Rock climbing can be an exhilarating adventure into the vertical realm. It can also be intimidating, given all of the gear and lingo that comes with it. Just as you’ll want to learn climbing skills from the ground up, it’s helpful to get acquainted with the basic equipment you’ll need. Most climbing gyms rent the essentials—shoes, harness, and belay device—giving you the opportunity to try it all out before investing the big bucks. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
Get a Grip
The first thing you’ll want is a pair of climbing shoes: form-fitting and slipper-like footwear that features extra-grippy rubber on the sole for adhering to rock. A range of styles is available, although beginners generally should look for stiffer soles, thicker rubber, and a flatter shoe profile ($75 to $150).
Chalk It Up
Damp, sweaty hands make it difficult to securely latch onto small handholds. To keep fingers dry, most climbers keep powdered chalk at the ready in a chalk bag secured around the waist ($15 to $30). A multitude of styles are available; look for a wire-stiffened opening that makes it easy to slip your fingers in and out.
Harness Your Strength
Ready to climb higher? You’ll need a climbing harness ($50 to $100). Harnesses come in different sizes and feature two leg loops and a waist belt secured with a metal buckle, sometimes two. Look for a model that adjusts to fit snugly and comfortably around your waist and upper thighs. Once tightened, the waist belt should sit just above the top of your hips, with the end of the waist strap extending several inches past the buckle.
Men’s and women’s harnesses account for different pelvic structures; women’s models include a greater distance, or rise, between the leg loops and the waist. Nearly all harnesses feature gear loops for attaching equipment. Stiffer loops make it easier to quickly add and remove gear.
It Takes Two
When you’re climbing on a rope, one end is tied to your harness. The other end is connected to the harness of a stationary second person, or belayer, whose job is to keep slack out of the rope while allowing it to move freely as you, the climber, go up or down. In the event of a fall, the belayer locks the rope in place to catch the climber. To accomplish this, the rope must run through a belay device secured to the belayer’s harness with a large clip, called a belay carabiner ($15 to $25).
A range of belay devices and designs are available. Two classics are the Black Diamond ATC (short for “air traffic controller”; $15 to $20) and the Petzl Grigri, a fancier lever-lock option that runs around $100. For the belay carabiner, look for a larger model with a locking gate to prevent it from accidentally opening while in use. Be aware that all climbing carabiners, including belay carabiners, are designed to hold substantial loads. Those ubiquitous keychain clips you see at convenience-store checkouts don’t cut it.
Climbing ropes are dynamic. They stretch when weighted, as opposed to a static rope, which does not. This distributes the force generated during a fall and reduces the shock the climber feels. Dry climbing ropes are treated to repel water; non-dry ropes are less expensive but sponge up water in wet conditions and can get very heavy quickly.
Ropes come in different diameters, with most falling in the 9mm to 11mm range. Larger diameter ropes (10mm and up) are heavier, more durable, and typically used for top-roping, where an anchor is set above the climb, the rope hangs down from it, and the belayer is stationed on the ground below. Smaller diameter ropes weigh less but are less durable. They’re generally used for lead climbing, where the climber ascends with the rope trailing behind and clips into anchors in the rock along the way for protection.
Most ropes are either 50m or 60m long, though many 70m versions are now available. A full length of rope is known as a pitch; the number of pitches indicates how long a climb is. Ropes run roughly $150 to $250.