Gym climbing basics

New to rock climbing? Indoor climbing gyms—which are found in cities nationwide—offer an ideal way to get started. But rock gyms are also quite popular with climbers of all abilities.

This article explains how indoor gyms provide a great alternative to outdoor climbing, and how you can get started with confidence.

Why Climb Indoors?

Climbing gyms offer a safe, controlled environment that's great for beginners young and old. But gyms are popular with experienced climbers, too, since they offer so many varied routes. Climb because it's your passion; do it because it's good cross–training for other activities; or just do it for fun.

Gym climbing is also known as sport climbing because it uses pre–bolted "sport" routes. It appeals to many people because it is a noncompetitive yet physically gratifying pursuit. It is typically done with a partner, which makes it social, too. Try it to freshen up a ho–hum fitness workout—it's far from your ordinary weight training or cardio routine.

Rock gyms also offer the advantage of being climate controlled, making them a great place to spend a cold Midwestern winter or sweltering Southern summer.

The Basics of Gym Climbing

Most gyms offer top–roped climbs with heights ranging from about 20 to 60 feet. Top–rope routes are rated by their level of difficulty, ranging from 5.7 (suitable for novices) to 5.14 (expert only).

In top roping, the rope runs through a carabiner that is attached to a bolt in the ceiling of the gym. The climber ties into one end of the rope; the belayer is attached to a belay device on the other end.

The belayer remains on the floor taking up the slack from the rope as the climber ascends. Belayers also have the option of anchoring themselves into a bolt on the floor for extra stability when their climber descends. The latter is done mostly when climbing partners have a significant difference in body weight.

Beyond the Basics

As noted earlier, indoor climbing is popular among highly skilled climbers, too. These climbers often practice lead climbing at gyms. Instead of being top–roped, the lead climber is tied into one end of the rope and has to clip it into a series of quickdraws (anchoring devices) which are already attached to bolts on the gym's wall. The climber's partner has the other end of the rope and is on the ground belaying the climber.

This is very much like sport climbing outside, except that indoors the quickdraws are already in place. The challenge with lead climbing is if the climber falls or misses the next quickdraw, he or she falls a short distance back to the previous clipped–in point and must begin again.


An option at many gyms, bouldering does not require a harness, rope or a belay partner. Bouldering routes are close to the ground and use a crash pad as a protective mat below you. It is a great way to build skill because only your strength keeps you on the rock wall. Novices appreciate the simplicity of it; skilled climbers like the challenge of more difficult routes.

For details, see the REI Expert Advice article, Bouldering.

Gym Climbing Gear

Climbing harness

Most climbers wear clothes that offer comfort and mobility. Clothes you would wear for yoga work well. Capris and "manpris" are popular with climbers as well as knee–length shorts since they are cooler than long pants. Short shorts are typically avoided since they do not give enough coverage.

As for gear, it's best to rent all of it from your gym the first few times you try climbing. If you decide that climbing is for you, then you may want to invest in some of your own gear. The basics:

Locking carabiner

  • Harness: This is a must for climbing and typically the most versatile piece of gear for both indoor and outdoor climbing. Shop REI's selection of climbing harnesses.
  • Locking carabiner: This is required to attach your belay device to your harness. Inexpensive. Shop REI's selection of locking carabiners.
  • Chalk bag and chalk: Chalk is used to keep fingers and palms dry to avoid slipping. Shop REI's selection of climbing chalk.

Novices should rent rock climbing shoes for a while to know what is comfortable and what suits your climbing style. Note that rock shoes should fit snugly but not be painful. At some point, you'll want to buy rather than rent.

All climbing shoes have a stiff rubber sole that extends up over the toe, but some have a more aggressive sole than others and are more suited for bouldering or outdoor crevices rather than indoor footholds. An REI sales specialist can help you choose a shoe that fits properly and meets your needs.

Shop REI's selection of climbing shoes.

Climbing with Kids

Most kids are natural climbers. Climbing gyms typically have classes and programs for kids as young as 4 years old. Climbing as a family is an enjoyable way to spend time together.

Climbing builds muscle and endurance. It is a healthy option for children who are not interested in team sports such as soccer or baseball. The climber has to plan and anticipate his or her next move to get to the top. It takes both mental and physical skill to do this.

It may be helpful to provide some coaching from the ground, too. You can suggest where young climbers should place their hands or feet from your vantage point below. You can also instruct my kids to give me a heads–up if they think they are about to fall by shouting out "falling." (Note: Falls are stopped quickly by the belayer.) These are both good habits for all climbers, not just kids.

Climbing Safely

Gym climbing safety

As with any activity, it's helpful to stretch a bit before and after climbing. Muscles not properly warmed up are more prone to injury. Work your forearms, chest and legs. Also, be sure to stay hydrated and keep up your caloric intake with energy chews or bars.

The most important thing to remember when climbing is: Always Do Your Safety Checks!

For the climber, make sure:

  • Your figure–8 knot is tied properly.
  • The harness is buckled and double–backed.
  • The rope is through the connection points of your harness.

For the belayer, make sure:

  • The harness is buckled and double–backed.
  • There are 3 items inside the locking carabiner: the rope, the belay device, and the belay loop of the harness.
  • The carabiner is locked.
  • The rope is tail–side down exiting the belay device.

Important: Reading this article does not make you a climber. If you're new to climbing, always seek out competent, professional instruction.

Other Climbing Options

Making a Home Climbing Wall

Many climbers feel if they cannot climb once or twice a week, they do not improve as quickly as they wish. One option to make practice time more convenient is to build your own climbing wall (training holds) or mount finger–boards at home. These climb–specific tools let you practice techniques and build endurance. It is beyond the scope of this article to advise how to get your home gym set up, but reference books and other materials are available.

Shop REI's selection of training gear.

Climbing Outdoors

Outdoor climbing is quite different from indoor climbing. In fact, many experienced climbers will say "real rock" is nothing like "gym rock." Although this may be true, gym climbing allows you to focus on technique and lets you practice using your leg muscles more than your arm muscles. Trad (traditional), sport and lead climbing outdoors may be a whole different game, but it doesn't lessen the experience of building strength and honing your skills indoors.

For more info, see the REI Expert Advice article, Getting Started Rock Climbing.