Starting your ascent in the world of indoor rock climbing? Here's the gear you need

Ever since the historic first free ascent of Yosemite’s intimidating Dawn Wall was broadcast on social media last summer, rock climbing has been having a moment. With indoor climbing gyms all over the country growing at a rate of 10% every year, you don’t have to face down a sheer granite cliff to get your intro to the sport.

Climbing gyms have basic rentals – shoes, harness, and chalk bag – but if you are serious about getting into the sport, having your own gear makes a huge difference. If you’ve ever walked through the rock climbing section of an outdoor retailer, however, you know that it is an intimidatingly gear-intensive sport. So, where to start?

Here’s Digital Trends’ guide to the first four pieces of climbing gear you’ll need:

First Thing’s First: The Vocab

Before you get started in buying your equipment, you should understand the differences between the two types of climbing offered in most indoor facilities.

Bouldering is climbing on shorter walls without ropes. In bouldering, climbers stay lower to the ground, which lowers their chance of injury in case of a fall. Each climb is called a “bouldering problem”, or simply “problem.” In the United States, bouldering problems range in difficulty per the V Scale, with V0 being the easiest, and each number up indicating an increase in difficulty.

For many indoor climbers, bouldering presents a great introduction to the sport, since all you need to get started is a good pair of climbing shoes, and optional chalk and chalk-bag.

Top rope climbing or “top roping,” is the basic type of rope-based climbing. In top roping, the climber is securely attached to a rope set up in an anchor system at the top of the climb. Mastering top roping is essential before moving on to other ropes-based climbs, such as lead climbing, in which the climber and the rope start at the bottom and ascend together. In rope climbing, each route is simply called a “route”.

The difficulty ratings of top rope routes differ from the ratings in bouldering, divided by two numbers indicating class and grade. Class 5 indicates a vertical or nearly vertical wall that requires a rope, while grade refers to the difficulty level. Rope climbing routes start at 5.1 and currently go up to 5.15a, with each increasing number and letter indicating increased difficulty.

Top roping usually requires a belay test at your local climbing gym to make sure that you can use the equipment safely, as well as a climbing harness and sometimes a belay device, in addition to climbing shoes and chalk/chalk bag.

Climbing Shoes

As a new climber, a good pair of all-around climbing shoes should be your first buy.

Rock climbing shoes are specially designed for sticking to a vertical wall, rather than for walking on flat ground, and their construction reflects this. Unlike street shoes, they have a smooth sticky rubber sole, little or no padding, and a tight fit around your foot, which all helps climbers make use of small toeholds on the wall.

There are a lot of details that go into choosing the right shoe, from the thickness of the rubber, to leather vs synthetic build, to the level of downturn, but this is what beginners need to know:

  • Prioritize comfort and fit, especially at the beginner levels. If you feel any pain in putting the shoes on, you’ve got the wrong size.
  • Women’s and men’s climbing shoes differ in terms of fit, with women’s shoes typically being slightly narrower. It’s very common for men to wear women’s shoes and women to wear men’s shoes – it all depends on the size and shape of your feet!
  • Look for a fit in which there is no space between your toes and the front of the shoe, and in which your toes are just slightly curled under.
  • For your first shoe, go for a flat “last” (or sole). You’ll see shoes that are downturned at the toes (“aggressive” styles), which allow climbers to put more weight on their toes on difficult climbs, but you won’t need these at this point.
  • Climbing shoes come in velcro, lace, or slip-on. Velcro are easier to slip in and out of, but lace-ups allow more of a tailored fit, which might be preferable especially if you have wide feet. Meanwhile, slip-on shoes, or “slippers,” have the thinnest soles and will improve your footwork the most quickly, since it’s the closest you’ll get to barefoot climbing.
  • Don’t spend too much money on your first pair of shoes. As a new climber, your footwork will likely be heavy (and loud!), and you’ll go through shoes more quickly than more experienced climbers.

Our Top Pick for Beginning Climbers:

La Sportiva Tarantulace ($60-80 online)

A neutral/flat lace-up shoe with 5mm rubber soles that can stand up to both indoor and outdoor use, from one of the best climbing shoe companies around.

Climbing Harness

Unless you plan to just stick to bouldering, the next piece of climbing equipment that you will need is the climbing harness, which ties you into the rope and keeps you safe on taller climbs.

For beginners, look for a good, padded all-around harness which you can use both in the gym and on outdoor climbs.

