The Beginner’s Guide To Rock Climbing

So you want to delve into the wonderful world of rock climbing? What a great decision!

Over the past few years (pre-covid19) climbing has quickly become one of the fast growing sports on the planet. With the rise of indoor climbing gyms opening across the country and international recognition of the sport as it has now been adopted by the Tokyo Olympic games, more and more people are finding themselves falling in love with this incredible sport.

But for the complete beginner, things can seem a little overwhelming, from shoes to chaulk, lead climbing to bouldering, there’s an awful lot to take in for the absolute beginner…But we’re going to try to change that!

Today we’ll be outlining the absolute basic terms that you’ll come across when first dipping a toe into rock climbing making it super user friendly for you so you don’t feel intimidated on your first climb.

So without further delay, let’s get started!

What are the main types of climbing?

Climbing comes in countless different schools and there are a hundred different ways of climbing the same rocks. Today we’ll just be focusing on the main 3 that you’ll most commonly come across.

  • Bouldering
  • Top Rope Climbing
  • Sport Climbing

Bouldering

Bouldering is essentially a low level of climbing (usually no more than 4m high) without ropes and over a crash pad. Indoor bouldering is the most popular and quickest growing type of climbing for newcomers because it requires (almost) no equipment and is super accessible – even to those who don’t like heights!

It is typically practiced on large natural boulders or artificial boulders in gyms and outdoor urban areas. However, it may also be practiced at the base of larger rock faces.

The beauty of bouldering is essentially it places more of an emphasis on shorter climbs with a lot packed into a short space. You can think of bouldering almost as the equivalent to sprinting within athletics, you can sprint 100m, but there’s no way you’ll be sprinting over 2km. With bouldering, you’re looking to complete short sharp bursts of intricate and detailed moves that you wouldn’t typically be able to achieve on a higher wall.

Countless bouldering gyms have popped up all across the country!

Top Rope Climbing

Top rope climbing is the ‘classic’ image of what it means to rock climb and the image that most people have in mind, you have a belayer at the bottom of a wall, a rope that runs through one or more carabiners connected to an anchor system at the top of the route and back down to the climber, who is attached to a harness. Because of this extra support from the belayer, the top-rope climber generally will not fall more than a short distance and can thus safely attempt even the most difficult routes. The easiest way to remember top rope climbing is that the climber is ‘beneath’ the rope.

Sport Climbing And Traditional Climbing

Sport climbing is another common type of climbing that is usually moved onto after the climber is comfortable with top ropes and understands their gear. Sport climbers use permanent spots fixed to the rock, and possibly bolts to secure themselves whilst climbing. Instead of having a set rope above them, sport climbers must use their caribeners to bring the rope with them and secure themselves as they climb higher. Sport climbing places an emphasis on gymnastic-like ability, strength, and endurance.

Traditional climbing is essentially the same as sport climbing…but without the fixed positions. Think of a plain rock face with various nooks and cranny’s. The traditional climber places safety at their forefront as if you fall, or don’t put a hold in correctly, you’ll be hitting the ground soon enough. Traditional climbing is usually reserved for the most advanced of climbers due to the level of risk.

(There are of course those who take this even further in the form of free soloing, made especially famous by the documentary Free Solo where the climbers will climb huge rock faces without holds, or ropes, or any kind of support…Definitely not for the faint of heart!)

Unlike top rope climbing, traditional climbers and sport climbers have their rope ‘beneath’ them as they climb

What equipment do I need to start climbing?

Now that you know the different types of climbing, if you are only just beginning your climbing journey, the absolute first thing to do is not buy anything at all. Firstly, we’d recommend heading to your local climbing gym and simply trying the sport for yourself first. You’ll be able to hire all of the equipment you need from them and they will tell you all the ins and outs of how to use it properly.

As you progress, the first few things you will need are:

Shoes

As you get into climbing, you’ll realise pretty quickly that hired shoes aren’t…the best. Because they’re used so frequently, the soles wear out and the shoe will generally lose its shape.

The first thing you’ll notice when using climbing shoes is that they are not like normal shoes, whereas most shoes or trainers are designed to help your toes bend backwards when walking or running, climbing shoes are designed to do the opposite and to keep your feet as strong and stable as possible.

This is why there is a natural curve in many climbing shoes as it keeps your toes in place and creates a strong base to put your weight through. If you’re putting all of your weight through the tips of your toes, the last thing you want to happen is your toes to bend and slip off a rock! For extra friction, that’s also why climbing shoes are made of rubber, to keep you from slipping off the face of the wall.

When it comes to climbing shoes, it’s generally best to go ever so slightly smaller than your average shoe size as if the shoe is too big, you’ll lose the strength in your foot, but if the shoe is too small, it’ll be REALLY uncomfortable to wear and will potentially injure your feet.

When you are just getting started, opt for a shoe that only has a slight curve, whilst extremely curved shoes may sound great, without proper training, you won’t have a great time using them and will likely just damage your feet.

Notice the difference in the curve of these two Scarpa shoes.

The second essential for any type of climbing, indoor or outdoor is chalk. Seriously, you won’t get far without it. When you climb, your hands WILL sweat, whether that be from excitement, fear or just exhaustion!

When your hands sweat, they’ll become slippy and will make you far more likely to lose your grip and fall. Chalk is designed to stop that. It absorbs perspiration and keeps your hands dry, creating another layer of friction between you and the wall. The best part? Chalk usually comes in a clip on bag, so even if you’re halfway up a wall and feeling the sweat, you can still reach into your pouch and keep your hands dry.

Depending on the types of climbing you are interested in exploring, you’ll then also need a few other things such as Harnesses, Helmets, Belay devices & locking caribiners, however for the absolute beginner, these things can usually wait for now and can be hired from your climbing gym. When you are looking to buy however, we do offer a wide range of climbing equipment.

Your First Few Climbs

You’ll find this out anyway after going on your first few climbs, but climbing uses a lot of muscles that we don’t normally use too often, grip strength and toe strength being the main ones. As such you’ll probably get tired pretty quickly, this is incredibly common and it’s important not to overdo yourself, just an hour or two of climbing with frequent rests between each climb will be more than enough to see improvement without hurting yourself.

Likewise, you don’t need to (or will be able to) climb 7 days a week, whilst your muscles build and your skills develop, you’ll be able to climb harder for longer, but to begin with, it’s best to take things nice and slow, just one or two climbing sessions a week will be enough!


So we hope this has helped offer an initial insight into the wonderful world of climbing! Climbing is an incredible sport with an even more incredible community of outdoor lovers who will be more than happy to help you get started! When you’re visiting your first climbing wall, be sure to tag us on social media @OpenAirUK or tell them that we sent you!

Happy climbing!

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