Rock climbing has experienced a boom in popularity as of late.
In less than a decade, it’s grown from a niche activity to a worldwide sensation. Climbing gyms are popping up everywhere, climbing is an event at the 2020 Summer Olympics for the first time ever, and more people are going camping than ever before.
Whether you like rock climbing for the physical challenge, being surrounded by nature, solving complex problems, socializing with friends, or simply the thrill, there’s no better time to start rock climbing than right now.
But rock climbing can be intimidating, especially to beginners. First, there’s differentiating the different types of climbing. And then there’s understanding all of the gear – not to mention the lingo. Finally, you must learn to climb in a safe and efficient manner.
Luckily, that’s exactly what this guide is for – we break down everything you need to know to start rock climbing today!
Types of Rock Climbing
There is a huge amount of different types of rock climbing.
Some types are so different from one another that they’re basically different sports while others have only very small differences. Many, such as free soloing (made popular by the Academy Award winning documentary Free Solo featuring Alex Honnold), are far too advanced for all but the most experienced climbers.
1. Outdoor Top-Rope Climbing
In top-rope climbing, the climber’s harness is attached to a rope which goes through a carabiner (or carabiners) at the top of the route and back down to another person (known as a belayer) at the bottom of the route.
This popular style of climbing is not only one of the most prevalent, but also among the easiest for beginners to learn. It’s also relatively safe as the climber will only fall a short distance before the rope catches them. The top of these routes can almost always be accessed by hiking or scrambling.
Outdoor top-rope climbing is perhaps the best way for beginners to learn the basics of rock climbing in an outdoor environment.
2. Indoor Top-Rope Climbing
Top-rope climbing is also very popular on indoor climbing walls.
It works much the same way as top-rope climbing outdoors. One end of the rope is attached to the climber’s harness, it’s run through a carabiner at the top of the route, and then it’s attached to the belayer’s harness.
Like doing so outdoors, indoor top-rope climbing is one of the best ways to learn how to climb, but many brand-new climbers feel more comfortable starting out in the controlled setting of an indoor climbing gym than on an outdoor rock face.
Bouldering is much different than most other types of rock climbing in that it’s generally performed on very small walls or small portions of a wall (usually less than 20 feet high).
The climbing is done without ropes or harnesses. The only safety equipment is a crash bad at the base of the route. Bouldering is rock climbing stripped down to only the bare essentials. It’s all about mastering climbing techniques.
Bouldering can be done indoors and outdoors as well as at the base of a larger rock face or wall.
Indoor Climbing vs Outdoor Climbing
The climbing community is largely divided between indoor climbers and outdoors climbers.
While climbing outdoors is often seen as the “purer” (i.e. the more traditional of the two), indoor climbing is a great way to train for outdoor climbing as well as to get in better shape.
One big benefit of indoor climbing is the protection from the elements. If you live near a climbing gym, then you can climb year round without worrying about the weather.
Climbing indoors at a gym is also more controlled. Although it’s not necessarily easier, many beginning climbers feel more comfortable at a gym. The routes are laid out perfectly, the equipment is already set up, and there’s padding below every wall.
Many climbing gyms even allow you to rent all of the necessary equipment, including climbing shoes, if you are a newcomer to the sport. There’s also a more intuitive, easily trackable grading system for indoor climbing.
But the thrill of climbing outdoors is a major draw for many climbers. Not only are you climbing something natural, not manmade, but you’re also out in the middle of nature, often with incredible views all around. The holds aren’t perfect and you’ll experience so many more textures, shapes, and sizes than you will in a gym.
In fact, many serious climbers view the personal nature of outdoor climbing as its most “beautiful” attraction: it’s just you and the rock. It’s up to you to muster up the strength to complete the route.
Of course, there’s no reason not to mix both types of climbing. Most climbers do. Climb outdoors when at all possible and climb indoors the rest of the time.
What Kind of Rock Climbing Gear Do You Need?
Figuring out which rock climbing gear you need as a beginner – and which gear can wait until later – is often confusing and intimidating.
Luckily, most climbing gyms as well as guided outdoor climbs provide all of the gear and equipment you’ll need. This is a good way to not only get a feel for climbing, but also to learn what type of climbing you prefer.
In fact, the type of climbing you plan on doing will largely dictate the type of equipment that you should buy.
For example, bouldering requires minimal equipment. All that indoor bouldering really requires is a pair of well-fitting climbing shoes and a chalk bag. If you plan to take your bouldering outdoors, you should also buy a bouldering crash pad.
All other types of rock climbing also require a chalk bag and climbing shoes. Although you should select a style of climbing shoes specifically made for your preferred type of climbing, all climbing shoes must fit well. A snug, but not painful, fit is important. REI has an excellent guide on how to choose rock climbing shoes.
Most other types of rock climbing, especially outdoor climbing, require an extensive list of additional gear, including a climbing helmet, climbing harness, carabiners, belay device, climbing ropes, and climbing protection.
