Featuring advice from gear guide contributor, and widely-respected climbing writer, Andy Anderson.
Rock climbing is more than just a sport—it’s a way to challenge yourself both physically and mentally, to explore the outdoors, to learn creative problem solving, and to meet new people. This guide will give you a basic rundown of the ins and outs of climbing and will help you choose the climbing gear you'll need to get out there and get after it.
BASIC TYPES OF ROCK CLIMBING
The most simple, distilled style of climbing, bouldering involves tackling short climbs, called problems, on boulders or short cliffs without the use of a harness, rope, or protection. Portable, folding foam crash pads are set below the problem and act as cushioning in the event of a fall, often aided by a climbing partner (called a spotter) to help direct the climber onto the pad. Boulder problems, being much shorter than climbing routes, often pack the difficulty and complexity of a route’s crux into a short stretch of climbing.The beauty of bouldering lies in its simplicity—only a pair of shoes, chalk, and a crash pad are needed, allowing you to focus on the pure joy of movement and problem solving.
One of the most widely practiced disciplines, sport climbing is roped climbing that employs pre-placed and permanent bolts in the rock, which are clipped with quickdraws as periodic protection points along an established route. Sport climbs, especially in the higher end of difficulty, often feature steep and gymnastic movement, and the security of solid bolts allows you to push your personal difficulty limits in a relatively safe and fun way. Sport climbing is also a great entry into roped or multi-pitch climbing before learning the intricacies of building anchors and placing natural protection.
From local crack climbs to desert towers to granite big walls, trad (traditional) climbing is a style of roped climbing where you place your own removable gear and anchors for protection. This can happen on single-pitch climbs at your home crag, or on multi-day routes on the biggest walls on earth. Trad climbing requires creativity, boldness, and a taste for the unknown—if you’re looking for adventure, this is where you’ll find it. Trad climbs also require a “rack”—a wide selection of camming devices (cams for short), nuts, and other pieces of gear that you’ll place along the route—which can vary widely depending on where you are and how long the climb is. We recommend hiring a guide or enlisting an experienced mentor to learn the basics. A solid foundation in trad climbing is also a jumping off point for climbing ice, alpine, and big wall routes in the greater ranges around the world. Click to explore trad gear.
Modern indoor climbing gyms are popping up like crazy all over the world, sometimes long-distances from any opportunities for outdoor rock climbing. In addition to offering a great way to stay fit and practice your skills before your next outdoor climbing adventure, these sleek, full-service gyms often yoga, traditional fitness equipment, and specialized training boards for those looking to up their game out at the crag. Indoor climbing offers the fun and creative problem-solving challenges of climbing in a user-friendly and non-weather-dependent (or geography-dependent!) environment. Moveable climbing holds of all shapes and sizes are creatively set on the wall by a route-setter, as opposed to outside, where someone putting up a new route will need to find a line of natural features on the rock to link together a climb. While certain pieces of gear and apparel are now being designed specifically for indoor climbing, you’ll still need the basics—shoes, a harness, chalk bag, and a belay device. If you’re leading, add in a rope and a rope tarp. Other essentials might include belay gloves, belay glasses, a skin care kit, and comfortable, training-specific clothing.
A tip for first-time climbers:
Climbing may seem like an intimidating pursuit, but what could be more natural? Humans evolved from monkeys, and what do monkeys do? They climb! Kids climbing trees is a perfect example of our instinctual urge to go up, something we seem to forget as we get older. From little kids to senior citizens, no matter your age, climbing is a great way to retain that playful full-body motion and stay active. But climbing does come with inherent risks, and it’s important to educate yourself before getting in over your head. In our book, the best start point is either to take a class at your local climbing gym, or hire a certified guide to show you the ropes outdoors. You’ll learn the basics of movement, belaying, and leading, and will build a solid foundation for a lifetime of fitness and adventure. As you build your skills both indoors and out, the whole world of climbing will be at your fingertips.
Sticky-rubber rock shoes are hands down the most essential piece of gear for a climber. While they may all look similar, climbing shoes are not all created equal, and the model that’s right for you will depend on a lot of things—the shape of your foot, the style of climbing, and your personal preferences, to name a few. Here are a few key considerations to make when choosing and sizing your rock shoes.
