Sport Climbing 101: The Complete Beginner’s Guide
Once you’ve dipped your toes into the world of climbing, you’re likely to want more. One of the first steps on the journey from gym-bound trainee to outdoor veteran is learning to sport climb.
If you’re ready to get on real cliffs, sport climbing is the logical step. It allows you to climb outdoors, learn the basics of lead climbing, and manage risk with relative ease.
This is a beginner’s guide to sport climbing. From gear basics to crag etiquette, we’ve got you covered.
What Is Sport Climbing?
Strictly defined, sport climbing is a form of rock climbing where the climber is protected by permanent gear. This usually means bolts drilled into the rock, although you may encounter a piton or two.
Lead Climbing vs. Toproping
Sport climbing is a form of lead climbing. That means that the climbing rope starts at the bottom, and the (lead) climber clips in as they climb.
This distinguishes sport climbing from toproping, in which the rope is already hung at the top of the wall or cliff. Toproping may still be part of a day at the sport crag, especially when cleaning routes.
While we’re here: lead climbing and toproping are both forms of free climbing, which means that the climber pulls on the natural features of the wall to ascend.
This is by contrast to aid climbing, in which the climber pulls and stands on the gear itself.
No matter how many media outlets mix the two up, free climbing is not the same as free soloing.
Sport Climbing vs. Trad Climbing
The other genre of lead climbing is trad climbing—short for traditional climbing.
Where sport climbing uses permanent gear, trad climbing gear is removable. When trad climbing, the leader places their own gear (consisting mainly of nuts and camming devices) on the way up.
Trad gear relies on cracks and features in the rock to protect falls. As a result, trad climbing routes are limited to walls with these features.
The added variable of placing gear opens up a world of nuance and variability—stay tuned for our beginner’s guide to trad climbing.
Sport Climbing vs. Bouldering
While both sport climbing and bouldering focus on pushing physical limits, bouldering eschews ropes entirely. Boulderers stick closer to the ground, climbing above crash pads instead of clipping bolts.
Bouldering problems tend to be shorter than sport routes. As a result, bouldering often requires more power while sport climbing focuses more on endurance.
That said, the line between boulder problem and sport route is blurry. Many sport climbing routes are all about power, and many boulder problems need serious stamina. The only real difference is how the climb is protected.
For more on bouldering, check out our beginner’s guide to bouldering.
A Brief History of Sport Climbing
It’s useful to know where sport climbing fits relative to other climbing disciplines, so here’s a brief chronology:
For most of climbing’s recorded history, trad and aid climbing were the norm. Bolts used for climbing didn’t appear until the 1920s, and power drills weren’t used until the second half of the century.
In the USA, sport climbing took hold in the early 1980s, thanks in large part to Alan Watts and the climbers of Smith Rock. Bolts opened up previously unprotectable stretches of blank rock, and the practice quickly became popular.
Climbing gyms were quick to follow, first opening in the late 80s. The 90s saw an explosion of both gyms and sport climbing, but it wasn’t until recently that indoor competition climbing began to separate into its own sport.
That brings us to today, when indoor lead climbing—along with bouldering and speed climbing—will be an Olympic event in 2020. Outdoor sport climbing remains at the forefront of the climbing world as more climbers push the limits.
What to Know Before Your First Time Sport Climbing
The most important thing to have before you head out to the crag is preparation.
If you’re coming from the world of gym climbing, sport climbing requires new skills. At minimum, sport climbers should be comfortable:
- Lead climbing
- Lead belaying
- Hanging quickdraws
- Cleaning anchors
The good news is that there’s no shortage of places to learn. Many gyms offer lead climbing courses, and many have classes on outdoor safety and anchor cleaning.
Alternatively, partner up with a more experienced friend. As long as you trust your mentor, learning one-on-one is often the best way. Every climber learned from another climber, and the threads of community run deep. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask others for help.
Where to Sport Climb Indoors & Outdoors
If you’re starting in the gym, this is an easy question. Look up your nearby climbing gyms, find out which have lead climbing walls, and you’re off to the races.
If you want to climb outside, the question isn’t so simple.
The first step is finding nearby sport climbing areas. Again, locals are the best source of knowledge—asking around at your local gym is a good way to get the lay of the land.
Local gear and climbing shops will usually have guidebooks on hand. They’ll not only let you peruse them but fill you in on the best spots.