As far as clothing goes, the best clothing for rock climbing is loose but not too baggy. You don’t want your movements to be restricted but you also don’t want excess fabric to get in the way of these movements.
Generally, your normal active wear or gym clothing works well for gym climbing (do, remember, that you don’t want it to be too revealing for those standing below). The best outdoor rock climbing clothing must be durable enough to stand up to the abrasion of real rock and able to protect you from the elements.
We strongly recommend going climbing at least a few times at the gym, with a guided tour, or with a friend before purchasing any climbing gear of your own.
Rock Climbing Grading System
Another relatively complicated and often confusing aspect of rock climbing is the climbing grading system.
Used for both indoor and outdoor climbing, these climbing grades simply let climbers know how difficult the route is based on the experiences of past climbers.
Confusingly, the exact climbing grades are often all but meaningless, especially for outdoor climbing, as a huge variety of factors influence the grade, including the local climbing area.
In addition, several different grading systems are used, although the Yosemite Decimal System is the standard system for rock climbing in North America.
The Yosemite Decimal System ranges from class 1 up to class 5. Class 1 is basically hiking, class 3 is scrambling, and class 5 is extremely technical rock climbing. Class 5 is further broken down into even more difficulty grades, going from 5.0 on up to 5.15 (the highest in the world, currently).
But climbing grades are also based on the individual terrain at that route. And they are typically gauged by climbers that are comfortable with that terrain. So, a climber that’s used to 5.6 slab climbing might feel that a 5.6 at a wall that primarily uses crack climbing is much more difficult than what they’re used to.
Beginner climbers should look for routes between about 5.0 and 5.6 and from there move to 5.7 to 5.10 routes. 5.11 and 5.12 are very difficult while anything beyond that is in the realms of only the very best professional climbers.
Do note that the Yosemite Decimal System is based solely on difficult. It does not take additional factors, like danger, into the equation. An area that is prone to more dangerous falls isn’t reflected in its climbing grade.
Bouldering is graded on a different scale than other types of rock climbing. Most Americans use the V-System, also known as the Hueco System.
This ranks the difficulty of the climb in much the same way as the Yosemite Decimal System without measuring the danger of the route. A V0 is the easiest climb while a V16 is the most difficult.
Pretty much, the best way to get a feel for the Yosemite Decimal System or the V-System is to get out there in the field and start climbing since the ratings are so subjective.
Rock Climbing Techniques
Many beginners mistakenly believe that great climbing is all about strength and power instead of technique.
While strength and power are obviously helpful, the key to climbing well is having great technique, knowing how to read a wall, and executing moves perfectly.
As a beginner, take time to learn the right technique. You’ll find that as you focus on each move and your technique improves that climbing becomes much easier.
Although the best way to learn proper rock climbing technique is to take a class (or watch other climbers), here are three main tips to keep in mind from the start:
- Use Your Feet – Many beginners use their arms to pull themselves up a wall instead of their feet. But the legs are where your strength is at. Learn to step yourself up the wall instead of pulling. Look for footholds in well balanced positions (keep them below your body when possible). Edging and smearing are two additional useful techniques to learn.
- Balance – Learning how to maintain balance no matter the position of your arms and legs is key. This involves learning how to create counter pressure or using your body as a counter weight for more complex moves such as sideways pulls. Also know that while it feels stable, keeping your hips square to the wall is not always the best technique, especially since it’s often more taxing and stressful.
- Start Learning Moves – Knowing a few simple climbing moves will help you climb more efficiently and conserve more energy. Some of the top beginner to intermediate moves to learn (in addition to edging and smearing) are the back step, drop knee, flagging, lay-backing, and stemming (we’ll let these YouTube video links explain each). Remember look ahead and plan your route as you go. Don’t be afraid to stop and rest when you find a good rest spot.
Like anything else, mastering climbing moves and techniques comes with practice. Watch how others climb and don’t be afraid to ask for pointers if you need help. Most climbers are more than willing to help newbies out.
Rock Climbing Safety Tips
Following all safety best practices is absolutely vital while rock climbing, whether you’re indoors and outdoors.
First and foremost, you need the right equipment – but, just as important, you need to know how to use it correctly. You should also always climb within your comfort zone, never climb in dangerous conditions, and hopefully climb with someone more experienced than you.
Indoor rock climbing is typically safer than outdoor climbing thanks to its more controlled nature, although accidents still do happen. Make sure to follow all gym rules and regulations, use all equipment correctly, and belay with an experienced partner.
For outdoor climbing, pairing up with a skilled partner is essential for beginners. A rock climbing helmet is a must to protect your head from falls and loose rock. Communicate clearly with your partner, especially before ascending, and never climb beyond your skill level. Double check all knots, harnesses, and your belay device.
A lot of people consider outdoor top-roping the safest form of outdoor climbing – but it can still be dangerous. For example, a fall produces a near instantaneous high load of stress on your holding gear, according to Rock and Ice Magazine. They recommend testing the anchor if possible. Or, at the very least, backing up a sketchy top-rope anchor with additional protection. Or, better yet, building a multiple-point anchor.
