How Do I Get Started in Rock Climbing? | Our Guide to Get You on the Wall

In Pro Advice, Skills by Pete

This was our second trip out to Joshua Tree National Park. The first one had been a spontaneous decision during a church retreat in Palm Springs. As such, I had not been prepared for the wilderness before me. When I stood in front of a mountain that I was supposed to climb with simply a rope to keep me from plummeting to my death, I felt quite inadequate to the task. So, I contented myself with watching others climb and conquer this rugged outdoor quest.

Now was my time. We had managed to cobble together more gear, more friends, and practiced some hard climbs, routed where we would climb, and planned our meals. I was finally ready to conquer my first outdoor climb.

Before we get to my first outdoor climb, I would like to share with you some thoughts and questions for you to ponder, so that you can be more prepared than I was, on your first outing.  You’re here to find out how to get started in this thrilling sport, so here’s a quick summary of what you’ll learn.  To get started in rock climbing, you’ll need to know the different types of climbing, the types of gear you’ll need, the skillset you’ll have to work on acquiring and some idea of how to train for the challenge.  Let’s jump in!

Preparing to Go Outdoor Climbing

It’s important to evaluate your overall fitness level. When I say this I am not so much talking about how much fat you have on your body or even how much you can squat. Instead, you need to know how strong you are, how flexible you are, and how much endurance you have. The best way to test your limits is to start climbing at an indoor gym because this will help you understand what levels feel comfortable for bouldering or top roping. One can find all types of rock climbing for every body type and fitness level, from simply hiking to the climbs, to lead climbing, there are challenges and adventures for everyone within an outdoor rock climbing experience.

Here are the two main areas of outdoor rock climbing:

1 – Traditional Climbing

This is the type of climbing that everyone thinks of when they hear about rock climbing and is probably the most accessible to entry-level climbers. It is also called “trad climbing” or “top roping;” thus named because the rope goes over the top of the climb, I know creative and ingenious. Top Roping is a great place to start because you are being held in place by the rope and belayer, so if you need to take it slow or take a break, you can. These climbs are categorized from levels 5.0 to 5.15d, based upon the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), which categorizes climbs based upon “average speed, class of climb, distance, and elevation gain.” While these grades or levels will differ from place to place, the difference is slight.
● **Note: If you are moving from indoor climbing to outdoor climbing, it would be wise to subtract at least 0.3 or 0.4 from the current level at which you are working. While this may seem like a large step down, it is better to get comfortable with outdoor climbing on an ‘easy’ route and not get injured, than to get injured during your first run on a route too difficult for you.

2 – Bouldering

Again, we have a very creative name, and it is exactly what it implies: climbing over large rocks or boulders. This area of rock climbing can either be very accessible and easy, or frustrating and unconquerable. There are many reasons for this, but we’ll outline just a few.

The first hurdle is that bouldering problems ( “problems” is just another word for course or track – it helps to differentiate between top roping and bouldering climbs) can be anywhere between 10 to 25 feet off the ground, so those who are afraid of heights can climb to their heart’s content, be relatively close to the ground, and still enjoy the joy and challenges that rock climbing has to offer. That being said, we don’t use ropes to hold you in place while bouldering, so when you slip and fall, you fall straight to the ground, covered in crash pads, but it’s still the ground.

Bouldering problems can also be more difficult than top rope courses because they do require a bit more core strength, again, because there is no rope to hold you in place. These problems are graded on the Hueco Scale which goes from a V0 to a V17. The problems are graded in the same manner as the YDS, and as such, the grades do not account for fear or danger. Starting and conquering some VBasics and V0s can feel liberating and empowering.

While there are other areas of outdoor rock climbing, such as Sport climbing, these are out of the skill level of beginning rock climbers. I would highly recommend trying both types of climbing because you never know what you’ll end up liking more on a given day.

As you grow in your climbing experience you will find that your penchant for bouldering and trad climbing will differ based on the days. It is really good to listen to your body and understand if it’s telling you it’s not ready to complete certain tasks. While this might sound difficult at first, once you start climbing regularly, you’ll start to understand that on different days your body presents different limits. That is normal and fine and it’s a good idea to respect those limits. Injuries are most common when we push our limits far past the breaking point.

Gear

The next thing to consider is a bit of gear to get you started. Since each area of rock climbing has its own essential gear, it can be quite overwhelming to look at how much you’ll need. If that does not overwhelm you, just look at the prices of some of the items. To get the best outdoor climbing adventure, it would be best to go with other seasoned climbers. They will have the gear, knowledge, and experience to help you start off on the right foot and do everything safely. We will talk more about this matter later.

