Rock Climbing 101: Basic Tips to Get You Started

woman rock climbing outdoors at sunset

What do you do when your feet leave the ground? When you rely on nothing but a partner (or nothing at all) to keep you safe as you keep climbing higher? Will the adrenaline push you through, or will your worries get the best of you?

Those are just some of the questions that will shoot through your head as you prepare for your first rock climb. It's one of the fastest-growing adventure sports in the U.S., but that doesn't make it any less intimidating for first-timers.

Sure, you've done plenty of hiking and mountain biking. But relying on your hands and feet as you scale a seemingly endless wall? Different story.

Preparation is the name of the game. Rock climbing can be incredibly satisfying once you scale the top and look back on your accomplishment. Knowing what you're getting yourself into is the first step to achieving that feeling.

The Basics: Why Go Rock Climbing?

Maybe you're still thinking about whether or not this is actually a good idea. Rock climbing is not for everyone, but with the right preparation and practice, everyone can do it. Here's what you can expect:

  • A great workout. Rock climbing, especially once it becomes a habit, trains and strengthens everything from your core to your arms and legs. No more worrying about leg day. And of course, the flexibility you need (and get) is nothing to sneeze at.
  • A stress reducer. You'll have to concentrate on nothing but the right nooks and the challenge ahead of you. Before you know it, the stressors of your daily life start to fall off and matter less.
  • A health booster. In addition to training your body, multiple studies have found rock climbing to actually improve your mental health and brain function. It's why in bouldering, one of the types of rock climbing mentioned below, routes are actually called problems.
  • A confidence builder. Little compares to conquering that rock or rock wall, standing at the top and looking back at the incline that got you there. 

5 Types of Rock Climbing to Get You Started

man rock climbing indoors hanging upside down

Once you've made the decision to try it out, your preparation is just getting started. Now, it's time to familiarize yourself with the many options waiting for you. Rock climbing is actually more of an umbrella term, and you'll want to know what you're getting yourself into before you get started.

1) Indoor (Gym) Climbing

This is the type most of us tend to be familiar with. You might have even done it in middle or high school, or as part of a college club. It's an artificial wall with handholds and footholds to get you started. They're typically multi-colored, with each color standing for a different difficulty level. Beginners can use any and all colors at the same time. Most gym walls are top rope, but you'll also find some of the other types of climbing options below.

2) Bouldering

It doesn't involve a wall or huge incline, but simply a large boulder to climb over. You won't be wearing a rope or harness, but a thick mat called a 'crash pad' will help you should you fall. Routes are called problems, and each problem is graded between V0 (easy) and v16 (toughest).

3) Top Roping

The most common variation indoors includes the rope coming down from the top of the wall. It's also pretty common outdoors, as long as the wall or rock is high enough to make it possible. While you climb with the rope attached to your harness, the belayer stands on the ground, keeping it tight to minimize the distance you would fall if you should slip.

4) Lead Climbing

Once you start moving to the outdoors, lead (or sport) climbing becomes more popular. The rope here is not attached to the top of the wall, but you can clip it into a number of bolts along the way. That way, you will never quite fall to the ground should something go wrong. You'll find a lot of these routes in Western states, but not nearly as many in the East or Southeast.

5) Trad Climbing

Think lead climbing, just a little more risky. The first climber up carries a rack of equipment, which can be fastened into the cracks and crevices of the rock face. The final climber, now protected by the teammates who already made it up, can remove it again. In other words, you need no predetermined routes, but you better make sure you know how to get the equipment securely into the rock.

General Climbing Tips to Help You Succeed

Once you've picked your poison, it's time to start preparing yourself mentally and physically for the climb. You might want to start small, with a modest indoor wall that just helps you get used to the concept. Of course, you can always jump into the deep water if you prefer a trial by fire.

Find an instructor. Indoor or outdoor, you don't want to go it alone the first time. Your instructor might be a more experienced friend, but you can also find plenty of trained experts who are willing to teach you the ropes (pun very much intended).

Prepare your body. It's not all about your arms or even your upper body. You'll need to engage your core as you climb, and it always pays to push with your legs rather than pulling with your arms. At least some strength and endurance training before your first big climb tends to pay off.

Know how to fall. Yes, it will happen. Usually, you'll be caught by the rope. In bouldering, you might be more exposed to a big fall. Try to prepare yourself to stay loose in that case - don't try to brace yourself with stiff arms and legs, but simply allow the rope or crash pad to soften the fall.

Choose the right route. Most rock climbing routes are marked for difficulty on a 5.0 to 5.15 scale. Bouldering, as mentioned above, prefers V0 to V16. In either case, stick with the low numbers to get started and gradually work your way up. 

Keep your arms straight and your legs bent. This goes for the climb itself. Straight arms give you more strength, but you have to avoid the same thing for your legs. Never lock your knees, but always allow for some give to give you that needed push up.

Learn to tie some knots. You'll need to know figure eight and fisherman's knots that can tie the rope to the harness. Practice them a few times before you get started - at least, you'll impress your instructor. At best, you'll be prepared to make sure everyone involved is safe. 

Make sure you have the right equipment. Actually, this is important enough to deserve its own section. Keep reading.

The Equipment to Help You Scale that Top

Rock climbing can succeed or fail based on the equipment you choose. This is not a sport you can simply start without knowing what to take. These are some of the essential items you'll need, along with some pointers about each item.

Explore Some Shoe Options

You don’t want to wear your street shoes for rock climbing. Instead, look for a pair that is comfortable, with plenty of grip and flexibility. The first two are obvious: your feet cannot start blistering in the middle of a climb, and you probably don't want to slip. Flexibility matters because it helps you feel the rock under your feet and make necessary adjustments at all times.

Consider a Climbing Helmet

This type of helmet is actually not designed to protect you from a fall. That's what the rope and harness is for. Instead, climbing helmets protect your head from falling debris from above, as well as a potential crash into the wall. And of course, they have to be comfortable to be helpful.

Learn About Your Harness

You'll need a harness, but it helps to know what you're actually looking at. The waistbelt should fit tightly around your hips, while the leg loops allow for another layer of connection to your body. Comfort should always come first.

Consider Some Chalk

One simple reason: chalk improves your grip. Especially when climbing outdoors, it never hurts to have some along for the ride.

Ropes and Carabiners

Most climbing ropes are dynamic, which means they have plenty of give that make the fall a bit smoother. As a beginner, you should probably stay away from static ropes, which are more stiff and used for controlled descents (called rappelling) rather than climbing. Carabiners are the metal hooks that connect rope and harness, and are a necessary part of all climbing gear.

Find the Right Clothing

Finally, you have to pick the right clothing for your big trip up. Yes, it's exhausting. Yes, you'll get hot and sweaty. And yes, once you really get high up there, the air can get a little thinner. 

Merino wool clothing by Meriwool Layers is the perfect fit for aspiring rock climbers. Our natural wool material is breathable, managing the heat and moisture to keep you cool in hot weather and warm when it gets colder. It's also comfortable, which you might have noticed to be a theme in the equipment you need to consider. Finally, the odor resistance might not be a must-have--but let's be honest, your co-climbers will probably appreciate it.

With the right preparation, that first major rock climb will turn from a test for your nerves into the next big adventure of your life. Our clothing helps you make sure that you feel good before, during, and after the climb. Browse our selection of wool socks and base layers, then make your call. What do you want to wear when you scale that wall?