man hanging from a cliff over water
Editorial Team
Editorial Team

How to Start Rock Climbing – Beginners Guide to The Basics

So you want to start climbing, but you’re not sure how to get into it? Understandable. Climbing can seem like a daunting sport from the outside. But we’re here to tell you that it really doesn’t have to be! We’re going to show you the ropes and walk you through the process of getting started rock climbing.

We wrote this guide to offer a helping hand for those wondering how to start rock climbing. So read on for a detailed breakdown of terminology, types of climbing, and basic climbing gear, as well as our top recommendations for newcomers to this epic sport.

Rock Climbing for Beginners – Indoor vs Outdoor Climbing

The first thing you’ll need to do when getting into rock climbing is decide on the type of climbing you want to try, and where you want to try it. Climbing can be done indoors (in a climbing gym) or outdoors on real rock.

Each of these options offers an entirely different experience and list of advantages. The good news is, most climbers do both, so it’s not an either-or decision!

Indoor (Gym) Climbing

man climbing an indoor climbing wall

Indoor climbing gyms have seen a spike in popularity in recent years. Most big cities around the world now have at least one local climbing gym – and often, they have many! A simple Google search for the name of your city, followed by ‘climbing gym’ will help you decipher if you’ve got one nearby.

Climbing gym’s make use of artificial walls with plastic, molded hand and foot holds. The floors are almost always padded, and the routes usually make use of an easy-to-understand grading system.

There are plenty of benefits to indoor climbing. Its the safest, easiest, and most accessible way of trying climbing for the first time. It doesn’t require any big investments in gear, nor does it require that you have an experienced climber friend to show you the ropes.

You can just rock up and give it a try!

Most climbing gyms offer courses and lessons on the basics of rock climbing, as well as more technical safety procedures. But we think one of the best ways to learn to climb is to get right into it and watch experienced climbers in the gym.

Outdoor Climbing

man climbing a slanted outdoor rock wall

The great outdoors is where rock climbing first planted its roots. More specifically, modern rock climbing began its evolution in the awe-inspiring Yosemite National Park in the mid-20th century.

For most climbers, who are lucky enough to have experienced it, climbing outdoors is the preferred option – it offers natural beauty and a level of adrenaline that is mostly unavailable indoors.

But outdoor climbing comes with some complications and challenges that indoor climbing manages to avoid.

For starters, not everyone lives near to an outdoor rock climbing destination. Only select cities around the world are fortunate enough to have stellar (or any, for that matter) climbing routes within an easy drive.

Outdoor climbing also requires more preparation, gear, and time than indoor climbs, which can be quick and simple. However, there are companies who have outdoor climbs ready and set up for beginners such as the routes in Swellendam. This can be really fun if you’ve got a little experience with indoor climbs already.

Types of Climbing

man climbing a dark rock wall with vegetation and ropes

Whether you prefer to climb indoors or outdoors, there are also different types of rock climbing. The most common ones that you’ll come across as a beginner are bouldering, top roping, and sport climbing, each of which can be done indoors or outdoors. We’ll break down these climbing disciplines below, so you can get a feel for what might suit you best.

If possible, we suggest you try them all in due time. You never really know how you’ll feel until you get on a wall.

While styles and disciplines may vary, the objective of all climbing is the same: get to the top.

1.   Bouldering for Beginners

boulderer climbing a boulder above a crash pad

Bouldering is unique in the climbing world in the way that it doesn’t make use of harnesses, bolts, or ropes for safety.

Instead, boulderers use padded foam mats (known as crash pads) to break their fall. As the name suggests, the sport revolves around climbing boulders – so routes (known as ‘problems’ to boulderers) rarely exceed 20 feet in height.

Bouldering routes are often seen as puzzles that require both physical and mental problem-solving skills.

In our humble opinion, bouldering is the best starting point for new-comers getting into rock climbing. That’s not to say that it’s necessarily the best for intermediate and proficient climbers – that’s a matter of opinion.

Rather, bouldering is just the simplest climbing discipline, and often the most accessible. It calls for very few gear requirements (only shoes and chalk, providing you’re climbing indoors) and you don’t really need any training to get started.

2.   Top Roping for Beginners

Top roping involves the climber being attached to a rope that is looped over an anchor system at the top of a route.

On the other end of the rope is a belayer – someone who stays on the ground and continually pulls out slack in the rope as you climb. Once you reach the top, a belayer can lower you back down safely (known as abseiling or rappelling).

This is the second most accessible form of climbing for beginners and is offered in most climbing gyms. Some gyms even have auto-belay systems that don’t require you to have a climbing partner to belay you.

But outdoor top roping requires a fair amount of gear. So we suggest you try it in the gym first. And if you’re keen to climb outdoors, ask the staff at your climbing gym to recommend a local climbing club.

Often, climbing clubs will have communal gear and will be happy to help you as you figure out how to get started rock climbing.

3.   Sport Climbing for Beginners

a man climbing a wall above water using sport climbing gear

Sport climbing certainly wouldn’t be our first recommendation for beginners – it’s one of the more challenging and dangerous climbing disciplines, usually reserved for more experienced climbers.

It involves climbing a route that has fixed bolts at certain intervals along the way. The climber climbs the route, clipping their rope into the bolts as they go. If you fall, the most recent bolt that you clipped into will catch you. This means you’re far more likely to take dramatic falls than when top roping.

