If you want to get started with indoor rock climbing, you are probably wondering what to expect and guidance for being able to climb better your first time.
Indoor rock climbing is fun and a great workout but there are a few things that I’ve included in this article to help you get started so that your first experience is a great one.
Table of Contents:
- Considerations Before Getting Started
- Gear You’ll Need
- Belaying Basics
- Indoor Climbing Etiquette
- Tips for Your First Climb
- Common Questions
Considerations Before Getting Started
Rock climbing is a cross-continental sport that is showcasing in the next Summer Olympics so it will likely explode and become an even bigger sport.
Before you join the exploding indoor climbing culture and start training to become an olympian yourself, consider the following:
The most important part of your indoor climbing experience is a belay partner.
Some gyms have auto-belay systems that allow you to climb top-rope (the type of indoor climbing that has the rope anchored to the top of the route) without needing someone else. However, the majority of climbing gyms require you to bring your own belay partner.
Your belay partner is the one that manages the rope while you manage climbing. If you fall or need to be lowered, your belay partner is the one that will keep you safe from hitting the ground and help you descend safely.
A good belay partner is someone that knows what they are doing and always uses good/safe practices while you are climbing to keep you safe.
I have seen belay partners that aren’t paying attention to the climber at indoor gyms and put the climber at risk of serious injury. Luckily when I saw this, gym employees intervened to ensure that the belayer did their job safely.
Most gyms, like the one I go to require you to be belay certified, meaning that you have to prove you know how to belay safely and are able to demonstrate doing so. Gyms often provide a class or instructions for new belayers so you don’t need to know how to belay before going to the gym.
If you are considering getting more serious about indoor rock climbing, then you will likely need to get a gym membership to support being able to climb as often as possible.
The first thing you need to do is to identify what you want from your gym membership. If you want to go climbing with a friend then that friend will need to get a membership pass as well. If they already have a gym membership, then you will probably benefit from getting a pass to that same gym.
If you don’t have a gym in mind already, consider purchasing a day pass at each gym in your area and testing out each of the facilities to help you decide which one you like the most.
Consider the following before making your decision:
- Do they offer courses or classes for climbing and/or anything else that you may be interested in?
- How often do they change the routes in the gym?
- Do they have showers available (if needed)
- Do they have lockers or a secure way of storing your stuff while you’re at the gym?
- Do they have auto-belay systems or do you always need a belay partner?
Unlike your basic gym that has a bunch of treadmills and TV’s the cost of maintaining a rock climbing wall and ensuring safety for when a climber is being lowered or falls while 30 feet off the ground can be expensive.
Depending on where you live and the local competition (other climbing gyms in the area) you can usually get a membership between $50-$150 per month. These gyms also often have punch-passes or single-use passes for purchase.
Ask your local gym what is included in the membership as many have special perks such as exercise equipment, yoga classes and some even have 24/7 access with your membership.
Gear You’ll Need for Indoor Rock Climbing
Most indoor rock climbing centers have all the gear you need for rent and some even provide them to you as part of your membership. If you like climbing, however, then you would benefit from getting your own gear.
For a comparison of the best Rock Climbing Starter Kits (Harness, Belay Device, Carabiner & Chalk Bag), click here.
The harness is the most important gear you will need for indoor climbing. It is what you can rely on when you fall to catch you (if you are tied into the rope of course). Most gyms provide climbing harnesses for rent, however, the harnesses at gyms are uncomfortable and don’t have padding for if you fall.
For this reason, I recommend that you purchase a harness that has padded leg and waist loops. That way, when you do fall, you don’t feel the impact as much and you can climb a lot more comfortably.
Many beginner climbers try to save a couple of bucks by climbing in tennis shoes but they don’t do the job and you will be heavily limited in the climbs that you can do.
Climbing shoes make it so that you can use small footholds (something that is impossible with tennis shoes). This is possible because they are made to minimize the distance between your foot and the foothold. This. Plus they are made with a rubber that supports your toes so you can stand on your toes for an extended period of time without getting exhausted.
Chalk and Chalk Bag
Chalk is one of the tools that climbers use to help grip the climbing holds easier by drying out your hands so that sweat doesn’t build up and make you slip. This is the only piece of gear that most climbing gyms don’t provide so you should bring your own.
May beginner climbers try to save money by not using chalk or by using very little chalk. Without chalk, you have to use more grip strength to hold onto the climbing holds and you will have a harder time making it up to the top, which can damage your motivation to keep climbing.
Since climbing walls are so tall, you need to carry the chalk up the wall with you so that you can reapply the chalk as you go up the wall and need more. The easiest way to do that is with a chalk bag. There are tons of chalk bag designs and most of them will work well for you as long as you can fit your full hand in the bag. I recommend you get a chalk bag that has a place for a chalk brush, which you will likely want once you are more experienced with climbing.
There is a growing number of indoor climbing centers that require you to use an assisted-braking belay device. Assisted-braking belay devices are built in a way that minimizes risk if the belayer gets distracted while you are climbing and they can prevent you from falling to the ground.
