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Beginners Take: Rock Climbing

Rock climbing is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Since 2010, according to the Climbing Business Journal, at least 339 climbing gyms have been built in America alone, accommodating the growth and also fueling it. And there’s no doubt that climbing will continue to gain popularity as the sport debuts in the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics. Climbing gyms are a very accessible way to get into the sport, plus they rent everything you need to get started. However, the cost of gym access plus rentals can start to add up. The good news is that intro gear is relatively inexpensive (compared to say, skiing…) and the list is short.

Every gym has different regulations about the exact types of equipment allowed. Many have policies about how new a harness must be, and will ask to inspect them. Also, expect to be able to show your competence with a belay device. Most gyms require you to earn a belay certification before you’re unleashed on the gym. The good news is that you’ll learn something new through every step of the process.

If you’re heading outside, you’ll need a few more pieces of equipment, and it’s always recommended to climb with more experienced climbers until you master the basics. The learning curve can be very quick with climbing, so don’t be surprised if in a couple years you’ve amassed a serious climbing gear pile. It happens…

Climbing Shoes

Climbing shoes are the foundation of your climbing, and also the biggest financial investment (although still affordable by outdoor gear standards). Climbing shoes serve two purposes—to protect your feet and to provide friction and grip. You don’t need anything fancy to start off with, and you definitely don’t need to suffer. Look for shoe models targeted at novice climbers, these will still give you a snug fit and provide the versatility you need to tackle all kinds of climbing scenarios as you figure out your style of climbing. Online fit charts should be able to guide you into the right size shoe. When buying UnNew Outdoor™ climbing shoes, be aware of the rubber wear and avoid those with uneven wear or worn out rubber. (The good news is that you can resole climbing shoes!)

As you progress, you might find that you need multiple shoes, a pair for the gym, a pair for bouldering, and a pair for precision climbing.

Climbing Harness

As a new climber, look for harnesses marketed as “all-around” models built for fit and comfort. Your harness should be a newer model, ideally made within the last five years, with no visible wear and tear.

The harness consists of two leg loops and a waist belt. It also has a belay loop as well as two tie-in points for tying into the rope. Look for a harness that fits very snug at the natural waist. The leg loops can either be fixed or adjustable. Those who haven’t priced harnesses before might be surprised at how affordable they are, with prices starting at $40.

Chalk Bag

Chalk is used to absorb the moisture off your hands to improve your grip and not slip. The majority of chalk bags consist of pouch with a closure connected to a simple waist strap with a clip. The waist strap is almost always adjustable, so this is a one-size fits all scenario. Have fun picking out your chalk bag, choose one that matches your personality.

Belay Device

There are two main types of belay devices, a tubular belay device and an assisted braking device. Both are popular for different reasons. If you enrolled in an intro climbing course, it’s probable that you learned on a tubular device, like the Black Diamond ATC. The ATC is so popular that it’s often used generically to refer to the whole category of tubular devices (it’s also an acronym for Air Traffic Control, which is a fun bit of beta). Tubular belayers are more affordable, versatile and are said to promote good habits as far as hand placement goes especially in beginning climbers.

Assisted Braking Devices are sometimes also referred to as self-braking or auto-locking devices. The Petzl Grigri has been around the longest and the Grigri name is often used as shorthand for the Assisted Braking category. These belay devices lock down on the rope without constant tension by the belayer on the brake rope. The design is also a safety feature that allows the device to lock down on the rope when a sudden force is applied to it, which helps the belayer catch and hold a fall. These devices are nearly five-times the cost of a simple tubular belayer, but many climbers see the value in the added safety. *Pro tip: make sure the rope is threaded through the Grigri correctly, if it is threaded backwards the device will not work. It’s always a good rule of thumb to take 60 seconds to double check yourself and your partner to make sure everything is loaded and threaded correctly through everyone’s gear.

Locking Carabiner

You need a locking carabiner to go with your belay device. HMS, aka pear-shaped, is the most popular shape of belay carabiner. You’ll find that you can choose from either a basic screwlock or a twist lock with a spring-loaded sleeve.

This collection of climbing gear should have you up on the auto-belays and fixed ropes without putting a huge dent in your finances. Of course, as you progress and head outdoors, you’ll find that your gear list lengthens—a helmet, climbing rope, quickdraws, more carabiners and slings. You might need approach shoes and dedicated climbing pants, a bouldering pad, a crag pack, belay gloves, belay glasses… oh my.

Annie Fast writes about winter sports and outdoor adventures from her home in Bend, Oregon.You can read more about her and her work at anniefast.com