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Sport Climbing Essentials

Climbing is a great way to exercise or physically challenge yourself. I guarantee a day of sport climbing, which involves using pre-drilled and set expansion bolts for the primary means of protection, is just as tough as hitting the local gym.

Aside from being physically demanding, it also pushes you mentally, both in problem-solving and getting over fears of falling. And inevitably, you are going to take a fall.

Sport climbing is usually a stepping-stone into the world of traditional, or “trad,” climbing. For people who have been top roping or bouldering, it’s easier to learn how to sport climb as opposed to trad climb—the routes are definitive, with a bolt line to lead the way. With trad climbing it’s up to the climber to place protection (anchors to the rock that will arrest a fall) rather than clipping bolts. A sport rack (the set of equipment carried up a climb) is also a heck of a lot cheaper than a trad rack, which includes multiple different pieces of protection. Here are some elements of the basic kit you’ll want to assemble:

Harness

For your first harness, comfort is your first priority. Sport climbing usually involves more falling than traditional climbing, so you are hanging in the harness much longer. This means you want something that fits and doesn’t make your feet fall asleep while you’re hanging in it. As you get better at climbing, weight becomes more of an issue and as you’ll want a lighter harness; these tend to be more uncomfortable because they do not have as much padding. You want to make sure you have at least two gear loops on the harness to carry all your quickdraws.

Quickdraws

quickdraw is a device that attaches a freely running rope to an anchor, and consists of two non-locking carabiners connected by a ‘dog bone’ (length of webbing). One end will have a rubber stabilizer to connect the carabiner, and the other will not. Dog bones come in different sizes, which increase or decrease the overall length of the quickdraw; 10cm is a good length to build your rack around. Personally, I like ones with wire-gate carabiners at one end to clip the rope, and a straight-gate carabiner to clip the bolt. Having the two different closure systems also makes it easier to not mix them up while clipping. Always be sure to clip the end without the rubber stabilizer to the bolt, as you need that movement to stay dynamic (which makes it safe).

For your first rack, look for quickdraws that balance light weight with burliness; with heavier carabiners, you can allow yourself more dings, which are inevitable as your learn. As you get better and learn how to avoid this, you can start swapping out some heavier carabiners with lighter options.

Most routes require 10-12 draws plus anchors, so make sure you do your research before you get on the route. Quickdraws are usually sold in packs of five or six; you will want two of these.

Dynamic Rope

As opposed to a static rope, a dynamic rope provides some stretch in the event of a fall. This makes the catch or fall “soft”—the force of the fall is dispelled by that stretch instead of being transferred directly to your harness. This not only saves your back but prevents a lot of force being put on both the quickdraws and the bolts in the rock. Static ropes are primarily used by people who are not lead climbing but rather using the rope for rappelling.

A lot of climbs today require a 70-meter rope; I recommend starting with that. Most routes only need 60m, but the 70m will be much more versatile over time. Again if this is your first rope, worrying about weight shouldn’t be a huge priority. Beginners should get a rope at least 9.5mm thick; this way you have a rope that can handle a lot of abuse. Climbers that use skinny ropes are usually going for hard routes where every gram counts—but at the cost of the rope’s durability.

If you plan to use this rope in the winter or wet conditions, getting a dry rope is a good idea. A dry rope does not actually stay completely dry, but it does resist soaking longer and dries faster. But the real benefit is that the rope will not freeze—a rope that is frozen becomes stiff, thus losing some of its dynamic functionality.

Belay Device and Locking Carabiner

Belay Devices provide additional assistance when arresting a partner from a fall and when lowering your partner. Belay Devices come in a variety of styles providing benefits and drawbacks depending on the discipline you practice. Tube Style devices similar to the Petzl Reverso, Black Diamoind ATC Guide offer benefits to dial technique, learn basic rope management skills and can be utilized in a top down belay on multipitch scenarios. Tube Style devices do not provide additional braking assistance when arresting a fall or lowering your partner.

As technology advances in climbing devices and accepted techniques, tube style devices evolved out of the days of hip belays, munter hitch belays, and figure 8s. As per the evolution of climbing, Assisted Braking Devices and Geometry Assisted Devices are the next step in safety and utilizing advanced belay techniques while Tube Style Devices are being regarded as simple or basic and do not maximize safety. Devices that provide a geometry assisted braking action similar to the Mammut Smart 2.0, Petzl GriGri, Edelrid MegaJul provide additional safety to arrest falls while minimizing rope slippage when taking in slack. Assisted Braking Devices such as the Petzl Grigri (ABD’s) allow Belayers to hold their partner with less force on the brake strand while their partner hang dogs their project for the 23rd time. ABD’s provide supreme control when lowering your partner and when utilized correctly can provide an extra margin of safety while Belaying.

Personal Anchor System

You will inevitably have to ‘clean’ a route; this means you will follow or top rope after a leader, removing all the quickdraws then rappelling through the anchor. To do this you will have to attach yourself to the anchor.

