We Conducted a Blinded Field Test of the 7 Best Climbing Chalks
|Climbing Chalk||Score||Weight||¢/g (largest size)||Texture|
|Top Pick: FrictionLabs Unicorn Dust||
|Best Value: Trango Gunpowder Climbing Chalk||
|Least Irritating on Skin: Primo Chalk||
|Bison Designs Competition Chalk||
|Best for Sweaty Hands: Black Diamond White Gold||
|Petzl Power Crunch||
|Metolius Super Chalk||
We narrowed the (surprisingly varied) field of climbing chalks down to seven top contenders, and then put all of them through an entirely blind battery of tests to see which one came out on top. FrictionLabs Unicorn Dust came away with the top score, but not by much — Trango’s Gunpowder Chalk is strong competition at a good value.
Like gate direction and tricams, chalk is one of those topics that climbers love to discuss but never reach a consensus on. Some climbers swear by certain brands, others say that it’s all the same, and others forswear chalk entirely. Some prefer bricks, some prefer powder.
We wanted to put some of these debates to rest. The problem is that because chalk is predominantly the same stuff — magnesium carbonate, plus or minus some preparation differences and drying agents — most of the differences are in marketing. Some chalks claim to last longer, others claim that they absorb more moisture, and one we tested even claims to condition your hands. There’s a lot of hype, and it can be tough to tell what’s bark and what’s bite.
To get around that issue, we did all of our testing without knowing which chalk was which. I had a (non-climbing) third party take each package of chalk and pour a specified amount into a blank gallon bag. Each bag was randomly assigned a letter from A-G, and our friend wrote down a key of which brand went with which letter. None of the reviewers saw the key until we were completely done with testing.
Even with no brands or marketing involved, there were still significant differences in chalk type and behavior. All our reviewers had to think hard about what we valued in chalk, and we all came away with strong preferences. Read on for details.
Table of Contents
- Top Pick: FrictionLabs Unicorn Dust
- Best Value: Trango Gunpowder Climbing Chalk
- Least Irritating on Skin: Primo Chalk
- Best for Sweaty Hands: Black Diamond White Gold
- Reviews of the 3 Other Climbing Chalks We Tested
- How to Choose the Right Climbing Chalk for Your Needs
- How We Tested
Top Pick: FrictionLabs Unicorn Dust
When I learned that we were doing this test blind, FrictionLabs was the brand I was most curious about.
FL markets its products aggressively: its packaging declares “The New Standard in Chalk,” and the brand keeps a roster of pro climbers well-stocked with sponsor material.
The performance comes at a cost — as the priciest brand by far, even a tiny 2.5 oz bag of FrictionLabs will set you back a full $10. Some climbers swear by the stuff, and some insist that the hype is empty.
The results of our test were clear: FrictionLabs was the unanimous favorite, even when we had no idea what it was.
In fact, before we learned the true identities of each chalk, we each guessed which was which — and none of us guessed the Unicorn Dust correctly. We thought we had picked some other chalk as the top performer, only to find that the FrictionLabs reigned supreme after all.
The Unicorn Dust is the chalk that best nailed all three evaluation categories. It’s easy to apply, producing a smooth and even coating. FL offers several consistencies to match your preference, but we found that the Unicorn Dust was a nice mix of powder and small chunks.
It’s secure on the wall without being uncomfortably dry. “It felt like I could probably climb for a long time,” said one tester. “I felt secure and happy and comfortable,” said another.
Simply put, the FrictionLabs chalk offers the best overall experience of any chalk we tested. FL’s marketing claims their chalk performs better and leaves skin healthier, and our testing left us much less doubtful about those boasts.
So is it worth the price?
That depends on how much you have to spend. The Unicorn Dust is our favorite chalk, but not by a huge margin. If you’ll settle for nothing less than the best, go with FrictionLabs. If price is no object, this is the best product on the shelf. But if you hesitate to shell out $25 for just ten ounces, you’re not alone — and there are other excellent options.
Full review: FrictionLabs Climbing Chalk
Best Value: Trango Gunpowder Climbing Chalk
This chalk was a bit of a surprise to most of the reviewers.
It’s not a name that gets mentioned a lot in most chalk discussions, but the Gunpowder was a close second favorite after the Unicorn Dust. The FrictionLabs chalk edged ahead just a little on application and usability, but the differences were subtle.
The Gunpowder is a strong performer in all categories. “It goes on so nice; it’s like butter,” said one tester after applying. The chalk coats nicely and feels secure while climbing. It’s another chalk that doesn’t leave the hands overly dry or cracked, and it’s pleasant to use even over long sessions.
