Beginner’s Guide to Indoor Climbing: How to Get Started

In case you haven’t noticed, climbing is all the rage these days. Climbing gyms are popping up everywhere, and people are flocking in.

Maybe a gym opened up near you, or maybe you have a friend who won’t stop talking about things like “crimps” and “slopers.”

If you’re curious, intrigued, or uncertain about whether climbing is for you, this article will help you learn the (literal) ropes.

A modern climbing gym.

A modern climbing gym.

What Is Indoor Climbing?

As you might expect, indoor climbing (aka gym climbing) was born from climbing outdoors. Climbers wanted a way to train climbing-specific movements even during wet or wintry seasons. In the mid- to late 1900s, climbing gyms began as simple wooden contraptions in basements and garages.

These days, many climbing gyms resemble Olympic training centers more than sheds. Indoor competition climbing has evolved into its own sport with its own World Cup circuit.

But at heart, all indoor climbing is the same: scaling manufactured walls using man-made features and holds, usually made of plastic. The general goal is to climb to the top of the wall without falling off (although falling is fine, too — you’ll be caught by ropes or pads).

A sidepull climbing hold

Indoor climbing involves using man-made features and holds, usually made of plastic, to scale manufactured walls.

Gym staff called “routesetters” arrange holds in unique ways to challenge and puzzle climbers. Climbing routes are color-coded, either by the color of the holds or using colored tape. To climb a route, you use only the holds belonging to that color.

This isn’t mandatory. It’s always fine to climb “rainbow” style, using whatever holds you like. Color-coded routes just allow climber to take on an extra dimension of challenge.

Under the umbrella of gym climbing are a few different genres:

Types of Indoor Climbing

Bouldering

Bouldering indoors over thick mats.

Bouldering indoors over thick mats.

Bouldering (named for the boulders on which it originated) is climbing that stays relatively close to the ground.

Indoor bouldering walls range from around 8-15 feet tall. Bouldering takes place over thick padding that cushions the impact of a fall.

Bouldering routes are often referred to as “problems.” Because the walls are lower, bouldering problems tend to be shorter than routes on walls that require ropes.

(For a visual illustration, in the following clip a climber climbs a simple boulder problem. Notice how he only uses the green holds.)

Low walls don’t mean bouldering is easy, though. Boulder problems often focus on short sequences of powerful moves, making them a great place to learn and practice your climbing technique close to the mats.

Some gyms may only have bouldering walls, without any taller roped walls. This is more common in cities where spacious buildings are harder to come by.

If you’d like to learn more about bouldering, check out our beginner’s guide to bouldering.

Toproping

Toproping in a climbing gym.

Toproping in a climbing gym.

Toprope walls are tall enough that mats alone won’t do the trick. Instead, climbers are protected by ropes that keep them from falling off the wall. The rope starts wrapped around a beam at the top of the climb with both ends dangling down to the ground.

In most cases, toproping requires a partner. The climber ties one end of the rope to a climbing harness around their waist, and their partner secures the other end to their own harness to form a belay.

As the climber moves up the wall, they create some slack in the rope. To make sure the rope will still catch the climber, the belayer takes out slack from their end while keeping the rope secure to their harness. They do this with a belay device, a small piece of hardware that lets the rope pull through but not slip back out.

With this system in place, the rope can move up the wall with the climber, catching them in case of a fall. Toprope falls usually aren’t more than a few inches — just enough to sit back into your harness. When the climber is ready to come down, the belayer uses the belay device to gently lower the climber back to the ground.

Some gyms have machines called “auto belays,” which are exactly what they sound like. Auto belays act as an automated belayer, moving rope or webbing up the wall with you as you climb.

Although walls vary widely in height, toprope routes are generally longer than boulder problems.

Lead Climbing

 

 
 
 
 
 
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If you’ve been inside a larger climbing gym, you may have seen a stretch of tall wall without any ropes hung at the top. These walls are dedicated to lead climbing.

Unlike toproping, in lead climbing the rope starts at the bottom of the climb. The climber and belayer tie in as usual, but the climber must clip the rope to regularly spaced points on the wall as they climb.

