A beginners guide to climbing

So you are looking to start climbing. Firstly let me say welcome to what is quite possibly the best sport in the world. Whatever your reasons for starting you will most likely get the bug, unfortunately the more you do the more you want to do it can be quite addictive.

Climbing can be enjoyed by the young and old, alike it doesn’t matter if you’re short tall, thin or fat. It’s a sport which can be enjoyed by all. It is one of the best forms of exercise you can do as you are constantly fighting gravity and almost always working some muscles, believe it or not if you are continually working you can burn over 700 cals an hour which is a very high rate. It also helps you build muscle, cut fat and works most muscles in your body.

Climbing is also a very sociable activity, especially in the early days. At a climbing wall people are all there for the same thing, they are happy to share information and talk for hours about their personal climbing adventures and share advice and tips.

If personal challenge and competing with yourself sounds like something you would be interested in then this sport is the one for you. The initial learning curve is pretty steep and you will be working hard to find your feet (quite literally sometimes). You can push your grades, improve climbing speeds, try new types of climbing, meet people the list is endless and part of what makes it such an awesome sport.

Climbing Types

For all you who haven’t climbed before our just want a quick rundown of the different climbing styles and types (for all you purists out there I know some of these aren’t climbing styles of their own but I have included each as a distinct type for the purpose of keeping things simple). Here’s the basic information you may need and may or may not want to know:

There are 6 main types of climbing:


This style of climbing is shorter problems, often no higher than 10-15 feet with some highball problems which reach 25ft+! This style doesn't need more than a chalk bag and a pair of shoes indoors but if you go outdoors a bouldering mat is highly recommended. There is no rope involved in this style and the climbing is often fairly tough and many people use it for strength training and to improve their technique to help push their grades. Though it is definitely a climbing style in its own right and many people focus entirely on bouldering. This can often be a good way to start as you need no partner so can climb on your own. 2.2. Top roping - Now this is not strictly a style of climbing though I wanted to include it as it is the type of climbing that as a beginner along with bouldering you are likely to come across, this involves having the climber and belayer on the ground with the rope running up to the top of the route and down to the bottom passing through some pre placed bolts or a top anchor. This style of climbing is use a lot indoors and is a great and safe way to practice hard routes and start climbing. It allows the climber to concentrate purely on moving over the rock and getting use to holds; it also allows easy resting on any part of the route and is probably the safest form of climbing. 2.3. Sports climbing - This is where you climb and the rope stays below you, you clip into pre drilled bolts in the rock or the wall, this is slightly more dangerous than top roping but the bolts make it relatively safe, especially if you are with an experienced climber who can preclip the first bolt or two for you. This is a great style of climbing for pushing hard routes right at the top of your grade, mainly because of the relative safety of the in-situ bolts. Often the routes are easy to spot as you just follow the line of the bolts. There is sometimes some conflict between sports and Trad climbers though in my humble opinion both forms of climbing offer something to the well rounded climber.

Trad climbing

This is similar to sports you have the rope below you but you clip into your own leader placed protection, it must be advised that without proper instruction and experience this can be a VERY dangerous type of climbing as you are relying on your own judgement experience and equipment from stopping you hitting the floor. So please please do NOT run before you can walk with trad take it slow and steady and get some experience first, unless with an extremely experienced group. Now warnings over trad is great style of climbing it is freer than sports the routes are often a lot more wondering and it feels more natural. You are using natural faults, cracks and constrictions in the rock to allow you to move up in relative safety. This requires an extensive amount of gear which will be discussed in section 4.0 2.5. Deepwater Soloing - Though this is still very dangerous and the danger should not be under estimated. It involves climbing routes over a body of water often the sea, but sometimes rivers and lakes. The tides must be seriously considered as water depth is vital for a safe splash down. This is often used where people want to climb really hard stuff as climbers are completely free from any gear and ropes meaning they can climb harder routes than they usually would be able to! It is a lot of fun but do it safely. Check for any rocks in or just under the surface of the water BEFORE you start your climb.

Aid climbing

I do not claim to be an expert on aid climbing having never done any so if this is incorrect please feel free to edit it. Aid climbing involves using specialist gear and equipment to ascend faces which would normally be almost un-climbable by anything but the best. It is often used on blank faces where there are often no cracks or weaknesses in the rock and you look for very small imperfections in the rock, such as pin scars, tiny ledges (as in mm not cm) etc, this is often a very committing climbing style which can take hours just to move a few meters, it can also be difficult at times to make a safe descent without getting to a belay spot.


As a beginner my advice is don’t worry about grades, just get as much time on the wall and on the rock as you can, climb everything you can. This is the best and fastest way to improve; in your first few months of climbing as it will develop your technique and strength and confidence on the rock, which will translate to rapid improvement. It is much more beneficial at your stage to do 10 climbs at 4+/5 than attempt 2 climbs at 5+/6a and not send any of them. Unfortunately grading is different depending upon where you are in the world and the styles of climbing you are doing. They don’t directly translate because they often require different skills to send a route. However below is a table which tries to group together the applicable grading systems and conversions between them:


I won’t go into much more detail on here as I think as beginner it isn’t really that important, just get on the rock and have fun... they really are the only requisites.


