rock climber bouldering indoors
(Photo/yns plt via Unsplash)

How to Transition From the Gym to Crag: Top 5 Tips & Gear You’ll Need

Gym climbing is a great way to learn the sport. But how do you take the next step to rock climbing? And what gear do you need to get started? We have all the answers.

In the wake of an Olympic debut and an Oscar-winning documentary, the popularity of rock climbing is rising faster than Alberto Lopez on the speed wall. As a climber of many years, the sport’s rapid growth hardly surprises me. Among other benefits, climbing offers enjoyable exercise and meaningful social connection, all wrapped into a single activity. 

Thanks to the advent and rapid proliferation of indoor climbing gyms, becoming a climber is easier than ever before. In decades past, pursuing climbing meant seeking a knowledgeable mentor and learning the literal ropes over many years. Now, the process begins as soon as you step into a gym. 

According to the Climbing Wall Association, the indoor climbing industry is on the cusp of reaching the billion-dollar mark for the first time in 2021. As new gyms pop up in cities and towns across the globe, it’s safe to say that climbing’s days as a “fringe sport” are long gone.

Though many climbers are content to pursue the sport in a gym setting, plenty of others inevitably catch the itch to take their newly developed skills into the outdoors. The popularization of climbing has simplified the transition from gym climbing to rock climbing and outdoor bouldering via accessible gear and online educational content. Still, the gym-to-crag transition can be tricky to navigate.

In this handy guide, we’ll offer our top five tips for transitioning from climbing in the gym to sending it at the crag. We’ve also included our recommendations for critical pieces of gear that can help support you on the path to outdoor climbing.

This guide is meant to be a reference, not a comprehensive instructional manual. Learning to climb outside safely and responsibly is a lifelong process — but we’re happy to help you get started.

gym to crag instruction often begins with top roping
Outdoor climbing encompasses many unique styles and requires a diverse skill set; (photo/Austin Beck-Doss)

Gym-to-Crag Tip #1: Go Slow

The prospect of taking your gym climbing skills into the outdoors is exhilarating. The walls of most climbing gyms are covered with photos of iconic crags for a reason: Many climbers can’t wait to get out there.

Climbing outside is a worthwhile goal. However, to have safe and enjoyable experiences, it is essential to be patient and not rush the process.

Compared to the relatively controlled environment of the gym, outdoor cragging involves a complex set of situational variables. It takes intentional effort and preparation to navigate these properly. 

There are many factors to consider, from adverse weather to responsible bathroom use before taking to the crags and boulders. Traditionally, new climbers would pair up with mentors to guide them through a slow and thorough learning process. Seeking a dedicated mentor is still an effective way to learn how to climb outside.

Unfortunately, not every aspirational climber has access to this kind of relationship. Fortunately, the sport’s growing popularity has created alternative and accessible paths that lead to safe and responsible outdoor climbing.

gym to crag instruction includes teaching how to work a route on lead
A sport climber works out their next sequence of moves while hanging safely on their rope; (photo/Austin Beck-Doss)

Gym-to-Crag Tip #2: Ask About ‘Gym-to-Crag’ Programs

Many modern climbing gyms offer educational resources or gym-to-crag programs. Ideally, these programs will provide a thorough overview of the basic skills you seek.

From leading single-pitch sport routes to properly padding the landing of a boulder, gym-to-crag programs can provide personalized, accessible education. Of course, any gym-to-crag education program should also discuss outdoor climbing etiquette and responsible recreation topics.

Many gym-to-crag classes and programs have some prerequisites, so be sure to ask before you sign up. Typical requirements include tying in correctly as a climber on top rope and properly belaying a climber on top rope.

Gym-to-Crag Tip #3: Hire a Climbing Guide

Hiring a climbing guide is another practical option. Some guide services offer specialized programs that focus on helping gym climbers learn how to climb outside. While hiring a guide tends to be more expensive than gym-to-crag programs taught by gym staff, you can expect a far more immersive experience. 

When climbing with a guide, you will not be responsible for risk assessment or decision-making, so you can focus all of your effort on learning new skills and systems. Highly trained and reputable climbing guides can provide a safe outdoor experience and prepare you to go out and safely climb outdoors on your own.

