The Beginner’s Guide to Rock Climbing

extreme rock climbingRock climbing, one of my favorite sports.

Inching up vertical walls, balanced precariously on toe and finger, leaning left and right, hanging on with precision, poise, and stoic athletic prowess.

It’s a wild and gut-wrenching action sport, one with a lot of history, gear, names and stories.

To some, rock climbing is a fun, recreational activity. To others, it’s a professional career where physical and mental limits are pushed to their extremes.

→ A Brief History of Rock Climbing
→ Different Types of Rock Climbing
→ Rock Climbing Grades
→ Gear, Equipment and Technology
→ Top Rock Climbing Resources

On this page, you’ll learn a little bit about rock climbing – it’s history, it’s different types, what gear is required and what kind of training you can do to excel in the sport.

A Brief History of Rock Climbing

Man has been climbing rock since the dawn of time.

Paintings dating from 200 BC depict Chinese men rock climbing, and the cliff-dwelling Anasazi of early America were thought to be excellent climbers.

Jumping forward in history, early European mountaineers used rock climbing techniques, but it wasn’t really until the 1880s that rock climbing became an independent pursuit. Over time, rock climbing has transformed from a high-alpine necessity to a distinct athletic activity.

It started with aid climbing, where special climbing equipment was used to scale what were once considered impossible walls in the Alps and in Yosemite Valley. Today, aid climbing is less popular and has been replaced by free climbing, where climbers use gear not to facilitate upward movement but simply for protection.

An increasingly popular form of rock climbing is indoor climbing, which is performed indoors on artificial structures that attempt to mimic the outdoor climbing experience. In North America, the first indoor gym opened in 1987, Vertical Club in Seattle, Washington.

Rock Climbing Types

As with any sport celebrating such a rich and global history, rock climbing offers several different variations. Below are the most popular types of rock climbing, and a short explanation of how the rock climbing grading system works.

AID CLIMBING

When it comes to big wall climbing, aid climbing is the preferred method of choice. In this type of climbing, special gear is repeatedly placed and weighted, being used to directly and actively aid a climber’s ascent. This is a more technical kind of rock climbing, where the focus is less on physical prowess and more on proper gear placement and logistics.

Aid climbing is different from free climbing, where a climber uses his or her own physical strength and skill to climb vertically, relying only on gear as a passive safety precaution.

TOP-ROPE CLIMBING

Generally the most accessible style of climbing for beginners, top-rope climbing involves a belay system that resembles a pulley, where an anchor has been placed at the top of the route, and a rope runs from the climber up through the anchor and back down to a belayer. As the climber makes his or her way up vertically, the belayer takes in the rope’s slack, so in case the climber falls, he or she will fall as short as possible.

The reason this type of climbing is suited for beginners is that aside from knowing a few simple commands, and how to properly wear and tie into a harness, the climber can focus solely on climbing up, rather than having to deal with any kind of technical gear, clipping into bolts, etc.

LEAD CLIMBING

Unlike top-rope climbing, where the climber is supported by an anchor at the top of the climb, a lead climber might actually be anchored into the wall at a point lower than he or she is climbing. As you might imagine, this is a bit more dangerous, because if a lead climber falls, he or she falls at a much greater distance than in top-rope climbing.

A lead climber ascends with the rope, frequently clipping into points of protection on the wall using a runner and carabiner. These protection points can either be pre-placed (fixed) bolts, or they can be created while the climber is ascending, using special gear called cams.

In lead climbing, the belayer doesn’t take in the slack. He or she lets it out as the climber inches up vertically. Yet if the climber falls, the belayer takes on the same motion, effectively halting the fall and either allowing the climber to get back onto the wall, or to be belayed down to the bottom.

TRADITIONAL (TRAD) CLIMBING

Traditional, or trad, climbing is a style of climbing in which the climber places protection against falls during the climb itself. There are no fixed bolts! Imagine climbing up a wall, where the last anchor point is 5 feet below you, and you have to hold onto the wall with one arm as you pull out a special kind of gear that sticks into a nail-thin crack in the wall. You then clip yourself into the new anchor and continue climbing upward. Awesome, right?

