Man has been rock climbing and conquering mountains for as long there has been human life on earth. Getting elevated would have been essential for early hunters to track their prey and assess the land in which they were roaming. And since then that primal need has evolved into a desire to push the limits of human endurance and mental strength to reach new heights and claim new climbs and routes.
But climbing rocks isn’t just about peak bagging and ambition. There are a whole load of other benefits to spending time on the rock. So if you’re thinking of trying something new this year then this guide to rock climbing for beginners will help you understand how to get started and what to expect.
Who is rock climbing for?
You don’t need any prior experience to have a go at rock climbing, and as mentioned, it doesn’t even matter if you don’t have much of a head for heights. It helps to have a basic level of physical strength and fitness, and a little bit of determination also goes a long way on the rock.
It’s a really excellent activity for kids of all sporting abilities, and is especially good for those who may not get on so well playing team sports. Compared to many sports it is a fairly low impact sport which means that many climbers keep going right on into retirement.
Where can you do rock climbing?
Indoors climbing gym – Most beginner climbers start off at an indoor climbing gym. Many big cities have dedicated climbing gyms where you can pay a fee to use the facilities. A good climbing centre will have an area for stretching and warming up, a training area, bouldering problems with crash pads below, plenty of top rope routes set up and a good amount of lead climbing routes too.
Outdoor activity centres – These often have indoor walls or artificial outdoor walls which can be used in tutored sessions or courses. And many sports centres, colleges and schools also have climbing facilities. These are often more basic than at a dedicated climbing centre, but just as useful for beginners.
Real rock – Of course getting outside onto real rock faces and crags is where most climbers prefer to practice and develop their passion. There are plenty of great outdoor climbing areas all over the world that are suitable for beginners and experts alike. Some are easy to access by car and others require more of an adventure to get there.
How to get started
Most beginner climbers start indoors either on bouldering problems or on top rope routes. If you plan on top roping then you will need to know how to belay. Every climber using ropes needs a climbing partner to control the rope on which the climber replies upon. This is knows as belaying. By using a belay device and taking in excess rope as the climber ascends, the belayer ensures that the climber will be safe if he or she should fall from the rock.
Before you are permitted to climb with ropes at an indoor wall, you will need to carry out a belay test or be with an experienced climber. This will vary from place to place so it is worth checking what is expected before you go.
Take a course
So to ensure that you learn the essential and highly important skill of belaying properly, it’s usually best to sign up to a beginner session for your first few visits. Rock climbing for beginners courses will teach you how to belay and how to tie and correctly use some essential climbing knots. You will also learn some basic climbing techniques and gain a whole load of confidence to get your started on your journey to becoming a seasoned climber.
What to expect from your first time rock climbing
During your first session you can expect to get jelly legs! No matter how relaxed you are with heights, most beginners will at some point experience uncontrollable shaking of their legs! It’s totally normal and the best thing to do is to try not to dwell on it, take some deep breaths and focus more on how to get to the top.
- You will probably experience a couple of controlled falls and will quickly learn to place your trust in your belayer. And you will also figure out the point at which you become uncomfortable with the height you are at.
- During the session your shoulders and arms will become fatigued very quickly and your fingers and forearms will feel especially worked. A day or so after you will also feel all the other muscles that were working hard – most notably your core, legs and back.
- Climbing isn’t just physically challenging. For many people it is as much about overcoming mental barriers as it is pushing physical limits. So you should expect to feel out of your comfort zone at some point, and you will probably have some internal battles to push yourself to the top.
- But assuming you don’t hate every minute of your time on the rock, you will come away with a huge feeling of accomplishment, a tired body and an excited buzz for your next climbing session.
What to wear rock climbing
Wearing comfortable and nonrestrictive clothing is key. You have enough to worry about without having to battle against a tight pair of pants or a belt that is digging in underneath your climbing harness. But you also don’t want super baggy clothing either. That can be equally as annoying and can also get caught in your belay device. So make sure your clothing is slightly loose or stretchy, but not baggy.
It can be easy to graze your knees when climbing so many climbers wear long pants rather than shorts to prevent this.
