Rock Climbing Basics – An Easy Guide to Climbing
The popularity of rock climbing is quickly growing, and for good reason. Climbers get to spend the day outside with friends, challenge themselves physically and mentally (regardless of size or strength), and get a great workout in. Each climbing discipline has its own style as well: bouldering, toproping, sport climbing, trad climbing. I like to consider climbing a sort of active yoga. In fact, we built a climbing wall in the livingroom of an old place and I’d do circuits between the wall and the mat. But that’s aside the point – climbing is just RAD!
Learning how to use gear properly and climb safely is the backbone of the sport. We All Roam has many different climbing courses (on rock and ice) with experienced, professional guides, and that’s the best way to get started. But be sure to take a look at this guide before you sign up – it will help you show up for that rock climbing clinic with the baseline knowledge to quickly start sending new routes.
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Rock Climbing Disciplines
There are several rock climbing disciplines, and then several other sports that incorporate basic climbing and rope skills.
Bouldering: A very physical and powerful form of climbing that does not use ropes. Instead, the climbs are generally under 20ft (except for Highball problems) and the climber works the route without any belayer, relying only on crash pads below in case of a fall. Bouldering has become extremely popular in the last 10 years with the proliferation of climbing gyms.
Sport Climbing: Sport climbing takes two forms, often climbing up faces of rock (instead of cracks).
- Top roping: A form of sport climbing where a rope is set up on the route anchor prior to climbing. Because the rope is supporting the climber from above, falls are generally not very large, making top roping perfect for beginners or for experienced climbers pushing their limits on a route where they can’t yet lead climb.
- Lead climbing: Where the climber works their way up the route, clipping quickdraws into hangars/bolts fixed into the face of the rock. Once the quickdraw is attached, the climber clips the rope through it so that any potential fall distance is minimized as they work their way up the route. The belayer is responsible for keeping slack in the rope fairly tight in order to minimize potential fall distances.
Trad Climbing: Unlike sport climbing, trad climbing requires the climber to set their own protection before clipping in the rope to minimize falls. Routes often follow cracks in the rock, since this offers the opportunity to place cams and nuts (chocks) as protection. Trad climbing also requires more specialized techniques than sport climbing, including jams and footwork.
Ice Climbing: Winter climbing up icy walls and frozen waterfalls. Ice climbing requires specialized alpine gear, including crampons and ice axes. Similar to trad climbing, ice climbing requires the climber to set their own protection and rely on their belayer for safety. Advanced ice climbers often climb mixed routes, combining bare rock with ice.
Other Types of Climbing: Canyoneering builds on climbing skills to descend down river and stream canyons, rappelling down waterfalls. You’ll definitely get wet while canyoneering! Mountaineering is technical hiking in alpine mountain conditions. Due to the challenging weather, conditions and routes, mountaineers often use ropes and protection to help keep themselves and their climbing buddies safe. Some challenging hikes (not quite technical mountaineering) also require roping up for safety during technical sections, like the class 3 hike / class 3 scramble on the Mt. Whitney Mountaineers Route.
Rock Climbing Difficulty Ratings
As a beginner, the difficulty ratings are easy to understand via the systems below. As climbers gain experience and travel more, a new perspective to ratings opens up, where areas that were developed earlier will have ratings that may feel harder (or maybe easier) than more recently developed areas. Joshua Tree and Yosemite National Park are great examples of this.
Below is an overview of the Yosemite Decimal System used for American climb ratings.
Class 1: Basic Hiking
Class 2: Steeper hiking, where hands might be used.
Class 3: Scrambling, where a rope might be used for safety.
Class 4: Basic climbing. Ropes are always recommended due to the exposure, as falls could prove fatal.
Class 5: Where true rock climbing begins, involving a rope, a belayer and use of protection to protect the leader from a long fall.
5.0 – 5.7: Very basic rock climbing.
5.8: Where most outdoor climbs begin, generally on a route with specific handholds and footholds.
5.9: Advanced climbing, often on vertical faces that require proper climbing technique.
5.10 – 5:15: Advanced climbing. These climbs will also have a, b, c, and d ratings to help distinguish difficulties. Active climbers will often work 5.10 and even 5.11 routes, while 5.12, 5.13 and 5.14 are for very serious climbers. Pros climb 5.15. These routes will have progressively smaller holds, larger power moves, overhung faces (including cave ceilings), and other challenging cruxes.
In Europe, routes use the French system of climbing ratings. This system begins at 4 (5.6 in American system) and progresses through 9, also using a, b, and c differentiators, along with a “+” after the letters.
Bouldering Difficulty Ratings
Like rock climbing, there are several rating (or grading) systems in place for bouldering routes. The most popular is the V system. This begins at VB (beginners), then proceeds from V0 through V10.
VB: Bouldering for beginners. This is where boulderers build technique and strength, getting immersed in the sport.
V0: The equivalent of a 5.9 rock climb, meaning these routes generally take some training to work up to.
V1: The equivalent of a 5.10 rock climb, requiring advanced technique and frequent climbing practice.
V2 – V10: Advanced problems for serious boulderers.
