Home Camping and Hiking A Beginner’s Guide to Indoor Rock Climbing – Gyms and Gear

A Beginner’s Guide to Indoor Rock Climbing – Gyms and Gear


You stand atop the mountain with your arms raised to the air. You did it! It feels really good to be on top. You just finished an outdoor climb and are looking down from above. The view is breathtaking. You got there by dreaming big. Through this article, a Beginner’s Guide to Indoor Rock Climbing – Gyms and Gear, you will learn how you too can accomplish such a great feat as a novice. By a wide margin, indoor rock climbing is the best way to prepare, so let’s get started.

Before we get rolling though, I have one more thing I would like to mention. If you see yourself repelling down the side of a cliff after a good outdoor rock climb, then you might want to check out some pictures of 20 US National Parks I wrote about in a previous article. They will be sure to inspire you to join an indoor gym because you will think about outdoor rock climbing the cliff face.

Why Even Go Rock Climbing in the First Place? – 5 Reasons

Rock climbing can be really fun and rewarding if you are in shape for it and have been doing it for a while, but what if you are a complete novice? There are so many other activities that you could be doing, so why even go rock climbing in the first place? In response, I give you 5 reasons why you should start rock climbing.

1. It is fun filled exercise.

I really enjoy rock climbing. It is exciting to shuffle and swisher your way around a cliff side to reach the top. You have to go through all sorts of twists and body movements to before you even think about reaching your hand over the top of the cliff. When you do though, it is a very satisfying feeling. It just burns the fat off of you, working all the muscles in your body and focusing your mind on the task at hand. Rock climbing is active. You have to be present in every moment.

2. You will make new friends.

You make a lot of friends rock climbing. It is a very social experience. If you are ever to lead climb at all, you will have to talk to someone and get to know them. Your fate will be in their calloused hands. You discuss the different ways to approach the wall and take the advice they have. A good climbing partner will teach you and help you grow, making for a marvelous relationship.

3. Kids of all ages love indoor rock climbing, so it is splendid for families.

If you have children of your own, then rock climbing is just great for little kids. It may seem scary, but, when they fall, they bounce back like a dodge ball. They just love to get up and think about how they will get to the top. It uses up all of their energy. So when they are done climbing for the day, they are exhausted, falling asleep at the first chance they get.

4. It is like a game of chess.

When I first started rock climbing, I thought you could be as “dumb as a rock” (pun intended) and still do well at the sport. This is not the case. Before each and every climb, you really have to think about your ascent. How will I get to the top? What have others done before me? Do I have what it takes to get to the top? It challenges your mind. You have to envision how you will reach the top, planning out your movements with your eyes.

5. It will prepare you for outdoor rock climbing.

Indoor rock climbing is really great because it prepares you for outdoor rock climbing, where the real challenge lies. An indoor gym is contained and controlled. Every variable is accounted for. It is a great place to train and fail because someone will catch when you fall. An outdoor rock climb is a whole other beast unto itself. An indoor rock climbing gym, though, gives you an idea of what to expect on your first outdoor climb, preparing your grip strength and readying your mind for the challenges that lie ahead.

Different Types of Gym Climbing – Not All are the Same

At every gym, there are quite a different number of climbs you can expect to find.

Bouldering – I Hope You Like the Ropeless Feeling

Almost every gym will have a bouldering area. This is a ropeless climb. If you fall, you land on the ground. These are really interesting experiences because, if you let go, the air falls through you. It can be very scary from high up. The ground is a merciless mistress, teaching you about everything you did wrong. Do not worry though; there will be cushy mats to soften your fall and the fall will probably be quite short, so it is not all that bad.

Bouldering can be quite fun. All you need is a pair of climbing shoes and chalk. Then you are all set to go on your way up the cliff side, making it just excellent for kids. Give them the shoes and chalk and watch them climb on up with all their energy.

Top Rope Climbing – Great for Beginners

This is a much taller, longer climb where you start to play with the big boys. Walls for top rope climbing can be upwards of 50 ft (15.24 m), making for a long way down. On these climbs, the rope is attached to the ceiling. So when you fall, you are belayed down by your partner all the way to the ground.

Some gyms will even have a motor powered belay system. If you do not have your own partner, the gym will let you hook in, so you can climb your way to the top without anyone else but you. When you fall, the motor kicks in and you fall like a graceful feather to the bottom of the gym floor.

Lead Climbing – You are Really Starting to Move up in the World

This is how outdoor rock climbing works, but you practice in the gym. The outdoors will not have top rope climbing unless someone climbed up and went ahead of you, so lead climbing will be the best way to prepare you for the outdoor climbs.