Wearing proper climbing shoes will help enormously, even as a beginner. But until you’re set on making climbing a regular feature on your activity schedule, there’s no point in buying your own pair. Instead you can rent climbing shoes and harness at your local climbing centre each time you go. These are usually worn without socks for a snug (but comfortable) fit.
If you do a climbing course at an outdoor crag, you will be required to wear a helmet. Once you start climbing on your own, you can choose whether you wear a helmet or not. But some crags are renowned for loose rock so it is alway advisable to wear one, just in case.
Rock climbing equipment list for beginners
If you find yourself climbing regularly then you will need to start gathering some gear. There is so much cool stuff for climbers that if you buy it all at once then things can get pricey. There’s no real need to get everything until you know what sort of climbing you’ll be doing the most. So start with the essentials:
The first thing to invest in should be a pair of good climbing shoes. If you have nothing else, you can still boulder with only a pair of shoes. Try a few on and make sure you also try using them on a wall if possible. The fit should be tight and snug, but not uncomfortable, and you can choose lace ups or velcro.
If you are getting into rope climbing then the next thing on your list should be a climbing harness. They come in different sizes and are often gender specific. Again, try a few different ones on to compare and if possible tie into a climbing rope and put all your weight into the harness to test the comfort and fit. Gear loops are essential and a loop to clip your chalk bag onto is also useful.
Again, if rope climbing is your thing then you’ll need a good belay device. This is something you can share between you and your climbing partner initially, so long as you both like using the same type device. There are a couple of different types that work slightly differently: a GriGri which has an automatic locking system, or a traditional belay device which is more simple to use and without an automatic locking system.
Chalk and chalk bag
You can scavenge chalk from your buddy for only so long until it gets annoying for both of you. And the harder you climb, the more likely you are to to need extra chalk mid-climb. Chalk bags are worn at the base of your spine so that they are out of the way but easy to dip your hands into. You can get blocks of chalk to crumble into your bag, chalk balls that live in your bag (squeeze them to chalk your hands up) or pre-crumbled bags of chalk to fill your bag with.
Once you start venturing into lead climbing, outdoor bouldering and outdoor climbing you will need a whole load of other gear, most of which you can share with your climbing partner to keep your costs down.
Where to find out more
For more information on how to start rock climbing, and where you can have a go at it for the first time, it is best to contact your local climbing centre. This world-wide indoor rock climbing gym directory is an excellent place to start.
Or a quick google search will point you in the right direction.
You can also find out about what’s new and current in the climbing world, climbing tips, gear advice and reviews and just about everything else you might need to know about rock climbing on these websites and magazines:
But for some quick and easy tips to start you off, read our guide on how to improve your climbing for beginner and intermediate climbers.
What are the different types of rock climbing?
Although rock climbing may seem like a straightforward concept, there are more ways to ascend a rock than one might think. And as a result, there are a few different disciplines of rock climbing. So if you end up loving your first few times at the climbing gym, then here’s a quick breakdown on some your options to take climbing to the next level:
Climbers are attached to a rope that passes through an anchor system at the top of a climb. The other end of the rope is securely controlled by a person at the foot of the climb who is known as a belayer. This is the most common way that beginners start climbing.
No ropes are used for bouldering and only shoes and chalk are needed, although crash mats are often used to minimise impact when climbers fall from the boulder. Bouldering routes are known as ‘problems’ which are usually lower to the ground and more difficult than routes climbed with ropes. Bouldering can be a good option if you have a fear of heights.
Unlike top roping where the rope is set up at the top of a climb on a pre-placed anchor, lead climbers secure the rope as they climb using either fixed bolts in the wall (sport climbing) or by placing their own protective gear into the wall (trad climbing).
Sport climbers use permanently placed protection (bolts in the wall) to secure the rope as the climber ascends the climb. It requires extra equipment (quickdraws) to secure the rope, and requires good climbing skills and confidence as well as technical knowledge on how to safely use the rope systems.
There are no fixed bolts on trad (or traditional) climbing routes. Instead climbers place their own gear into cracks or holes in the rock to clip their rope into as they climb. All placed gear is then removed from the rock when the climber descends. Trad climbing requires lots of extra equipment and expert knowledge of how to safely use it.