For both indoor and outdoor climbing, the most common causes of injury are human error, improper supervision, and faulty equipment. Although many people see rock climbing as a high-risk activity, and while it can be dangerous, it’s actually much safer than most non-climbers first assume.
Common Beginner Mistakes to Avoid
Rock climbing is one of those activities that takes a ton of time to master. But there’s a few key mistakes you can learn to avoid to prevent yourself from looking like a true newbie.
Here are five of the most common rock climbing beginner mistakes:
- Strength Over Technique – As mentioned above, many beginners think strength is more important than technique – and they’re dead wrong. The best climbers hone their technique first and then improve their strength.
- Arms Bent – Climbing with bent arms feels natural to many beginners. But it is actually much more taxing. Rather than hold on with the strength of your arms, hold with your arms outstretched to minimize muscle strain and prevent pumped forearms. This also helps transfer the weight of the hold to your legs.
- Always Looking Up – Looking ahead is important to help plan a route. But only looking ahead when you’re stuck is a beginner mistake. Instead of looking for holds to pull on, look down near your feet for holds you can push on.
- Keep Hips Square – It feels more comfortable for most beginners to keep their hips facing the wall. But climbing with your hips turned is not only more stable, but also allows you to provide more power for each movement.
- Training Too Quickly – It’s easy to try to progress too quickly, especially while climbing in a gym. Take your time while learning. And take days off. Recovery is essential. Your body will thank you.
Of course, these mistakes are only the tip of the iceberg for beginners (and more experienced climbers). Climbing Magazine lists an additional 50 most common rock climbing mistakes.
Best Places for Rock Climbing in the United States
Chances are there’s a climbing or bouldering spot in your local area (Mountain Project is a great resource for finding them), but there’s some spots that are truly otherworldly.
Here are 5 of the best rock climbing spots every serious climber should check out at some point:
- Yosemite National Park – The premier place for rock climbing in the United States, Yosemite should be on every climber’s bucket list. It’s best known for its huge (and, I mean, huge) vertical walls and crack climbing, but there’s plenty of climbs for those of all levels. Even just visiting to take in the impressive climbing history is a must.
- Joshua Tree National Park – Another popular and crowded climbing spot, rock climbing in Joshua Tree can’t be beat. From bouldering problems galore to a variety of traditional climbs, this national park has you covered. Composed of two distinct desert ecosystems, there’s a little something for everyone.
- Leavenworth, Washington – Not nearly as popular as other climbing areas on this list, Leavenworth is still a bit of a local secret. But head a few miles outside of this small town for some of the best rock climbing in Washington State. It’s home to trad climbing and bouldering galore with a host of multi-pitch climbs to boot. Nearby Peshastin Pinnacles State Park is another climbing haven.
- Red River Gorge, Kentucky – Located in Kentucky, the beautiful Red River Gorge is home to some of the best rock climbing on the planet. Sandstone cliffs, natural overhangs, and rock bridges are only some of the geographic features you should expect to encounter. Plenty of trad climbing and sport climbing options give more experienced climbers plenty of options to choose from.
- Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area – Most people think of the glimmering lights of Las Vegas when it comes to Nevada, but just miles from the Sin City is one of the best climbing areas in the country. Renowned for its diverse array of crags, Red Rock Canyon has bouldering, traditional multi-pitch, and sport climbing routes galore suitable for everyone from beginners to experts. Thanks to a lack of winter rains, it’s one of the most popular places to climb in the US during winter.
Check out this list of the 35 best climbing spots in America, compiled by Men’s Journal for even more great areas to go climbing!
Rock Climbing Glossary
There’s a lot of specialized lingo and terminology in the rock climbing world. Here are a few of the most important terms to know as a beginner:
- Anchor – A point where the climbing rope is attached to the wall, often with a top-rope anchor or belay anchor.
- Belay – A system of devices (anchors, belay device, rope and the belayer) that keep the climber from falling too far. As the climber falls, the friction from the rope stops the fall.
- Beta – Information about the rock, route, or climb, including quality of the rock, climb difficulty, placement of foot and hand holds, and various other information.
- Crag – Most commonly used as slang for a climbing area. Sometimes used to designate a small cliff.
- Gumby – A slang term for a rock climbing beginner who doesn’t yet know the “ropes” of climbing. All climbers were gumbies at some point
- On-Sight – To do a climb (especially to lead a climb) without experience with that climb, or any specific info about it.
- Pitch – One rope length as applied to a specific climb. Typically used in tandem with multi-pitch climbing.
- Traverse – Moving sideways along a route rather than upwards or downwards.
Naturally, this is just a very small sampling of rock climbing terms, so please let us know if you need help “translating” any other terms you come across!
Get Started Rock Climbing
The best way to learn how to rock climb is to get out there and just do it!
We recommend checking out a local climbing gym or signing up for an outdoor climbing class or tour in your local area. It’s much easier to learn the basics – and be safe while doing so – with an experienced instructor to break things down for you.
And, like always, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us with your questions!