Rock climber on a route, looking up as belayer looks on from below

Crag etiquette: the do’s and don’ts of climbing outside

What’s different about outdoor climbing compared to indoor climbing? “Everything,” says MEC Climbing Ambassador Tosh Sherkat. “From brightly coloured holds and thick gym mats to faint chalk smudges and rocky uneven ground, the gym and the great outdoors are different beasts.”

Outdoor climbing opens up a whole new world (one we’re obviously huge fans of). If you’ve been thinking about transitioning from plastic holds to cracks, gneiss and limestone, there are a few things to learn before you show up at your local crag.

To help build your knowledge and outdoor climbing etiquette, we connected with experts:

  • MEC Ambassador Taryn Eyton for all the climbing-specific Leave No Trace principles below (Leave No Trace Canada is one of MEC’s community partners)
  • A crew of our climbing ambassadors for tips for new outdoor climbers
  • … and we even had the chance to chat with climbing legend Tommy Caldwell

Another useful resource is Rock Respect, an awesome education site about sustainable recreation and safe rock climbing practices. You may have seen the Climber’s Code posted up in your local climbing gym; they created the info with the help of access and climbing groups across Canada.

Be safe, have fun, climb on!

1. Always go with climbers in the know

For your first time outside, make sure you go with someone with lots of experience. Find an experienced friend or mentor, or use a trusted guiding service to “show you the ropes.” – Lucas Uchida

Make sure you find someone who’s not just been out once or twice, but an experienced climber who’s spent several seasons climbing at the local crag. Don’t be afraid to ask around the gym to find who this person might be! A mentor will be able to teach you the way of the ropes, the ethics of the crag and probably can give you beta for that move you’re stuck on. – Tosh

Be sociable and talk to more experienced climbers – everyone can teach you something. Information sharing is crucial and can help you find new partners. When you go from gym to outdoors, you must be a sponge and absorb as much knowledge as possible. – Louis Rousseau

Looking for climbing courses? Check out the Alpine Club of Canada (one of MEC’s community partners), climbing gyms, or your local climbing access group or club for advice on qualified instructors.

Rock climber on route as belayer looks up from below

2. Belay systems are key

I’ve been climbing for over 10 years, and every time I or my partner ties in, we do a safety check. Is your harness double backed? Your knot’s good? Belay device loaded correctly? Knot at the end of the rope? These checks should be as second nature to you as putting on your shoes and chalking up. – Sabrina Chapman

Make checking your knot and belay device a ritual with your partners – don’t climb with those who are annoyed by this automatism. Also, use names when communicating with your partner to prevent confusion with other teams around you. – Louis

Belaying is a huge responsibility. Learn the systems, then practice the systems, and then really understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you stand 5m away from the wall while belaying, do you understand the implications of this? If you leave out metres of slack between you and your climber, do you understand the implications of this? Belaying is not a static function. It requires constant engagement with your climber, yourself and your system. [mic drop] – Sarah Hart

3. Plan ahead and prepare

Before you head to the crag, do your research. That way you’ll have all the info you need to have a fun and safe climb.

  • Find out about local regulations, permit requirements and area closures.
  • Carpool to the crag to reduce your impact on the environment and take up less space in the parking lot.
  • Read up on your planned routes to ensure you have the proper gear and know how to use it. Pick up a guidebook or check out the local climbing access sites.

Each area has its own rules and guidelines, and most areas usually have some sort of group that monitors crags and represents the local climbing community. In Ontario, this group is the Ontario Alliance of Climbers – I strongly recommend anyone wanting to climb outside to check out their site. – Lucas

Group of climbers hanging out at the crag with their gear around them; one of them is reading a guidebook

4. Respect the risks

When you make the transition from gym to crag, you have to be aware that you are moving from a highly controlled environment in terms of supervision and security to a natural environment where you have to do more risk management. Take a transition course to learn how to correctly and properly install top rope anchors – it’s imperative. Knowledge is power, and in the climbing world, knowledge is security. Also, just wear your helmet, okay? – Louis

With top-roping and lead climbing, you need to be careful of things like rockfall, old bolts, potentially bad falls and other risks. With bouldering, there are risks such as poor landing zones and pad management. Get educated on the increased risks and how to mitigate those risks effectively. – Lucas

Always make sure to bring enough pads when bouldering and discuss any sketchy landing zones with your spotter before climbing. – Cat Carkner

5. Dispose of waste properly

Popular crags can get trashed quickly if we don’t all do our part. Leave the crag cleaner than you found it, and encourage your crew to do the same.

  • Pack out everything you packed in. This includes all trash, and food waste like apple cores.
  • For extra crag karma, bring a garbage bag and pack out any other trash you find. “Take five minutes to pick up other garbage, even if it’s not yours,” says Louis.
  • When you have to go to the bathroom, use a toilet if possible. That might mean going ahead of time or walking back to the trailhead outhouse.
  • For places with no toilet, go to the bathroom 70 big steps away from water sources, trails, campsites and crags. Please don’t pee in cracks or caves. The rain won’t wash it away and then it stinks!
  • If you or your pet have to poop, the decision to go with a cathole (hole for poop at least 15cm deep) or wag bag (bag for poop) depends on the environment you’re in – microorganism rich soil breaks down poop at a much different rate than super shallow desert soil. Ask a local what’s best if you’re unsure. Don’t bury toilet paper in a cathole; bring a plastic bag to pack it out. Also carry hand sanitizer to get clean afterward.

