Disclaimer: This article is intended as a resource for outdoor climbing beginners. More advanced climbers (even those who have never climbed outside) might find some helpful tips, but don’t be surprised if it’s more of a review. If you have any helpful tips to share from your experience, please add them in the comments.
The sport of rock climbing is growing. And it’s growing quickly.
According to Climbing Business Journal, the U.S. indoor climbing industry grew 10 percent in 2015, with 40 new gyms built across the country. Thousands of people are trying the sport for the first time and are quickly discovering the social and physical benefits of scrambling up a climbing wall with a group of friends.
But what if you want to go a step further? What if you want to actually ROCK climb?
Making the transition from indoor to outdoor climbing can be intimidating. There are hundreds of new factors to take into consideration: what gear to bring, how to use that gear, where to climb, who to climb with, and on and on.
Where should you start?
Right here! Sifting through this list of factors is kind of like purging your worldly possessions every once in awhile—focus on what’s important, and keep it with you. We’ll try to give you some clarity on that, so that you can get comfortable climbing outside ASAP.
It’s rough out there. Even if you’re only walking 50 yards to an 8-foot V0, you never know. There could be rattlesnakes in the brush. Your friend might blow chalk in your eyes. A meteor could fall from the sky.
But in all seriousness, learn about the dangers you might encounter before you climb outside for the first time. Some potential circumstances you may encounter are:
- Bouldering landings that are almost never flat
- Rock that breaks from applied pressure, or that falls from above (wearing a helmet is NEVER a bad idea)
- A dangerous approach hike
- Overwhelming weather and other naturally occurring events—this includes lightning, heavy rain and flooding, avalanches, etc.
- Skin injuries. You’re not climbing on soft plastic anymore; rock can tear you up! Read how to care for your skin right here.
Always make sure you’re over-prepared with gear, water, and food. Hauling a slightly heavier pack is a small price to pay for having all your bases covered.
Bottom Line: Climbing outside is dangerous. Even though the worst is unlikely to happen, be prepared for it! Admittedly, it’s difficult to know what to expect from an area you’ve never visited—a fact that can be almost entirely mitigated by the next step on the list!
2. Start outside with an experienced climber.
This is BY FAR the most important step in the transition process. If you know someone willing to take you climbing outside, stop reading this and go. GO NOW! You’ll learn more in a few hours of hands-on experience and training than you ever will through reading.
But if you’re not so lucky (like the vast majority of newer climbers), you may not know someone who’s willing to teach you how to be an outside climber—yet! If you have access to a climbing gym, you can find someone who climbs outside. Be social, climb with people, do some basic networking—you’ll eventually find a group of people who would be psyched to take you out. Some gyms even offer outside climbing days with staff members as a benefit of membership.
On the other hand, maybe you live in an area of the country where outdoor climbing opportunities are simply nonexistent. This is becoming an increasingly common circumstance, and more gyms are popping up in urban areas as a response. There’s still hope for outdoor adventurers, though! The road trip has always been a huge part of climbing culture. Get involved. Find a group of psyched individuals and crush the 10-hour drive to the nearest crag. It’s not that far...
You might also look to the internet for social resources. Make a post on the Mountain Project forum to see if any locals would be willing to meet up with you. Gociety is also an excellent resource to meet people with similar outdoor interests. Many well-established climbing areas also have Facebook groups where you can meet people and set up climbing days.
Bottom Line: Climbing outside with an experienced group or individual is hugely beneficial. All of the factors that go into outdoor climbing—some of which you’ll find later on in following sections of this article—are much easier to learn with the help of someone who’s already familiar. Find a mentor!
3. Climb somewhere with many established climbs of all grades.
Give yourself as many options as possible for your first outdoor climbing experience. If you’re lucky enough to live near a climbing area that’s extremely well-developed, like the Red River Gorge, Bishop, or Colorado's Front Range, go there first! This will give you the most wide-ranging experience possible. The more climbs you can try, the faster you’ll get accustomed to climbing on rock.
