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How to start rock climbing

Imagine yourself, next Tuesday evening. Think about where you are, who you’re with, and what you’re doing. Are you at an indoor climbing gym? After reading this guide, you could be.

Getting into climbing has tons of benefits. It’s a great form of exercise, it’s social and creative, and it’s accessible for people at almost any age or skill level. To help you start rock climbing, here are 5 easy steps to follow:

  1. Know what to expect: Hint: it’s not all about your arms.
  2. Choose a type of climbing: Get the scoop on what you can try indoors and outdoors.
  3. Scope out classes: They exist, and they’re awesome for new climbers.
  4. Brush up on the lingo: Learn a few key climbing terms before you start.
  5. Get the gear you need: Find out what you need as a beginner.

Now for all the details.

1. Know what to expect

Contrary to what newcomers to the sport might imagine, it isn’t necessary to have extreme upper body strength to start climbing. The first secret is knowing that technique gets you further than strength alone. When you’re starting out, pay attention to your form, balance and footwork. Watch other climbers to see what they’re doing with their feet, hips and overall positioning – you can learn a lot. Remember that the muscles in our lower body are much bigger and stronger, and it makes sense for them to do most of the work.

It’s normal for your hands to feel a little tender the first few times you climb, but that’ll change fast as you keep it up and the skin on your hands gets used to grabbing textured holds.

Climbing is also great for beginners because it’s really inclusive. Expect to feel welcome by climbers of all levels, and plan to acquire new friends too. It just comes with the territory.

“Climbing is a sport for some of the most unassuming athletes, those who may find themselves on the fringe of society or outside of the realm of traditional sports – people of all shapes, sizes and walks of life (and they can crush it).” – Sarah and Derick Smith, MEC grantees and coaches at the Annapolis Valley Climbing Club in Nova Scotia

2. Choose a type of climbing

If you’re rock climbing for the first time, it’s good to start by learning how to climb indoors. There are plenty of indoor climbing gyms in cities across Canada, and you can go in any season. You can boulder indoors alone, but for most climbing with ropes and harnesses, you’ll need a partner. When you’re starting out, it’s helpful to understand some of the common types of climbing:


woman bouldering

No ropes or harnesses required, and you can do it indoors or outdoors. You climb closer to the ground than other types of climbing, and there are thick crash pads or mats to cushion your fall. Many climbing gyms have a bouldering area, and some specialize in just bouldering. It’s always more fun with buddies, but you don’t need a climbing partner when bouldering indoors (outdoors is usually a different story).

Top-rope climbing

Top-roping is a good place to start for people who are new to climbing because they can focus on perfecting technique without being scared of taking big falls. The rope is already threaded through an anchor at the top of the route, which minimizes the distance you drop when you let go or fall. There’s a person belaying from the ground to stop the rope if you fall off the wall and to slowly lower you when you’ve completed the route. While indoors is a good place to start, top-roping outdoors is very popular as well.

Sport climbing

A sport route – you can see the bolts drilled into rock.
A sport route – you can see the bolts drilled into rock.

Climbing while clipping to bolts that were previously drilled into the surface you’re climbing. Like top-roping, you need a harness and a belayer, but there’s a bit more involved. Using pieces of gear called quickdraws (a webbed sling with a carabiner on both ends), you follow a set route and clip into the bolts for protection on your way up. This lets you climb safely in areas where there are little to no natural cracks or features to use for protection.

If you’re sport climbing indoors, it’s also common to have quickdraws already placed on the wall. Sport climbing is generally for more experienced climbers because if you slip, you fall further than you would if you were top-roping since there isn’t a rope anchored at the top of the route.

Traditional (trad) climbing

woman placing climbing protection
Placing pro while trad climbing.

Where climbing began. With trad climbing, there’s nothing bolted into the rock you’re climbing – it’s up to you to carry and place gear (called protection, or “pro”) in natural cracks and weaknesses of the rock to protect you in case you fall. You then either remove the pro (a.k.a. “clean”) on your way down, or as your partner ascends they remove the pieces you placed.

Since you establish all your points of protection with the gear you bring with you, this type of climbing requires significant skill and training. Trad climbing also adheres closer to Leave No Trace principles, since there is no equipment left permanently in the rock.

3. Scope out intro courses

Climbing is a very social activity. When you’re climbing with ropes, you’ll need a climbing partner to belay you, and even if you go bouldering solo, you’ll likely end up chatting with other climbers. If you don’t know any climbers yet, don’t worry. You will soon.

Most gyms offer intro courses, which are a great way for you to learn rock climbing basics with other beginners. And if you have any friends who want to try climbing too, bring them along!

When you’ve racked up experience climbing indoors and are ready to venture outdoors, it’s smart to hire a guide – things are a bit different outside the gym. They can give you all the tips and advice you need, show you where to go and answer all your questions. Most indoor climbing gyms can refer you to a climbing guide.

When you’re learning, it’s also important to remember to celebrate the small wins and set personalized goals.

