Maybe you saw it in the Olympics. Maybe you watched Free Solo or The Alpinist. Maybe your friend won’t shut up about it (hint: they probably want a belay partner). Maybe you want some exercise, or just a good thrill.
There are many good reasons to give climbing a try. Personally, I’m a fan of the simplest one: it’s fun!
Fun though it is, the world of climbing can be perplexing and intimidating. To simplify your journey, we’ve created this guide on how to start rock climbing. It’s intended to provide the lay of the land so that you know what to expect and what to watch out for.
This page is meant to be a resource, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most climbers are very friendly, and almost all of them love to talk about climbing. All climbers remember (with joy) what it was like to learn the sport. Make some friends — it’s part of the fun.
What You Need
- Willingness to try new things
- Climbing shoes (optional)
- Chalk bag (optional)
- Chalk (optional)
- Climbing harness (optional)
1. Learn the Terrain
Before we dive in, it’s important to understand that “climbing” is an umbrella term encompassing several disciplines.
Before it was an organized sport, climbing was a skill required for mountaineering. The exact origins are murky and extend back into antiquity, but somewhere around the end of the 19th century, climbing began to emerge as a pursuit in its own right.
At first, “climbing” was referred to using pitons, pins, and other equipment to scale cliffs. Today, we refer to this style as trad climbing or aid climbing.
As technology and skills advanced, the sport subdivided further. Midway through the 19th century, climbers began developing problems on boulders short enough to be protected by padding instead of the usual ropes.
The sticky soles now used on climbing shoes didn’t gain traction (so to speak) until the 1970s, and the first climbing gym wasn’t built until 1987. Since then, climbing has enjoyed a rapid trajectory of growth, culminating in its inclusion in the 2020 Olympics.
Modern climbing gyms still divide their walls into “bouldering” walls and “roped” walls. Bouldering walls are 15 feet or shorter. To climb on these walls, all you need is a pair of climbing shoes.
Roped walls are taller — anywhere from 15 feet to the current indoor record holder at 138 feet. Most roped walls will have dedicated ropes pre-hung from anchors at the top of the wall. Climbing these routes is called “top roping.” To top rope, you’ll need a climbing harness as well as knowledge of how to tie a figure-eight knot and belay safely.
Some gyms have machines called “auto-belays” that allow climbers to ascend roped walls without a belayer. Some also have sections of wall without pre-hung ropes — those are for “lead climbing,” which we’ll cover later.
Many gyms will include both bouldering walls and roped walls. In large cities or areas where space is at a premium, gyms may only have bouldering walls.
To start, first simply go to a climbing gym near you. Gym staff will happily explain the walls at your local facility. Before you go, make sure to wear clothes you feel comfortable moving in. When you arrive, you’ll need to…
2. Take Care of the Details
The first thing most gyms will ask you to do is sign a waiver. As you might imagine, liability insurance for a climbing gym is complicated. The waiver absolves the gym of any responsibility for injuries you might sustain while climbing. In return, the gym promises that their equipment is safe and well maintained.
Don’t let the waiver freak you out — it’s mostly a legal precaution, and gym climbing accidents are rare.
Once you’ve filled out a waiver, staff will check you in at the front desk. In most cases, you’ll pay for a “day pass,” which is usually priced in the $15-$30 range. If you’re climbing with a member, many gyms offer “guest passes” that waive the fee.
Once you’re checked in and paid up, you’ll need to sort out your equipment. Every gym offers rental climbing shoes (and harnesses, if applicable) for climbers who don’t have their own equipment. Rates are generally around $5 for a rental bundle. Most gyms also offer chalk rentals (usually $1). While not strictly mandatory, chalk helps alleviate sweaty palms and fingers, which can make climbing a slippery experience.
Gym staff will often provide a tour of the facilities. Staff are a great source of information and recommendations — feel free to ask them questions. Some gyms may also require that you complete a quick safety briefing.
Once that’s done, you’re all set to…
3. Hop on the Wall
When you look at a gym climbing wall, you’ll see a mess of climbing holds of all different shapes, sizes, and colors. While you’re free to climb using whichever holds you want, the holds are organized into specific “routes” (for roped climbing) or “problems” (for bouldering).
Most gyms delineate routes by hold color. If you want to try a route, use only holds of the same color. Some gyms use colored tape to mark their routes, but this has grown less common as hold options and colors have proliferated.