SPORT CLIMBING

Unlike trad climbing, sport climbing involves pre-placed (permanently fixed) bolts that are used for protection during the climb. The climber ascends upwards, clipping his or her rope into each bolt for protection.

FREE SOLO CLIMBING

This is where rock climbing can get a little nutty.

In this style of climbing, a single person climbs without the use of rope or any kind of protection system. If a fall occurs, the climber will likely die or become seriously injured.

At the moment, the most notable free solo climber in the world is Alex Honnold.

BOULDERING

Bouldering is done without a rope. Climbers ascend short, low routes, where the only protection used is a cushioned boulder pad below the route, and sometimes a spotter who helps guide falling climbers away from hazardous areas and onto the pad if necessary.

Here’s a great example of bouldering in Fontainebleau, France.

Rock Climbing Grades

One of the many reasons people like climbing is that it’s easy to measure one’s progress. Climbers give a grade to a climbing route, a grade that describes the danger and difficulty of climbing the route. Different aspects of climbing have their own grading systems, and because climbing is a worldwide sport, different nations have developed their own distinctive grading systems.

In the United States, the Yosemite Decimal System is used. In this system, climbs are assigned a Class (difficulty), a Grade (length) and a Protection (safety) are given. Most beginning climbers are either climbing indoors or on shorter, single-pitch routes where the Grade is the only number really considered.

The Yosemite Decimal System has classes ranging from Class 1 to Class 5. Rock climbing begins at Class 5, and it’s at that level where the Class is subdivided using a series of decimals, numbers and letters to account for the myriad of difficulty levels present in the sport. Today, a rock climb can be as “easy” as a 5.1, or as “difficult” as a 5.15c.

Interestingly enough, the decimal system has evolved quite a bit over time as the boundaries of the sport have been pushed harder and harder. I should also note that due to the history of how routes are set, and who is setting the routes, climbing grades can be highly subjective. A 5.8 in one part of the country, set by one type of climber, might be much easier or more difficult than a 5.8 in another part of the country.

When the Yosemite Decimal System was first introduced, it was generally understood that 5.9 was the hardest possible grade. As the sport developed, and as climbing equipment got lighter and more efficient, the grades increased, and the system expanded to include a 5.10 rating, and then a 5.11 rating.

In the 1960s, as more and more 5.10 and 5.11 routes were pioneered, the climbing community realized that further subdivisions were necessary to delineate the various levels of difficulty within a given level. It was then that subdivisions became annotated with letters, in an intuitive system that looks like this:  5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 5.10d, 5.11a, 5.11b, and so on.

To date, the most difficult rock climb in the world is a 5.15c in Oliana, Spain, climbed by both Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra.

Gear, Equipment and Technology

There’s a lot more that goes into rock climbing than simply hoisting yourself up and over ledges and steep crags. In order to make sure you’re well prepared for your next planned (or unplanned) climbing trip, we’ve put together a “packing list” of sorts with our favorite products. Note: this packing list does not currently contain more technical rock climbing gear like cams, nuts, quickdraws, ropes, etc.

ROCK CLIMBING CHALK

There are four types of climbing chalk, so which type is best for you? Well each type provides different benefits for different climbing needs. Before you head out to purchase anything, here’s a brief overview to get you more familiarized with the different types of chalks.

1. Blocks of Chalk

This is probably the most common form. It started out as a way for gymnasts and weightlifters to keep their hands dry and then the practice was introduced to rock climbers and boulderers.

Chalk blocks are easy to use and can be bought for very cheap! They’re great for crumbling up and putting in your chalk bag.

Top Pick:

a) GSC is known for their high quality, multi-purpose chalk blocks. At about $20 a pound you can’t go wrong, it’ll last you a long time! We think the Amazon ratings speak for themselves.

2. Chalk Balls

Chalk balls are basically small mesh sacks filled with powdered chalk. The balls last a long time, however it can be difficult to completely coat your hands in chalk which is why most climbers will use both chalk balls and blocks of chalk, particularly on long outdoor climbs.

Chalk balls are the best for indoor climbing. The mesh bag allows for easy chalk application while also minimizing the amount of chalk dust that is released into the air. If you plan on doing some indoor climbs you should definitely invest in some chalk balls!

