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Indoor vs Outdoor Climbing: A Thorough Comparision

Indoor vs Outdoor Climbing: A Thorough Comparision

A common question for beginner climbers and sometimes more experienced climbers is about the differences between indoor and outdoor climbing. There are some obvious differences such as being indoors vs being outdoors but there are a lot more differences such as different gear, different environment, routes, safety and difficulty. 

For your reference, this article is referring to top-rope and sports climbing indoor and outdoor and doesn’t include bouldering or crack climbing, etc. 

If you are only interested in the difference in difficulty between indoor and outdoor climbing, scroll to the bottom of this article.

ARTICLE OUTLINE

  • GEAR
  • ENVIRONMENT
  • ROUTES
  • CULTURE
  • SAFETY
  • COST OF CLIMBING
  • GRADE DIFFICULTY
  • WHICH IS BEST

Gear:

Though climbing gear is generally the same between indoor and outdoor climbing, the gear is still a major category for the differences in indoor and outdoor climbing. Here are some of the major differences between the type of gear and use of gear between both types of climbing.

Indoor Climbing Gym Gear

  • Indoor climbing gyms provide all of the gear you need so you don’t have to own gear to go climbing. Since climbing requires a lot of gear and you may not already have it all, you can still enjoy climbing by going to an indoor climbing gym. For example, most climbing gyms have climbing shoes, belay devices, carabiners and harnesses available for rent.
  • Rope is ready for use on top-roping routes so you don’t have to climb above a cliff side or bring your own rope to climb top-rope routes. Most gyms, however, require you to bring your own rope if you plan to sport climb.
  • Most indoor climbing gyms have anchors and quickdraws pre-installed for sports climbing routes so you don’t need to bring any of that.
  • Other gear such as exercise equipment that helps you warm up or strength train is available at most indoor climbing gyms. This can be nice when you want to get a better workout or have specific climbing goals that exercise equipment can help you achieve.

Outdoor Climbing Gear

  • Outdoor climbing requires you to have all of your own gear before you can start climbing. This means you need to purchase belay devices, carabiners, harnesses, rope, quick draws, slings, first aid kits, bag to carry everything, etc. Keep in mind that safety gear pre-owned by someone isn’t guaranteed to be up to safety standards, so make sure that you buy rope, harnesses, quickdraws, slings, etc. brand new. For a full list of climbing gear, check out this article (37 Things Serious Climbers Bring With Them To The Mountains)
  • If you are climbing outdoors, the length of your rope dictates and limites the routes you are able to climb. To make sure that you have enough rope, first review the climb on a guide to see if it matches the length of your climb. Also, make sure that you tie a knot in the end of the rope so there isn’t a chance of the rope running through the end of the belay device.

The Environment

The environment that is created in indoor climbing gyms vs climbing outdoors is probably the biggest differences between the two types of climbing. Obviously the views are different but climbers frequently don’t realize that the way that you interact with the environment is significantly different. Here are some of the biggest differences in indoor and outdoor climbing environments.

Indoor Climbing Gym Environment

  • Since the rope catches you, mats aren’t necessary for safety but most indoor climbing gyms have them to make belaying more comfortable and landing on the ground softer for the climber.
  • Climbing gyms don’t have as much dirt or “nature” because it is inside. Your clothes and gear will likely stay cleaner than if you were outside. However, you will still get chalk all over your pants and your hands will still get dirty and you still need to clean them after your climbing session.
  • Climbing gyms have controlled temperatures so you can climb year round and you don’t need a jacket or hand warmers.
  • Climbing gyms use artificial light so you can climb early in the morning and late at night, even when the sun goes down.

Outdoor Climbing Environment

  • Cliff sides and mountains are a common home for bats and spiders so it is likely that you will encounter them on your climb. Just be careful not to scare them – you don’t want a bite or wings flapping in your face.
  • The mountains where you climb are more susceptible to wind, rain and snow so you should check the weather before going climbing and be prepared with a jacket and hand warmers, just in case.
  • Climbing in the dark can be dangerous. Try to hike down the mountain before it gets dark so you don’t have to worry about nocturnal critters and avoid the wild nightlife.
  • Outdoor climbing handholds are made with rock type dependent on the area you climb. Because of this, the rock may be slick from the material it is made of in addition to dirt and water. Sandstone, for example, not only has a sandy grip, but it is more likely to break off. It is a good idea to start with easier climbs when you aren’t familiar with the type of rock so you can get used to it before trying problems at your level. 
  • Most outdoor climbing routes require a lot of hiking to get to the crag. This can be a great warm-up opportunity but it also means that it will take a longer time to get to the climb and back to your car. Keep this in mind if you are on a time restraint or if you may be out late when the sun is going down. 
  • Unlike indoor climbing, there are many beautiful views built into the outdoor rock climbing walls. Many people bring cameras to capture the moments but make sure you are safely secured before taking your hands off the cliffside.
  • Outdoor climbing allows you to get most of the benefits that being outside in nature provides. For example, nature makes us happier, healthier and more creative according to Florence Williams (See “Nature Makes Us Happier” by Florence Williams on Amazon here)

Routes

Climbing routes are the most important part of climbing and the routes you find in the gym vs the routes you find outdoors are inherently different in nature and challenge styles. Because of this, routes are one of the main differences between indoor and outdoor climbing. Here are some of the main differences that the routes create in both types of climbing.

