Ever wonder how to get into outdoor rock climbing? The equipment, safety systems, and know-how required can be complicated and perplexing if you have not been on an outing with a friend or climbing group on an outdoor rock climbing trip before. Check out our infographic to get an idea of the basics to get started climbing outside:
How to get into Outdoor Rock Climbing – Climbing from Gym to Crag
Getting started climbing outside can be challenging, but rewarding. There are a few things you will have to do, and equipment you will have to acquire to get started. Having completed, and spent some time belaying and lead climbing in a rock climbing gym is recommended before considering climbing outside. Besides the essential equipment of a harness, belay device, rock climbing shoes and helmets, you have to be aware of the rules and ethics of the particular park you are visiting. Some climbing areas are fully outfitted with bolts in the rock, where climbing is a regular and accepted activity and the nature of the rock allows safe bolting. Other areas either have rock that is too hard to bolt, or have historically been climbed without bolts and continue the natural style of ascent, known as “trad” or “traditional climbing” and require additional, temporary and removable anchoring devices. Most importantly, many areas are closed to climbing whether there are acceptable rock features or not, for a variety of reasons including protecting wildlife such as snakes, bats, and birds that rely on the specific cliff environment. Each state, particularly in the Midwest has it’s own take on how “safe” climbers are and whether it is an accepted activity. Learn about Midwest Rock Climbing by checking out one of our guides >> Approaching the sport seriously, with a respect for the park rules and environment is the only way to ensure current areas stay open to climbing and future areas open up.
So, what are some things you need to know to go from climbing gym to crag? A basic knowledge of common climbing knots is recommended. Familiarizing oneself with the climbing knots, safety systems, and rigging rules to follow for anchors to be safe, equalized in their load-bearing, and redundant in connections is paramount. Most importantly, it is paramount to find others who regularly climb outside and approach them for help as mentors. No amount of studying climbing instructional books, internet instructional videos, and even anchor-building classes can substitute time with experienced climbers, double-checking your knowledge both by asking questions about what they are doing and having them check your knots, anchors, gear placements and other safety considerations. Experience is key here, and the more areas you visit, climb and different circumstances you deal with will make you a more competent outdoor climber. It is also important to note, outdoor rock climbing is DANGEROUS. Climbing is a serious and dangerous activity. Please take the time to fully understand the risks and learn proper safety and anchor building from experienced climbers. Attend a group climbing outing with your local climbing organization or university, or consider hiring a guide service. Never compromise your safety or others’ if you are not sure what you are doing. Never blindly trust others’ abilities and ask questions if you are unsure – you are responsible for your safety just as much and accept the risk by voluntarily participating in the sport. This article is not intended to and should not be misunderstood to intend to teach you to climb safely or prevent injury or death, and cannot be a substitute for the knowledge you need to protect yourself or others. It is simply written to give an idea of what equipment one may need to begin learning to climb outdoors safely. The author holds no responsibility for you pursuing climbing safely and mitigating rick completely. That being said, climbing is a technical, physically demanding as well as balance-y art form and way of navigating rugged terrain, cliffs, and will allow you to experience parks and areas from vantage points no-one else is allowed. It tests you physically, builds mental toughness and develops technical competence. It is worth the journey to learn to climb outside, competently and safely, but it will take some work.
Outdoor Rock Climbing Equipment – The Essentials
Outdoor rock climbing starts with the same basics a gym climber may already have on hand. A helmet, rock climbing shoes, and a harness. Don’t skip the helmet part. As a climber, you can swing out into rock and features that can knock you out. As a belayer, the climber above can dislodge rock accidentally and take you out, too! Rock climbing shoes come in various styles suited to different climbing – from semi-inclined, balance-y “slab” climbing, to steep, overhung climbing certain shoes perform the job better than others. Harnesses vary in design from bulkier, more comfortable harnesses to thin, ultralight models for lighter carrying and climbing, as well as packing. Helmets vary in lightness and breathability, as well as minute details like straps and headlamp attachments.
Outdoor Rock Climbing – The Protection System and Belaying
The main component of the climbing safety system is the rope. It is not used to get you “up” the climb, but rather to arrest a fall if one slips up, gets fatigued, etc. The rope connects you to your anchor system, and the belayer who manages the “slack” of the rope through their belay or “brake” device. You need to buy a A UIAA rated, brand name climbing rope. There is no excuse for buying cheap, Chinese garbage that is not made by companies who spend time and money researching and testing their equipment. No piece of safety equipment should be a knock-off of the real thing, everything you use is designed to prevent the irreversible – a deadly fall from a high place. You will need to know belaying skills and how to tie into the rope.
Outdoor Rock Climbing – Anchoring to the Rock
If the climbing area is fitted with bolts for climbing, known as a “sport climbing” area, you can lead or top-rope (where allowed) by attaching quick-draws to the anchor bolts. “Quick Draws” are what the name implies, a quick way to ascend pre-bolted climbs. They consist of two climbing rated carabiners attached with a rated nylon or dyneema sling. One carabiner attaches to the bolts in the wall and the other the rope runs through from the belayer to the climber. There are a variety of things that can go wrong here, including a “back-clip” where the carabiners unclip themselves. Do not lead climb routes without knowing how to lead climb from the gym, and clean anchors outdoors. Always research, and adhere to park rules and regulations.
Anchor Building Skills – Where to Begin
If the area is not bolted, then you will need to know how to build anchors using natural protection such as trees or large boulders or bring artificial protection like camming units and passive pro (nuts, hexes). An anchor should follow one of many safety “acronyms” such as SAFE or EARNEST which have the same intention. The goal is to make anchors that utilize multiple, equally sufficient anchor points, to make the anchor “redundant” (if one point breaks, or one knot is tied incorrectly or one piece of material rubs through and cuts, there is another. Beyond this, an anchor must prevent extreme loading scenarios such as one point blowing and shock loading the others when they catch the weight, and equally loading the points “equalized” Learn more by purchasing a copy of an anchor building book and building anchors with a mentor. You don’t want to screw this part up and get yourself or somebody killed or injured. These rules are not an infallible or shortcut to all safety considerations, and understanding what can happen to your anchor when weighted and used throughout the session is important.
Artificial Protection – Outdoor Rock Climbing Gear
In certain climbing areas and anchor rigging scenarios, building anchors by slinging large boulders or trees is not always an option (although should be preferred option) and anchor points need to be built with specialized, temporary “protection” pieces. A variety of devices exist that can be placed in rock cracks temporarily and removed after using, including active camming units that expand in rock cracks and passive protection which is wedged into constrictions in rock cracks. You need to read the instructions carefully and know how to place them to maximize holding power, and have an experienced climber evaluate your protection placements.
Outdoor Climbing – Rely on Experience and Leadership
Rock-climbing is not learned overnight. The best knowledge comes from learning from experienced climbers, reading the manufacturer’s documentation and taking classes. Never trust your life to a protection system you are uncertain of, it is not worth the risk.
Climbing is a serious and dangerous activity. Please take the time to fully understand the risks and learn proper safety and anchor building from experienced climbers. Attend a group climbing outing with your local climbing organization or university, or consider hiring a guide service. Never compromise your safety or others’ if you are not sure what you are doing. Never blindly trust others’ abilities and ask questions if you are unsure – you are responsible for your safety just as much and accept the risk by voluntarily participating in the sport.
Make sure you understand the rules and regulations of individual climbing areas as well. Learn more by checking out one of our guides to Midwest Rock Climbing >>