Since the turn of the millennium, climbing has undergone a growth spurt. In the United States, the number of climbing gyms has quadrupled since 2000. The pandemic brought a variety of challenges for climbers and climbing gyms, but the industry is rebounding strongly.
Growth is exciting, but it brings its own set of difficulties. In light of climbing’s continued popularity, this article is an effort to take an objective look at the trends and patterns of the industry. Rock climbing statistics are still hard to come by, but we’ve collected many of the most important stats on things like adcidents, injures, deaths, demographics, and industry size.
Rock Climbing Demographics
The best data on climbing demographics in the United States comes from the American Alpine Club’s 2019 State of Climbing Report. Of 7.7 million participants, more than 80% are white. Among non-AAC members, the report found that AAPI climbers made up 7%, Hispanic climbers 5%, and Black and Native American climbers just 1% each. Male-identified climbers made up 72% of AAC members and 58% of non-members.
A 2021 survey of Canadian climbers found similar homogeneity. According to the report, “women and gender minorities reported significantly more constraints to participation than men,” and “racialized people reported significantly more constraints to participation than white people.”
All of which is to say: the majority of climbers are still white men. A variety of wonderful organizations are working to increase access for minorities and underrepresented populations. I highly recommend checking out the resources listed by the American Alpine Club as well as the projects at Diversify Outdoors.
By age, climbing is a relatively young sport. According to the AAC report, 81% of non-member climbers are between 19-40, and 54% are between 19-30.
Rock Climbing Industry Statistics
The pandemic dealt a hefty blow to climbing gyms around the world, but it hasn’t stopped the growth of the sport.
According to the Climbing Business Journal’s yearly trends report, 53 new climbing gyms opened in 2021, bringing the total to 591 gyms in the United States. Despite the pandemic, only 8 gyms closed in 2021, resulting in the highest-ever yearly net increase in gyms (45).
California saw the most gym openings (10), followed by Washington (6) and Colorado (4). Most of the gyms opened in large metropolitan areas.
63% of those new gyms were bouldering gyms. That’s the largest proportion of new bouldering gyms since data collection began. Bouldering gyms require fewer resources to build and run, which may have made them a more viable model during the pandemic. That didn’t stop larger gyms from opening as well, including Oakland’s absolutely massive Pacific Pipe.
Climbing’s economic impact has grown large, too. According to the AAC State of Climbing Report, climbing contributed nearly $12.5 billion to the United States economy in 2017. Over the 36-month study period, climber spending on gear rose by 14.4% to a total of almost $170 million in 2018. Although revenue levels haven’t quite returned to their pre-pandemic high, gyms have shown a strong rebound since 2020.
Rock Climbing Accidents, Injuries, & Deaths
Rock climbing has a reputation for being an extreme sport, and there’s no doubt that some climbers take extreme risks. In general, however, the statistics tell a different story.
A 2012 review found that climbing had lower injury incidence and severity than many mainstream sports, including basketball and soccer. Indoor climbing is particularly safe, but outdoor bouldering and sport climbing are also relatively low-risk. Injury rates and severity are highest in alpine and ice climbing, where external hazards are more difficult to avoid.
A 2020 analysis of the previous 30 years of North American accident reports reached similar conclusions. Since 2010, trad climbers reported twice as many accidents as sport climbers or topropers (bouldering accidents were not included). Descent incidents made up about a third of the reported accidents, and rappel errors were among the leading causes of fatal accidents (second only to unroped climbing).
Unsurprisingly, not wearing a helmet correlates with injury severity and fatality. Also of interest: a 1988 study found that experienced climbers were more likely to get injured. Exact numbers on fatalities are hard to come by, but most estimates place yearly deaths at around 20-50 in North America.
The takeaways are clear, and none are revolutionary. Wear a helmet, double-check your rappels and anchors, tie back-up knots, and most importantly: Don’t get complacent. Take extra care in alpine environments that may carry additional risk.
If you’re doing all those things…don’t fret too much. By the numbers, climbing is a relatively safe sport, and that’s especially true of indoor climbing.
Rock Climbing Popularity by Discipline
The best data on climbing participation comes from the Outdoor Industry Association’s recent Outdoor Participation Trends Report.
Indoor climbing, sport climbing, and bouldering have all seen steady increases in participation every year since data collection began in 2017. Indoor climbing saw the strongest growth, rising by 2.7% from 2020 to 2021. Bouldering and sport climbing experienced more modest growth of about 0.5%. Indoor climbing remains substantially more popular than outdoor disciplines, with more than twice the total number of participants.
Participation in trad and alpine climbing declined by 3.3% from 2020 to 2021. According to the OIA, those disciplines are now at their lowest total participation since 2013. That’s a bit of a surprise, given the steady rise of indoor climbing, but it may show that indoor climbers are more likely to make the jump to sport climbing and bouldering than they are to pick up a trad rack. The cost of trad gear is another likely deterrent.
Total participation has risen by about 11.7% since 2017. As gyms rebound after the pandemic, there’s no reason to expect that growth to slow, especially among indoor climbers.
So what’s the takeaway?
Climbing certainly isn’t going anywhere, and the outlook for climbing gyms remains bright. Climbing competitions continue to gain popularity and legitimacy, and the 2020 Olympics provided a great deal of global exposure in spite of the pandemic.
Concerns over outdoor impact remain pressing. The numbers show that sport and bouldering areas are the most susceptible to overcrowding, and anyone who’s been to Rumney on a weekend will surely agree. In the future, it’s possible that we’ll see more restrictions like limiting chalk use.
Trad and alpine climbing areas may not see the same traffic — the elevated risk and significant additional costs seem to deter many indoor climbers.
Although climbing as a whole is growing, it remains relatively homogenous demographically. Every climber can help to make the sport a welcoming space for all participants.
In sum: stay optimistic, stay aware, stay welcoming, and stay safe. Climb on!