If you’d like your guided session to focus on education, we recommend that you express this to the guiding company in advance.

gym to crag instruction eventually leads to learning to take safe leader falls
Whether you’re climbing 5.6 or 5.15, outdoor climbing offers full-body exercise and intimate engagement with the natural world; (photo/Austin Beck-Doss)

Gym-to-Crag Tip #4: Utilize Online Resources

As of 2021, there are endless high-quality and educational climbing resources on the internet. Online resources may be the best place to start if gym-taught programs and climbing guides are not an option for you. 

There are lots of free videos and online guides for technical tips and hard skills education. Many climbing guides have uploaded their series of educational videos geared toward beginner climbers and the gym-to-crag transition.

We especially like some of the videos created by Altus Mountain Guides. Though videos and online content can be invaluable as you prepare to climb outside, it is essential to realize that online research alone is not enough to turn you into a safe and competent outdoor climber.

Beyond technical topics such as setting up a top-rope anchor or spotting a boulderer, there are also many free online resources related to climbing ethics and environmental stewardship.

The American Alpine Club offers an excellent video series that tackles topics such as human waste management, flora and fauna protection, and how to interact with others respectfully. 

Crack climbing on top-rope
Foundational outdoor climbing skills can be applied on routes and cliffs worldwide; (photo/Austin Beck-Doss)

Gym-to-Crag Tip #5: Make a Plan

Once you’ve acquired the information that you need to climb outside safely and responsibly, the time has finally come to make a plan and get out there. We recommend keeping your objectives and itinerary simple for your first few outdoor climbing adventures. As your skills and confidence progress, you’ll work your way up to bigger goals and grander adventures.

Making a plan should begin by asking yourself a series of questions. To get you started, we’ve included a brief list of planning questions that should give you a solid foundation to build on.

Where Am I Going?

This question deals with your approach to the crag. How far is the drive? Do you know where you will park? How long is the hike? Do you have appropriate footwear to handle the hike? Do you have navigational tools in case you become lost?

Depending on where you are going, some of these questions may be more relevant than others. In general, we recommend choosing a crag that is relatively easy to access. By reducing the number of variables at play, you are more likely to enjoy the climbing portion of your day — especially when you are still getting a feel for outdoor climbing. 

gym to crag instruction includes learning how to find footholds which are not as obvious as they are in the gym
Unlike the climbing gym, hand and footholds are not always evident outdoors; (photo/Cody Kaemmerlen)

What Do I Need to Bring?

“Climbing gear” is a very broad term. Because climbing is made up of many different disciplines, your gear needs will vary depending on what kind of climbing you plan. We’ll include more information about gear toward the end of this guide, but packing your kit is an essential part of planning your climbing day. 

If you are bouldering, you’ll need a sufficient number of crashpads, climbing shoes, and chalk. You may also want accessories, including climbing tape, a climbing brush, nail clippers, etc.

If you are top-roping or sport climbing, you’ll need a climbing rope, harness, climbing shoes, a belay device, locking carabiner, quickdraws, a chalk bag, and more. 

Of course, there are many other pieces of climbing gear that you may want to consider. By using a guidebook or online resource such as Mountain Project, you may be able to choose which routes you plan to climb ahead of time. Deciding on specific routes can be helpful as you determine what gear to bring along. 

When packing for a climbing day, technical gear is just one part of the equation. Rock climbing outdoors means dealing with the elements. Be sure to pack plenty of food, water, and comfortable layers. We recommend bringing a well-stocked first aid kit, too. 

gym to crag lessons can eventually lead to safe and enjoyable climbing on your own
A climber assesses the upcoming sequence high above the Utah desert; (photo/Austin Beck-Doss)

Are There Any Access Concerns?

Climbing areas exist on all kinds of land — from public to private, and everything in between. Before you go to the crag, you must research the area and ensure that your climbing plans are consistent with land management and best stewardship practices. 

For example, some crags enforce annual closures related to nesting bird species. Other areas are closed to climbing at certain times due to cultural or spiritual values. Sometimes, these closures only apply to specific routes or crag sectors. 

