Getting Started Rock Climbing

If you’re looking for fitness, fun and a healthy dose of adrenaline, then rock climbing is a worthy pursuit. Though it attracts its share of daredevils, rock climbing is also enjoyed by legions of everyday adventurers. If you’re reasonably fit and get yourself proper equipment and instruction, you, too, can become a rock jock.

Follow these steps to get started rock climbing:

  1. Find a qualified guide
  2. Identify the type of climbing you want to try
  3. Gear up
  4. Find your route

Step One: Find a Guide

Your first move before you set foot to slab is to find a qualified guide. Many people get their start with experienced friends, or you can seek out a certified instructor to teach you the ropes.

REI Outdoor School offers a range of rock climbing classes to get you started, or you can contact local climbing organizations or gyms for instruction.

Step 2: Choose a Type of Climbing

Rock climbing has a broad range of disciplines, with each requiring differing types of gear and training. Your choice of climbing style also helps determine the places and the routes you can climb. As a beginner, you’ll start out doing indoor climbing, bouldering or top-rope climbing outdoors.

Indoor Climbing

For most people, this will be as a member of a climbing gym. Many colleges, public recreation centers and a few REI stores have a wall or freestanding pinnacle where people can try indoor top-rope climbing and/or bouldering. All of these places utilize artificial hand- and footholds placed to create routes of varying difficulty. Route setters can move holds easily, creating an endless number of new climbs on the same wall or pinnacle.

An indoor climbing gym offers many advantages for getting started:

  • It’s a readily accessible, non-weather-dependent place to practice and work out.
  • You can climb in areas where no outdoor climbing sites are available.
  • It allows you to try the sport with rented gear before investing in your own.


This requires the least amount of time and gear. Though a few advanced routes can get pretty high, most bouldering takes you only as high as you can jump off comfortably. Climbers can traverse (move along the rock horizontally, parallel to the ground), thus working on strength and movement, without being exposed to a long fall. 

Bouldering is a great introductory activity because it requires only climbing shoes, a chalk bag, a crash pad (to cushion your jump or fall off the rock) and an experienced spotter. You don’t need a rope or a harness. Outdoor bouldering areas are found around the country, and most climbing gyms offer an indoor version of the sport.

Outdoor Top-Rope Climbing

Top-roping involves anchoring the climbing rope to a spot at the top of the route, then climbing toward that anchor while another climber keeps the rope taut. 

By having a solid anchor points and a taut rope, you’re minimizing the distance you fall if you slip off the rock. That’s why top-rope climbing is the first type of roped climbing you’ll do in both indoor and outdoor settings.

The term for the person who pulls in the slack as you progress (and holds the rope if you fall) is “belayer.” Belaying is a critical role, so your belayer should be a guide, instructor or a properly trained climber. You’ll also need to learn how to belay at some point because more advanced climbing teams trade off this responsibility.

More Advanced Types of Climbing

After you become proficient at top-rope climbing in the gym or outdoors, you’ll be ready to progress to lead climbing, initially on sport-climbing routes.

Outdoor sport climbing routes usually have bolts drilled into the rock and you use quickdraws to clip in as you progress. 

Traditional (“trad”) climbing is another option, although it also requires you to master the art and science of anchor placement. A trad route is one that has few, if any, permanent anchors. The lead climber protects against a catastrophic fall by placing protection—nuts or camming devices—into fissures in the rock. Quickdraws are used to connect the rope to the protection. 

Step 3. Gear Up to Climb

If you start out at a gym or climb with a guide, necessary equipment is usually provided. Some gyms or guides might require you to buy at least a few pieces of gear, though. And, eventually, you’ll want a full set of your own climbing gear.

Tip: Always inspect your gear before climbing—whether you own it or rent it. Frequent use inevitably results in some wear and tear. The advantage of buying your own gear is that you know its history.

Climbing Clothing

Wear clothing that is not restrictive and won’t get in the way of you or the rope. Your clothing should breathe, wick sweat and dry fast so that you can stay warm and comfortable while climbing. If you’re climbing in the outdoors, also carry clothes for changing conditions just as you would for hiking.

Rock Climbing Shoes

Climbing shoes protect your feet while providing the friction you need to grip footholds. Most styles are quite versatile, but your climbing ability and where you climb are both factors in choosing the correct shoe. 

Rock shoes should fit snugly but not painfully tight. The general rule is that closer-fitting shoes are the norm for more technically challenging climbs. 

Note: Rock shoes aren’t comfortable for walking long distances and doing so can ruin them. For the hike from your car to the base of your climbing area, wear approach shoes, trail runners or other appropriate footwear. Climbing shoes are for climbing only.

Climbing Helmet

When climbing outdoors, you should always wear a helmet made specifically for climbing. Climbing helmets are designed to cushion your head from falling rock and debris, and some (though not all) are designed to provide protection in the case of a fall. They are generally not worn in a climbing gym since it’s a controlled environment.

A helmet should feel comfortable, fit snugly but not too tight and sit flat on your head. Helmets usually have a hard protective shell and an internal strapping system.

Climbing Harness

Unless you are bouldering, you need a climbing harness. A harness consists of two basic parts:

  • Waistbelt: This sits over the hips and must fit snugly.
  • Leg loops: One loop goes around each leg. Many harnesses conveniently offer adjustable or removable leg loops. 

Your harness allows you to tie into the rope securely and efficiently. All harnesses have two front tie-in points designed specifically for threading the rope and tying in, one at the waist and one at the leg loops. Generally the tie-in points are different than the dedicated belay loop. Buckling your harness correctly is essential for safety.

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