At each of these points is a carabiner on a length of webbing or cable, called a quickdraw. If the climber falls, the last quickdraw they clipped will protect them from hitting the ground.

Lead climbing takes some extra training for both climber and belayer. Although not necessarily riskier than other forms of climbing, lead climbing places more responsibility in the hands of the climbers. In a gym, it’s usually easiest to start with toproping then learn to lead climb once you’re comfortable on the wall.

Is Indoor Climbing Safe?

That brings us to the biggest question about indoor climbing: is it safe? Despite climbing’s reputation as an extreme sport, the answer is: yes.

Accidents do happen, and (like many sports) climbing can cause injuries from overuse or strain.

But generally speaking, indoor climbing is actually safer than many other sports. Indoor climbing gyms are designed to eliminate variables and ensure that safety systems are in place.

There’s no rockfall or bad weather like there is outdoors, and all important components like ropes, pads, and auto belays are regularly inspected. The last thing any gym wants is to have an accident.

For toproping and lead climbing, every climber must pass a belay test in order to belay any other climber. Gym staff ensure that no unsafe belay practices are being used.

All that said, risk is ultimately in the hands of the climber. It’s up to each climber to make sure that they’re comfortable with the systems and feel safe on the wall. As long as that’s true, risk in indoor climbing can be kept to a minimum.

If you have questions about the safety of any aspect of gym climbing, ask a staff member. They’ll help you learn and understand everything you need to stay safe in the gym.

And if rock climbing’s extreme reputation is what has you on the fence, put your mind at ease. Part of what makes climbing fun is facing down fear — but not because climbing is dangerous. Climbing a wall is a rush, but it can be just as safe as any other sport (if not more so).

Is Indoor Climbing a Good Workout?

Yes. But it’s probably not like workouts you’re used to.

Climbing uses many different parts of the body. Most upward movement comes from pushing with your legs. The upper body and arms are used in a variety of ways to pull, push, and balance your way up the wall. That means full-body involvement, though the back, biceps, and core are used heavily.

Climbing also requires some very specific muscle groups — namely your forearms and fingers. The bigger muscle groups handle what they can, but your hands will eventually get involved to keep you on the wall.

This is the biggest reason why climbing feels hard at the beginning. Most people’s forearms aren’t accustomed to the kind of sustained effort that climbing asks. After a first day at the climbing gym, forearm soreness may be quick to follow.

The good news is that these muscles adapt quickly. After just a few times climbing, the forearms will start to adapt for longer climbs and sessions. Many beginners are surprised by how much they can improve in just the first few months of climbing. It’s part of what makes it so rewarding.

What’s more, climbing routes are set to encourage a wide variety of movement. Flexibility, body awareness, and balance are often more important than raw strength.

This makes climbing an accessible sport for different genders, body types, and ages. You do not need to be a brawny bodybuilder to climb — or even to be one of the best climbers in the world.

A Word on Difficulty

Route grades using the Yosemite Decimal System.

Route grades are usually visible near the starting holds.

In most gyms, climbing routes are assigned grades to loosely denote how difficult they are.

The emphasis here is on “loosely.” Climbing grades are subjective, and how difficult a climb feels will vary greatly from person to person.

Here in the USA, roped climbs are graded on the Yosemite Decimal System (which runs from 5.0 to 5.15) and boulders on the V-grade system (V0-V17).

If you’re curious about grades, you can read more about climbing grades and bouldering grades.

Gym grades are even more variable than grades outdoors. Gym grades are suggested by routesetters but often decided in part by the community. Different gyms have different conventions, and while most gyms work to stay internally consistent, grades rarely feel the same from one gym to the next.

In general, don’t get too caught up in the numbers. Grades can be a handy way to assess climbs, but they don’t define you or your climbing.

What Climbing Gear Do I Need?

To start? Just yourself and a good attitude.

You will need a little bit of gear to get on the wall, but gyms have equipment to rent. When you’re starting out, renting makes more sense than investing in your own gear. When you’re climbing consistently, you can decide what gear makes sense for you.

Here’s what you’ll use:

Climbing Shoes

A typical pair of climbing shoes.