Top Picks:

a) Black Diamond Non-Refillable Chalk Shot

Great for even the most humid of days, Black Diamond is well known for their reliable products.

b) PrimoChalk

These chalk balls were actually featured in the 2010 Crossfit Games. They are made with a special anti-bacterial formula that lasts about twice as long as your standard chalk. For just under $30 you get a 4-pack of chalk balls!

3. Powdered Chalk

If you don’t want to crush up your block of chalk, you can buy powdered chalk for your chalk bag. While powdered chalk is a great option, it is more expensive than just getting a block of chalk and breaking it up yourself and can easily spill out of your chalk bag.

While sometimes not allowed in indoor climbing gyms, powdered chalk can be a good option for outdoor climbers!

Top Pick:

a) Mad Rock Addiction Loose Chalk provides you with the ability to grip anything! This is a good product that never lets its users down.

4. Liquid Chalk

If you are planning on climbing indoors, liquid chalk will be your best friend! You simply squirt the liquid onto your hands, once the liquid dries, a white substance will appear on your skin and you are set to go! Some climbers add a little extra block chalk just to be safe.

Liquid chalk is great for indoor climbing and is super easy to use without all the mess of regular chalk.

Top Pick:

a) Hand Armor Liquid Chalk is known for its long-lasting, antibacterial formula. This small 8 oz. bottle packs a serious punch against competitor brands.

HAND & WRIST TRAINING

As a climber, it’s important to keep your hands and wrists strong so that you can adequately support your body. Many rock climbers and boulderers practice hand and wrist exercises to maintain flexibility and strength.

Top Picks:

a) Finger Master Hand Strengthener: Fully Adjustable Tension with Copper

This product is designed to improve finger, hand, wrist and forearm strength and dexterity for those long climbs. The 5 piston technology means that the device will fit any hand size. The Finger Master Hand Strengthener simulates real life scenarios for effective conditioning.

Pros: This cool little contraption is great for those on a budget as it only costs $16.50! The Finger Master Hand Strengthener also makes you look like a serious, professional rock climber so you can brag to your friends that you’re really an expert.

Cons: Not really any cons for this one. Check out the reviews for yourself here on Amazon and let us know what you think!

b) Heavy Grips Set of 3

I’m sure you’ve seen these nifty little devices around before and wondered if they actually worked. Well we’re here to tell you that yes they do and they’re especially great for strength training. The Heavy Grips system of handgrippers are made in increments of 50lbs from 100lbs to 350lbs so that you can train your hands, wrists and forearms like you would any other body part. Check them out on Amazon here!

Pros: These handgrippers may look small but they definitely require some strength and will give your hands, wrists and forearms a good workout.

Cons: They might be hard to grip so you may want to wear gloves with them.

c) Gripmaster 2-Pack Blue (Light Tension) And Red (Medium Tension)

This one is great for isolating your individual fingers to get the most out of your strength training. It packs 4 different resistance levels so you can build up endurance in your fingers, hands, wrists and forearms.

Pros: It’s easy to use and the varying levels of resistance provide a great setup for gaining or regaining strength at an easy pace. Plus, you can do one finger at a time to really isolate those muscles!

Cons: Hm…we had a hard time finding any cons for this one. Try it out and give us your feedback! You can find it on Amazon here.

HARNESSES

If you’re in the market for a new harness, we’ve got some good options that are sure to satisfy! The key here is quality material that will hold up for a long time through all your climbs. Depending on the type of climbing you’re interested in, whether its sport climbing or traditional climbs on big walls, you’ll want to choose your harness accordingly. Here we provide a few harnesses that are best for different types of climbing styles and needs to give you the most comfortable support possible.

Top Picks:

a) Singing Rock Guru

This harness is excellent for a wide variety of body shapes and sizes. The wider leg loops make it easy to sit in for those longer climbs, especially if you want to take a couple picture breaks! Plus the plastic buckles make answering nature’s call hassle free. You can’t beat the price either! on Amazon, the Singing Rock Guru can be yours for under $50.

b) Mammut Women’s Togira Light Climbing Harness

This harness has a great fit and features! Although it is a bit pricier than the Singing Rock Guru, the Mammut Togira Harness is the first women’s specific harness that won unanimous praise for the waistbelt and leg loops. This product is designed to be lightweight and strong enough for alpine ascents. There are also two attachment points for ice scrw holders and easily-detachable leg loop risers.

