In recent years — especially with ongoing Covid-19 restrictions — rock climbing has evolved as a favored activity among outdoor enthusiasts and gym-dwellers alike. A versatile sport with just as many mental demands as physical, climbing boasts multiple forms and styles for both indoor and out. Rock climbing is notoriously difficult to break into, however, requiring niche gear, training and specialized techniques. So, how can the curious climber break into the climbing world without a major misstep — or breaking the bank? We’ve put together this beginner’s guide to help.
Find Your Niche
Climbing comes in many forms, including bouldering, top-roping and lead climbing. Each style requires a different technique and approach, and as a beginner you’ll want to study and try each.
“Look for ways to experience it all and see what interests you the most,” says Jeff Shor, director of marketing at Sportrock Climbing Centers.
Bouldering is generally the most accessible type, requiring the least amount of gear and safety measures. When bouldering, climbers free-climb on smaller rock formations closer to the ground. No ropes are required — and indoor boulderers can climb partner-free.
Rope climbing, which includes top-roping and lead climbing, is a different beast. Climbers traverse taller rock faces via a ropes and anchor system, managed by an on-the-ground climbing partner. For rope climbing, climbers need endurance (and a healthy appreciation of heights), and a belay certification to operate the anchor system.
For beginners, Shor recommends attending a guide-led intro class or workshop offering a sampling of different styles. Indoor courses are typically best to start, as climbing gyms offer a more controlled environment than outdoor spaces. Local climbing gyms like Sportrock offer a slew of options for novice climbers.
You’ll also want to thoroughly research each style before physically testing. Online publications like REI’s “Uncommon Path” blog or climbing.com (Climbing Magazine) are great resources; for live climbing footage, simply check out YouTube.
Get The Gear
Regardless of chosen style, all climbers will need two basic and essential types of gear: chalk and chalk bags, and climbing shoes.
Chalk, whether powder or liquid, helps create friction between hands and rock so climbers can grip holds properly. Chalk is typically stored in either block, ball or loose form in small adjustable chalk bags which climbers can attach to their waists.
Shor advises investing in simple, more basic products to start.
“You’ll see people who seem to have a lot of knowledge with specific types of gear, which isn’t necessarily best for a new climber,” he says. “You don’t need the most expensive stuff to start.”
New climbers will also want to invest in a solid set of shoes. An appropriate climbing shoe is absolutely essential for developing strong technique — and ensuring climbers’ safety.
Shoes come as neutral (flat), moderate (slight camber) and aggressive (strong camber) to support different technical levels. Beginners should seek flat, neutral shoes, which are great for full-day use and less technical climbs. Shoes typically come in velcro and lace-up style, which accommodates variable fit preferences.
No two brands or styles will fit the same, so be sure to try on in-person before purchasing.
For bouldering outside: a solid crash pad to shield potential falls is essential. For rope climbing: You’ll need a secure climbing harness (indoor/outdoor), a helmet (outdoor) and your own climbing ropes (outdoor).
Practice + Study Your Craft
For beginners, longevity is everything.
“Don’t focus on training,” Shor advises. “Focus on time on the rock or the wall. Climb often and you’ll progress quickly.”
Learning proper technique early on is also essential. Beginners often mistakenly assume strength and power is key to artful climbing, when in fact success lies in a developed and sophisticated technique.
Always start with footwork: Beginners commonly rely too much on the arms. Focus on your feet and legs — the strongest part of your body — as your power source, rather than pulling up with your arms. This approach helps protect your arms from fatigue and saves an exponential amount of energy.
Next, focus on balance and handholds. Generally you’ll want to position your body the opposite direction of handholds, which helps efficiently balance weight. This technique also helps prevent climbing only with square hips — another common destabilizing pitfall.
Finally, learn some moves. Common beginner and intermediate moves include flagging (balancing your leg against the wall rather than in a foothold), edging and drop knee, to name a few. To save energy, chart your route mentally first —and be sure to take rests and breaks as needed to replenish your energy along the way.
Use Your Resources + Community
For beginners, the climbing community itself is often the best resource. Beginners are encouraged to meet and partner with other climbers – whether novice or experienced – to figure out routes and learn new techniques.
Milana Ortega, marketing assistant at Sportrock, says this is one of her biggest lessons learned.
“If I could go back and tell myself one thing when I was first getting started, it would be to utilize my resources,” she says, “whether through a climbing gym or through the relationships I build.”
“It’s group problem-solving,” he says. “You find age doesn’t matter, what you look like doesn’t matter, who you are doesn’t matter. You might have a 14-year-old girl talking beta with these grown burly dudes.”
The online climbing community is also an option. Consider climbing blogs and forums for technique advice (Reddit has some great user-generated feeds), or watch instructional videos. Neil Gresham, a UK-based climber and trainer, is one personal favorite. Gresham’s masterclass series on YouTube offers simple and methodical approaches to climbing technique and best practices.
Most of all, come with an open mind. Every route and group is different, but the climbing community is for everyone.
“Leave your preconceptions at the door,” Shor says. “Climbing is a sport that will meet you wherever you are, no matter who you are”
Local Climbing Gyms
For the Day-Trippers
Catoctin Mountain Park: 14707 Park Central Rd. Thurmont, MD; nps.gov/cato/index.htm
Head to Shenandoah
Elizabeth Furnace: thecrag.com/en/climbing/united-states/elizabeth-furnace
Swing by after work
Great Falls Park: 9200 Old Dominion Dr. McLean, VA; nps.gov/grfa/index.htm
New River Gorge: Glen Jean, WV; nps.gov/neri/index.htm
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content. Support local journalism and start your membership today.