Trango’s chalk is one of the more powdery options we tested, which can be polarizing among climbers. If you prefer to have chunks in your chalk, then the Gunpowder may not be your jam. If you don’t mind powder and just want chalk that performs well, you’ll probably like this one.
The best part about the Gunpowder is the value it offers. We spent $7.50 for 200 g. By comparison, at the price per gram that we paid for the Unicorn Dust, you’d have to pay $17.67 to get 200 g of FrictionLabs chalk.
Is the FrictionLabs a better climbing chalk? Yes.
Is it $10 better? In our opinion, no.
With strong performance at a competitive price, the Gunpowder comes at an exceptional value. In the future, this is the chalk that I’ll be buying.
Least Irritating on Skin: Primo Chalk
Primo is a relative newcomer to the world of climbing chalk, but they make some bold claims.
The company takes traditional magnesium carbonate and mixes it with the essential oils of clove, eucalyptus, cinnamon, rosemary, and lemon, along with a dash of epsom salts. The result is a chalk that Primo says is both antibacterial and conditioning, all while providing friction.
The packaging is plastered with quotes from approving climbers and crossfit athletes, plus one from the raw bench world record holder (which — I’m not kidding — is a separate category for bench pressing without a special kind of shirt).
Primo is the most unique chalk that we tested, and at first it left us a bit confused. It applies fairly easily, though it doesn’t coat quite as smoothly as our top two contenders. It also didn’t seem to stay on as well as other chalks, although we later learned that Primo instructs users to grab just a pinch of chalk each time, which does improve usage slightly.
Where Primo ended up surprising us was the comfort features. We noticed a real, positive difference in how our skin felt when using this chalk. It was more than just a qualitative gain, too: with only a few layers of skin left after a long endurance training, the Primo was soothing to touch and allowed us to climb longer. The chalk actually smells like lotion, which is a little disorienting but not all bad.
Because of these benefits, we felt this chalk would be ideal for grinding out indoor training sessions. It preserves the skin, applies well, and lends itself to the indoors, where mileage-per-handful isn’t as essential.
At 5.5 cents per gram for a 1 lb bag, Primo is the second most expensive chalk in our test when considering smaller amounts — although if you buy a huge 5 lb bucket the price comes down to a more reasonable 4.41 cents per gram.
I felt that this chalk could develop a sort of cult following — it doesn’t seem like a gamechanger, but the right climber might love it. If you’re interested, get a bag or ball and give it a spin.
Best for Sweaty Hands: Black Diamond White Gold
There were two chalks that, in the words of one tester, “dried the **** out of your hands.” These were the Petzl Power Crunch and the Black Diamond White Gold.
Although neither coated the hand particularly well, the BD was more convenient to apply because of how incredibly chunky the Petzl chalk is.
Extreme dryness is another characteristic that some climbers love and others hate. It does provide a feeling of security. I never felt like moisture stood a chance while I was using this chalk.
On the other hand, our hands didn’t feel great either. After a while, the excessive dryness starts to create tenderness, stiffness, and even cracking.
I noticed that I wasn’t climbing as hard or as confidently, and I wasn’t as content doing it. “You don’t want to dread putting your hand in your chalk bag,” said one tester, exaggerating only slightly.
Different climbers have different bodies and different needs. If what you need is a chalk that provides the absolute most drying power, check out the White Gold (or the Petzl Power Crunch, if you like a little chunkiness). Both are relatively affordable (the BD slightly more so), and they really do dry you out.
Reviews of the 3 Other Climbing Chalks We Tested
The other chalks we tested had their pros and cons, but didn’t make enough of a mark to earn any accolades.
This was the most powdery chalk we tested, which means a unique application experience. “It’s basically like sticking my hand into a cloud,” said one tester.
The Competition Chalk is so light that it’s almost hard to tell what you’re grabbing, but it does coat the hand quickly and effectively.
It’s also reasonably secure and comfortable to use. It’s just not exceptional at anything, and its extremely fine grain means that it’s a bit of an acquired taste.
Our trusty chalk-unpacker reported that this chalk was a little hard to get moving out of its container, although once the seal is broken the issue goes away.
Once we were used to the application, no testers really minded this chalk, but it wasn’t a favorite either.
Along with the Black Diamond White Gold, this chalk was the driest of the bunch. It seems to suck every last bit of moisture from deep under your skin, for better or for worse.
The Petzl’s downfall was its extreme chunkiness, which made it more awkward to apply. I have a friend who uses this chalk, but before putting it in his bag he grinds it under a pizza roller.