This harness is definitely a good investment, however, even though the leg loops are elastic, they are not adjustable so you need to take into account how many layers you plan on wearing when purchasing the harness. Check it out on Amazon!

c) Trango Liberty Harness

The Trango Liberty Harness is known for its exceptional comfort. The wide padded waist band is great for protecting against unexpected slips and falls while climbing. It comes with four gear loops and an adjustable drop-seat. It’s a great, versatile harness that puts comfort first. Check it out on Amazon!

CLIMBING SHOES

A rock climber’s most precious piece of gear! While intermediate and advanced rock climbers require shoes specific to the style of climbing they’re regularly engaging in, beginner climbers simply need a good quality, tight-fitting (but comfortable) pair of shoes.

Rock climbing shoes should fit like a glove, taking a handful of sessions to break in. One trick I’ve found helpful is to shower in the shoes when I first get them!

Top Picks:

a) FiveTen Men’s Galileo Climbing Shoe

This stiff and supportive shoe was designed for high-level performance climbers.

Pros: It’s lightweight (only 7.2oz.), has a Stealth ONYX sole for maximum grip.

Cons: Some people have reported that these shoes don’t fit true to size, but we’ll let you be the judge! Let us know what you think.

b) Scarpa Boostic Climbing Shoe

This shoe is known for its high friction toe patch for toe hooking on steep verts or overhangs.

Pros: Great for challenging ascents. Provides a secure, tight fit and great for heel and toe hooking.

Cons: More expensive than other options, very arched which may pose as a turn off to some.

SKIN CARE

Chalk is great for climbers. It keeps your skin dry so you can get a firm hold while you’re climbing. However, dry skin any time other than when you’re climbing isn’t so desirable. That’s why there are a few great skin care products out there to keep your skin healthy.

Top Picks:

a) Climb On!

This all natural skin repair balm is probably the best of the best. It’s used by professional climbers everywhere to keep their skin nice and smooth.

Pros: non-toxic formula and is completely bio-dregradable. No synthetics, fillers, or fragrances.

Cons: Can be a little expensive (although our friends over at Amazon have it for a pretty good price) and can feel a bit greasy to some.

b) Joshua Tree Organic Climbing Salve

Here’s another all natural blend of healing botanicles for your dry, cracked skin. It’s great for treating cuts, abrasions, and chapped skin.

Pros: Trusted formula that gets the job done!

Cons: This one is actually pretty expensive and greasier than other options.

c) O’Keeffe’s Working Hands Cream

This hand balm works to help your skin retain moisture and repair cracked, dry skin while balancing your skin’s pH.

Pros: Very inexpensive, is easy to apply and is not as greasy as the other options.

Cons: This one doesn’t have a scent!

BRUSHES

Bouldering problems see a lot of traffic and therefore you may find chalk buildup, grease, and shoe rubber left behind while climbing. In order to ensure a safe and comfortable climb you’ll want to have a brush with you to get rid of any unwanted grime.

a) Wolf Pack Climbing Lycan Brush

At just $8.95, the Wolf Pack Climbing Lycan Brush is compact and sturdy enough to brush off any grease or buildup you may find on a given bouldering problem.

Pros: Boar’s hair is durable and the brush is compact so you can take it anywhere. This brush also has a built-in file for your hands and fingers.

Cons: The handle isn’t flexible.

Top Rock Climbing Resources

Below are our favorite rock climbing resources on the Internet superhighway:

RockClimbing.com – over 100,000 climbs listed, as well as an active forum

Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, 8th Edition – if you’re interested in learning more about rock climbing and mountaineering, then this is your bible; an amazing book with illustrations, images and clear explanations

Access Fund – a national advocacy organization that keeps U.S. climbing areas open and conserves the climbing environment

Extreme Rock Climbing Training – a resource I put together about how to become a stronger climber

Alan Perlman

Lead Adventurer at Nerve Rush
For three years, Alan traveled to 60+ countries as an international cost-of-living surveyor. Back in New York City, when he's not running, rock climbing or geeking out about UAV drones, Alan runs a marketing agency that helps companies generate more sales-ready leads using inbound marketing techniques.

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