In addition to access concerns, be sure to seek information about other specific rules that may uniquely apply to your crag of choice. Some areas allow dogs, and others don’t. Some areas prohibit the use of climbing chalk. To maintain access to the places we enjoy, climbers must adhere to these rules.

Bouldering requires the least amount of gear and technical knowledge
Bouldering takes place on boulders and small cliffs and does not require a rope for safety; (photo/Austin Beck-Doss)

How Do I Plan to Manage Human Waste?

Making a plan for responsible human waste disposal is essential for planning a climbing trip. The best way to deal with human waste depends on the climbing area’s environment.

In some ecosystems, burying waste in a hole of a certain depth is standard. In other areas, such as sensitive desert environments, climbers should pack their waste out of the area. 

It is much easier to go to the bathroom at the crag responsibly if you have prepared ahead of time. Products such as wag bags and bio-tissue can help us dispose of waste properly and reduce our overall impact as climbers.

Most climbers today learn about climbing outside in gyms
Climbing gyms offer an accessible entry point into the sport and its many unique disciplines; (photo/Austin Beck-Doss)

How to Climb Outdoors: What Gear to Buy

As you work through your transition from the gym to the crag, you must have the requisite gear and know-how to use it correctly. While climbing gear can be a sizable investment, the good news is that only a few essential items are needed to get started. 

This guide includes our recommendations for beginner-friendly and high-quality climbing gear. Because most new outdoor climbers tend to stick to top roping, sport climbing, and bouldering, our recommendations will cover those disciplines specifically. 

Climbing Shoes

Climbing shoes are the go-to footwear of rock climbers of all disciplines. If you’re working on transitioning from gym climbing to the outdoors, you’re probably already familiar with the fit and feel of climbing shoes. 

In general, climbing shoes should be comfortable, and they must fit well. The key feature that sets climbing shoes apart from everyday tennis shoes is the sticky rubber sole that grips the rock and offers support on small rock edges and footholds. 

la sportiva zenit

In 2021, the climbing shoe market encompasses various styles, prices, and intended uses. Selecting a pair of climbing shoes can feel daunting, and we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to the entire market that includes plenty of recommendations for all climbing styles.

We recommend high-quality all-around shoes such as the Evolv Defy Velcro and the La Sportiva Zenit for newer climbers transitioning from the gym to the crag. These models are comfortable, versatile, and relatively affordable.

No matter what style of climbing you decide to pursue in the outdoors, these models are great for improving your basic techniques.

Check out our comprehensive buyer’s guide for more information about climbing shoes.

Harnesses

Rock-climbing harnesses are made from high-strength materials and foam padding. A rock-climbing harness will comfortably support your weight while belaying or climbing on a rope in a lightweight and streamlined package. 

Like climbing shoes, there are climbing harnesses for various climbing disciplines. We recommend a comfortable and durable harness that works well for a broad range of applications for newer climbers.

Specifically, we recommend the Petzl Sama and the Edelrid Moe. These two models are beginner-friendly and relatively affordable. These models can do it all, from top-roping in the gym to sport climbing outdoors.

petzl sama & selena climbing harness

For more information about climbing harnesses, read our 2021 buyer’s guide.

Climbing  Rope

Unless you’re bouldering, a climbing rope is a lifeline that keeps you safely off the ground in case of a fall. For this reason, you must choose a certified climbing rope from a reputable climbing-specific brand. 

Climbing ropes have two parts: the core and the sheath. A rope’s core is tightly woven nylon yarn and provides the bulk of its overall strength. Around the core, the sheath resists abrasion and protects the core from wear and damage. 

Black Diamond Rock Climbing Rope
(Photo/Black Diamond)

Climbing ropes come in a broad range of diameters from about 8.5mm to 10.5mm. Some ropes are dry-treated with a chemical process that helps prevent moisture from penetrating deep into the rope’s core.

While dry treatment can be a worthy feature that may prolong the rope’s life, it is not strictly necessary — especially for new climbers on a budget. 

If you are looking for a reliable rope that will help the transition from the gym to the crag, we recommend the Edelrid Boa Eco 9.8mm Non-Dry Rope. We recommend the 70m version for outdoor use, which will be long enough for the vast majority of single-pitch climbing routes. 