“Success looks different for everyone. Maybe it’s working a tough route on rock, winning a local comp or just getting off the ground. Don’t hold yourself back because you don’t think you can do it – even the small achievements give as much satisfaction as summiting the highest peaks.” – Kate Stewart, MEC Outdoor Nation grantee from Adaptive Climbing

4. Learn the lingo and route grades

If you’ve started doing even a little climbing research, you’re probably wondering what it means to “send.” Here’s a cheat sheet to help you pick up on key climbing lingo:

  • Belaying: When your climbing partner uses a device to control the movement of the rope. They feed it out smoothly as you climb up (or take in rope if you’re top roping), and stop it from feeding when you need to rest or when you fall.
  • Beta: Info about a route. It could include tips on how to start, where to place your feet or where the trickiest spot is.
  • Crux:: The most challenging point of a climbing route.
  • Dyno: A type of dynamic move that is bigger than what you can reach at the apex of your body. You use momentum to jump from one hold to another.
  • Gripped: Feeling overwhelmed and afraid because of an unexpected degree of difficulty, changing conditions, etc. while on a climb.
  • Jug, crimp, sloper, undercling, pinch, pocket: All types of climbing holds you’ll get to know and love. Some you might love a little more than others.
  • Pumped: Swollen forearms caused by exertion on a route. (Not a good thing.)
  • Problem: A bouldering route.
  • Project: Working on the same route over and over until you finish. Like trying a level in a game over and over until you can get through it smoothly.
  • Send: To successfully climb a route without falling.

Understanding climbing grades

1–10 would be too easy. Instead, climbing routes are graded on the YDS (Yosemite Decimal System) scale of 5.0–5.15 (pronounced “five-zero” and “five-fifteen”). Bouldering problems are graded on a scale of V0–V17 (known as the V scale). In climbing grades, a higher number means greater difficulty. So, if 5.15 is an overhanging cliff, 5.0 or V0 is like the bunny hill.

One important thing to know: route grades are highly subjective. You might climb a 5.8 no problem, and then struggle on a 5.6. Your bouldering buddy might crush V4s, but might struggle on a certain V2. So many different variables come into play with grades, such as terrain, hold sizes, and bias of the person who created the route. It’s important not to think of grades as levels, and just focus on building your techniques and moves on the wall.

Oh, and one more thing. As you move into harder routes (above 5.10), you’ll see them differentiated into “a,” “b,” “c” or “d” to further define their degree of difficulty.

Check out this climbing grade conversion chart to learn about climbing grades in other parts of the world.

5. Get the gear you need

The rock climbing gear you need depends on the type of climbing you’re doing and how much you want to commit. While you’re learning the basics, you can easily rent all the gear you need at climbing gyms (though some require you to bring your own rope once you advance into lead climbing).

If you think you’re going to be climbing more than a handful of times, your first investment should be climbing shoes. Rock climbing shoes that fit perfectly help you get a better feel for the wall, which can significantly boost your learning curve when you’re starting out (if you aren’t renting shoes, you wear climbing shoes without socks, but if you are renting, socks are highly recommended).

Climbing shoes aren’t as expensive as you might think – there are plenty of options under $150 for a beginner pair, and they should last you a long time. You can also check secondhand online marketplace sites for a lightly pre-loved pair. When you’re ready buy your own, read our tips on how to choose climbing shoes.

You’ll need more rock climbing equipment as you progress and things get more technical. MEC offers a 10% off climbing package, which is great for new climbers. Buy a few items at once and you get a discount to sweeten the deal.

What to wear rock climbing

Comfortable coverage is the sweet spot when it comes to choosing what to wear rock climbing. Your knees are likely to brush (or bang) against the walls, so long shorts or pants will protect you from scrapes and cuts. As a general rule, opt for an outfit that’s comfortable and stretchy. Avoid anything too loose that could feel bulky or get in your way.

Also: tie back long hair, take off rings or other jewellery that could get caught, and know that everything you wear climbing will inevitably end up with plenty of chalk smudges – the sign of time well spent.

Bonus: Remember the unspoken rules

A little climbing etiquette goes a long way.

No spoilers: Climbers call it “spraying beta.” You wouldn’t watch a new movie and then talk loudly about the ending at the gym the next day. It’s the same with solving a problem when you’re climbing. Unless someone asks you for beta, keep it to yourself.

Know when to use your indoor voice: Your indoor climbing voice is actually louder than your outdoor one. When you’re climbing indoors, it’s completely fine to chat with your friends, and most gyms will even have music going. Outside can have a different vibe. Sometimes you’ll hear dogs barking and people talking and cheering each other on. Other times, climbers can be more into the serenity of their routes than chatting or jamming out. Wherever you climb, pay attention to the vibe when you get there and adjust yours to match.

Be considerate: Don’t start a route at the same time as someone beside you. Don’t hog the same route when there are other people wanting to try it. Being generally aware of others at the gym or crag and making a little effort to be courteous will go a long way.

Now you’re all set to send your first route.