Here is a basic list of some of the gear you will need and some equipment you might want to have on hand:

● Rock Climbing Shoes

Rock climbing outdoors is not impossible to do without rock climbing shoes, but having shoes will make the climb ultimately safer and easier to manage. In rock climbing, your power and strength are supposed to come from your legs, so for those legs to have a firm foundation, they must be able to balance on small holds. Your everyday Nike sneakers won’t cut it in this area. Rock climbing shoes are built with a textured bottom and edges, so that they can grip onto any surface when adequate pressure is applied. For more on shoes please check out this article [articles to come]

● Harness

A harness is what goes around your waist and what the rope will be tied to as you climb. These are absolutely necessary for TOP ROPING!! It is incredibly dangerous to climb a top rope style course without a harness and should not be attempted under any circumstances! Also, it is important to have a harness that matches your biological gender because men’s and women’s hips are made differently and so the harness will sit differently on the opposite gender’s hips and hug in different places (this is especially important for guys, normal harnesses pinch and strangle enough as it is….) That being said, a credible option is to buy a unisex harness so you can share with others, just note that these fit differently, and less comfortably, than a gender-specific one. For a load of reviews on harnesses click here. [articles to come]

A Belay Device – meant to slow your descent while climbing with ropes

● Belay Device

There are many different styles of belay devices. The ones I have come in contact with the most are the Mega Jul, the GriGri, and the ATC (or Tuber). Part of the problem with the names of belay devices is that they are usually specific to a certain company, not the type of device, so bear that in mind when you talk with others and are looking for devices online. What these devices do is allow for a reduced-friction, more secure way of slowing the descent of a climber. They do this in a number of ways, depending on the device, but as a whole – that is their main purpose.
As a not-included, yet necessary accessory to a belay device, you will need a Screw Lock Carabiner which allows for the belay device to connect to your harness.

● Crash Pads

These square, mattress-like pads that provide a ‘soft’ landing when you fall off of the rock, are technically only necessary for bouldering or the beginning of a sport climb, and lay below a climber as he or she works on a problem. While they are soft, they do not fully protect against injuries, and as such, it is wise to practice safe falling and spotting techniques. Since these pads can be quite expensive and groups usually need a couple to provide a safe climbing experience, it would be best to go with seasoned climbers or at the very least ask if you can borrow some from them. For more on safe spotting techniques check out this video.

● Climbing Rope

Obviously, if you’re going to Top Rope, you need a rope. Not only will you need a rope to climb on, you will probably also need a rope to create an anchor at the top of a climb. More on creating a safe anchor below. Ropes come in a variety of types, lengths, and sizes. Which rope you choose will depend on the height of the climb(s) you are planning on doing and the weather you expect to face when you climb.

● Chalk and Chalk Bag

Here is an optional item that differs between climbers. Chalk also varies greatly in terms of cost and quality. Your local indoor climbing gym should sell some, but if they do not, here are some tried and true chalks that we really love, that cover a wide range of budgets. [articles to come]

By rubbing the chalk across the palms of your hands, it allows your hands to grip onto the rock face better, as well as decreasing the amount of sweat on your hands; altogether increasing your endurance and ability to hang onto the rock face.
While I cannot climb without chalk, my girlfriend can climb without it most of the time, which makes sense since my palms tend to be quite sweaty. Test out your first couple of climbs without chalk, and steadily see how your body and hands respond to the pressure and the adrenaline.
Please also note that if you use chalk, it will need to be carefully brushed off of the climb so that there is no loose chalk left on the route. If there is already a lot of chalk on the route, a simple, cheap toothbrush can be used to gently brush away the chalk.
Chalk bags, which are reusable chalk containers come in many different shapes and sizes, here are some of our favorites: [article to come].

● Helmet

I do not know how much I need to say about the necessities of wearing a helmet. It protects the most important part of your body when you are climbing dozens of feet above the ground. Please note that the bike helmet you wore as a kid, learning to ride a bike, will not suffice. You will need to actually buy a legitimate climbing helmet that will not become useless after you are five feet off the ground.

