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:
Find a qualified guide
Identify the type of climbing you want to try
Find your route
To learn basic climbing terms before you get started, see our Rock Climbing Glossary.
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.
Find a Climbing Class
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.
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.
For more details see the REI Expert Advice article, Indoor (Gym) Climbing Basics.
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 rope climber
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. See Sport Climbing Basics for more information.
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. See Traditional Climbing Basics, for more information.
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.
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.