Sizing your climbing shoes properly is crucial to climbing well, but “properly” will mean different things depending on your experience level—it’s a fine line between performance and pain. As a beginner, it’s best to err on the side of comfort while you’re learning the basics. A good rock shoe should fit like a glove—start with your street shoe size, and adjust down if necessary to find a snug fit with no dead space that you can wear for a prolonged time without pain. Later on, as the walls get steeper and the holds get smaller, you can progress to a higher performance, and potentially less comfortable, fit. Remember that most climbing shoes, especially leather ones, will stretch and mold to your foot over time, so if you can tolerate a slight amount of discomfort up front, it may lead to the perfect fit once the shoe breaks in.
There are three main factors to consider in a style of rock shoe: symmetry, stiffness, and the angle of the sole. A comfortable street shoe is more or less symmetrical, while asymmetry concentrates power to the big toe for more difficult and precise climbing. A stiff sole generally provides a more solid and supportive platform, while a very soft shoe will offer more flexibility and dexterity. Finally, downturn in the sole will transmit power to the front of the foot for pulling on steep terrain. So to recap, a neutral shoe designed for all-day comfort on lower-angle terrain will have a high-level of symmetry, medium-to-high level of stiffness, and a flat sole. Conversely, a very aggressive shoe designed for steep and demanding boulder problems and routes will often be highly asymmetrical with a soft, radically downturned sole.
There are several other features to consider when choosing a climbing shoe. First off, the closure system. Slip-ons are great for bouldering or gym climbing where you’re constantly switching between on and off. Velcro provides a good balance of adjustability and easy on/off. Lace-ups will offer the highest range of adjustment and support. Some shoes are lined with canvas, which will decrease stretch, while unlined leather shoes will stretch a lot. Ankle coverage is great for crack climbing, but most beginners can get by with standard “low tops".
Climbing shoes are a critical piece of gear for climbing performance, so consider both your experience level and the type of climbing you want to do when choosing the right shoe. Experienced climbers will often have a quiver of shoes for different styles and types of rock, but it’s best to start with a durable, balanced, and comfortable shoe that can let you sample all that climbing has to offer.
ADDITIONAL CLIMBING GEAR
Like gymnasts, climbers use powdered magnesium carbonate, a.k.a. chalk, to keep fingers and palms from sweating and increase friction between you and the rock. A chalk bag with a belt that ties or clips around your waist is widely considered an essential for most styles of rock climbing. For boulderers, larger chalk pots or buckets that sit on the ground provide a larger, and often communal option. Some indoor gyms require chalk balls to contain chalk from spilling, so check your local gym’s requirements before purchasing.
When it’s time to take the leap into roped climbing, a harness is the first thing you’ll need. While most harnesses offer the same base features like a belay loop, molded gear loops and an adjustable waist buckle, different models can be tailored to different types of climbing, like streamlined, lightweight models for sport climbing, or super-durable, padded ones for big-wall aid routes. When you’re starting off, the best bet is a do-it-all model that prioritizes a secure fit and comfort.
Along with the rope, the belay device forms the critical connection between the climber and the belayer. These devices, which can range from traditional tube-style friction devices, to assisted-braking or auto-locking models that offer an added degree of safety, create a braking effect on the rope that allows the belayer to arrest the climber’s fall, as well as lower them back to the ground in a controlled way. A classic tube-style device is lightweight and simple, but requires technique and practice and has a lower margin for error. Assisted-braking or locking devices can offer an added element of safety by automatically engaging when weighted, but they are sometimes heavier and still require proper instruction and careful use.
As in other outdoor sports like skiing and mountain biking, a helmet is essential safety gear for protecting your head in the event of a fall or impact. A climbing helmet also shields you against falling rocks, dropped gear and other hazards that can be encountered while climbing outside. Though the amount of protection different helmets provide likely will not vary in a meaningful way, durability, weight, and ventilation will be the key differences. A more durable and less vented helmet will be heavier, while an ultralight and highly breathable helmet may not hold up to long-term abuse. Like your other gear, when starting out choose something that offers a balance of these features that prioritizes function and comfort.
CARE AND STORAGE
Like any equipment, if you care for, clean, and properly store your climbing gear, there’s no reason it shouldn’t provide season after season of use. With our climbing shoes, we always brush off dirt and debris before beginning a climb, and before packing up for the day. Keep your cams, carabiners and other mechanical hardware lubricated and free of dirt, and clean them when necessary. For fabric-based protective gear like ropes, harnesses, slings and quickdraws, be sure to inspect them regularly for abrasion, fading, or excessive wear—if you ever have any doubts as to the integrity of your gear, retire and replace it immediately. You can check out our gear collections at gear.com when looking to replace your climbing gear!