A typical pair of climbing shoes.

Climbing often requires stepping on small footholds. Street shoes and sneakers aren’t great at this.

Instead, climbers use specialized climbing shoes. These are like tight slippers with a sticky rubber sole. The close fit lets you use your toes to push down on footholds, and the rubber gives you traction to stay on the wall.

Climbing gyms provide rental shoes for a small fee. They won’t be the nicest pair of climbing shoes on the market, but they’re fine as a starter (and much better than sneakers).

You can wear socks under climbing shoes if you want, but you don’t have to. Many climbers prefer the extra precision of climbing without socks.

Climbing shoes should fit tight but shouldn’t be uncomfortable or painful. Gym staff will help you find a shoe size that works for you.

When you’re ready to move beyond rentals, there are plenty of effective and budget-friendly beginner climbing shoes.

Climbing Chalk & Chalk Bag

A basic chalk bag with climbing chalk inside

A basic chalk bag with climbing chalk inside.

Sweaty hands are one of a climber’s biggest enemies. It’s natural to sweat when you’re working hard, but sweaty fingers will make you grease off the wall in a hurry.

To combat sweat, climbers use climbing chalk. Just like gymnasts, climbers put chalk on their hands to stay dry and grippy while they’re on the wall.

Chalk is usually carried around in small drawstring chalk bags. Again, a climbing gym will provide a chalk bag (and accompanying chalk) for a few dollars. Chalk bags will have a strap or hook to secure around your waist so that you can access the chalk while you’re on the wall.

If you’re only planning on bouldering, climbing shoes and a chalk bag are all you need to climb. Just put on your shoes, chalk up your hands, and hop on the wall.

Climbing Harness

If you’re planning on climbing taller walls, you’ll need a climbing harness. Your harness is where you’ll tie the rope (or clip the auto belay) to make sure you don’t fall too far.

Harnesses look complicated, but they boil down to a waistbelt and two leg loops connected by webbing.

Any gyms with toprope walls will have harnesses to rent, but the design may vary. Some harnesses will require you to tie in through two loops, while others have just one. Most rental harnesses will fit a wide range of waist sizes, but gym staff will be happy to help you find the right size and understand how to use it.

When you’re ready to buy a harness of your own, it’s worth getting one you enjoy hanging out in.

Tying into a climbing harness with a figure eight knot.

Tying in with a figure eight knot.

Speaking of tying in, your knot is one of the most important components of the safety system. Most gyms have short classes to teach new climbers how to tie the correct knot and belay. If you and your partner are new to climbing, this is a good way to get on the wall. If you’re climbing with a more experienced friend, many gyms will let them tie your knots for you.

If your gym has auto belays, you don’t need a partner to start climbing. With a harness, chalk, chalk bag, and shoes, you can clip into an auto belay and get climbing.

Belay Device

A Black Diamond ATC-XP belay device next to a Petzl Grigri 2 belay device

Two popular belay devices you’ll see at the climbing gym: the Black Diamond ATC-XP (left), and the Petzl Grigri 2 (right). The ATC-XP is our favorite belay device for beginner climbers.

If you’re climbing on ropes with a partner, they’ll probably want to climb too. For that to happen, you’ll need to learn to belay as well.

Again, a quick gym class is a good way to learn this skill. You’ll need to pass a staff-administered belay test in order to be certified to belay at the gym. These tests aren’t intimidating — they’re to make sure you have the necessary skills to keep yourself and your partner safe.

In order to belay, you’ll need a belay device. All gyms with roped climbs will provide belay devices of some kind. Most gyms have devices to rent, but some gyms leave dedicated devices on every rope station. If you’re unclear about your gym’s policies, check in with staff to find out the best way to get started.

If you want to buy your own device, check out our guide to the best belay devices.

What Do I Wear Indoor Climbing?

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Whatever you want, as long as you can move freely.

Climbing requires a wide range of motion for both arms and your legs, so wear clothing that can move or stretch along with you.

You may also be working up a sweat. Climbing gyms are usually well ventilated, but it’s worth wearing clothes you can sweat in. Clothes you’d wear for other athletic activities will work just as well in the climbing gym.