Belay Device

If you’re going to be climbing on a rope, you’re going to need a belay device. The belayer uses belay devices to manage slack in the system and help catch a climber in case of a fall. 

There are many belay devices on the market, and some are cheaper than others. Every unique belay device has its specific quirks and usage techniques. No matter which belay device you own, it is imperative to use it correctly. When in doubt, check with the manufacturer’s instructions. 

For climbers transitioning from the gym to the crag, we recommend the Petzl GriGri. Though this belay device is more expensive than some other options on the market, we think it offers top-notch value. 

belay device

Many guides and instructors prefer that climbers learn to belay with simple tube-style belay devices like the Black Diamond ATC. While tube-style devices are perfectly usable belay devices, they are no longer the standard. Many gyms now prohibit the use of traditional tube-style devices and instead require climbers to use assisted braking devices such as the GriGri. 

See our comprehensive buyer’s guide for everything you need to know about belay devices.

Quickdraws

Quickdraws are two carabiners joined together by a short nylon or Dyneema sling. Though quickdraws have a variety of applications, they are mainly for sport climbing.

Sport climbing entails fixed hardware permanently attached to the climbing surface. As climbers move past these fixed bolts, they clip one end of a quickdraw directly to the bolt and clip their rope into the other end. In a fall, the quickdraw serves as an anchor point to catch the climber when the rope goes tight.

If your outdoor climbing plans involve bouldering or top roping specifically, you probably don’t need to purchase a bunch of quickdraws right away. However, if you plan to begin sport climbing at the crag, you’re going to need at least a dozen. 

There are lots of good quality and reasonably priced quickdraws on the market. We recommend the Black Diamond Hotforge, which comes in packs of six. These draws are simple, durable, and less costly than most alternatives.

Climbing Helmet

Unlike the climbing gym, outdoor crags come with unpredictable variables and risks. Among these, the risk of head injury can be genuine. When transitioning from the climbing gym to the outdoors, we recommend wearing a UIAA-certified climbing helmet. 

Petzl Boreo helmet

The Petzl Boreo is a durable and affordable climbing helmet that protects against top, side, and rear impacts. Though it’s a little heavy compared to other modern climbing helmets, we think it provides outstanding overall value and protection. 

For more information on climbing helmets, be sure to check out our comprehensive buyer’s guide

Chalk and Chalkbag

Climbing chalk is a fine white powder made of magnesium carbonate that is useful for keeping your hands dry and grippy while climbing. Climbers carry chalk in a small open bag that can be easily accessed while climbing. 

For beginner climbers, chalk and chalk bag selection will not significantly impact your climbing experience or performance. When it comes time to choose, we recommend that you pick chalk and a chalk bag that fits your budget and that feels comfortable to use. 

backcountry-brand-launch-chalk-bag

It is essential to know that certain climbing areas, including Garden of the Gods in Colorado, do not allow white-colored climbing chalk, as it detracts from the aesthetic quality of the landscape. 

Crashpads

Crashpads are portable cushions that boulderers use to create a soft landing zone. If you’ve been bouldering in the gym, you’re probably used to falling onto padded flooring. Crash pads serve the same purpose as a gym’s padded floor when bouldering outdoors. 

In many cases, outdoor boulder problems require more than one crashpad to climb safely. Still, owning a single pad is an excellent way to get your start as an outdoor boulderer.

It’s common for boulderers to climb in groups, so plentiful pads are often gathered together via crowdsourcing. As a group member, a single pad is a standard contribution. 

organic simple pad

For your first crashpad purchase, we recommend the Organic Simple Pad. USA-based Organic Climbing is known for its high-quality, durable, and no-frills crashpads. The Simple Pad features a padded hip belt and a 1,050-denier ballistic nylon shell. It’s the perfect accessory to begin exploring the world of outdoor bouldering. 

For more information about crashpads and how to choose the right one for you, see our comprehensive buyer’s guide

Austin Beck-Doss
By

Austin Beck-Doss has been writing about climbing, hiking, and snow sports for 5 years. Prior to that, Austin worked as a rock climbing guide for an adaptive recreation organization. Now based in Wyoming, Austin enjoys hiking through the limestone hills, recording observations as drawings, and looking for new (old) rocks to climb.