up to you. One image I’d like to leave you with is that of a rock climber who is so committed to the no water on their hands rule, that they try not to use them while showering. I spent multiple minutes laughing at this and am still adrift trying to figure out how they actually showered without using their hands…..

● If you’re outdoor climbing, do not apply sunscreen while you’re out climbing, with your hands, because the sunscreen is the exact opposite substance you want on your hands, oily and thick. So borrow someone else’s hands, apply before your leave, or use some kind of applicator to avoid making your fingertips oily and slippery.

Some Things to Keep ‘On Hand:’

(I hope you just laughed as much as I did when I typed that. lol)
● Neosporin Spray
This is great for some mid-climb scraps because it is quick, easy to carry, and can be applied with one hand.

● Climbing Tape
Great for covering those spots that need a little more time to heal, but you’re impatient and want to climb.

● Band-Aids

● Finger-Nail Clippers w/ File

● Mini nail file

To make life REALLY simple for you, we have an all-in-one solution for your hand problems which includes most of the products mentioned in this article.  Check out our Buyer’s Guide page for details!

On the other hand, if you want to just cut to the chase, here’s our best recommendation for hand problems and solutions for the best grip on a rock face!

I’d like to end this article with another great quote by Alex Johnson on hand care:

“If you’re putting your time, effort and soul into something, it becomes expected to bleed at least a little.”

So go forth and bleed away, but not too much, because you’ll be prepared.

What tips have worked for you? Did I not include your favorite aspect of hand care? Have you figured out how to shower without hands? Tell us below!

Climber’s Hand Care Essentials : Flappers and Blisters and Tape, Oh My! was last modified: April 27th, 2019 by Pete