Mountain Project’s area map and route finder are also useful tools. Although Mountain Project isn’t exhaustive, it’s an excellent resource. Between these two tools, you can sort by area, difficulty, and type. Mountain Project pages will usually tell you how to get to the crags and warn about any access issues.
The best way to learn an area is to climb with someone who knows it. Especially if you’re new to climbing outdoors, going with an experienced friend makes a world of difference.
The Climbing Gear You Need to Get Started Sport Climbing
If you’re sport climbing indoors, climbing gyms will have most of the gear you need available for rent. Renting is a great option for first-timers.
Once you decide to start climbing consistently, it pays to buy your own gear. Check out our article on climbing gear for beginners to see what gear you need now and what can wait.
Sport climbing outdoors requires a lot more gear. Here’s what you’ll need for a day out sport climbing:
Expect to pay: $200-300
Your rope is the central component of most safety systems. Sport climbers tend to favor skinnier ropes than trad climbers for lightness and handling, but durability is still a primary concern. If you’re just diving in, a diameter of 9.5-9.8 mm is a good balance of handling and durability.
Dry treatment and other coatings can help keep dirt away, but they’re generally not critical for sport climbing. Instead, focus on getting a rope that handles well and can take some abuse.
For our recommendations, check out our guide to the best climbing ropes.
Expect to pay: $100-200 for a complete set (8-12)
Along with the rope, quickdraws form the backbone of a sport climbing rack. They connect the bolts to the rope and are often used to build anchors.
The main virtue for sport climbing quickdraws is clipping feel—you want to feel confident about your clips. Sport draws often have a wider dogbone (the part between the carabiners) to help climbers pull back to their high point.
Weight generally isn’t a huge concern for sport draws—they’ll spend most of the time on the bolts.
The market is full of good options. For our recommendations, check out our guide to the best quickdraws.
Belay Device & Locking Carabiner
Expect to pay: $15-25 for a tubular belay device or $40-150 for an assisted-braking belay device; $10-20 for a locking carabiner
For most sport climbing duties, a garden-variety ATC does just fine. ATCs are always good to have on hand for rappels.
That said, the Petzl GriGri 2 is the standard of the sport climbing world. It provides an extra measure of control and safety, and it’s well worth the investment if you’ll be outdoors frequently.
For our reviews and recommendations, check out our guide to the best belay devices. If you’re deciding between an ATC and GriGri, check out our side-by-side comparison of these two belay devices.
A locking carabiner is necessary for attaching your belay device to your harness. Locking it prevents its gate from opening while you’re belaying.
We’ve field tested 12 top locking carabiners. For our recommendations, check out our guide to the best locking carabiners.
Expect to pay: $50-150
If you’ve used ropes in a gym, you likely already have a climbing harness. As long as it has functional gear loops, it will work just as well for outdoor sport climbing.
Sport climbers don’t have to carry as much gear as trad climbers, so many prioritize lightness and mobility in their harnesses. Most all-around climbing harnesses will do just fine for sport climbing. Some comfort is nice, but you won’t have to hang around all day.
For our recommendations, check out our guide to the best climbing harnesses.
Expect to pay: $80-200
If you’re just starting out, most climbing shoes will do fine sport climbing. If they work at the gym, they’ll work on real rock.
When you’re ready for an upgrade, the world of sport climbing shoes is wide and varied. Sport climbing shoes have a balance to strike—they need to be precise enough for difficult moves but comfortable enough to wear for long pitches.
We’ve field tested plenty of climbing shoes. For our beginner recommendations, check out our guide to the best beginner climbing shoes. For our sport climbing recommendations, check out our guide to the best sport climbing shoes.
Expect to pay: $60-100
If you’ll be climbing outside, a helmet is never a bad idea. Helmets aren’t a common sight at some sport crags, especially where the rock quality is good.
All the same, climbing is unpredictable and accidents happen. We rarely hear about anyone who regretted wearing a helmet.
For our recommendations, check out our guide to the best climbing helmets.
Expect to pay: $10-40
Rounding out the personal gear is your chalk bag. It’s job is simple: holding your climbing chalk.
Expect to pay: $2-20
Needless to say, you’ll need climbing chalk to fill your chalk bag with. Many gyms sell chalk, or you can buy it online. Amounts vary from a single brick to gallon buckets.
We conducted a blinded field test of seven top climbing chalk brands. You can see the results in our guide to the best climbing chalk.
Importance: As needed
Expect to pay: Variable
Although many sport climbers simply use quickdraws to build and clean anchors, it’s handy to have a way of clipping yourself in.
