Climbing indoors is intimidating. Here’s what to expect for your first visit to the gym climbing world.
A shirtless, long-haired man plummets to my left and slams into the wall. He missed the floor by just a few feet — yikes. I’m at my local gym, and, as frightening as this sounds, it’s just another day. Is this a place I would want to take my non-climbing friends?
Climbing gyms, even with intense athletes pushing their limits, tend to be inclusive spaces. The staff at nearly every gym I’ve visited are psyched to get new climbers on the wall. And there’s little better than seeing a first-timer give it their best on a rope.
Yet even if the staff and local climbers are stoked on newcomers, everything about climbing gyms is intimidating. The ropes, safety, heights, gear, movement, and not to mention falls, don’t relate to any other activity besides climbing. You’re entering a new world.
GearJunkie reached out to friends and staff that don’t climb. We asked them what questions they have before entering a climbing gym for this story. What follows is our opinion on how to handle your visit to a climbing gym. If the first visit goes well, who knows, maybe you just found your new favorite hobby.
Editor’s note: These aren’t hard-and-fast rules — just recommendations. Most climbing gyms have an orientation about their specific rules before you’re allowed to climb.
Climbing Gyms Can Be Intimidating: How to Have Fun
1. Do I need climbing shoes to go to the climbing gym?
You don’t need any gear to go to most climbing gyms. All climbing gyms I’ve been to have rental packages for shoes, harnesses, chalk, and more. While it’s perfectly acceptable to go climbing in tennis shoes, you’ll be amazed at the performance difference with climbing-specific shoes. Brands use sticky rubber that grips onto the tiniest of holds, which is much different than the rubber compound found on street shoes. In short, if it’s your first time, it’s worth renting shoes.
2. Does someone at the gym belay you, or should I bring a partner?
Most often, if you intend to use the open space of a climbing gym, you will need a partner to belay you. If you are new to climbing and your friends don’t know how to belay, most gyms have classes for toproping and auto-belay systems.
Auto-belays fix into the wall and provide tension without the use of a belayer. If you fall, the system senses your weight and softly lowers you to the ground.
I recommend going with a friend that knows how to belay. Or go bouldering. With bouldering, you won’t need a harness or belayer. Those routes are small, under 10 feet, allowing you to go solo.
3. Do I need chalk? How do I use chalk without spraying it everywhere?
You don’t need chalk to climb, but if you know you have sweaty hands, especially if you’re 20 feet off the ground, maybe you should sling some around your waist.
Chalk bags are designed to keep the white stuff in the pouch. We recommend using a chalk ball to keep the chalk cloud to a minimum — these little balls house the chalk for you and only allow a little bit to squeeze through the fabric. For reference, you put the ball in a chalk bag. Please don’t hang the chalk ball naked from your harness.
4. How do you get a spot at the wall?
First off, if you’re brand new to climbing, we recommend going during non-peak times. Avoid directly after working hours, or rainy days on the weekend. Some gyms can be total chaos if you go right at the 5:30 p.m. rush.
Getting a spot on the wall is simple. If you see an open route, walk up to it, and begin tying in. There will almost always be an open route, but sometimes the best are taken, so you may need to talk to other climbers and say you’d like to hop on next.
The best thing to keep in mind when getting a spot on the wall is to be respectful. If you feel like someone may be on the route you want to get on, just ask. If people are hanging around the base of a climb, ask if they plan to climb it and if you can go after them.
But this goes both ways. If you’re done climbing a route, move away from it to a place that doesn’t make it look like you may be getting ready to climb.
If you’re bouldering, climbers generally move toward and away from the wall in an unspoken language. Of course, you can and are encouraged to speak up. The same rule for toprope goes for bouldering. If you plan to climb, walk up to the wall when someone isn’t on it. You don’t want to stand right below or behind someone.
Once you’re done with the boulder, move away to an area that doesn’t give the impression you plan to continue to climb.
Respect, respect, respect is the most important thing to remember here. Be kind and courteous to your fellow climbers and they will reciprocate, even if you’re new.
5. Can I wear headphones?
As much as I hate to see it, people wear headphones in the gym all the time. Some gyms allow it, others don’t. I don’t think it’s the best practice.
Climbing requires communication for you and your fellow climbers’ safety. We’re talking about a serious sport here.
A water bottle might roll under a boulderer and they can’t hear you say, “Watch out!” Or if you’re lead climbing and the rope gets tangled, but you can’t hear the belayer because of Ariana Grande blaring in your ears? Headphones can threaten the security of yourself and the people around you. This is just my two cents, maybe leave the air pods in the case.
6. What do I wear to climb?
Wear something you can raise your legs in and that’s comfortable. Climbing isn’t the sweatiest of activities, so cotton, polyester, or merino wool is generally fine.
A lot of women in climbing gyms wear yoga pants, and men also wear pants. These are popular, as pants protect your legs from the abrasive walls that can scratch you up. Basically, you want pants and underwear that won’t bunch up when you put on and tighten down a harness. A lot of climbers roll up their pants or wear tight-fitting, stretchy pants so they can see their feet.
7. What’s the rule about climbing a route that’s next to another route someone is actively climbing?
You can climb the routes right next to people. I generally ask before roping up right next to people, and the climbers are almost always OK with it. Just make sure the route you intend to climb and the one next to it don’t cross over. Scope your route before you climb, and if you see a clear line to the top without another climbing party getting in the way, go for it.
8. Why do my feet hurt like hell in these shoes?!
Because your shoes are too small. Climbing shoes shouldn’t be torture devices, especially for beginners. While rental shoes may not fit your foot perfectly, chances are there’s a shoe out there that will. Hunt that shoe down. Get shoes that are comfortable to stand in. Size up, size down, do what you have to.
I recommend going sockless to get a better feel for the holds your feet will grab onto (yes, grab). But if rental shoes aren’t your (toe) jam, sock up!
9. What form should I have?
This may come as news, but your legs are stronger than your fingers. Try to avoid doing pullups on each hold, and instead focus on raising your legs, extending your legs (like you’re standing up), and repeating that process. Look down below you to see where your feet are going.
Your forearms might feel super wrecked after the first couple of times you go climbing — this gradually subsides the more you get on the rock.
10. How do I overcome the fear of everyone watching me?
First off, people watch everyone in climbing gyms — it’s not just you. People watch because of your form, likely, or maybe it’s because of your stoke. And part of the fun of gyms is seeing other people do amazing things in real life. But don’t worry about what others are thinking. Most climbers are too focused on their next route or dissecting their last project to think much about you. Just have fun. Climbers love to see other climbers stoked!
It may take a bit, as comfort comes with time. Once you gain confidence with your movement, you’ll likely gain confidence with having people look at you because you’re on some rad route.
You just have to give it a shot, have a positive outlook, and open your mind. The fear should subside pretty quickly if you check those boxes.