Rock Climbing Equipment: A Beginner’s Guide

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So – you want to get started in the exciting world of rock climbing, but you have no idea what comes first. What rock climbing equipment do you need? What can you leave behind? Where do you even start?

Here’s the easiest answer to that question: take one of our rock climbing holidays. You’ll be taught by experts in spectacular surroundings, and we’ll provide everything you need, including all the equipment mentioned below. We’ve designed these trips to be the absolute best way for a complete beginner to get started.

However,  if you’re not ready to come along just yet, here are a few tips.

The first rule of rock climbing is…

Don’t look down!

However, this post is all about the second rule of rock-climbing, which is equally important:

Always have the right equipment.

Here are our recommendations. We’ve divided them up into two categories:

(a) Rock Climbing Equipment Essentials: the things we recommend you buy for yourself and take wherever you go.

(b) Rock Climbing Equipment Basics: the things you should never climb without, which may be provided by the organisation you’re climbing with.

 

Rock Climbing Equipment Essentials

Climbing shoes and helmet

1. Shoes

Your shoes need to be perfect for you – and you need to take them everywhere you’re doing rock climbing. They have to be tough enough to withstand everything you’re going to put them through. They need to be both comfortable and snug (not painfully tight), so they’re almost indistinguishable from your foot when you’re wearing them. And they have to support your foot, bending the right way and transferring force to where it’s needed.

We recommend that you don’t buy your shoes online, unseen. Go to a reputable shop (say, Cotsworld Outdoor in the UK – here’s a map of where their stores are) and try on various pairs to find ones that are strong and comfortable. Your feet are uniquely shaped, and some shoes might be unexpectedly uncomfortable (chafing here, digging in there) – and you just won’t know until you try them on.

Secondly, if you’re just starting out, aim for some relatively inexpensive shoes. Once they start to deteriorate a little, you can upgrade to more pricey and technically exact shoes, and use your cheap pair for deep-water soloing (DWP). Spend good money on your shoes when you’re sure you’re going to get that money’s worth.

Thirdly? Ask! If it’s a reputable shop with knowledgeable staff, they’ll be able to advise you on the right choice, and give tips on what to look for, how to spot a shoe that’s a great fit, how to look after them, and so on.

If you’re looking for a few ideas before you go shopping, try Climbing.com’s top picks for climbing shoes.

2. Helmet

NOTE: a helmet is only really essential for outdoor climbing. Indoors, it’s often not necessary – but outdoors, you should never do any climbing without some kind of head protection in place.

Again, this is such a personalised piece of equipment that we recommend you try before you buy. You will be issued with a helmet if you turn up to a rock climbing class – but it’s far better to have your own. You’ve made sure it fits, and you’ve familiarised yourself with it so you know how to adjust the chin-strap.

The British Mountaineering Council has a terrific free guide to choosing and learning to use your first climbing helmet. Download it for free here.

climbing harness

3. Climbing Harness

Simply put, this is the part of you that’s attached to the rope you’re hanging on. For that reason, you’re trusting your climbing harness with your life – and that means, it needs to pass every test. (If you decide to buy your own, don’t get it second-hand. You’ll have no idea how much wear & tear it has endured.)

You’ll either be using a sit harness (this is most likely for organised rock climbing activities), a chest harness or a full-body harness. Whatever form it takes, you’ll need it for all sorts of climbing, indoors and outdoors.

If you want a harness that will remain useful as your skills grow, get one with at least four good-sized gear loops.

OutdoorGearLab has a great, exhaustive guide to them here.

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Rock Climbing Equipment Basics

Learn how these items work, and learn to recognise them. They’re a must on every climb – and once you’re proficient, you may want to buy your own, although it’s not necessary when you’re starting out and part of a guided tour, like the ones we provide. Nevertheless, a little knowledge can build a lot of confidence. Here’s your homework before you go climbing for the first time…

climbing rope

1. Rope

Obviously! But everything is hanging on you using the right rope, quite literally.

The most important feature of a good climbing rope is that it stretches, absorbing energy during a fall so you’re not hit with a nasty jolt at the end.

If you’re starting out, ropes can be expensive – so you may find it’s more practical to borrow some from friends (since they’re already used, make sure you check them over carefully to see they’re not worn or fraying.)

You’ll find that shorter ropes are usually more suitable for indoor climbing, and longer for outdoor work. Keep them for separate activities! Outdoor climbing often involves more wear & tear, so you’ll want longer, tougher, better-quality ropes.

Again, the BMC has come through for beginners with a terrific free guide, found here.

belay device

2. Belay Device

If you fall, your belay device will catch you. There are many, many types on the market – but they all work essentially as a friction brake, allowing you or someone else to control your descent in a safe, energy-efficient way.

The basic version is the most versatile – a plate-style device with two holes, with the rope passed through a slot and around a karabiner, creating tight turns of the rope that create friction and slow you down. If you’re choosing one of these, make sure the holes are wide enough to admit the width of rope you need (we recommend 8 to 10mm).

As a beginner, you’ll be better-served by the type of belay device that has “teeth” – ridges that create more friction, and make your rope much easier to control. You’ll also learn the hands-on basics of belaying, where a more sophisticated device would prevent you from learning these kinds of skills.

NOTE: you’ll need at least one screwgate-type karabiner (see below) for your belay.

Here’s REI’s guide to this critical piece of equipment.

climbing chalk bag

3. Chalk

When your hands get sweaty (and if you’re climbing, they will get sweaty) your grip on things is compromised. For a rock climber, this is a serious problem.

Enter good old Magnesium Carbonate – MgCO3 – better known in rock climbing as “chalk”. Note: this isn’t what non-climbers know as chalk, because that’s Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3).

Rock climbing chalk should always be available in liberal amounts. The best way to ensure that happens is to have a bag filled with stuff hanging from your hip (above).

Here’s a beginner’s guide from chalk-selling company Friction Labs.

quickdraw climbing

4. Quickdraws

You use these to connect yourself to bolt anchors or other pieces of equipment. They’re made of two karabiners connected with a strip of webbing (above) – and you’re best prepared with at least two or three on your belt.

The BMC has a good guide – which suggests the following:

Don’t swap ends: karabiners which are used to clip protection, in particular pegs and bolts, can get small nicks and gouges in them. These marks can easily destroy the sheath of a climbing rope in a fall or when lowering off, so consistently use your quickdraws the same way around.

carabiner

5. Karabiners

Such an elegant and simple design – and so many variations on it. The Karabiner (or Carabiner) is, in essence, a metal loop with some kind of lockable gate in the middle of it, usually spring-loaded. We say you’ll need at least a couple to climb comfortably.

You’ll see lots of karabiners at use outside of rock-climbing, clipped to rucksacks and holding keys and so on. Beware: unless it’s a piece of certified rock climbing equipment, these karabiners are completely unsuitable for going up the side of cliff faces – they haven’t been load-tested and you have no idea how much weight they could take. Don’t find out.

To learn what karabiners to choose and what they can do for you, check out this article by Black Diamond Equipment.

crash pad

6. Crashpads

(optional – usually for boulder climbing)

Pretty self-explanatory. If you’re just starting out and you’re honing your skills on the side of boulders, these can save you a lot of unnecessary bruises.

Here are Moja Gear’s top picks.


Happy climbing!


Images: G B; Michael Pollak; Dave Kennedy; Ed Dunens; ElPadawan; CGehlen; Alberto Alerigi; Cotswold Outdoors

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