When it comes to climbing, there are all sorts of excuses and unknowns that can keep people on the ground. I’m not strong enough! I don’t have anyone to go with! I’m afraid of heights! I have vertigo! I don’t know any nearby mountains. I don’t have any equipment! It’s not safe!
We get it. But we refuse to believe it. In our beginner’s guide to climbing, we’re going to break down all the preconceived notions, stigmas, and intimidation factors and inspire you to start sending it at your local climbing gym.
You already own all the equipment you need
When you think about rock climbing, you may imagine someone hanging from a treacherous cliff while strapped with all sorts of harnesses, carabiners, ropes, chalk bags, and a few totally alien pieces of gear. We get it, but the truth is, you don’t need any of these things to start climbing. Head to the nearest bouldering gym, sign a waiver, rent some shoes, and you are practically all set. (It’s just as easy as going bowling, lol.)
When Marisa Romero, a climbing enthusiast and instructor in Dallas, first went to the climbing gym, she said her “slight nervousness pushed me out of my comfort zone.”
As Ellie Peichel, a former lacrosse player who began climbing after a career-ending concussion, puts it, “an optimistic attitude is really all you need.” That and the ability to “be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” She’s right, it’s never easy to start something knew, but as Ellie notes, “if you go in knowing that it’s going to be hard, then the experience will be a humbling one, something that is so new and unfamiliar you can’t help but laugh at yourself!”
The climbing community wants to help (so don’t be afraid to ask!)
The best way to get started is by Googling a local climbing gym. (Or you can just click here.) Once you arrive, all you need is enthusiasm, and a willingness to try. Chris Ralston started climbing five years ago at Brooklyn Boulders in Gowanus. Despite having never climbed in his life, he says the people at the gym were some of the most open and welcoming groups out there. “Everyone is rooting for you.”
Maybe one of the reasons for this is that the climbing wall is a level playing field, whereas Ellie says, you are as likely to be climbing next to “a seventy-two-year-old man, as a mom who just dropped her kids off at school, or an eight-year-old girl whose strength-weight ratio and spider-like arms allow her to fly up the wall.”
One of the best things about climbing, Marisa says, is that “a first-time climber can work on the easy problems in the gym while a more experienced one will still get the same benefits while climbing more advanced climbs.” Or as Chris puts it, “just get out there, ask someone for help, aka ‘beta,’ and welcome the falls along the way.”
It’s always better with a friend
Climbing can be really intimidating, so it really helps to go with a friend. As Chris mentioned, the community is super open and generally helpful, so don’t be afraid to talk to people at the gym.
And if you can’t find a friend, don’t worry. There are a lot of groups and collectives who are dedicated to helping diverse groups of people enjoy climbing — from groups dedicated to women climbers, to people of color, to people with disabilities, to the LGBTQ+ community. Every day, climbing is becoming more diverse and inclusive, so don’t be afraid to reach out.
It’s not all about upper body strength
You might not realize it, but you’re probably a stronger climber than you think. It’s a common misconception that climbing requires a ton of upper-body strength from the get-go. “It’s all about form — don’t worry about strength, that will come with practice,” Ellie says.
When she’s teaching intro to climbing classes, Marisa said, “One of the most common things I hear from people is ‘I just don’t have enough arm strength.’ In climbing, you actually want to use your legs as much as possible, so you definitely don’t need to have big arm muscles!”
She continues to disprove the upper arm strength myth, “The most efficient way to climb is with your arms straight, rather than bent. You want to focus on using your feet and legs to pull and push your body and hips to the next hold, rather than relying on arm strength. If you think about it, your arm muscles are much smaller than your legs, so it makes sense to channel the hard work to the legs and use your arms as an accessory.”
While it is possible to power through using only your upper body strength, Outdoor Voices designer Hillary Sells, who started climbing a year ago, told us she always encourages people to really focus on their feet and their legs. “As you become more experienced, that’s where the real magic and control lies.” But until then, it’s normal for your arms to be super sore, so don’t sweat it. Just go with the flow, you will continue to build strength with every grab.
In order to get you in spirit, here are a few essential climbing resources we’ve relied on in the past for consistent, reliable, and genuine info on this Recreational activity.
- The Mountain Project’s Route Guide provides insights into over 190,707 notable climbing routes. It’s essential for those trips in the wilderness.
- 99 Boulders is a site devoted to Recreational pursuits like bouldering, climbing, hiking, and reviewing products for all of the above.
- REI’s Expert Advice is a super resource for climbers of all skill levels. From checklists to technical advice, they’ve got it.