It is like top rope climbing. But as you ascend, you snap your rope into wall mounted carabiners strategically placed all along the way to the top. Make sure it is nice and secure. If you fall, then you do not fall all the way to the bottom, but where you last snapped into a wall mounted carabiner. You can swing into the wall if you are not careful though depending on where you last snapped in.

How to Select an Indoor Rock Climbing Gym – 5 Easy Steps

1. Check online for rock climbing gyms near you.

If you are in a big city or a suburban area, there is bound to be a gym near you, so take the first step towards finding a gym and google “rock climbing gyms near me.” Another option is to check out the Climbing Gym Directory at the Mountain Project. It will list gyms by US state and you can go from there to find one you can start indoor rock climbing at.

2. Be sure to look at online reviews of the gym and read testimonials.

Once you have found a gym near you, be sure to take a look at the reviews and testimonials. If it is a bad gym but close and there is a farther one with good ratings, then the farther one is probably best. You do not want to stress out about the poor customer service. Rock climbing is meant to relax you. No one wants that kind of stress.

3. Look at all the amenities through a tour.

Next you are going to take a tour. A place may look good online, but you have no idea until you see it with your own two eyes. All you see is all there is. If you see it, then you know what the gym has. Some places will be better than others. Some may be full-blown temples to Chris Sharma while others are just down and dilapidated gyms operated by an old geezer of a climber.

4. Weigh all the pros and cons.

Not all gyms are created equally. Look at each amenity each gym offers, the classes, reputation, price, instructors, and atmosphere. Whatever your decision though, make sure the gym offers beginner climbing classes. It will go a long way to having a fun time down the road.

5. Make your decision and sign up for a beginner class.

My biggest regret climbing was not signing up for a beginner class. I just grabbed my chalk, put on the shoes, and hopped onto the bouldering walls. While I did watch people and learned from them, it is nothing compared to the almost one on one experience of a climbing coach. They will tell you what you are doing wrong, how you can improve, and techniques you should employ in your climbs. If there is one thing they know well, it is how to rock climb. They will help you become a great climber. You will fall less and enjoy yourself more after a beginner class.

First Time Climber Tips for Success

Know how to fall. You need to know how to fall, plain and simple. When you fall, make sure your knees are bent and no one is below you where you plan to fall. This will not only ensure your own safety, but that of others.

Watch other climbers and watch out for them. A lot of people at the gym will be more experienced than you. That is okay. They have been climbing for a while and know what to do. Watch what they do and emulate them. Use your observant eye. Also, watch out for the climbers above you. If someone falls on top of you, it will really hurt. So do yourself a favor and stay out of the fall zone.

Your legs are stronger than your arms. I used to wrestle and sometimes I would try to out muscle a guy’s leg. Uh no, that was not going to work. It just does not compute and a similar logic applies to rock climbing. The sport is full body, so let your legs do, well, the leg work, so your arms can rest. They have the power.

Hey, keep your chin up. This is supposed to be fun, especially at the beginner level. You do not want to over strain yourself or injure yourself. It is too risky for your health and your fun. Take a soothing deep breath and relax. Slow down and appreciate the moment. Rock climbing is jam packed activity full of fun.

After that beginner class, get a good partner or mentor, someone who is a bit better than you. They will push you to exceed your expectations and counsel you when you fall. He or she will guide you down the path to climbing greatness.

The Rock Climbing Difficulty Ranking System

If there is one thing I have learned about rocking climbing, it is that not all ascents are created equally. Some are much harder than others. Fortunately though, they created a measuring system. The rating system runs from 5.0 to 5.15. The higher you get up in the scale, the harder the route up the cliff side.

When it comes to bouldering, it goes all the way from V0 to V16. For the super beginner climbs, they often have an “R” shown, which stands for recreational; it is not at all challenging.

My Own Experience Indoor Rock Climbing

I first started rock climbing in about Fall 2016 and my last climb was in South Africa over the Summer of 2017. I wanted to do something else than just lift weights and run at a 24-hour fitness. I wanted something exciting that would perk my mind and body. Rock climbing did that for me.

I lived in the South Bay Area at the time and I chose the Studio in Downtown San Jose, making it about a 20 or 30 minute drive from home. It was a marvelous place say the least. They offer yoga, sauna, and plenty of climbing. For Bay Area students, they offer a monthly discount, adding to the appeal of it for me. The place is quite hipster. It used to be a movie cinema, so you still see the typical movie showing lettering on the outside of the building before you enter. Every time I went in, I felt like a star. LOL!