Indoor Climbing Gym Routes

  • Climbing holds in the gym are obvious to see and usually are marked with colored handholds or colored tape to tell you the intended route of your climb. In addition to the colors, they also all stick out of the wall so they aren’t hidden and may change how you place your hips to get to them. 
  • Indoor climbing gyms change their routes frequently (usually monthly) so you will have the opportunity to try different problems/challenges. 
  • There are many climbing routes all in one place at a climbing gym so you don’t have to hike or drive to get to new routes.

Outdoor Climbing Routes

  • Because climbing holds outdoors aren’t as visible from the ground, it is recommended to review a climbing route guide so you know which direction you should be climbing and what moves the tested route intends. Some climbers use tick marks, which are chalk marks indicating where the handholds are. However, if you do this, make sure you remove the marks before leaving the crag so it doesn’t turn into vandalism.
  • Outdoor climbing routes remain the same so if you want a new challenge, you will need to find a new mountain/route. On the flip side, because the routes remain the same, you are able to practice on them frequently and become an expert on that route.

Culture

The culture that climbers create and that the environment creates is very different from indoor and outdoor climbing. This is caused by the environment, routes and goals that climbers have when the majority of their climbing is indoors or outdoors. Here are some of the main differences that most climbers have noticed when comparing the cultures of both.

Indoor Climbing Gyms Culture

  • Indoor climbing gyms are usually filled with climbers who are focused on training and exercise. If you want a group of people who can help push you in this way, then talking to some other climbers in the gym is a great way to make those relationships.
  • Many climbers that have memberships to indoor climbing gyms have jobs or some reason to spend most of their time in one place compared to frequent traveling. 
  • Indoor climbing gyms aren’t the most beautiful, so most climbers usually focus on the accomplishment of being able to do difficult moves and finish the climb.
  • Climbing competitions are indoors so more climbing competitors are seen in the gym more than the crag.

Outdoor Climbing Culture

  • Outdoor climbing usually has a lot of people who appreciate being in nature and use climbing as a way of expressing their love of nature.
  • Outdoor climbing crags frequently have more people who may be living that outdoor van life or travel frequently and they are more likely to love hiking and camping on a regular basis.
  • Outdoor climbers are more likely to take time at the top of the climb to enjoy the view.

Safety

Indoor and Outdoor climbing has safety gear to prevent climbers from injuries, but there are still safety considerations to keep in mind. Safety is a major category for comparing indoor and outdoor climbing because there are a few key differences between the two types of climbing. Here are a couple that are most obvious when comparing indoor and outdoor climbing.

Indoor Climbing Safety

  • Most climbing gyms have tests that you have to pass before you are allowed to belay. This is helpful if you are climbing with someone for the first time and you don’t know how experienced they are at belaying.
  • Climbing gyms usually have employees that walk through the gym to review people belaying and climbing to make sure they are being safe about it. Unfortunately, I have seen employees stop multiple climbers because the belayer wasn’t using safe practices. The employee was able to prevent the climber from getting injured, but that just shows that some people are more confident than they should have been. 

Outdoor Climbing Safety

  • If you need to be transported to the hospital, it is more difficult if you are up in the mountains. Especially if there is a difficult hike to get to the base of the crag. Some people think that helicopters can get to you no matter where you are, but unless there is even ground with plenty of space for the propellers, they won’t be able to land. In these cases, they usually drive up as far as they can in the ambulance and then have multiple first responders or paramedics carry you down on a stretcher. I’ve seen, first hand, paramedics hiking up to the base of the crag, rig a rope/pulley system to a tree to help control bringing the person on a stretcher down a very difficult and steep terrain and then move them into an ambulance that drives away slowly through the bumpy area.
  • Because you are outdoors, you are more likely to run into poisonous plants and dangerous critters. You should learn about the different plants and animals in the area that you are climbing so that you know how to respond if you encounter them. For example, if you see a black bear, back away slowly and keep your eye on the black bear. Don’t run and hope that the black bear runs away. If you see a bunch of plants that look like poison oak, avoid walking through them and find a different area to put your gear.

Cost of Climbing

The cost of climbing is comparable for indoor and outdoor climbing for the most part. However, there are some differences that make the cost of climbing an interesting comparison for many climbers. Here are a couple of cost differences that you should keep in mind when comparing indoor and outdoor climbing.

Indoor Climbing Cost

  • Indoor climbing gyms usually have monthly fees for memberships or a fee for each visit so if you don’t want an ongoing payment, consider climbing outdoors. 
  • Indoor climbing gyms provide rope for top-rope climbing routes so if you don’t have rope, you can still climb without purchasing a rope.
  • If you don’t have your own belay devices or harness, etc. you will need to rent them from the gym and the cost adds up if you climb often. However, climbing gyms usually provide anchors and quickdraws free of cost so you don’t have to purchase as much gear.
  • Gear usually lasts longer when you are climbing indoor vs climbing outdoors because it is easier to keep the gear clean and climbing gyms have different types of anchors etc. that prevent common wear to the gear.