If you’re willing to put in the extra work, this chalk is an effective de-moisturizer (see the Black Diamond section above for whether that’s a good thing) and could be a good option for climbers with extra sweaty hands.
Despite Metolius’ claims that this is “America’s #1 Climbing Chalk,” the Super Chalk was a unanimous last among our testers.
It’s easier to apply than the Black Diamond or the Petzl, but it’s not as secure as either one.
“I don’t think it’s staying on that well,” said one tester. “It feels like regular-ass chalk,” said another.
That pretty much summed up our feelings on the Super Chalk — it’s an okay chalk with decent texture, but it doesn’t do anything particularly well.
The one thing that Metolius Super Chalk has going for it is price, which is the cheapest of any chalk we tested, although not by a huge margin. In our opinion, the savings aren’t worth the sacrifices.
How to Choose the Right Climbing Chalk for Your Needs
All of these chalks will do what they’re supposed to do. Climbers send all kinds of crazy climbs with every single one of these products, and they’ll all help keep you from greasing off those pesky slopers. The differences tend to lie in which chalks excel where, and in personal preference. Here’s how to navigate.
What Does Your Body Need?
Some climbers have very sweaty hands, and need an all-out war on moisture. Others need a chalk that will coat well and have them feeling confident when they head away from the final rest. All of the chalks we tested combine specific elements of performance and usability, and you’ll have to experiment with what works for you.
Some climbers might need a coat of liquid chalk underneath. Others might be fine only using tiny bits at a time. Chalk is cheap enough that you can experiment a little, so don’t be afraid to try different varieties.
Performance aside, some climbers just prefer grabbing chalk of one texture or another. Some brands, like FrictionLabs, make multiple variations to match different textures. Others provide only a single option, which may narrow your choices.
If you like a powdery chalk, check out the Unicorn Dust, Gunpowder, Primo, or Bison chalks (or just grind up your chalk of choice). If you prefer a chunkier experience, stick to the Black Diamond or the Petzl or get a chunkier FL blend.
The top performer in our test comes at a heavy premium. In the mid-range, you have several strong contenders, with the Trango Gunpowder taking home Best Value honors. If you want the absolute cheapest variety, look for Metolius Super Chalk, although we think there are better options.
A Brief Note on Climbing Outdoors
The environment of an outdoor crag is drastically different from the gym, and can vary greatly by area and climate. In general, I find that my hands stay slightly drier outdoors due to less frequent exertion and (usually) lower temperatures. On the other hand, friction can be a little harder to come by on polished, chalk-covered holds. When I’m outside, I reach for chalks that keep me feeling coated and secure for as long as possible.
Outdoors, the extra-dry chalks (BD and Petzl) were still far too dry and uncomfortable for me, and the lack of a reliable coating made me even less likely to use them. Other chalks performed largely as expected — the Metolius was weak, and the Friction Labs was still our favorite.
Finely powdered chalks (Bison, Primo, Trango) felt slightly more finicky outdoors, and outdoor regulars seemed to agree. I do find that when chalking up at a rest mid-route, I like to have a little tactile feedback. The small chunks of the Unicorn Dust are a good texture for this. Alternatively (especially if temps are cold), throw a hand warmer in your chalk bag to give you something to squeeze.
How We Tested
For the purposes of consistency and availability, we confined our test to widely available loose chalks. As mentioned above, we did all of our testing completely blind, without knowing which chalk was which. To put them to the test, our group of testers took them to the gym and gave each individual chalk a long trial, involving everything from projecting to endurance training.
To see if we could back up our opinions with hard facts, I turned up the heat, got a little sweaty, and headed to our basement to hangboard. I coated up with each chalk and hung on a sloper, recording how much time I could log before starting to slip. Then I did a timed hang from a single hold, recording how much chalk was left on my hand with a high-res photo.
Despite my best efforts, it’s hard to be scientific with chalk without an actual lab. I regulated and standardized everything I could, but some things are beyond control — perspiration and humidity, for example. I factored the test results (and my experiences while testing) into the chalk ratings, but I wasn’t able to get any definitive results.
We were confined to the gym for the initial portion of our testing, but our testers were curious whether the results would be the same out on real rock. Stay tuned for an addition after we’ve had a chance to find out for sure.
The categories on which we rated were:
How easy is the chalk to apply? How much do I need to worry about it? How confident do I feel about it, once it’s on?
How much does the chalk assist my friction? How easy is it to sweat through? How long does it last? This category was the most heavily weighted in overall scoring.
How much does the chalk help or hurt my skin? How comfortable and content am I while using it? How willing do I feel to crank down with it on?
Special thanks to our other testers, Colin and Alessandra, and our blind test administrator, Cody.