If you’re far, far away from those big, cushy areas, go wherever you can. You might be surprised how close you are to nearby crags (people of the Great Plains and other relatively flat areas...you might have to get creative). Head straight to the closest area with the highest concentration of climbs. Don’t be discouraged—small, local areas can be more fun than huge ones. This especially applies to those of us who would rather not learn embarrassing new things right in front of a crowd of people, which is not an unlikely scenario in a climbing area like Bishop…
Bottom Line: Climb at the nearest area with a high concentration of routes or boulder problems.
4. Try easy climbs first. Then repeat them.
Even if you crush V8 and 5.12 in the gym, you’ll find that climbing on rock feels WAY different than on plastic. You might (actually, no, you will) also learn that the grades at your home gym feel nothing like grades at your local climbing area. Crush 5.10b in the gym? Hop on some 5.8s outside and see how they feel!
Go for the easy climbs first. Nobody will think less of you. You’ll probably avoid freak injuries. And the chances of making a fool of yourself will plummet.
Most importantly, you’ll get a feel for the rock type and climbing style of the area. Remember getting acclimated to the walls and route setting at your gym? The same goes for outdoor areas—every single one is different, and each requires you to adapt.
Bottom Line: Before you try hard, get used to your area’s climbing. Try easy routes, then repeat them as many times as you need to feel comfortable.
5. Practice falling.
Do yourself a favor. Hell, do your loved ones a favor: take some practice falls.
When it comes to falling through the air while climbing outside, there’s a slew of factors you need to take into consideration. You’re not taking careless bouldering falls onto an ocean of foam padding. You’re not taking whippers into an empty space that’s part of the gym’s design. You’re deep in the rugged, unflinching outside world, which doesn’t care if you get hurt. Learn how to protect yourself.
If you’re bouldering, try to climb in a small, organized group of friends. Being 15 feet up an outdoor boulder is infinitely more frightening than in the gym—but having multiple spotters beneath you can be a huge mental relief.
For the sake of keeping your body intact, try boulder problems with FLAT landings—or as close to flat as you can find. Make a double layer of pads if you can, with no large gaps between them. Once your landing is set up underneath an easy warm-up, start taking practice falls. Trust us, it won’t take you long to figure out the difference between falling on crash pads and gym flooring!
If you’re climbing on a rope, you’re probably already familiar with the term “exposure.” Even in the gym—and especially when you’re first getting into the sport—you can feel the elevation when you’re up high, there’s a visceral clinch in your gut, the air around you is utterly wide open and all-encompassing, and, the earth below is far away and wants to kill you.
Needless to say, this feeling is magnified a few times when you’re sport climbing outside. Getting used to falling while you’re exposed is an absolute must: pick a route that’s well within your abilities, find a nice spot well above a clip, and let your body fly into open space. You might feel like you cannot let go of the wall, but you must—taking an uncontrolled fall when you’ve never fallen before is much, much worse.
Bottom Line: Spare yourself the horror of falling when you don’t know how to fall. Practice!
6. Respect the Outdoors.
Being a good steward to the climbing areas we love is just as important as the climbing itself. Before you start climbing outside, understand that these places are ancient, delicate, and defenseless against human carelessness!
Besides the Leave No Trace ethical guidelines to abide by, there are some climbing-specific traps to avoid as well:
- Unless it’s physically impossible, don’t leave climbing gear at the crag while you’re not there. That means quickdraws, crash pads, ropes, etc.
- Brush away your tick marks. Check out our blog post on how NOT to use chalk for rock climbing for more on this.
- Don’t damage the rock, the flora, or the fauna. Respect the landscape and the creatures who call it home.
- Park your car in appropriate spots, and don’t overcrowd climbing areas. Unless your options are very limited, there’s usually somewhere else to climb if one spot is saturated.
Want to truly become involved in stewardship? Check out the Access Fund’s ROCK Project, or events like the Red Rock Rendezvous in Las Vegas, NV. These are large, highly organized events that promote outdoor stewardship, cleanup, and awareness. There’s always free beer, too!
Bottom Line: Stewardship ranges from simply following Leave No Trace guidelines to active involvement in outdoor cleanup events. Respect and protect your climbing areas!
We hope your foray into the realm of outside climbing is fun, exciting, and painless. Getting started is the hardest part—but once you do, you might ask yourself why you haven’t been climbing outside since the start. The gym has its perks, for sure. But there’s nothing quite like climbing outside.