Outdoor Climbing Cost

  • Most mountains and crags are free to go to. However, if you want to climb in a state or national park, there is usually a daily, weekly or annual pass that you will need to purchase.
  • You will need to purchase your own gear, including rope, before you can climb in the mountains. In comparison to indoor climbing, you will also need to purchase quickdraws and any other gear that you would like to use for anchors.
  • Gear, if taken care of, can last a season or two depending on how often you go climbing. If you climb infrequently, your gear will last longer. If you have a ground fall with a rope or harness, however, it is important that you replace that gear, even if it was your first time using it. This will ensure that your gear is safe and that you are safe climbing.

Climbing Grade Difficulty

The difference in difficulty is one of the most polarizing discussions about indoor vs outdoor climbing. This is likely because many climbers start in a gym and move to outdoor climbing or vice versa. The problem is that climbing grades are subjective and there isn’t a consistent way to assign climbing grades. 

This makes it so that the difficulty of every 5.13a in indoor climbing gyms are dependent on who set the climb and every 5.13a route in outdoor climbing are dependent on who climbed the route first and what difficulty they think it is. This makes it difficult to compare routes from gym to gym and mountain to mountain, not to mention the difficulty when comparing indoor to outdoor. Especially since the people who are assigning difficulties to outdoor climbs are different than those setting the climbs in each gym.

With that said, there are a few key differences to keep in mind when comparing indoor to outdoor climbing difficulties.

Indoor Climbing Gym Grade Difficulty

  • Indoor climbing gyms have more entry-level grade climbs than most cliffsides in the mountains so if you are a beginner, going to a climbing gym is a great way to get more experience and level up your climbing performance before going out to the crag.
  • Indoor climbing presents different challenges than what are available in the mountains so the two types of climbing aren’t perfectly comparable. If you are interested in learning new skills and preparing for climbing competitions, then you will be more prepared if you practice at indoor climbing gyms.
  • A key part in climbing is the ability to read beta. Climbing holds in the gym tell you where you need to go next so identifying the beta is much less difficult.

Outdoor Climbing Grade Difficulty

  • Though the climbing grade system is the same for indoor and outdoor climbing, the entry level climbing grades are usually more difficult outdoors for most climbers. The higher the climbing grade, however, the more similar it becomes to indoor climbing.
  • There are additional things that you have to consider while climbing outdoors, which makes it harder to manage and can be more difficult compared to climbing indoors. For example, dealing with rocks/handholds breakinging or ants biting your fingers adds to the challenges of climbing and can make it more difficult.
  • Identifying beta without a guide book can be very difficult because there aren’t colored handholds or tape that identifies where the climber should move to next. You can try to figure the beta out on your own, but if the climb is at your level or slightly better, we recommend getting a guide book or YouTubing the climb so you can have fun climbing and spend less time testing out different ways to climb it.

What is the Best: Indoor Vs Outdoor Climbing

Many climbers not only want to know what the differences are between indoor and outdoor climbing, they also want to know which is better.If you talk to someone in the gym, they will probably tell you that indoor climbing is the best. In comparison, if you talk to someone at the crag, they will probably tell you that outdoor climbing is the best. Thus, whichever type of climbing is best is subjective. 

If you want to know which type of climbing is best for you, consider the differences above and think about your goals in climbing. Do you want to become a skilled climber or compete in world competitions? If you do, then your focus will likely be on training, which is more accessible in indoor climbing. In comparison, if you just want to experience new places and take time to appreciate nature, then climbing outdoors is probably the best for you.

Overall, there are benefits to both and it is ideal to participate in both to get all of the benefits. Once you have experienced a lot of indoor and outdoor climbing, you will be able to decide which one suits you best. However, most people don’t choose indoor climbing or outdoor climbing because they have figured out what is best for them. They usually choose one of those types of climbing because it is more accessible. For example, southern Utah has a lot of amazing outdoor climbing routes but there isn’t an indoor climbing gym so if you want to climb, you have no choice but to climb outdoors.

Conclusion

Climbing indoor vs climbing outdoor has the same basic gear and techniques, but there are many differences that make it difficult for climbers to switch back and forth. This difficulty of switching back and forth makes some climbers wonder if indoor or outdoor climbing is more difficult. Instead of focusing on which type of climbing is more difficult, you should decide which climbing you want to participate in the most. 

To decide which climbing to participate in more, identify your goals. If you want to become a competitive climber, then you will probably want to spend more time in the climbing gym. If you want to appreciate the nature and become one with the mountains, then climbing outdoors more often is probably best. Overall, you should attempt to try both types of climbing. If you don’t have accessibility to indoor and outdoor climbing, then enjoy what you do have access to and focus on excelling or performing in the best way that you can.

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