My biggest regrets were not taking a beginner’s class and not talking more with other people. I just grabbed some chalk, shoes, and hopped right onto a wall. While it was a great way to learn by watching others and observing my own mistakes, a coach would have fast tracked the learning process by telling me the names of specific techniques and getting me to reflect more on the act of climbing.

I did not talk to too many people. I just bouldered and watched other people head up the walls at the gym. It would have been excellent to make friends and learn from them, but I did not do it. I just sat back and climbed into my introverted turtle shell, keeping my thoughts to myself and losing out of the experience of a rock hard friendship.

You may ask. “Alex, why don’t you rock climb anymore?” In response, I give you two reasons, finances and weight. As a student at UC Santa Cruz, most of my money goes to tuition, books, health and car insurance, housing, and food. Afterwards, there is not too much that can go to a gym. It is a lot to put on top of my expenses. It would be too much. I was going to De Anza Community College then, so my student tuition bills were a lot less and I could afford the gym. For Bay Area students at the gym, it is about $50 a month, so it can be manageable.

Also, I am too heavy for the rock climbing if I wanted to become good. I am 6 ft (1.8 m) tall and weigh 175 lbs (80 kg). Most of that is muscle, particularly in the legs. To become good, I would have had to have dropped down to at least 160 lbs. I did not want to do that after wrestling and weight cutting for seven years. LOL! That was not happening again. A lot of the good climbers you see are skinny, muscular, and flexible. While I do have the muscular and flexibility parts down for the most part, skinny is not something in my repertoire.

Do not get me wrong though. I love rock climbing. It is really captivating and engaging. Every muscle in my body is activated and the sport requires me to be present and focused. Now, when the chance presents itself, I just do it for leisure and enjoyment. The time spent on the wall is nothing but pure joy. I relish every minute. For you, it can be more or less the same. The road to becoming a professional rock climber may be out of reach, but that does not mean you cannot have a lot of fun filled exercise.

One time, I went to an indoor gym in South Africa with a motor powered repel back in 2017. I canceled my gym membership before I left for Africa and I desperately wanted to climb, so I got a day pass for a gym in Johannesburg. It was the first time I was introduced to motor powered belaying. When you fall, you come down like a feather all by yourself. When you are alone, it is very nice to have. If your partner is not there, you can just start climbing without any problems.

Make Sure to Get All the Right Gear

Most climbing gyms will have a small shop inside where you can buy gear in person. It helps to try on the gear and then buy online, so you can save money.

Gear to Just Get You Started

Climbing shoes, if there is one piece of gear you need to get started, it is a solid pair of climbing shoes. You cannot go up the mountainside without them. If you try to rock climb in bare feet or tennis shoes, it will hurt, so save yourself some pain and get a pair. These kinds of shoes are designed to only have a little wiggle room. So if you have kids with growing feet, be warned that they might grow out of them fast. When you have rockin’ rock climbing shoes, the wall becomes your oyster.

Chalk and chalk bag, the second mandatory piece of gear you will need is chalk. For longer climbs, you will surely need it. When Eminem had sweaty palms and Mama’s spaghetti, he did not need chalk because he was not heading up the side of a cliff, but you will though. For bouldering, you can slap a bunch of chalk on your hands, but you cannot do that for top rope or lead climbing, you need a bag with chalk around your waist to fight those sweaty palms, so you don’t spill Mama’s spaghetti on the way down.

Gear You Will Need if you Want to Play with the Big Boys

Belaying harness, for longer and taller climbs, this bad boy is a must. You cannot strap in without one. They come in all shapes and sizes, so be sure to get yours fitted before you throw down the dough and buy one. You want it nice and tight, but not suffocating. Strap it in nice and secure before your first climb.

Climbing ropes, again, for top rope and lead climbing, these are a must. You can climb without a rope, but that is dangerous and reserved for professionals. Most gyms will not allow it over 15 ft (4.6 m) because of the liabilities associated with the risk, so be sure to have climbing specific rope.

Final Thoughts to Send You on Your Way

Well, you should be all set. You have gotten a good idea of what lies ahead of you in the world of climbing. You have the gear and are ready to go ahead. It will be sure to be a blast. Rock climbing is really fun. It may be muscle straining and exhausting, but it is also engaging and thought-provoking. You will be sure to relish in the joy of just completing a hard climb beyond your abilities. So what do you say? Are you going to check out a gym near you and start climbing?

If you have any thoughts, questions, or think I missed anything, please comment below and remember to share the article. Thank you so much and I hope you make it a great day!


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