As for all of the other indoor climbing gyms, you can usually get away with a tubular ATC or even rent one. However, I recommend getting an assisted-braking belay device so that you can have the added safety and peace of mind that comes with a backup just in case.
The peace of mind is even more powerful when you and your belay partner are new to climbing. It can help you make harder moves and feel safe that if you fall, you will be ok and it helps you with the confidence you need to keep climbing.
If you want to see what belay devices I recommend for beginners, check this article out (6 Of The Best Belay Devices For Beginner Climbers)
To attach the belay device to the belayer, you will need a locking carabiner. Most gyms have these available to rent but you can get a screw-gate locking carabiner for $15 online or at your trusted BackCountry or REI retailer.
I recommend spending a little more and getting a twist-gate or magnetic lock as they are just as safe but easier to lock and unlock when your fingers are tired from climbing.
Check out the price on Petzl’s Auto-Lock Twist Gate carabiner from BackCountry here
Check out the price on Black Diamond’s Auto-Lock Magnetic Gate carabiner from Black Diamond here
Luckily with indoor climbing, most gyms provide the rope so you don’t have to purchase a rope until you start climbing outdoors.
For my gym, the top-rope routes have rope provided but if you want to do sport climbing (like in the Olympics when the climber carries the rope up with them and clips the rope into dangling carabiners) you have to provide your own rope.
If you are a beginner, I recommend that you stick with Top-Rope climbing until you go through a course about sport climbing or lead climbing.
If you do need a rope for lead climbing, check with your climbing gym for how long the rope needs to be. Most gyms require rope to be at least 30 meters long. You can get a 30+-meter rope for a decent price at BackCountry or REI. Just make sure that it is a dynamic rope and thick enough to work with your belay device. Most belay devices require the rope to be between 8-10mm.
Belaying is probably the most important skill you need to learn BEFORE you start climbing. Most gyms require you to take a belaying test or course before you can belay in the gym.
If you have the opportunity to, I recommend having a trained climber teach you how to belay.
Most climbing coaches prefer to teach you how to belay on a basic ATC belay device but if you want the basics for how to use assisted-locking belay devices, check out this article here.
How to load rope into an ATC device (Top-Rope and Sport/Lead Climbing)
- Take a bite of the rope (a folded piece of the rope)
- Orient the rope so that the brake side of the rope is pointing away from the belayer and the climber side of the rope is closest to the belayer
- Push the folded end of the rope into the device from the top
- Lock your carabiner around the device, the rope and the belay loop on your harness
How to feed out rope through the device (for Sport/Lead climbing)
- Remember: Keep your brake hand on the brake side of the rope
- With your top hand, pull the rope through the device while the brake hand pushes rope toward the belay device from the brake side of the rope
How to take in rope/slack through the device (Top-Rope and Sport/Lead Climbing)
- Remember: Keep your brake hand on the brake side of the rope
- With your top-hand, pull the rope down and toward the device
- Pull the rope through the device with your brake hand
- Place your top-hand on the outside of your right hand onto the brake side of the rope
- Slide your brake hand up toward the belay device
- Repeat steps 1-5 as needed.
How to lower a climber (Top-Rope and Sport/Lead Climbing)
- Move both hands to the brake side of the rope
- While keeping both hands below the belay device (while still holding the rope), feed the rope through one hand and up toward the belay device
- As you do this, the rope will feed through the device and lower the climber
Indoor Climbing Etiquette
Like in all sports and activities, there is common etiquette that you should use while climbing. Here are the most basic ones that you should know before going to an indoor climbing gym for the first time.
Using the right rope when Top-Rope climbing
This is both an etiquette and safety thing. Use the rope that is anchored right above the finish holds of the route you are trying to climb. If you use a rope that is meant for a different route, then if you fall, you will likely swing. This can cause you to not only be 3 feet away from where you were climbing, but it can also cause you to swing into the wall or into another climber.
Some gyms have an anchor system that allows you to adjust where the rope is situated. If you can, adjust the rope so that it is directly above where the final holds on the route are.
Climbing the route (colored holds or tape)
There may be multiple routes overlapping each other but you can tell what route is what by looking at the color of the handholds. A route in a climbing gym is indicated by different colored climbing holds. One route will be all one color.
While climbing the route, make sure that you only use the holds that are meant for your route. In some cases, when you are a beginner, it is ok to use holds from a different route but you should avoid that if possible.
Starting holds are usually indicated by a tag that says what grade or level the climb is. For example, it will say 5.10a. As a beginner, all you have to be concerned about is starting with your hands shoulder height or below on the same color as the rest of the route.
Tips For Your First Climb
Your first climb is going to feel unlike anything else you have felt before. Many people report having felt scared from climbing high and other people reported feeling exhilarated and excited to keep climbing.
Here is what you need to know:
For your first climb, consider doing a beginner grade: 5.8-5.9. Once you are able to do a couple 5.9, then consider trying a 5.10a and go up from there.
Most people aren’t able to level up to a 5.10 until 6+ months of climbing so don’t feel bad if you are climbing at a 5.9 grade.
A common mistake that beginner climbers make is that they focus on grip and arm strength to get up routes instead of their feet. The problem with this is that you will get tired fast and will have a hard time making big moves.