Each route will have one or two “starting holds” somewhere between knee and head height. These holds are where your hands start. Again, you’re free to climb with whatever holds you choose. Routes, grades, and starting holds are all ways to add a fun challenge.
Routes and problems are sorted by difficulty. The starting hold(s) will usually bear a tag displaying the grade. While some gyms use proprietary grading systems (their staff will explain if so), many use the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) for roped routes and the Hueco scale (or V-scale) for boulders.
The YDS extends from 5.0 to 5.15d. At most gyms, beginner routes are around 5.5-5.8. Routes graded 5.10a or higher will generally be tough for beginners.
The V-scale runs from V0 to V17. Problems graded V0-V2 are considered beginner-friendly. For more on the history and details of climbing grades, check out our guides to route grades and bouldering grades.
Make sure to avoid climbing above or below another climber. Check where your route or problem goes beforehand — some may progress diagonally or sideways, putting you in the path of another climber. When bouldering, wait for the wall and surrounding pads to be completely clear before starting to climb. Climbers are generally very courteous about giving everyone a chance on the wall. Make sure you do the same!
As long as you’re being safe and respectful, don’t be afraid to hop on the wall and play. Try routes and problems that look easy. Try some that look hard. See what it feels like to get off the ground. Take a fall or two.
When you find a climb that feels impossible…
4. Don’t Get Discouraged
I’m going to repeat this again, because it’s one of the most important steps.
Don’t. Get. Discouraged.
Climbing is hard for everyone at first. It relies on small and highly specific muscle groups, like your forearms. Unless you make a habit of hanging from your fingertips in everyday life, your hands and arms will be unaccustomed to the demands of rock climbing.
What’s more, climbing is highly dependent on technique to conserve energy on the wall. While you’re at the gym, watch some experienced climbers. Watch how they move their feet and hands. Note when they move quickly and when they move slowly.
Learning to climb is like starting a fitness regimen, learning to dance, and picking up a new language all at the same time. No one nails everything on their first try.
Climbing technique will come with time and practice, but here are a few tips to get you started.
Keep your hips close to the wall. The muscles in your legs are much larger and stronger than the ones in your arms. The more weight you can get on your feet, the less energy you’ll need to stay on the wall.
Lengthen your arms. Ever watched a monkey swing around the trees? They keep their arms extended and rarely bend at the elbow. Holding your weight on bent arms requires lots of effort from the biceps. This is one of the most common mistakes beginners make. Whenever possible, try to keep your arms straight to allow your bones to carry the strain.
Move deliberately. Climbing relies on finesse at least as much as strength. If you miss a foothold, you’ll have to set your foot a second time, burning valuable time and energy. Again, watch experienced climbers — more often than not, they’re placing each hand and foot with care. Some moves will require explosive movement, but smoothness and finesse always help.
For more, head over to our beginner’s guide to climbing technique.
5. Become a Regular
In the first gym session or two, your forearms will probably be your limiting factor. After a few climbs, holding on will get difficult. If you push hard, your forearms may be sore the next day.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that forearms get stronger in a hurry. As your body adapts, working on technique grows easier as well. If you keep climbing, you’ll find yourself reaching new heights sooner than you might think. Routes and problems that felt impossible at the beginning will one day become routine.
Muscles are quick to adapt, but tendons are slow. Small holds may remain difficult to use for a while. Don’t let this get you down — your fingers will catch up.
If you intend to make climbing a regular part of your life, it’s worth investing in the experience. If you attend the gym more than a few times per month, a membership will save you money over the long run. The same goes for shoes, chalk, a chalk bag, and a harness. Investing in your gear gives you a chance to find the equipment that works for you, and you get to skip the rental line.
Later on, you might find yourself wanting a climbing brush, climbing tape, climbing salve, belay glasses, or a gym rope. Generic athletic clothing works fine, but you can always pick up some climbing-specific clothing. If you’d like to train at home, a hangboard is the best way to do it.
Don’t stress about gear at the beginning. Purchase items as it feels appropriate, and don’t worry if you don’t have the fanciest shoes or the newest gadgets. When I learned to climb, I went to a consignment store and picked up some weathered neon-pink Boreals that were well over a decade old. In addition to earning me some compliments from the old hands at the gym, they saw me through the learning process just fine.
Don’t be afraid to socialize and make friends, but don’t feel pressured either. Climbing is enjoyable on your own or in a group. Some climbers love to cheer each other on, while others prefer to get in their own zone. It’s all good.
