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  • Writer's pictureEric Chad Ho

Things to Know for Your First Time Climbing Outside

By Courtney Baldwin

With lovely spring weather upon us, it seems that the stoke is high to get outdoors and touch real rock. But if you’ve never been before and want to plan your first trip, what can you expect? We’ve put together a short list of tips and tricks to help you have a successful first time climbing outside!

  1. Prepare the Right Gear

  2. Mind Your Safety

  3. Know Before You Go

  4. It May Feel Hard

  5. Leave No Trace

  6. Have Fun!

Now, let’s dig into each of these in turn.

Prepare the Right Gear

If it’s your first time climbing outdoors, we’ll assume you aren’t setting up top rope anchors yourself. Still, there are some personal gear essentials to consider. 

Most of the gear is the same as what you’d have in the gym: climbing shoes, chalk, and (for roped climbing) a harness and belay device. FYI, expect whatever climbing shoes you bring to be far muddier and dirtier at the end of the day than they were before. 

Some gear is unique to the outdoors, yet very important for safety. If you’re doing roped climbing, it’s crucial to have a helmet if possible. It’s nice as a climber, but arguably even more important as a belayer due to the risk of pebbles or even larger rocks being dislodged from above! You can also wear your helmet bouldering, if you’d like. If you’re bouldering, you’ll also want to make sure that there’s a crash pad to fall onyou don’t need to own one, but there should be at least one to share amongst your group (and, when it comes to crash pads, the more the merrieriykyk).

Perhaps the best way to get outside for the first time is with a partner or group that knows the lay of the land, or with an official guided trip. This way, you don’t have to worry as much about what to bring, aside from your own gear and a positive mindset!

Mind your Safety

Outdoor climbing inherently involves a somewhat higher level of risk than you might find in a gym, simply because of the increased amount of factors out of your control. Much of this can be mitigated by proper safety practices.

As a first-timer, you probably won’t know all the safety considerations for roped climbing. In this case, just make sure you trust your climbing partners. Do they have a good level of outdoor experience? Are they conscientious people who show a concern for safety? A good climbing partner should always be willing to discuss and address safety concerns, and should be able to explain to you what they’re doing to create a safe setup, and why (e.g. creating a safe, equalized, and redundant top rope anchor). Never be afraid to say no if you’re not comfortable with something, like being asked on the fly to clean an anchor or rappel down a route. There’s no reason you should be asked to perform a new skill if you’re not ready to do so, as this can lead to accidents.

Bouldering is a little simpler, because the main safety consideration involves spotting. A brief description of spotting is that you actively keep the crash pad in the right spot to protect your climber’s landing, and then stand ready with arms up to guide, but not catch, your climber in the event of a fall, making sure they land feet first on the crash pad. If you’ve never spotted climbers before, look up a few videos before your trip and/or ask an experienced friend to show you how.

Know Before You Go

Unlike in the gym, climbs won’t be color-coded or have helpfully taped start tags. To scope out routes you might want to try and help identify them once you get to the crag, it’s very useful to look at a guidebook for the area. This could come in the form of a physical guidebook, such as Golden State Bouldering for California, or an online guidebook such as Mountain Project or Kaya Pro.

Mountain Project, for example, has a free app with downloadable offline maps for navigating the crag, lists and often photos of climbs, and user-submitted beta and reviews.

It May Feel Hard

While climbers of all levels can certainly have fun outside, don’t expect to match your gym grade in the outdoors! Outdoor climbing involves a lot more route reading and beta finding than the clearly-demarcated gym climbs we’re all used to, which can be hard to adapt to at first. Expect tiny feet, smaller edges for “holds,” and a good deal more friction smearing on the face of the rock itself. There can also be a mental component, for example if your outdoor boulder problem involves a top-out up over the rock itself, which can feel intimidating or scary your first time!

On top of this, a general consensus in the climbing community is that outdoor climbs are just harder for the grade, with some of this owing to the historical nature of some outdoor climbs and the divergent evolution of indoor gym climbing over the years. A good rule of thumb is to expect outdoor climbs to feel at least 2-3 full grades harder than their gym equivalents in physical difficulty alone, with any mental challenges being added on top of that.

However, don’t let this intimidate or stop you! There are plenty of exceedingly fun entry-level and moderate routes at most crags, especially if you do your research (see tip #3!) and select for this ahead of time. When bouldering, it’s also perfectly fine to downclimb a route that you’re not sure about, or to make up your own traverse or vertical climb/scramble on easier terrain, when possible!

Leave No Trace

If you hike or camp, you may already be familiar with this principle, but it’s important as climbers to preserve access to the crags we love for many more send sessions to come. This involves staying on marked trails when making your way to the climbing area, respecting climbing restrictions (seasonal area closures for bird nesting, for example), and packing out all trash and food that you bring with you.

This extends to preserving the climbing experience, as well. If it’s just rained, avoid climbing on porous or sedimentary rock like sandstone. Postpone your climbing trip until the rock is fully dry to avoid eroding the surface of climbs and potentially breaking holds.

When you do make it out to the crag, be respectful of other climberstake turns on popular routes, consider the presence of other groups when playing music, and remember to brush off any tick marks (markings on the wall made in chalk, to help identify hard-to-spot holds while on the wall) that you make before you leave the climb.

Have Fun!

Climbing outside is so fun and rewarding, and we hope you have a great time! Though there can be more to consider, none of these tips are meant to scare you away. When in doubt take a deep breath, relax, and just take in the beautiful views around you. After all, you’re out there to enjoy nature in the company of friends.

Happy sending!

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