Essential Climbing Gear
Rock climbing is a gear-intensive sport, although much more affordable than the gear required for many other adventure sports. Ask any climber about their rack and you’ll see their eyes spark as they begin talking about different quickdraws, doubling up those #1 cams, the best gear for anchors and the latest belay device.
Bouldering requires the least amount of gear, as you only really need shoes. Borrow the chalk bag and crash pads from your friends until you’re ready to invest.
Climbing guides will generally provide or rent the gear you need to begin climbing. But while harnesses are pretty universal, finding the right pair of climbing shoes will really help you stay comfortable and climb better throughout the day.
Take a look at climbers at the crag and you’ll notice that only those on the wall are wearing their climbing shoes. This is because they fit tightly in order to crisply support your weight on thin surfaces. As a result, they’re not comfortable enough to keep on your feet all day long. There are many different climbing shoe styles, with some that have laces and wide toe boxes (more comfortable), and some with very pointed and hooked toes (for aggressive climbing).
As a beginner, try to find a shoe that is comfortable and not too aggressive. If you really catch the climbing bug, you can buy a more aggressive pair of shoes and still keep the first ones for multi-pitch routes, indoor training, etc.
Your harness keeps you safe. You’ll tie the rope into your harness when climbing, and belay your buddy with the belay device attached to the harness. Shop for men’s or women’s styles.
And here it begins… you always could use just one more carabiner! Seriously though, your first locking carabiner is used to secure the belay device to the belay loop on your harness. There are many styles out there, but the key is making sure it is a locking ‘biner.
Your belay device is primarily used to arrest the potential fall your climbing buddy, but it is also used to rappel. There are several styles of belay device, but these are the three most popular: tube, auto-block tube, and assisted-braking (oftentimes called auto-locking). Which one should you buy? There is much debate on this, so we feel it’s best to ask your guide – they know the climbing in the area and the pros/cons of each device.
You need somewhere to keep the chalk that keeps your hands dry! Your chalk bag comes with a little waist strap or is clipped to the back of your harness.
Because we always need more climbing gear. As the climbing bug catches you, you’ll start building your own gear collection. Quickdraws, personal anchor system (runner/webbing/cordelette plus locking caribiner), toprope/sport anchor gear, and a dynamic rope are the next purchases.
The Best Rock Climbing Locations
Lucky for us, there’s great climbing around the U.S. and around the world. When planning a rock climbing trip, it’s best to get some beta on the area and the routes. Different crags often cater to climbers of different abilities or preferences. The last thing you want is to show up at a legendary climbing crag only to learn that most of the routes are 5.13+ (unless, of course, that’s what you’re climbing).
The key is to plan ahead and find areas that have a number of routes that you’d like to climb. Most guidebooks will even tell you what (trad) protection is needed so that you can plan ahead and buy/borrow as needed. If you’re planning a number of short routes in different areas, you can even figure out the order you’ll do the climbs. This will maximize time on the rock, instead of wandering around or flipping through a guide book to find another fun route.
Here are four more tips to help plan the trip:
- Hit the classics. They’re classics for a reason!
- Think about sun and shadow. Sunny walls might be too hot in mid-day sun and shady canyon areas might be too cold early morning or late afternoon.
- Have a Plan B. Sometimes the crag can get crowded, so make sure to have a plan B in case the routes you’d like to climb have a group of 30 taking turns hangdoggin’.
- Ask us! We like to climb :- )
Here are a few of the most famous rock climbing destinations in the U.S., along with the climbing each is most known for.
Big & Little Cottonwood Canyons
- Salt Lake City, Utah
- Sport, Trad, Boulderinig
City of Rocks National Preserve
- Malta, Idaho
- Sport & Trad
- Sundance, Wyoming
- New Paltz, New York
Horseshoe Canyon Ranch
- Jasper, Arkansas
- Sport & Trad
- Twentynine Palms, California
- Trad, Bouldering, Sport
Vantage (aka Frenchman Coulee)
- Quincy, Washington
- Sport & Trad
- Moab, Utah
- Lots of trad and sport, with iconic locations like Indian Creek.
Mount Rushmore Area
- Keystone, South Dakota
- Sites include Mount Rushmore National Park (sport & trad climbing), Black Hills (trad), Mount Baldy (bouldering)
New River Gorge
- Fayetteville, West Virginia
Red River Gorge
- Stanton, Kentucky
Red Rock Canyon
- Las Vegas, Nevada
Rifle Mountain Park
- Rifle, Colorado
- Terrebonne, Oregon
Yosemite National Park
Rock Climbing Terms
Combine all of the gear, climbing disciplines and culture in the climbing world and you end up with a very long list of climbing terms and lingo. So long, in fact, that we made a special page for it. Check it out:
We All Roam’s Rock Climbing Terms.
Rock Climbing Courses
Ready to start searching for an awesome rock climbing course? Maybe you boulder in the gym but want to learn about sport anchors? Or maybe you climb hard and want to find a guide to belay you up the classics in an area?
Just visit our Adventures page and search for Rock Climbing. You can even start narrowing narrowing your search down by state and climbing area!