As you’re buying your first harness, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Climbing harnesses can be adjusted for size with a buckle around the waist belt, with some harnesses also allowing adjustment around the leg belts. Many new harnesses also have “speed buckles,” which are buckles that are always secure without the need to double back after each adjustment, which makes them safer. Many a climbing accident has happened when a buckle wasn’t double backed.
  • Gear loops stick out from the harness at the hip-belt and allow climbers to clip on any extra gear that they’ll need during the climb, such as ropes or slings for outdoor climbing or, for indoor climbs, chalk bags, a belay device, or your belay certified card from the gym itself. Harnesses designed for the gym may only have two loops, while outdoor climbing harnesses have more. For indoor climbs, two is more than enough.
  • Make sure that your harness is certified by one of the two safety certifying agencies, which are UIAA and CEE. Most big-box outdoor retailers only sell harnesses that are certified, but always be sure to double-check.

Top Pick for Beginning Climbers

Black Diamond Momentum SA ($60)

Black Diamond is a trusted brand in climbing gear, and this harness is a version of their popular Black Diamond Momentum AL harness, with the addition of speed buckles. It has four gear loops and adjustable leg belts.

Belay Device

For rope climbing, belay devices are essential for a safe climb. Belay devices attach to the harness of the person on the ground (the belayer) and are used to safely raise and lower the climber. Belay devices are attached to a locking carabiner, which in turn clips to the belay loop of the harness. The belay device applies friction to the rope, helping the belayer to control the speed that the rope travels with the climber.

Most gyms have auto-belay sections of the gym that allow climbers to climb by themselves, but most routes still require a partner – and a belay test!  Since all outdoor climbs require a belay device, this is a worthy investment.

The belay device is one of the pieces of climbing hardware that has evolved the most alongside the sport.  Today, the most common belay devices in the United States are the tubular devices and the assisted braking devices.

Tubular (aka ATCs)

Tubular devices are the most common type of belay devices, and are suitable for just about every type of climbing, from gym climbing to outdoor sport or multi-pitch climbing. They work by allowing the rope to be folded and pushed through the device and then locked to the belayer or an anchor.

The friction that is caused by the bent rope’s contact with the belay device slows and stops the rope, which protects the climber. Some tubular devices have “teeth” that add more friction.

Self-braking devices

Self-braking devices (also known as assisted braking devices) have an additional mechanism that locks down on the rope if a sudden force – such as a fall – is applied onto it.

This helps the belayer catch a fall. The most common forms of these are the “grigri”, which will likely be what you’ll find in your gym.

Self-braking devices tend to be heavier to use and are less versatile. They aren’t used as easily for lowering the climber to the ground. For that reason, we recommend them only for indoor climbing and for younger climbers who may need an extra level of protection.

Top Pick for Beginning Climbers

Black Diamond Big Air XP Belay Device Package ($31.95)

This package gives you a standard ATC-style belay device, with teeth for extra friction, and a screwgate carabiner.

Chalk Bag and Chalk

Climbers use chalk to keep their hands dry and to improve grip on holds. Climbing chalk is usually made of Magnesium Carbonate, which is also used by gymnasts and weight-lifters.

Chalk comes in several forms: basic loose chalk, block chalk, eco chalk, and liquid chalk.

Loose chalk is chalk that is already ground into powder – of different consistencies – and can be pure chalk or include additional drying agents. It is available in different consistencies as well. Block chalk is pure chalk in a chunk, which allows you to crush it yourself and choose your preferred consistency.

Eco chalk is a colorless drying agent that you cannot see; it was designed due to the concerns about rock surfaces being “polluted” by white chalk marks. Similarly, liquid chalk is a mix of chalk and alcohol that leaves a chalky residue after the alcohol dries.

Some gyms and climbing areas do not allow visible chalk markings, in which case eco chalk might be preferred, though most climbers simply use block or loose chalk.

Different chalk brands have their own formulas and consistencies for chalk that affect performance, and the best bet is to try them out.

Top Pick for Beginning Climbers

Black Diamond White Gold ($10.95+)

A popular choice for beginning climbers. Relatively affordable, this chalk absorbs well and stays on.

Chalk bags come in different sizes and shapes, and may also have different features. Some considerations for buying a chalk bag include:

  • Ensuring that your hands fit: You’ll be putting your hands in and out of the chalk bag frequently, and you want to make sure that your hands fit inside so that as you chalk up, you’re not inadvertently spilling chalk everywhere.
  • Secure, sealable closure: Chalk bags tend to be secure with drawstring, though this may differ with newer versions. Making sure that your chalk always stays in your chalk bag is key.
  • Belt: This allows you to attach your chalk bag to your waist, either clipped onto the harness or tied around your waist directly, for a quick dip of chalk during a climb.
  • Zippered pouch on the exterior: Great for long outdoor climbs, so that you can stash a snack or your cell phone
  • Brush loop on the exterior: Allows you to carry a small brush to clean holds of excessive chalk

Top Pick for Beginning Climbers

Two Ogres Essential Z-Chalk Bag ($16.50)

This chalk bag meets all the basic chalk bag needs, including a drawstring closure that keeps it closed, a zippered exterior pouch, brush holder, and adjustable waist belt.

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