A Beginner's Guide to Rock Climbing

Climber woman standing in front of a stone rock outdoor
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We see you, person trying to find a beginner’s guide to rock climbing from a quick search because your friend/family member/love interest just invited you to the local climbing gym, and now you have no idea what you’ve agreed to do. Lucky for you, this guide breaks down the terms you’ll need to know (rock climbing has some specific lingo), types of rock climbing, gear to bring (though you can usually most of it), best climbing spots, and much more. You’ll also want to learn about rating systems, but that will come later. For now, stick to routes rated 5.6 to 5.8 for climbing and VB to V2 for bouldering.

While the amount of physical strength required, strange vocabulary, and price of purchasing gear might seem daunting, just remember that, eventually, it will be worth it. The camaraderie with fellow climbers, the views (once you start outdoor climbing), the adrenaline rush, and the feeling of accomplishment from actually completing a route turn many a first time climber into a lifelong lover of the sport.

Types of Rock Climbing

Most rock climbing can be separated into two categories: free climbing and free soloing. In free climbing, a climber hooks into a harness attached to a rope and climbs a mountain with the aid of their belay partner. The climber places their hands and feet in the rock face’s natural foot and handholds to reach the top of the rock wall or mountain. This style of climbing can be broken up into sport and trad climbing. Alternatively, the other major category of rock climbing is free soloing, a style in which no rope or safety harness is worn by the climber. The climber ascends the rock wall or mountain using only their body and skill to not fall.

Some styles of climbing include:

  • Sport climbing: A lead climber will affix the top of the rope to their harness on sport routes. Fixed anchors and bolts allow the lead to clip in as they climb a pre-determined route. Popular in both indoor and outdoor climbing, the lead climber can set an anchor once on top, then be lowered down via belay. Afterwards, subsequent climbers can climb via top roping.
  • Trad climbing: In trad (traditional) climbing, the lead climber places protection, like cams and nuts into the wall, which they then clip into to create a route for the next climber to follow. Unlike sport climbing, the routes in trad climbing are not pre-determined, and the last climber up cleans the route by removing the protection the lead climber placed.
  • Top roping: Very beginner friendly, this style of climbing connects the rope from the climber to the anchor to the belayer before the climber even leaves the ground. If a climber falls, the distance is much smaller than in other styles of climbing. Top roping is commonly done in rock gyms, but can also be done when outdoor climbing and the anchor can first be reached by hiking or scrambling to the top of the route.
  • Aid climbing: Climbers place protection as well as an aider (like a webbing ladder), then pull themselves up with the use of the aider. This differs from other types of climbing as an aid climber primarily relies on the aider and protection to get them to the top, instead of by pulling themselves up via natural hand and footholds.
  • Bouldering: A type of climbing without ropes, bouldering routes are called “problems” and stay low to the ground, with most going only about 12 to 15 feet in the air, though some reach as high as 20 feet. Climbers fall onto heavily cushioned crashpads, and climbing partners aren’t required, as there’s no belaying needed.
  • Deep water soloing: This is free soloing over deep water. The water underneath breaks a climber’s fall, making it a much safer form of free soloing than free soloing over rocks. Deep water soloing can be combined with cliff jumping, as jumping is the easiest way to get down from a cliff or rock ledge once the climber reaches the top.

Key Rock Climbing Terms

Anchor: This is where the rope attaches at the top of the route to a point with fixed bolts or protection. An anchor can also be made mid-climb for protection.

Approach: The hike to the base of the climb.

Beta: Detailed info about the climb or part of a climbing sequence provided by a guidebook or a climber who just climbed the route.

Clean: When a climber takes the protection out of the route as they climb it, they “clean it” leaving no protection behind.

Crag: A small rock climbing area, usually with several climbing routes.

Crux: The toughest portion of a climb.

Pitch: The length of a climb that can be done in one rope length. If more than one rope length is needed, it is a multi-pitch route.

Pro: Short for “protection” this is any piece of equipment used to secure the rope to the rock to prevent the climber from falling.

