Trying Outdoor Climbing for the First Time

Josh Great Barrington

For someone who learns to outdoor climb and indoor climb at around the same time, a difference might not seem apparent. For someone who mostly outdoor climbs, and then tries indoor climbing, or someone who mostly indoor climbs and then tries outdoor climbing, it might feel like a whole new world. Since it seems more common for people to mostly indoor climb and then try outdoor climbing, that is what the focus of this blog will be.

1. First of all, you will need to learn to properly read routes. At gyms routes are color coordinated with all the holds in a certain route being the same color, or with each hold needed to complete a route having the same color tape beneath it. It feels pretty easy to scope out your course of action and know what holds are or are not on. Outside is not the same. When you get to a climb outside, you will likely be looking up at a large space of nothing. Sometimes if you are lucky each hold will be obvious due to the chalk piled on to it. However, chalk washes away and also isn’t always welcome with certain climbing ethics. There are also people who climb and chalk what they need, which might not be the best for you. For example, maybe they marked up intermediates or there were intermediates they didn’t mark.

It may be common for beginners to the outdoor world to think they will walk over to around where the climb is said to be and just climb up however they can. It may seem hard to believe, but on some climbs this is actually like rainbow climbing in the gym. Some climbs, particularly harder climbs, have variations, eliminates, or a particular way to start (sit or stand). You might be climbing up however and end up on a totally different climb. Some climbs start on the same hold and then going left or right is two different climbs. Let’s use traverses as an example. I’ve seen a few traverses where climbing left to right is a different grade than climbing right to left. It might be a different grade to use a large foot ledge vs not being able to use it.

Josh at Red Rocks

It sounds complicated, but it is easy enough to learn once you get used to it. There are some tips to help you start out as well. You want to know as much about your climb and climbing area as possible. Use guidebooks or or both. A lot of people write the beta for things that matter like holds not being on or going up left or right. Try to find out how to do your climbs. Sure this isn’t on-sight climbing, but when you’re at a beginner level, it doesn’t really matter. Try watching videos of the climb to see what ways people do it. This will help you get the information. It also helps to try to go outside with someone more experienced the first few times.

You want to start recognizing outdoor holds. In the gym you try to remember what certain holds feel like so you know what to do. It’s the same outside. Look at outdoor crimps, slopers, pinches, etc. This will help you spot them out faster. The more familiar you get, the easier it will be to look up at that rock and see a route instead of blank rock face.

2. Make sure you have the right stuff. Make sure you have good outdoor climbing shoes, as shoes are made differently for plastic or rock. Some websites that sell shoes will let you know if they are meant for outdoor climbing, gym climbing or both. Sometimes you just need to test them out for yourself. I’ve had shoes that were amazing in the gym and couldn’t stick to anything outside. It can take a while but having the right gear does help, unless you can campus anything. You also want to make sure you know how to properly place crash pads, and that you have good ones. We’ve had some really awful crash pads and some that work so beautifully. You want to ask around, read reviews, and find the best for your purposes. Some are made for different purposes too. There are little thin pads for people who want to do sit starts and worry the large pad will cause dabs. They also help for spotters to hold in certain situations. Obviously this is not the only pad you want when doing a highball boulder. Be aware that they have different sizes and purposes. You want to cover any boulders you could land on or hit with your head. It might be more than just the landing. Some boulders have other boulders right behind them.

If you are sport climbing, you need the right rope, safe quickdraws, etc. There is a lot of gear for outdoor climbing that you want to have and know how to use. If you haven’t set an anchor before, take a class or bring someone who really knows what they are doing. Most gyms offer classes in anchor building. You want to know if your rope is long enough, where the middle is, and all that other

Josh black, white, and red

3. Conditions. You can just go to the gym any day and hop on climbs. Outside weather matters. It may be obvious rain or snow can put a damper on your plans as they may soak the rock. However, being too hot or too cold will matter too. Some climbs work best when it is pretty cold because your friction is better and it is easier to grip. Sometimes having tons of chalk isn’t all you need.

4. Climbing a lot inside won’t necessarily make outdoor climbing easier. If you want to prepare for outdoor climbing, you can certainly try strength or endurance training. You can do hang board workouts, campus board work outs, free weights, etc. Having strong fingers and muscles are necessary inside or outside. You can practice clipping, you can practice pad placement, and practice wrapping ropes or tying knots. There are definitely ways to prepare for some aspects. You might find, however, that your first time outside puts you on climbs grades below your indoor grades. Give yourself a break, for in time this will level out. You need to climb outside a lot to get better at climbing outside. You can use some of the same tricks as indoor climbs like practicing technique on easy outdoor climbs, climbing whatever you can just to get familiar with it, trying outdoor footwork drills, etc. You also want to just try hard without worrying if the grade is too hard for you. You might surprise yourself with how well you do.

The picture is from

The picture is from

5. Most importantly, is always to have fun. Enjoy the day. Enjoy being in nature and feeling the sunlight. Enjoy wandering through the woods in search of rock. Enjoy being with whoever you are there with. In time you’ll get better, so don’t stress out. Just have fun.

Josh on Ball Doctor 2


2 thoughts on “Trying Outdoor Climbing for the First Time

  1. Great tipsheet! I didn’t even know there were special shoes for indoor climbing. I just use my old 5.10s for everything. One thing I noticed reading this – bring a dictionary! I hadn’t realized how much technical jargon we use until i saw it all spread out before me here.

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