So this is such a massive topic I am really only going to touch on each Item, I’ll write another article later on Racks, Pro and more advanced climbing equipment another time.


A Harness is arguably the most important item of climbing equipment you own unless you are exclusively a boluderer and maybe second to shoes. A harness for an adult has a waist loop and two leg loops obviously. They are incredibly strong and have various strong points on them for different activities. A harness when work should be tight but comfortable and ALWAYS follow the manufacturer’s advice when you are doing it up and tying into it. Although as a general rule of thumb always double back straps on waist and legs. Always ensure that load bearing devices and attachments are used in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions. These range in cost from about £30 -£100+ though a basic model is all a beginner will need.

Rock Shoes

Again possibly the most important piece of gear. These shoes are specialist in that they have a rubber sole, sides and heel in order to create a high level of friction between the shoe and the rock. They have a varying degree of flexibility depending upon the shoe type and model and which are designed for different rock types, angles etc. Shoes vary as much as people so finding a shoe that suits your climbing style is important. When you are getting your first shoe, if you have a little bit of money and try on a few and see what feels best, remember to get a fairly tight fitting shoe, but as a beginner you’re not going to risk losing circulation to your toes for an extra 2% boost in performance. Get a comfortable solid long wearing shoe which will see you through those early days of mistreatment. Shoes can vary from about £30 on sale upto about £120.

Belay Plate

If you are going to be top roping then you are going to want to belay your partner... well they’re going to want you to. This is a device which controls the friction on the rope allowing the climber to be arrested in a fall and have a controlled descent from the climb. These come in a variety of models and types including a figure of 8, gri gri, Sticht plate, ATC as well as self belaying devices. As a beginner I would suggest a ATC device, with differing friction properties dependent upon the side you belay from (one side may have small teeth the other will be smooth). This gives you much more control and choice over the rope and the speed of descent. I’m not going to give belaying advice over here as I feel it is certainly something that people should get instruction on. Please follow manufacturer’s instructions when using these as misuse can result in serious injury or death. These will normally set you back £12-£20 however a good quality Gri-Gri can set you back £40

Screw gate Carabiner

This allows you to connect your belay plate safely to your harness. A screw gate should ALWAYS be locked when in use for 2 reasons, one you could accidently open it and the belay device or whatever else is in there could come out and secondly it actually substantially reduces the load that the equipment can take! It must also be noted that you should use it in the long position as this has normally double the strength of a sideways position. This should set you back no more than £10-£15.

Chalk Bag and Chalk

A chalk bag is normally attached to the back of your harness or on a waste loop. It allows a climber to use chalk during a climb, this increases the friction between the skin and the rock allowing the climber to use holds more efficiently. This is not a vital piece of kit but one I would highly recommend. You should be able to get both for around £15-£20

This is in my humble opinion the minimum that a climber would need to be able to top rope, boulder indoors to a decent level regularly. As you progress you are likely going to want to pick up a rope, bouldering mat, Slings, loads of screw gates and quickdraws, nuts, hexes, cams, friends, I could go on but i’ll leave that for another article.

Suggested Starts

This is one of the main questions I get asked, how I can get into climbing I don’t know where to start. You have 3 options really they are a beginners course, a local climbing/mountaineering club or through experienced friends. I’ll weigh up the pro’s and con’s of each so that you yourself can make an informed decision.

Beginners/Taster Course

This will teach you all the basic skills you need to get climbing indoors including but not exclusive too basic knots, very basic rope work, basic belaying techniques, and safety information. It can be one of the best options of learning the ropes and meeting new climbers as you will probably be with 1-3 other people so you can always exchange numbers and try and hook up with them! These will normally set you back £40-£60 depending where in the country you are

Climbing/mountaineering club

This in my humble opinion is probably the best way to learn. There will likely be one either in your local larger town and there will almost certainly be a society at your university. You are surrounding yourself with climbers both experienced and beginners, they will be able to teach you all the skills you need in a real rock setting, there will be ample opportunity to meet up on probably almost any day of the week and climb with one of the members of the club. You can gain experience very quickly in this kind of environment and i’m a firm believer that one of the very best ways of learning is by watching experienced climbers climb, construct anchors and work with the system. These tend to have a set membership normally about £60 per year but you will also have travel costs for each trip to consider

A group of experienced friends

This is very similar to the above and it can be a great learning experience as long as your friends are comfortable and that they are willing to help you learn slowly. With friends it can be easy to push to hard and attempt things above what you can handle so as long as you can avoid this then this is another great way to learn. The only costs here are the travel costs and maybe buying a round to say thanks to them all for helping you.