All the Gear You Need to Go Rock Climbing

Climber takes picture of teammate ascending cliff
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Whether you’re beginning to sport or trad climb, you’ll need to purchase or borrow some gear to get started, unless you book with a company that provides equipment and an instructor. Sport climbing (climbing on pre-bolted crags) will require slightly less equipment than trad climbing (traditional climbing in which climbers place and remove all of their gear). While having the right gear makes a huge difference in terms of safety and in the kinds of routes you can climb, it’s also essential to have a climbing partner or at least someone in the group you’re climbing with who knows what they’re doing. If you and your climbing partner are both newbies, book with a climbing company first to go on some routes with an instructor and learn the basics of climbing technique, rappelling, belaying, placing equipment, and cleaning a route.  

Essential Gear to Bring on Every Climb

  • Harness: A climbing harness consists of a waist belt, leg loops, buckle, tie-in loop, belay loop, gear loops, haul loop, and a leg loop cross piece. Both climbers and the belayers need to wear a harness during a climb. Both harnesses will be attached to the rope, with the climber tied in with a figure-eight follow-through knot and the belayer through a locking carabiner attached to the harness' belay loop. The harness is used not only for safety but also to catch and evenly distribute a climber’s weight should they fall; it’s also used to hang all the other gear during a climb.
  • Shoes: Climbing shoes come in a variety of styles with a range of closures. They should fit snugly and give you a slight to great toe curl. Depending on the curve of a shoe, it will be rated as neutral, moderate, or aggressive. While neutral shoes will be more comfortable (and most popular among beginners), moderate and aggressive shoes will angle your foot into a more powerful position, aiding you to climb more challenging routes. Consider the closures of the shoes when making your selections: laces will give you a better fit than Velcro straps, but they’ll be more annoying to take off between climbs.
  • Rope: New climbers will want to use a dynamic, single rope in the 9.5 to 9.9-millimeter range, suitable for sport or trad climbing. “Dynamic” refers to the type of rope, which means it's stretchy and shock-absorbing instead of static, which is stiff. “Single” refers to the rating of the rope, meaning it’s meant to be used by itself and not with other types of rope, such as half ropes or twin ropes. Buying a rope in the 9.5 to 9.9-millimeter diameter range means the rope will be more durable and easier to belay (though also heavier than shorter diameters). As for the length, 60 meters is standard for outdoor climbing.
  • Chalk: Whether you’re climbing during a hot, sunny day or start to get nervous on a route, you’ll end up with sweaty hands at some point during your climb, making the rock hard to grip. Remedy this by attaching an easily reachable bag of chalk to your harness, then reach into it to dust your hands to make them dry. Choose from loose chalk, chalk balls, or liquid chalk and consider whether you want the high or low-end variety. High-end chalk will have a higher concentration of magnesium carbonate and will keep your hands drier for a longer period of time. Low-end doesn’t last as long but is cheaper.
  • Helmet: Falling rock or ice, bumping into an overhead, and crashing into the rock face after slipping could all possibly happen on a route, meaning protecting your head is extremely important when climbing or belaying. Helmets are either hardshell, which are cheap and durable, or shelled foam, which offers more breathability and less weight on the head. Most beginner sport climbers will opt for a hardshell helmet. Test your helmet before you go up by adjusting the straps to fit securely next to your chin, then shake your head to check if it stays in place.
  • Quickdraws: Two carabiners connected by a textile sling form a quickdraw. Quickdraws are used to secure the rope to the route as you climb it. They not only keep the ropes straight and parallel to the route, but they also provide protection and lessen the distance of a potential fall. For sport climbing, you’ll need 12 quickdraws maximum, plus two more for the anchor. You can easily attach quickdraws to your climbing harness via one of the carabiners as you go up, then clip them in as needed. For sport climbing, you’ll want a variety of short and medium quickdraws.
  • Belay device: Both sport and trad climbing require a belay device. Having a belay device you can easily maneuver is essential for safety in stopping a fall and getting you or your climbing partner off the route. For sport climbing, a Grigri-style assisted braking device, as well as an ATC (a tube device known as an “Air Traffic Controller”), should cover all your rappelling and belaying needs. If you’re trad climbing, always bring an ATC and prussik cord (short, soft accessory chords of varying thicknesses) to assist with rescue or rappel safety. Also, familiarize yourself with how to properly use them before getting on the rock face.
  • Rack: For trad climbing, you'll purchase or share with your climbing partner a set of gear known as a “rack.” Racks include about 6 to 12 cams, 10 to 12 nuts, some alpine long slings, 20 to 30 non-locking carabiners, 4 locking carabiners, a nut tool, and a cordelette. These items help you place and clean a route as you go. Nuts are metal wedges of different sizes and shapes with metal cables. Cams are spring-loaded metal devices with axles and lobes. You will wedge both cams and nuts into cracks to secure the route and then use a nut tool to remove them. Slings consist of a webbing section sewn into a loop. Use them to extend quickdraws and decrease friction on a route. Finally, a cordelette, essentially a long sling, is an accessory chord used for setting up an anchor.
  • Approach shoes: A cross between climbing and hiking shoes, approach shoes are worn to hike to the climbing route. An approach shoe helps a climber traverse the brush and root-strewn paths of a forest, as well as scramble up a rock face to reach a route. The top part of the shoe mirrors that of a hiking shoe, while the bottom has sticky rubber like a climbing shoe. You can wear socks with these shoes, and your feet should be flat (as opposed to curling as they would in a climbing shoe). Alternatively, use hiking boots, tennis shoes, or even Converse All-Stars as approach shoes.
  • Water and snacks: Stay hydrated while climbing by taking a sufficient amount of water with you. If you’re doing several short sport climbs, fill a CamelBack or 32-ounce water bottle for the day. For longer climbs, especially trad climbs in the heat of summer, a gallon of water for the day should suffice. Before climbing, avoid fats and stick to carbs. During the climb, eat some form of protein within the first 30 minutes, and snack on carbs every hour and a half or so to up your energy levels by upping your glycogen. Bananas, nut butter, hard-boiled eggs, dried fruits, jerky, trail mix, and energy gels are a few climbing-friendly foods.

What to Wear Climbing

What you wear climbing will depend greatly on the style of climbing, when you climb, and where the route is, but always bring layers. If it’s hot, wear a t-shirt or tank top and shorts that go to your mid-thigh. If not, chaffing can easily occur from the harness, plus part of your butt might end up hanging out once the belayer starts giving you tension. If it’s cold, wear stretchy, durable pants and a down jacket. If you expect a cold morning followed by a hot afternoon, yoga or running tights can work well for both types of weather. Don’t wear clothing with buttons or zips that can snag on the crag, and if you have long hair, tie it back securely. If not, it could get easily caught in the gear or even in plants on the rock face.

Tips for Packing Your Gear

Divide the gear into two bags: the rope in one and everything else in the other. This way, the weight of the bags will be equal to carry on the approach, as the rope generally weighs as much as the rest of the gear combined. Put a tarp on top of the rope so that you can place it on the tarp and not in the dirt when you unpack everything. Carry heavy items low in your pack and close to your back for optimal weight distribution. Don’t affix things to the outside of your bags, as outside items can easily snag on branches or trees, fall off, or hinder your movement in general.