Companies like Metolius sell pre-made anchors such as the PAS that can vary in length. You can also get a few slings with locking carabiners as a cheaper alternative. Be sure to use two pieces to anchor in; most anchors will have two bolts to achieve redundancy.

Helmet

helmet is important not only protect in the event of a fall but also to shield you from debris that might fall from above. Even a golf-ball-sized rock can do some serious, if not fatal, damage if it falls on an unprotected head. Fit and weight are probably the most important considerations—it has to be comfortable so you’ll actually wear it. You won’t be motivated to put on a helmet if it does not fit. You have to remember that you might be in this helmet all day.

There are two types of climbing helmet construction: ABS hardshell and lightweight foam. Hardshell helmets use hard plastic shell and webbing inside to get the perfect fit. Lightweight foam helmets are much lighter than a hardshell and provide better protection in the event of a fall or a hail of small rocks.

Climbing Shoes

You will always hear “trust your feet” when you climb. To do this you need a climbing shoethat fits properly, so you feel comfortable using your feet instead of doing pull-ups all day.

Sizing is usually the biggest question about climbing shoes. Leather shoes are going to stretch about a full size but, the shoes vary so be sure to consult one of our Gearheads about different brands and models when it comes to how much they stretch. Start with a comfortable pair so you don’t need to take them on and off every climb. “Comfortable” means your big toe should be touching the end after the shoe stretches out (it usually takes a good seven days of climbing to stretch or break in shoes) but not crunched up against it. Synthetic shoes are generally cheaper and don’t stretch much, if at all. They can be easier to buy, as you just purchase close to your normal shoe size.

Read more about climbing shoe sizing

As you become a better climber you will want a more aggressive, or downturned, shoe. This gives you better hooking on overhung routes, but they tend to be much less comfortable. With really aggressive shoes you will see people take them off while being lowered to get their feet out of their shoes as soon as possible. So it’s a good idea to start out with something that is fairly neutral; in the beginning, it’s more important to just enjoy climbing. Later, you can shoot for those more uncomfortable shoes as you attempt harder grades.

Chalk Bag

Chalk keeps your hands dry to ensure the ultimate grip on the rock. You can buy loose chalk or chalk that’s inside a ball fabric ball. Most gyms require you to use a chalk ball as it cannot spill and create a mess. At the local crag outdoors I use loose chalk because it’s easier to get a lot on your hands—but watch where you put the bag. Spilling an entire bag of chalk definitely breaks the Leave No Trace principles, as does where you put your hands. There’s no need to have hand prints all over the rock. In some places, like near desert drags, you can buy brown-colored chalk to maintain the rocks’ natural beauty and avoid white splotches all over the wall.

There are many different types of bags. I’ve seen anything from Crown Royal bags to zebra print; it’s a fun way to express yourself. If you find yourself chalking up a lot, just make sure you have one with a big opening so its easy for you to get in there while you are climbing.

Rope Bag

rope bag is the best way to keep your rope organized while moving from climb to climb. Using the rope bag as a tarp is a great idea, it helps keep the rope clean and off the ground. Keeping a clean rope ensures a long life for your rope; getting it dirty or wet will shorten its overall life. Aside from cleanliness, the rope bag is an easy way to keep everything organized and the rope stacked free of knots. The last thing you want when you are the belayer is a tangled mess on the ground that you have to sort out while your partner is going for a send on a route.

Crag Pack

Most sport routes don’t require a long approach (hike to the climbing area), so finding the lightest pack is not the most important thing to think about. When choosing a crag pack, look for ample padding so that you’re comfortable when you are carrying all your gear—you would hate to be uncomfortable before you even get off the ground. Also, make sure the pack is big enough to fit all your gear inside the pack; having your helmet swinging on the outside of the pack is an option but it’s a drag to catch it on passing branches and brush. Generally, a 35-liter pack will accommodate your quickdraws, rope, harness, shoes and a few extras.

Additional Gear

There’s nothing worse than getting all the way out to your local crag to spend a day hungry or cold, so make sure you are prepared.

  • Snacks and water
  • Headlamp: Usually, you will be having so much fun you will lose track of time. If you get caught by the dark, either on the trail back to the car or while cleaning the route, a headlamp is essential. Read more about choosing a headlamp
  • Comfy shoes or flip-flops to wear while belaying.
  • Insulating Layer: Sport climbing is characterized by short bursts of intense activity followed by periods of rest or inactivity while you belay your partner. Always pack a layer (puffy, fleece, rain shell, etc.) or two, even when you don’t think you’ll need it.

Climbing is my favorite way to enjoy the outdoors. It challenges me physically and mentally. It is such a reward to spend a full day on the crag pushing the limits of what I thought was possible. I have found it’s a great way to meet people while traveling or if you move to a new place; climbing communities are usually very tight-knit, but also open to accepting newbies and showing them the ways of climbing in a safe manner.

Remember though, climbing should be fun. Start with comfortable gear before moving to the lightweight harnesses and a really aggressive shoe. Feel free to contact me directly if you want personal recommendations.