Although a PAS is a popular choice, a couple double-length climbing slings are more versatile. Add in a few good locking carabiners and you’re ready to go.
Importance: As needed
Expect to pay: $30-100 for a small- to medium-sized climbing pack; $80-150 for a crag pack
You’ll need something to carry all your sport climbing gear. How much gear you have will determine the pack size best suited to your needs.
Climbing packs are a broad category and contain everything from daypacks to gym bags. Small to medium sizes range from 15-30 liters.
Crag packs are larger and designed to carry lots of gear. They usually fall somewhere in the 35-50 liter range.
Expect to pay: $20-80
Although not strictly necessary, belay glasses will save your neck a great deal of craning. Sport climbing days can involve long sessions ironing out beta, so you may as well get comfortable.
For our recommendations, check out our guide to the best belay glasses.
Expect to pay: $20-40
Another creature comfort, gloves save the skin on belays and rappels. A good pair will provide dexterity, grip, and protection. After all, you need that skin for the rock.
For our recommendations, check out our guide to the best climbing gloves for belaying and rappelling.
Expect to pay: Variable, depending on if you make your own or buy a pre-made option
The riskiest part of a sport climb is often the stretch in between the ground and the first bolt. With a high first bolt or a dicey landing, falls can have serious consequences.
The solution is a stick clip. Essentially a long stick with a quickdraw-holder on the end, stick clips can hang and clip the first draw before you leave the ground.
Stick clips aren’t mandatory, but they provide peace of mind in many areas. Companies like Trango and Superclip sell pre-made stick clips or attachments. But with a little creativity at the hardware store, it’s possible to make your own.
Expect to pay: $30-50
There’s no way around it: ropes get dirty. If you want to prolong the life of your cord, a good way to start is by keeping it out of the dirt as much as possible. Rope bags bundle your rope for carrying and include a fold-out tarp to keep your rope clean while you’re belaying.
For our recommendations, check out our guide to the best rope bags.
Sport Climbing Grades
Route grading systems vary by country, but the two most common originate in the USA and France.
The French system holds sway in Europe. It rises by number (1-9), letter (a-c), and the plus symbol: 6a, 6a+, 6b, 6b+, 6c, 6c+ 7a…
Here in the USA, we use the Yosemite Decimal System. Running from 5.0 to (currently) 5.15d, the YDS gets one more letter than the French system.
Although not perfect, it’s possible to draw a loose equivalency between the two—e.g., a European 7a should be about as difficult as an American 5.11d. You can read more over at our guide to climbing grades.
Even in America, however, grades aren’t always consistent. Grades are usually roughly uniform in one area, but they may vary drastically between different areas. A 5.10 at the New River Gorge may feel wildly different from 5.10s at Rifle or Ten Sleep Canyon.
If you’re coming from the gym, don’t expect outdoor grades to match the grades in the gym. All gyms have different grading conventions, but more to the point, outdoor climbing is a different experience entirely. Outdoor climbing is much less predictable and controlled, which generally (though not always) makes outdoor climbs feel much harder at a given grade.
The takeaway: grades aren’t written in stone, and it’s best not to get too wrapped up in the numbers.
Sport Climbing Terminology
A short and incomplete list of popular climbing terms:
- Approach (n): The walk or hike to the cliff. Much less fun than climbing.
- Beta (n): Information on the best way to execute a sequence or route.
- Burn (n): An attempt on a route, e.g. “Give it a burn.”
- Chains (n): Synonym for anchor, e.g. “It’s not over until you clip the chains.”
- Clean (v, adj): To remove quickdraws from a route once finished, or obstacle-free (e.g., a clean fall).
- Crux (n, v): The hardest sequence on a route, or to struggle on that sequence (e.g., “I’m really cruxing out right now.”).
- “Dirt me” (v): Request to be lowered, usually exclaimed when frustrated.
- Draws (n): Short for quickdraws.
- Flash (n, v): To send a route on your first try after receiving information or beta; or a successful attempt to do so.
- Follow (v): To toprope a route (that has already been led) from the opposite end of the rope, unclipping (and possibly removing) quickdraws on the way.
- French free (v): To pull past a move by using a quickdraw as a handhold.
- Gripped (adj): Intensely anxious or fearful, usually on lead.
- Hang (v): To equip a route with quickdraws, or to rest by hanging on the rope.
- Hangdog (v): To climb a route while taking frequent breaks and hanging at most (or all) bolts.