And if climbing isn’t your cup of tea, that’s okay! You may find that you prefer other forms of exercise, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
6. Learn the Ropes
As you advance through the grades, you’ll find yourself picking up new skills on and off the wall. Boulderers will learn how to spot fellow climbers for safe falls. Roped climbers will learn the climbing knots and skills necessary to belay.
The next step is learning to lead climb. Unlike top rope climbs, lead climbs do not have a rope pre-hung. Instead, the climber clips a rope to the wall as they progress.
The knowledge and skills involved in belaying and lead climbing are beyond the scope of this guide. Most gyms offer courses for top rope belaying, lead climbing, and lead belaying. Again, feel free to ask gym staff or fellow climbers for advice. The community is an excellent resource.
As you learn the skills, you’ll learn the lingo. Climbers have invented a veritable dictionary of jargon to describe the endless variety of holds, routes, techniques, and gear. To the uninitiated, a conversation between climbers can sound like a foreign language. If you’re ever unsure what a term means, just ask! You can find lists of common lingo in our guides to bouldering and sport climbing.
Make sure that etiquette is among the skills you pick up. Gyms may post their rules on the wall, but climbing has its own set of unwritten rules that you’ll learn as you go. Here are a few:
- Don’t offer advice unless it’s requested. Many climbers prefer to puzzle through a route on their own — don’t deny them that chance!
- Take turns. Respect the rotation of climbers and give everyone a chance on the wall. Don’t monopolize routes or problems.
- Contain your belongings. Don’t leave your phone, chalk bag, backpack, and shoes sprawled along the pads. Tuck your things away in cubbies or lockers.
- Contain yourself, too. It’s fine to let out some noise if you’re pushing your limits, but in general, respect your fellow climbers and keep the decibels down. Avoid loud swearing — kids climb too!
7. Transition to the Outdoors (optional)
While some climbers do begin their climbing journey outdoors, this is best done with an experienced climber (preferably a certified guide). The gym is a more approachable playground for learning the basics.
When you’re ready to make the jump, the rocks will always be waiting. Climbing outside adds an entirely new dimension to the experience.
A few things you can expect:
- Stellar views. Seeing the world from high on a cliff provides a fresh — and often beautiful — perspective.
- No color-coding! Outside, you have to find the holds and sequences all on your own. Be prepared to climb more slowly.
- Classic routes. You can experience the history of climbing firsthand. Want to see where Royal Robbins pounded pitons? Head to Yosemite. At almost any major climbing area, you’ll be using the same hand- and footholds as the legends of the sport. You’ll find some amazing climbs along the way.
- A variety of styles. Beyond the gym, the subgenres of climbing splinter even further. There’s sport climbing, trad climbing, alpine climbing, ice climbing…even bouldering encompasses a variety of heights and styles.
- Harder grades. Grades vary from gym to gym, but generally indoor grades will feel easier than grades in the wild. Don’t expect to match your gym best on your first day outside.
- A good thrill. No matter how prepared you are, climbing on real rock is an intense experience. Be safe, and enjoy expanding your limits.
Remember that when you climb outside, your safety is entirely your responsibility. There’s no one inspecting your rope but you, and your climbing partners are the only ones around to double check your knots and clips.
With proper care and vigilance, however, climbing outside is very safe. Every well-prepared climber can and should…
8. Live Long and Prosper
Along the climbing journey, it’s easy to get caught up in the details. Chasing grades, chasing thrills, chasing the next challenge. That’s all well and good, but don’t lose the forest for the trees.
Take your safety very seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Unless you’re Adam Ondra, there will always be someone climbing harder than you. Unless you’re Alex Honnold, there will always be someone doing crazier things than you.
Find your sweet spot and enjoy it. If that’s remote alpine big walls, that’s great. If it’s bouldering in the gym, that’s great too.
One of my favorite climbing sayings is: “There’s no cheating, there’s only lying.” As long as it’s done with respect and courtesy, there’s no wrong way to climb. This is not a sport with referees or rulebooks. Climbing as a sport is about challenge, self-discovery, and adventure. The most important part of all those things? Being honest with yourself.
So enjoy the process. Be safe. Have fun. Climb on!
Best Climbing Gear for Beginners
Need gear? Check out our guide to climbing gear for beginners.
Also, as you pick up gear along your climbing journey, these lists might be useful: