Walking into a climbing gym for the first time can be intimidating – but worry not, we’re here to help. While lingo, finger strength, and climbing technique will take some time to develop, this guide will hopefully provide you with the basic knowledge to get started progressing through the ranks.
Of course, no guide can replace actual practice. If you don’t have an experienced friend willing to teach an introductory lesson, joining a climbing gym is a great way to learn the basic skills. Available classes vary by the gym, but nearly all gyms will have ample opportunities to get started. That said, gyms do vary a good bit in complexity – some are just bouldering, others offer everything from a full weight room, yoga studio, to dozens of roped climbs. A great resource for finding a gym is the Mountain Project Gym page.
Getting started, there are three main types of gym climbing that are important to know. The first is bouldering, which doesn’t require a harness or rope. These routes are close to the ground and protected with soft pads below you. Bouldering is a great way to get a lot of repetitions quickly, helping improve your strength and technique quickly. Bouldering walls are good for beginners and experts alike.
A step up in complexity is top-rope climbing, which requires a harness and a belayer. The rope is secured to an anchor near the gym ceiling, making it relatively safe. You’ll be tied into one end of the rope and the other end is managed by your belay partner, who is there to catch you if you fall. All gyms will require new members to pass a belay test before they are permitted to belay.
The last and most complex style is called lead climbing. Recommended for those who are already proficient top-rope climbers looking to push their skills, lead climbing mirrors the experience of climbing outside. As you climb you’ll progressively clip into a series of quickdraws that are permanently bolted to the wall. Like top-rope climbing, you security blanket is the belayer below you. The risk with lead climbing is that when you slip you’ll fall to the last quickdraw, often meaning a faster, farther, and harder fall.
With a basic understanding of the three categories of gym climbing, here are the key pieces of gear to bring with you the next time you visit a climbing gym.
Clothing: While you’ll likely see some people climbing in the same jeans and t-shirt they’ve been wearing all day, it’s preferable to have clothes that stretch to improve your mobility. Avoid clothing that’s overly baggy, as it can get in the way when you’re climbing. Although indoor climbing is more gentle than climbing on actual rocks, there are some rough surfaces that occasionally rub and wear on the clothing, so select more durable clothes than your everyday wear. We recommend the Mountain Hardwear AP Pant ($90) and Arch Long Sleeve T ($85).
Rock Shoes: These are flexible shoes with grippy rubber soles that help you stay on the holds. You want a tight fit, to minimize any slip, without feeling like you’re binding your feet. The right shoes for you will vary on your foot shape, length, and width. Our favorites are the So iLL Runner ($59) and Black Diamond Momentum ($90). Gyms often offer rentals, too, if you want to try before you buy.
Harness: In terms of safety, the most important piece of gear on the list is a good harness. Eventually you’ll make a mistake and fall, and a good harness will guarantee that you don’t get hurt from it. Most standard designs have a loop for each leg as well as a loop around your waist, which together provides balance. We recommend the Petzl Adjama ($80) or Black Diamond Solution ($70), for those just getting started. These harnesses are good both inside and out.
Chalk Bag: In case things get a little tense on the wall, it’s best to carry a little chalk. This will keep your fingers dry and provide you better grip, for the challenging moves near the top. We’re fans of the Metolius Access Fund Chalk Bag ($20) filled with Frictionlabs Unicorn Dust ($15).
Lead Climbing Gear
Belay Device: While belay devices are necessary for top-rope climbing, they are almost always supplied by the gym and left attached to the rope. All you need to do as the belayer is clip in with the carabiner and lock in shut. For lead climbing, on the other hand, you’ll need to bring your own – a device you know and trust. The device you’ll most often find in a gym – and the one we also recommend – is a Petzl GriGri+ ($150). It works inside and outside, on a large variety of ropes, and is auto-braking, which offers extra safety. A good backup device is a Black Diamond ATC-XP ($22), which is necessary for rappelling, too.
Locking Carabiner: To attach the belay device to your harness securely and safely, you’ll need a locking carabiner. Many companies make them; our recent favorite is a Black Diamond RockLock Magnetron ($25).
Rope: To an outsider, a rope is a rope – that is, they’re roughly all the same. For those in the know, though, ropes are one of the most important items in your kit, and they vary a lot. Sizes range from 8mm to 11mm in diameter, and 20 to 100 meters in length, as does the coating and quality of treatment, and also whether they are dynamic or static. This all varies by what you’re climbing – a gym wall versus a multi-pitch route versus an alpine climb. For gym climbing, the best ropes are in the 10-11mm range and typically 50 meters long, but it’ll depend on your gym. We recommend starting with a Sterling Ropes Slim Gym.
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