Third, you’ll need to physically and mentally prepare for the climb. It takes a lot out of you to climb outdoors, let alone to make a whole day of it and climbing a dozen or so times. To do this well, a lot of strength and endurance is needed.
The best place to prepare for an outdoor climb is in an indoor climbing gym. While the handholds are much different indoors than outdoors, the physical and mental challenges are going to be almost identical. It would do well for you to practice climbing indoors before going outdoors if that is an option for you. Not only will you be able to get a feel for climbing, the physical requirements, and the mental challenges of keeping your cool so far off the ground, you can also get involved with the local climbing community.
Here’s a quick note about finding a climbing community. I cannot stress the benefits and importance of finding a local climbing community, especially as you begin to explore outdoor rock climbing as a sport or hobby. Your local indoor rock climbing gym will be the best place to find this community. If you do not have access to an indoor gym, fear not! There are a couple of great websites that help facilitate groups getting together to go out on an adventure:

https://www.mountainproject.com/forum || This is the perfect site for those looking to enter the outdoor rock climbing community. Their forums are expansive and commented on hourly by people from all over every region of the United States and internationally.

https://www.gociety.com/ || This website allows for you to connect with people who are looking for all types of adventures, including rock climbing. Connect with a group who is already going or start your own group.

■ Local REI or outdoor activities store || If you do not have an indoor climbing gym, my thought is you will not have one of these near you. However, if you do, these shops also have outdoor climbing classes that you can take, for a fee, and meet like-minded people with the same interests or passions that you do.

● Undoubtedly, if you’re a beginner, you’ll probably be deficient in one or more crucial qualities that you’ll need for climbing. You’ll want to work on these issues as you train and prepare for outdoor climbing. For example, if you are not overly flexible, then stretching and doing some yoga would be a large chunk of your preparation process. On the other side, if you are flexible but lack overall strength, starting a daily routine of body weight squats and pull-ups would be a great way to increase strength. Remember that as you train you are looking to increase endurance, so plan your workouts accordingly. Click here and here for some prepared workouts to give you more ideas on how to train for climbing without actually climbing.

Fourth, and finally, you’ll need to pack and prepare your gear and supplies just before you climb. Not only will you need to gather and complete most of what has already mentioned, there are a couple of other nik-naks to compile before the big day! I am the type of guy who likes to pack everything and the kitchen sink with the garbage disposal, so please feel free to take what works for you and contemplate if it is worth the weight to bring the rest of the items.

● Sweaters

It gets cold wherever you are climbing – even Joshua Tree in the Summer, since most rock climbing areas will get cold early in the morning, later in the night, in the shade, etc. Nothing is worse than not being able to grip onto the rocks because your arms are frozen solid.

● Socks

Again, freezing isn’t fun. While most choose not to wear these while climbing, myself included, it is great to have something to slip into between climbs or during breaks.

● Snacks and Meal Prep

Much like a marathon runner, it is really important to consider carefully what you are putting into your body before, during, and after outdoor climbing, especially if you hope to climb for the entire day. It would be prudent to not only pack snacks but some hearty meals. While everyone reacts to foods differently, here are some general ideas for what snacks to bring.

Best Foods for Moderate athletic training for a variety of sports

Bananas — high in potassium and carbs, these are a great, cheap and healthy option.  Any other fruit is basically a good idea. Please think through how you will dispose of whatever remains of your food as littering is never ok, even if it is biodegradable.

Trail Mix, Mixed Nuts, etc. — A solid source of fiber, protein, and healthy fats. These are easily packed and stored in a backpack.

Jerky — Whether it is beef or buffalo, jerky is an excellent option for protein and long-lasting carbs.

These are just some of my personal favorites to bring along. Here is a great infographic about performance foods in general.

● Trash-bag

Please remember that you are going into the wilderness and as such, there is not always conveniently placed trash cans everywhere. Please think through what kind of waste you will have and plan accordingly. The Leave No Trace Organization works tirelessly to encourage people to think through their outdoor adventures impact on the environment.

● Flashlights

A no-brainer that’s always left behind.

● Sunscreen and bug spray
● First-Aid Kit
● Hat
● Blanket (not only for yourself but also to put your rope on so it does not get dirty)

If you can think of anything else that is really handy to bring with you for a day of outdoor climbing, please comment in the comment section below.

Helpful Hints to Get Started

That is all for a beginner’s guide to outdoor rock climbing. There is a lot more that can be said and a whole lot more that can be learned, but this should provide a good foundation as you continue to learn more about the rock climbing community as a whole.

How Do I Get Started in Rock Climbing? | Our Guide to Get You on the Wall was last modified: March 21st, 2018 by Pete