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Outdoor Rock Climbing Tips: 5 Steps for Getting Started

BY: Editors | Aug 18, 2017

Outdoor rock climbing can feel pretty intimidating to beginners. Unlike at a climbing gym, you can't just waltz up to a cliff and wait for someone to show you around. But it's actually not that difficult to get into the sport: like any hobby, you just need to know where to start.

To collect some rock climbing tips, we turned to Nick Wilkes, the owner and head guide of Devils Lake Climbing Guides in Wisconsin, who's also spent years leading climbing excursions in Wyoming, New Hampshire, and Utah. Read on for our guide to rock climbing for beginners.

1. Pick a Climbing Style

There are many different types of rock climbing, but beginners usually start with just two. They are:

Bouldering. In this style, climbers scale small rock formations using minimal equipment—often just chalk, climbing shoes, and safety mats below. Climbers usually only reach heights where they feel comfortable jumping off, which makes the style less intimidating to some newcomers. Another bonus for beginners: it requires less of an investment to get started since you don't need ropes or harnesses.

Top-roping. This style requires two people to perform: a climber in a harness attached to an anchor point via rope, and a partner known as a "belayer" holding the other end of the rope below. The idea is that by keeping the rope taut, the belayer protects the climber from falling too far, and also assists with descent.

After you get comfortable with these styles, Wilkes recommends expanding your repertoire. "Try sport climbing, trad climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering—whatever opportunities come your way," he says. "Some [disciplines] will appeal more to an athlete, and others to a gear geek or a climbing socialite."

2. Buy Your Gear

Wilkes's #1 gear tip? Find climbing shoes that are snug but comfortable. He says more advanced climbers often prefer painfully tight shoes, but he thinks beginners don't need to go that far. Here's some other gear you'll need:

  • Comfortable, loose-fitting climbing clothes that won't restrict your movements

  • Chalk to help with your grip

  • Safety equipment such as a climbing helmet and crash pads

  • Climbing equipment such as ropes, a harness, a belay device, and carabiners for attaching ropes to climbing protection

You don't necessarily need to purchase all of this gear for your first time out—some guides may provide equipment, or you can rent before you commit to owning.

3. Get a Guide

Wilkes says taking a trip with a seasoned pro won't just help you improve your technique—it will also make you look at the whole sport differently. "The experience will expand your picture of what climbing can be and what direction you might want to take with it."

4. Practice Often...

When you're starting out, there are exactly three keys to rock climbing: practice, practice, and practice. Head to an indoor gym or a crag whenever you can. Wilkes says that as long as you're climbing regularly, "it's impossible not to get a lot better within the first few weeks and months."

5. ...But Don't Push Yourself Too Hard

A mistake many novice climbers make is doing too much too fast—especially when their bodies might not be ready for that kind of intensity. If you get hurt, Wilkes recommends letting your body heal for at least a month or two. When you do get back on the mountain, go easy on yourself and listen to your body if you feel pain.

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This article has been updated by our Editors. It was previously published and originally written by staff writer Jorie Larsen.

BY: Editors