Scrambling: The middle ground between hiking and rock climbing, scrambling doesn’t require a rope but does requires both hands and feet.

Take: What a climber yells when they want their belayer to give the rope tension.

Belay Certification

To belay in rock climbing gyms in the U.S., you will need to have a belay certification due to insurance. It’s also useful to have a belay certification when climbing outside, so that other more experienced climbers in your group don’t have to teach you how to do it. A belay certification simply means that you have passed a test in which you put a harness on, showed the rope on belay, properly tied a figure 8 retrace knot with a backup, performed
pre-climbing safety check and commands, belayed, caught simulated falls, and showed
proper lowering technique. Most gyms have a belaying class that runs anywhere from 75 minutes to three hours, depending on the type of belaying being taught. At the end, you can take the test and ideally, receive your certification.

Gear to Bring

What gear you’ll need climbing will depend on what kind of climbing you’re doing. Always bring water and sufficient snacks, as well as finger tape for covering any cuts you might get on the climb.

  • Sport climbing: a helmet, climbing shoes, chalk and chalk bag, harness rope, approach shoes, quickdraws, and belay device (a Grigri-style assisted braking device, as well as an ATC).
  • Trad climbing: This style of climbing requires a set of gear known as a “rack” and consists of cams, nuts, alpine long slings, non-locking carabiners, locking carabiners, a nut tool, and a cordelette. You’ll also want to take the gear listed above for sport climbing, as well as a prussik cord (for rappelling safety).
  • Bouldering: For indoor bouldering, you’ll only need climbing shoes, approach shoes, chalk, and a chalk bag. For outdoor bouldering, you’ll use the same, plus a crashpad and a head torch, if climbing at night.
  • Deep water soloing: You can take climbing shoes, but it’s also possible to climb barefoot. Other than a swimsuit, you might want a boat to access different routes along the water which might not be possible or harder to access by land.

Best Rock Climbing Spots

  • Yosemite National Park: Located in California, the granite slabs of Yosemite draw climbers from all over the world, making it the mecca of American rock climbing. Pothole Dome in Tuolumne Meadows is one of the most beginner friendly routes, and the Yosemite Mountaineering School offers gear rental and rock climbing classes for beginners.
  • Red River Gorge: About an hour’s drive from Lexington, Kentucky, Red River Gorge covers part of Daniel Boone National Forest and the Appalachian Mountains with 3,000 climbing routes up Corbin Sandstone rock. Beginners climbers should head to The Nursery, where most of the climbs are rated around 5.6, though in total, there are 400 routes rated 5.9 or lower throughout the gorge. 
  • Hueco Tanks State Park: Some of the best bouldering in the world can be found right outside El Paso, Texas in Hueco Tanks. Routes range from V0 to V14, meaning both novices and experts can find plenty of problems here, oftentimes right next to each other. Enjoy the Native American rock art, cactus-filled landscape, and crowd-free routes, as the Texas Sate Park’s Department only lets in 70 people per day to the North Mountain, where most of the bouldering problems are located.

Rock Climbing Tips

  • Use your whole body to climb. New climbers tend to climb only with their hands. Think about using your feet to push or stand up on rocks to distribute the effort throughout the body.
  • Use your feet, not your knees to climb. Once you figure out how to climb with more of your lower body, you might be tempted to put your knee on a ledge that you think your foot can’t quite reach, however this will lead to painful bruises.
  • Keep your body close to the wall. This will help to keep your center of gravity balanced.
  • Keep your arms straight when resting on the route. Bent arms cause you to use more muscle engagement.
  • When you fall in bouldering, land with bent legs as opposed to straight, to lessen the shock on the knees.
  • Climb with quiet feet. Often, new climbers use lots of energy by looking for a foothold by searchingly scrapping their foot against the rock. Study the route before lifting your foot. Determine where you think the optimal foothold will be, then lift and calmly place it.
  • Adhere to Leave No Trace etiquette. Pack trash and gear in and out of the crag.