Before you move your hands, move your feet first.
There is a lot of technique that goes into climbing footwork, but before you get caught up trying new techniques, just get used to looking at your feet.
One of the biggest issues that climbers have when they first start is that they get tired before they are able to finish the climb. This not only prevents you from being able to finish the climb, but it also prevents you from being able to level up.
By keeping your arms straight as much as possible, you use less muscle and can climb longer.
Weight in Your Feet
It is common for beginner climbers to feel limited by their grip strength but beginner climbing holds are big enough that you don’t need a lot of grip strength. That is, if you put your weight in your feet.
Often times climbers have their hips away from the wall and find themselves holding their entire weight in their hands.
To put your weight in your feet, move your hips as close to the wall as possible so that your center of gravity is above your feet. This will take a lot of the weight of your hands.
How do you prepare for indoor rock climbing?
Rock climbing is just like any other sport. Physical and mental strength is something that, if you can practice, would be helpful to prepare you for climbing.
Other than that, eat carbs at least 30mins before climbing and drink lots of water before, during and after climbing.
Something that is unique to climbing however, is skin care. Use lotion on your hands while you aren’t climbing so your skin can stay healthy. If you start noticing calluses or blisters you may need to take special care to prevent skin tares.
Sand down calluses to prevent them from catching on a rough handhold and tearing them off.
How often should you climb as a beginner?
Generally, when you first start climbing, you want to climb as often as possible but your tendons, skin and muscles need time to build a stamina before you can climb for long periods of time. When you first start climbing, a good rule of thumb is to do 3-4 days/week with a max of 1 hour sessions.
If you want to do longer sessions and your hands/skin can handle it, try 1-2 days/week with a max of 2 hour sessions.
Once you build up tendon and skin stamina, you can usually be safe with 2-3 hours for 3-4 days/week.
What equipment do you need for indoor rock climbing?
As mentioned above in the gear section, you will need the following, which you can purchase or usually rent from the gym.
- Chalk/Chalk Bag
- Belay Device
- Locking Carabiner
- Rope (for sport climbing)
For a full breakdown of the cost of each piece of gear, check out this article: How Much Does Rock Climbing Cost? Bouldering and Sport Climbing Gear
Is indoor rock climbing scary?
Fear of heights is a common issue because indoor climbing, like outdoor climbing, requires you to go high if you want to complete the route. However, there are many safety features that ease these fears. For example, there is a rope and a controlled environment to help keep you safe.
In addition, there are pads on the ground, employees that walk around and review for safety issues and anchors that are industrial and built to last a long time. All of these safety features make indoor climbing less scary.
If you are climbing and find yourself afraid, consider testing being lowered from 5 feet off the ground and then 10 feet, etc. so you can build confidence in the belaying aspect of climbing.
You can also focus on your breathing when you start to feel frightened to help mitigate any effects that may come from your fears.
Is rock climbing hard for beginners?
The short answer is yes, rock climbing is hard for beginners. Rock climbing uses different coordination and muscles than any other activity and thus, it takes time for your body to adjust and learn the movement and build the muscles.
However, it doesn’t take much time to see progress when you are a beginner so even though it is hard, it is also really motivating to keep climbing.
How expensive is climbing?
Sport climbing, if you buy all of your own gear, including your own rope, usually cost between $125-$495. Once you purchase the gear, you usually don’t have to replace it for a few seasons (depending on use and how well you take care of it).
- Harness: $30-$100
- Shoes: $70-$170
- Chalk Bag: $10-$45
- Climbing Chalk: $7-$25
- Belay Device: $15-$120
- Carabiners: $10-$30
- Rope: $50-$300
After you purchase the gear, all you have to worry about is the gym membership, which varies between $50-$150/month depending on your location and how many gyms are in the area.
Check out how you can get a Harness, Belay Device, Carabiner and Chalk Bag for $80-$100, here.
How do rock climbers not fall?
When learning a new route or trying a climb that is difficult, climbers fall. However, the safety gear prevents them from falling to the ground and keeps them safe.
If you don’t want to fall, only climb routes that are at or below your skill level. This won’t automatically prevent you from falling but it will decrease your chances of falling.
Why are climbing gyms so expensive?
Basic gyms have treadmills and ellipticals, etc. and sometimes they have to fix or maintain the machines and every decade or so they will replace them. Plus, the insurance risk for a treadmill is smaller than the risk of a climber falling from 30 feet off the ground. This makes the expense of a basic gym much smaller than a climbing gym.
Unfortunately, maintaining the facilities and insurance coverage needed to run a climbing gym make climbing gyms expensive to run and thus the cost of a gym membership needs to be expensive to support that.
In addition to insurance costs, climbing gyms have to update the routes on a regular basis, they have to update anchors and replace the rope as well as train their staff and get certified for safety.
Indoor climbing is usually easier than outdoor climbing. The biggest reason for this is that indoor climbing makes the route and way to get up the wall easy to recognize.
In addition, fears related to falling is usually less indoors because of the padding and additional environment controls so climbers find it easier to keep climbing when moves get hard indoors.