Sport climbing also requires that you have a belayer. The difference between lead (sport) belaying and top rope belaying is that in sport climbing, the belayer gives the climber slack as they ascend rather than taking the slack out.

Rock Climbing Gear for Beginners

belay device with a rope around it

The gear that you’ll need to get started depends almost entirely on the type of climbing and whether you do it indoors or outdoors.

Climbing gyms have pretty much all of the indoor rock climbing gear you could need. Shoes and harnesses are usually available to rent, while everything else is generally free of charge (ie ropes, carabiners, padding etc).

The exception here is chalk. All climbers need to buy their own chalk. But it isn’t expensive and can usually be bought from the climbing gym itself.

Gear requirements for outdoor climbing are a little different. To climb outdoors, you’d need all of the gear required for the type of climbing you’re attempting. But we don’t recommend outdoor climbing unless you’re with an experienced climber. And if you are, it’s likely that they’ll have their own gear which you could use.

Our suggested beginner climbing gear ‘starter pack’ would be a pair of beginner shoes, some chalk, and a chalk bag. With this gear, you’ll be able to boulder in a gym and establish whether you want to take the sport any further. Perhaps offer a hint to a loved one to give you some of this climbing gear as a gift!

Here’s a breakdown of the most important pieces of gear.

Shoes

We would go so far as to say that climbing shoes are the most fundamental piece of climbing gear. It’s incredibly rare to see a climber on a wall without them. You’ll even see free solo climbers like Alex Honnold giving up their safety ropes (and t-shirts) while still hanging onto their shoes.

Climbing shoes are built to help grip onto holds in a way that a bare foot simply can’t.

You will need to use shoes when you start rock climbing, but you might not want to buy your own pair right way. Most climbing gyms offer rental shoes, so you can get a feel for the sport before committing to a shoe purchase. That said, renting shoes isn’t particularly economical, so the sooner you buy your own, the better.

There are plenty of great beginner shoes out there. But our favorites are the Evolv Defys  and the La Sportiva Finale.

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Chalk

Chalk isn’t necessarily a necessity, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a climber who doesn’t use it. In a nutshell, powdered climbing chalk is used to aid grip. You put it onto your hands in order to dry out any moisture and keep them grippy.

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Chalk Bag

Where does one keep all of this inconvenient chalk while 50 feet up a wall, holding on by their fingertips and a big toe? In a chalk bag, of course. A chalk bag is a soft pouch used to store chalk, that can be attached to a climbing harness with a carabiner.

Boulders sometimes have a chalk pot instead. These tend to be larger, and they sit comfortably on the ground. They’re not designed to be clipped to a harness, as bouldering routes are short, so climbers can re-apply chalk on the ground regularly.

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Harness

A harness is what attaches you to the rope. They’re made up of a waist belt and leg loops, which are tightened to ensure that the climber is fully strapped in. Harnesses can usually be rented at your local climbing gym.

But in the long run, if you’re interested in top rope or lead climbing, it’s best to purchase your own.

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Crash Pad

A crash pad is a necessity only if you’re going to be bouldering outdoors. They’re effectively multi-layered, high-density foam mats that are designed to break your fall. Again, we recommend trying bouldering in the gym or borrowing a friend’s crash pad before buying one yourself.

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Rope

A rope is used as a safety device for top rope and lead climbing. Chances are, you won’t need a rope of your own, especially if you’re starting rock climbing in a climbing gym. And we don’t recommend buying a rope until you’ve tried climbing at least a few times.

You should also complete a belay course before using your own rope. That way, you’ll be brushed up on the safety procedures and considerations.

Belay Device

A belay device is used to control the slack in a rope and the speed of a climber’s descent using friction. They’re only needed if you’re planning on belaying a climbing partner – which is not something we recommend without adequate training.

We suggest you get comfortable as a climber first, before trying to belay.

Understanding the Rock Climbing Basics

woman climbing an indoor climbing wall

It’s important to remember that climbing is a really easy sport to get into. The difficulty of routes vary significantly, so you can start out with the easiest ones and work your way up.

Climbing routes and bouldering problems make use of grading systems to indicate their level of difficulty.

In North America, bouldering routes are graded using the V-scale system, while top rope and sport climbs are rated on the Yosemite Decimal System. In both cases, the higher the number, the more challenging the climb.

If you climb in a gym, bouldering grades will often be represented as colors, and you’ll quickly become familiar with which color routes are best suited to you. From there, you’ll always be chasing the next grade up, which is an incredibly satisfying pursuit.

Check out this video for a detailed breakdown of the basics and some guidance on how to climb:

How to Start Rock Climbing: Summarised

To make a long story short, here’s a very brief summary of our recommendations for those who want to learn to rock climb:

  • We suggest that you start out by finding a climbing gym near you. Indoor climbing is safer and more accessible to beginners.
  • Rent shoes and a harness to start out. But if you’re still enjoying climbing after a few sessions, it’s well worth buying a pair of beginner climbing shoes and a harness of your own.
  • We recommend trying out bouldering first, due to its simplicity, low barriers to entry, and social atmosphere. But you could just as happily get into top roping from the get-go if you prefer the look of it.

Final Words on How to Get Into Rock Climbing

person rapelling from a sheer, red cliff face

So there you have it – all you need to know in order to embark on your new climbing journey. We hope this rock climbing guide has been informative, and that it’s helped give you the push you need to get started.

Climbing is an amazing sport, so get out there and go for it! You won’t regret it.

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