- Kneebar (n, v): To wedge the upper leg against a hold to bear weight; or a place where doing so is possible.
- Lead (n, v): To climb a route on lead; or the responsibility to do so (e.g., “This is your lead.”).
- Onsight (n, v): To send a route on your first try without receiving information or beta; or a successful attempt to do so.
- Permadraw (n): A permanent quickdraw (usually steel and cable) that remains on a route at all times.
- Project (n, v): A route that takes many tries to send, or the act of trying such a route.
- Pumped (adj): Possessing forearms made weak by fatigue, e.g. “I was too pumped to pull the crux.”
- Pumpy (adj): Likely to make you pumped, e.g. a pumpy route.
- Rest (n, v): A place where it’s possible to shake or become less pumped; or the act of doing so.
- Send (n, v): To climb a route without taking or falling, or a successful attempt to do so.
- Shake (n, v): To shake the arms to reduce pump, or a place on a route where it’s possible to do so.
- Spray (v): To provide unsolicited beta; frowned upon.
- Take (v): To rest by hanging on the rope; also an exclaimed request to do so: “Take!“
- Whip/Whipper (n): A long fall, exactly how long is the subject of much debate.
Sport Climbing Etiquette
Indoors, gyms have their own rules about what behavior is acceptable.
Outdoors, however, no rules are posted on the wall. With more climbers flooding to the crags, it’s more important than ever to practice good stewardship—not to mention get along with your fellow climbers.
Here are a few unwritten rules:
- Be too loud. That includes music (go easy on the bluetooth speakers) and shouting across the crag. Be considerate of other climbers.
- Spread your gear everywhere: Some sprawl is inevitable, but try to keep it contained.
- Leave trash or refuse: Do not leave your tape shreds or food wrappers behind. Even worse, do not leave any human waste. Pack it out. All of it.
- Let your dog (or other pet) be a menace. The debate over crag dogs is endless, but everyone agrees that a poorly behaved dog can spoil a day. No one wants a dog eating their lunch or pooping on their rope. If you’re taking a furry companion to the crag, make absolutely sure that they can and will behave themselves.
- Be unkind or condescending: Crags are a place to enjoy the community. Don’t shame or alienate other climbers, even if they’re still learning.
- Toprope on fixed hardware: Different areas may have different conventions, but this is generally a no-no. The hardware is there for cleaning, not to facilitate toprope laps.
- Take fixed hardware or project draws: Even worse than toproping on fixed hardware is stealing it. And if someone else has their project draws hung, feel free to use them, but don’t steal them.
- Leave a rope on a route you’re not climbing: If you have a rope on a route, you should be using it. If you must leave gear or a rope, allow others to use it too.
- Spray: Unless someone asks for your beta, it’s wise to keep it to yourself. Let others enjoy the process of discovering a climb.
- Throw a tantrum: We all hate falling on the last move, but no one wants to see you throw your quickdraws. It’s great to take climbing seriously, but don’t take it so seriously that the fun disappears.
- Break the rules: This goes for wilderness rules as well as local ethics. If there are any closures, restrictions, or waivers in place, respect them—future access may depend on it.
- Leave no trace: Strive to leave the area better than you found it. This helps keep the wilderness intact for the future and helps preserve access. Be a good steward of our resources.
- Brush off tick marks: If you’re marking up your project, take the ticks off when you’re done.
- Be kind and communicative: If you’re curious how long a party will take, ask. Likewise, be open and clear about your intentions. The more everyone is open with each other, the better a time will be had by all.
- Help out: If you see some trash left behind, snag it—even if it’s not yours. If someone spills their gear down a hill, help if you can. This is a community—look out for each other. Look out for your areas, too, and pitch in on trail maintenance or access work.
- Share: Share information, share gear, share the wall. The rock is here for everyone.
- Have fun. Really. Sport climbing is about enjoying (and even pushing) yourself in a safe environment. Savor it.
Exploring & Improving
The world of sport climbing doesn’t end with your local crag. Excellent sport climbing areas abound around the country and around the world.
Within the USA, premiere sport climbing areas include (east to west) Rumney, the New River Gorge, the Red River Gorge, Rifle, Ten Sleep Canyon, Red Rock Canyon, and Smith Rock. Abroad, classic sport climbing can be found in Spain, France, Greece, and Thailand, among others.
Even if you stick close to home, there are always new areas, new routes, and new limits to push. If you’re not careful, you might find yourself spending all your free days logging burns at the crag.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.