Can I Bring Kids to the Climbing Gym?

Climbing with the family.

Climbing gyms are very family friendly.

Absolutely. Kids are natural climbers, and most climbing gyms are designed to be kid-friendly.

Many gyms have a dedicated area for kids to climb. Most gyms can host events like birthday parties and will provide gear, space, and belayers.

But even if you’re just looking for a fun activity with the kids, climbing gyms are a good option. Kids naturally have a great strength-to-weight ratio, they’re highly adaptable, and they often love to climb. Many children are more comfortable on the wall than their parents.

Supervision is wise, and it’s always good to check in with your gym about their policies and recommendations. But if you’re considering a trip to the gym, don’t let the kids hold you back — bring them along.

Indoor Climbing Tips & Techniques

Climbing gyms aren’t quite like regular gyms, and climbing certainly isn’t like most sports. Here are a few tips and techniques to make your gym excursions good ones.

Climbing Tips:

  • Whenever possible, keep your arms straight. When you’re hanging on a hold, bent arms require more effort than straight arms. Let your bones hold the tension, not your muscles.
  • Use your legs as much as possible. When a climbing move feels especially hard, it’s often because of foot placement. If you get stuck, try to move your feet up or find a better foothold.
  • Get to know all the (many) different kinds of holds on the wall. Some holds work best if you grab them from the side or even the bottom. Holds might be useful in different ways depending on the angle of the wall.
  • Think ahead. Plan a few moves in advance. Where will your hands go? Where will your feet go? The more you get your brain involved, the more quickly your body will learn the movement.
  • Experiment with different body positions. You might be surprised at what movements work best on a climbing wall. Some moves will feel impossible from one position but get easier with a new approach.
  • Get your hips moving. Rotating one hip or the other sideways toward the wall allows you brace your body against different holds, often unlocking a tricky sequence.
  • Get creative. Feel like bracing your knee on a hold? Want to try jumping for the next hold? Go for it. There are no hard-and-fast rules on climbing.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re having trouble with a move, other climbers may have “beta” — insight into the best way to get through the sequence.

For even more tips, check out our article on beginner climbing tips.

General Tips:

  • Know the rules. Gyms have their own regulations about proper behavior in the gym and on the wall. Stick to them — they’re usually in place to keep you safe.
  • Share the wall. Especially during peak hours, you’ll be climbing near many other climbers. Keep an eye out to make sure that the route you’re on doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s climbing. When you’re bouldering, take turns with other climbers and make sure you don’t walk below anyone on the wall.
  • Be considerate. Don’t ruin anyone else’s climb with noise or risky behavior. That also goes for your children or pets (if your gym is pet-friendly).
  • If you’re uncertain, ask. In case you haven’t noticed by now, climbers love to talk about climbing. Most gym staff will be happy to answer any questions you have about almost anything climbing-related.
  • Know your limits. You don’t need to start by jumping on the highest wall or the hardest moves. Climbing is meant to be enjoyable. Get comfortable moving on the wall, and enjoy the process.
  • …but don’t be afraid to push those limits. Part of what makes climbing so rewarding is pushing past your own doubts and fears. When you’re ready, don’t be afraid to try new routes and push yourself.

What If I Want to Climb Outside?

Sport climbing at the New River Gorge.

Sport climbing at the New River Gorge.

Indoor climbing isn’t just a good way to learn about the sport. It’s a satisfying practice in itself, and it’s all many climbers will ever need.

But some may get the itch to try their hands where the sport began: out on real rock.

Climbing outdoors is entirely different from climbing in a gym. There’s no tape or color coding to help you decipher a climb. Holds and climbing styles vary widely by rock type. The environment is less predictable, and you may have to hike your way in. You’ll have to bring climbing ropes or crash pads along with you.

But climbing outdoors can be a uniquely beautiful experience. It can be social or solitary, challenging or mild, remote or accessible.

When you’re ready to make the leap outdoors, take the time to make sure you’re comfortable and safe. It pays to learn from an experienced friend or a guide. You can read more about outdoor climbing in our articles about sport climbing and trad climbing.