Bring a reusable bag with you to take out what you brought in (including your poo!) and pick up trash that you notice even if it’s not yours. – Sabrina

I always keep a dedicated toilet gear stuff sack in my backpack. It’s got a lightweight trowel, toilet paper, Ziploc bags and hand sanitizer. That way I don’t stress out about pooping on the trail. – Taryn

There’s no “lost and found bin” in the wilderness. It’s your responsibility to keep track of your things. I’ve encountered some pretty funny, and also gross things outside like underwear, socks, one climbing shoe, and various articles of clothing. Do a dummie check, it’s easy, and you get to keep all your things. – Sarah

Group of climbers hanging out at the crag

6. Be considerate

There are lots of climbers at the crags these days. Be considerate of others so everyone can have an awesome day full of sending.

  • Avoid popular crags at busy times. You’ll disperse the human impact and maybe find some new routes.
  • Don’t monopolize a crag. Finish your climb, then let other groups have a turn.
  • Keep your gear contained in one spot rather than spreading out. “I have yet to find a complimentary locker at the crag,” says Sabrina, “keep your packs, coat and shoes tightly together so they’re not spread out and to avoid packing someone else’s stuff.”
  • Keep the noise down so others properly communicate with their belayer and hear the sounds of nature.
  • If dogs are allowed (always check first), keep them on a leash. Don’t leave them free to chase animals or bother other climbers while you’re high up on the wall.
  • Be friendly. Chat with other climbers to get beta, find out if there’s a line-up for a climb, or just make new friends.

The outdoors is a fragile space that needs to be treated gently and respectfully, unlike the back corner of the gym where that pink 5.10 just went up. Stay on designated trails and don’t take short cuts to get to the warm-up first. Keep your group small so the area at the base of the cliff doesn’t erode. – Sabrina

On music at the crag

Fun fact: when we reached out to our Ambassador team, nearly every single one of them came back with a point about no music at the crag. “One thing that might elude many gym climbers is that while music is always played at the gym, it’s a no-go for the crag – so keep your beats for the car,” says Tosh.

Do not bring a sound system outside; communication between partners is an important safety feature that prevents accidents, and it’s hard to be heard over thumping beats or slick guitar solos. In addition, others around you may be leading for the first time, sketching out a tiny foot jib, or just relishing the twittering of birds. Keep your voices low and be mindful that you are sharing this area. – Sabrina

I sound like a real hard-ass here, and believe me, back in the day, I was all over music at the crag. As our sport grows and we find more and more people in small outdoor spaces, it’s imperative that we’re respectful of each other, and maintain an orderly and quiet space. And I don’t say this to sound boring. If a crag is busy, loud and chaotic, it poses real danger to being able to successfully communicate with your climber or belayer. – Sarah

7. Travel and camp on durable surfaces

Hike, climb, camp, and hang out on durable surfaces like rock, gravel and bare dirt. That way you’ll protect fragile vegetation.

  • Use established trails to access crags and descent routes.
  • Unpack your gear and place bouldering crash pads on durable surfaces so you won’t trample plants.
  • Avoid using trees as anchors. If you do build a tree anchor, use wide webbing slings instead of running the rope directly around the trunk.
  • If you’re staying overnight, use a designated campsite instead of creating a new one.
Four climbers walking on a trail to the climbing area

8. Leave what you find

One of the best parts of outdoor climbing is spending time in nature. Leave the crag natural so others can enjoy it too. Plus it keeps ecosystems intact, which our friend Mother Earth will appreciate.

  • Leave rocks, plants, and artifacts where you find them.
  • Keep your chalk use to a minimum to avoid marking up the rock. Brush off tick marks when you’re done.

9. Minimize campfire impacts

If campfires are permitted at your designated campsite and you choose to have a fire, keep it responsible to reduce your impact. Fires scar the soil, and can lead to overharvesting of firewood or devastating wildfires.

  • Check fire regulations in advance.
  • Gather firewood from dead branches you find on the ground. Don’t chop down trees – they don’t burn well anyway.
  • Use an existing fire ring.
  • Keep your campfire small to conserve firewood and make it easier to extinguish.
  • Put it out completely when you’re done. Make sure the coals are cold and won’t reignite.

10. Respect wildlife

You’re just visiting the crag, but animals live there full time. Respect them and their home.

  • Be careful with hand and foot placements as you climb. You don’t want to disturb a bird’s nest or get bitten by hidden wildlife.
  • Respect seasonal route closures for nesting birds like peregrine falcons.
  • Don’t feed wildlife. Squirrels and birds can be cute, but don’t give in! It’s not good for them. This includes keeping your food and trash secure while you climb so animals can’t get into it.

11. Enjoy the learning phase

Climbing outside opens up a whole new world beyond the gym – take your time to learn the right skills, and enjoy the newness that comes with being a beginner again. “The focus doesn’t have to be on grades,” says Cat, “it can be on trying out aesthetic lines that appeal to you! Have fun and enjoy the time in nature.”

Rock climber showing dirty hands

It’s your responsibility to climb safely. You should always learn proper climbing skills and safety techniques from a climbing course or an experienced mentor. This article isn’t intended to be a replacement for proper instruction.

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Cat Carkner rock climbing
MEC Ambassadors

Aficionados of the outdoor sports MEC promotes. They pioneer and innovate, test gear in the field, and inspire all of us to get outside.