How to start rock climbing
Have you always wanted to get started rock climbing, but are intimidated and unsure where to start?
If you’re looking to get active again, or simply pick up a new sport, rock climbing can be a great way to build a physical skill set, make some friends, and gain some confidence in yourself physically in the process.
But how do you get started? It can seem super overwhelming at the start, so allow us to bring it down to earth for you so you can get over the scared and get to the fun.
Gear you need
If you’ve never been rock climbing before, there is no need to run out and spend a few hundred dollars on equipment. Most of us don’t have that kind of money laying around for an unproven new hobby, plus it’s entirely unnecessary to get started.
Why? Because most rock climbing gyms will rent you the equipment you need for a small fee.
What you’ll need to rent is:
- Rock climbing shoes (no, tennis shoes will not work)
- Chalk bag (because your hands get sweaty!)
- Rock climbing harness
That’s it. That is literally all you need.
Now let’s look at what you need to know about your first time.
What to wear
The most important thing to remember about what you wear to the rock climbing gym is something that is:
- Breathes easily (gyms get warm!)
- Lets you move freely
I cannot tell you how many times I have seen people show up to the rock climbing gym wearing jeans. Jeans do not allow you to move freely and they do not breathe well. While we’ve all shown up to the gym and discovered that we forgot our shorts and so we are forced to climb for that evening in jeans, we do not recommend them!
A typical outfit you will see at the gym is:
- For women, yoga pants and an athletic top like these from Prana
- For men, a pair of above-the-knee shorts and a tee shirt
Just like running, rock climbing requires very little gear as you can see. Just be prepared for everything you wear to end up a) sweaty and b) with chalk on it.
When you get to the gym
When you get to the gym, the first think you’ll need to do is fill out a liability waiver. Rock climbing is an adventure sport, and while it can be done very safely it is also not uncommon to hurt your tendons (especially when starting out and not warming up properly). Every gym I have ever been to asks you to sign a release of liability before you check in.
Next you’ll want to check in with the staff where you can pay and then get your rental equipment.
If you are unsure how to put on a rock climbing harness (hint: there are two legs!) or how your shoes are supposed to fit (snugly, and you’re not supposed to wear socks), don’t be shy about asking the front desk staff. They’re climbers themselves and always happy to help!
Warming up your hands
Warming up your hands and tendons is extremely important. Without proper warmup, it is extremely easily to injure yourself especially when you are first starting out.
There are a few popular ways to warm up your hands:
- Go to the free weights area or find the hang boards, and hang from your hands for 10 seconds at a time 3-4 times
- Go to the bouldering wall and climb some very easy climbs (V- or V0, as bouldering is on a V-scale and the higher the number the harder it is!)
If you are taking a class, do not worry too much about warming up as they will often have you climb some very easy climbs so they can assess your fitness levels and ability.
There is one simple rule I have for your hands while climbing: if your fingers start to hurt, especially on the insides between the fingers, you are done for that day. There is no reason to continue pushing and risk injury.
Remember, climbing is supposed to be fun!
Take a class
The best way to learn a few skills and meet some other people around your skill level is to take a class at the gym.
An intro to climbing class will teach you:
- Proper safety measures;
- How to tie into ropes;
- How to belay another person.
These skills are instrumental to climbing safely, so taking a class and learning them from a certified teacher will get you started on the right foot.
Many gyms will also offer an ongoing 3-4 week Intro to Climbing course which will also teach you better wall movement and other skills to help expedite your climbing learning curve. I took one as a new climber years ago, and highly recommend it!
Learn gym etiquette
If you have ever gone to a regular gym, you know that there are certain unspoken rules that everyone follows – rerack your weights when you are done, don’t cut in line for the treadmills, wipe your sweat off the machines once you’re done.
Just like those gyms, rock gyms also have etiquette that people follow:
- Wait for the person above you to finish climbing before you start, especially if your routes cross each other;
- Never walk underneath someone bouldering, because if they fall then you could be hurt;
- If you want to get on a certain rope and there is already a climbing pair there, ask the belayer if they are switching or if they are done after the person climbing is done;
- Climbing is meant to be relaxing, so if you are being extremely loud as a group then you will be judged by others.
There are more, but you’ll learn those as you go. Avoid the above four and you’ll be light years ahead of other beginner climbers.
How much do rock climbing gym memberships cost?
I (John) have been a member of 4 different climbing gyms:
- Sportrock in Sterling, VA
- Brooklyn Boulders in Brooklyn, New York
- Mission Cliffs in San Francisco, California
- Movement Climbing in Denver, Colorado
At each place, I had a month-to-month membership that allowed me unlimited use of the facilities and gym equipment, as they all had some free weights and classes as well.
Monthly memberships cost anywhere from $62 (at Sportrock in 2008) to $84 at Brooklyn Boulders. I paid $78 a month at Mission Cliffs and we currently pay $75 each month at Movement here in Denver.
Most gyms will do a day pass for $18-$22 and will rent you gear for an additional $3-$5 for everything that you need.
At those prices, if you plan to go more than 3 times per month then getting a monthly membership will start to save you money. Otherwise, pay every time you go. If your new gym offers a bulk discount (eg buy 5 and pay $80 instead of the regular $100), I recommend doing that and learning how often you’ll go before you invest in a monthly membership.
There’s no reason to pay monthly if you’re not saving money!
And finally, remember that most gyms will let you pause your monthly membership if you get injured. Unfortunately injuries are a common part of rock climbing, especially tendon injuries from overuse, so be sure to warm up properly every time!
Remember, rock climbing is supposed to be fun! I remember my first time going to my old gym in Sterling, Virginia I went with a coworker, and the next day neither of us could type very well (yeah, I worked a computer and software support job straight out of college). We were so sore, but it was so fun that we couldn’t wait to go back the next week.
So enjoy it, meet some new people in your class, and get started with the wonderful world of rock climbing!