Six things you need to own to start climbing

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I strongly recommend rock climbing as routine exercise for geeks. Figuring out how to get up a route is very strategic in a puzzle game type of way, and you never have to lift more than your own weight. It also gives you nice muscle tone all around. Here are six things you'll need to invest in to start.

1. A harness.

A harness is what you tie the rope to &mdash the rope that keeps you from falling. Very important! In the gym, I use the Aura harness by Black Diamond (the men's version is called the Ozone) &mdash it's super lightweight and has a special webbing design that allows it to skimp on thickness while maintaining durability. For outdoors, though, I prefer one that's a little bit more rugged, with adjustable leg loops and with more carabiner and chalk loops like the Petzl Luna (the men's version is called the Adjama). These harnesses cost about $80-100.

2. Climbing shoes

If you only get two things, get a harness and shoes. Read my shoe reviews here. Prices vary from about $80-150.
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3. A belay device

Rock climbing is a social sport &mdash unless you're bouldering or you're crazy and like to free climb, you always need at least two people, one to belay while the other climbs. There are many different kinds of belay devices on the market &mdash Mammut's new Smart Belay is designed to soften long falls, and Petzl's self-braking Grigri prevents accidents entirely. If you're lead climbing with more than two people outdoors, though, you'll need something that fits two ropes like the Verso. Expect to spend $30-100 on a belay device.
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4. A helmet

A lot of climbers think they don't need a helmet, but seriously? If you're planning to hit the outdoors, you really don't want shards of rock or someone else's hardware falling on your head. (I dropped my belay device about 300 feet at Lover's Leap &mdash luckily, it didn't hit anyone. But you never know what's gonna happen.) Pictured here is Petzl's Meteor 3. It's light, it's airy, and it's one-size-fits-all. I've also tried BDE's Tracer, which is just as light as the Meteor and equally resistant to falling belay devices. Cost = $100, give or take.

5. Comfy clothes.

This is very important. A lot of climbers also do yoga because it increases flexibility, and flexibility enhances your range of movements, which is key in making sure you don't get stuck in the middle of a huge granite wall and not being able to hook your toe on a good hold because you're too stiff. Get some solid climbing-friendly clothes &mdash pants that are long enough so you don't scrape up your knees, but short enough so that you don't end up stepping on them. Mountain Hardwear makes abrasion-resistant pants with SPF50, and Prana, the company that makes the yoga mat that Xeni reviewed in April, has a wonderful selection of capri-length pants and comfy tops you can move around in, as well as the last thing you definitely need: chalk bags.

6. Chalk

Sweaty hands = major problem when the grip of a finger could make or break your ability to not fall off a rock. Make sure you get some chalk and a chalk bag that hooks onto your harness or pants so that you can un-stickify your fingers when they're starting to feel useless. Chalk is cheap, I just bought a refill for my chalk bag for $4 at REI. Also, think about picking up a climbing book to get started: I read Girl on the Rocks, which is written by a super-cute female climber named Katie Brown.

About Lisa Katayama

I'm a contributing editor here at Boing Boing. I also have a blog (TokyoMango), a book (Urawaza), and I freelance for Wired, Make, the NY Times Magazine, PRI's Studio360, etc. I'm @tokyomango on Twitter.
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16 Responses to Six things you need to own to start climbing

  1. adralien says:

    Nice to see some climbing posts!

    As a recovering trad/aid climber I would recommend starting with a conventional belay plate that requires your full attention… a GriGri teaches bad habits as it is often used to free your hands briefly (even though the manufacturer never recommends that!!!)… learning on one implies that you can do that on any belay plate.

    Also learn the Munter hitch, it’ll save you if you drop your GriGri and it’s super handy for belaying a 2nd from the top with a high anchor.

  2. michael says:

    on the subject of a grigri. other commenters have noted that these are not suitable for beginners as they do tend to breed bad habbits. very true, additionally, the article bills them as being able to “prevent accidents entirely”. I have seen first hand what happens to the person on the long end of a rope that has been threaded through a grigri backwards–its not pretty.

  3. alan says:

    When I started climbing in the ’70s, chalk was a big no-no. None of the climbing stores carried any and we had to go to a gym (as in gymnastics gym) to find it.

    Granted, those were the stone ages and I haven’t climbed in a long while, but I recall that chalk left lots of visual indications where the handholds were and when it rained, those white spots got all gooey.

    Personally, I never found that chalk was of much use as far as improving my grip. Whatever benefit can from it was, I think, more psychological than physical.

  4. Marshall says:

    GriGris are definitely not for beginners. You’ve got to learn to climb with a traditional belay device to develop good belaying skills – like keeping your hands on the rope and paying attention to the person who’s life depends on you.

    And Prana’s knickers are the best pants I’ve ever owned. A little pricey, but I use them for biking, yoga and climbing, and they take a beating and last forever.

  5. The Lizardman says:

    I’d add a book on rope – not just knots but essential care and handling. I see people doing dumb things with their rope far too often with no idea they are comprimising their (and others) life line.

  6. adralien says:

    Whoever stands on the rope buys the beers!

  7. arikol says:

    I second #2: a grigri is definitely not for beginners.

    Adding to the list: a bouldering mat is fab. Even when doing sport- or tradclimbing routes it’s nice to have the mat underneath, especially if there is any chance of grounding on the way to the second bolt/pro.
    And of course, bouldering is really fun too; a different set of challenges and fears to conquer

  8. seanjjordan says:

    Am I wrong in thinking you need climbing shoes as well? The one time I went, my hiking books didn’t cut it… and my friend’s climbing shoes were too small for my feet, so I had to rely entirely on my upper body.

  9. arikol says:

    You can get chalk in grey or green colours as well for less visual impact.

    If chalk (magnesium carbonate, actually, same stuff as in gymnastics) gets to build up, then gets rained on it turnes gooey. That’s why we have stiff bristled toothbrushes (or something like that) as standard equipment for cleaning holds.

    As for the chalk only giving psychological benefits…. sorry man, you fail there.. Climbing without it is similar to climbing damp rock, pretty much impossible. You will have to climb at least a couple of grades lower without chalk. If that doesn’t bother you, just go ahead and enjoy your climbing. But remember that proper natural climbing should be done without the shoes as well.

    Which is also fun, but again, harder.

    Many of the routes being climbed today can only be climbed with a lot of skill and good equipment.

  10. The Lizardman says:


    I’ve heard that one before but growing up with a father who was a mountain warfare instructor I come more from the school of whoever stands on the rope buys the rope and gets berated…and then buys the beers too.

  11. technogeek says:

    #6: I climbed with hiking boots; a sufficiently sticky vibram sole does work reasonably well at a beginner level, at least for some kinds of rock surfaces. Klettershoes certainly help, though.

    As much as possible, you do want to keep your weight on your legs, and use the arms mostly to keep you close to the rock so your legs can do the work. Your legs are stronger than your arms and don’t tire as quickly.

    Quick observation: Many cities now have climbing gyms, with artificial/reconfigurable climbs on their walls (and high ceilings). This is a great way to learn the basic techniques, or to try it out and see if you might be interested in investigating further.

    Though there’s something to be said for being able to pause halfway up a cliff and admire the scenery… and watch the ultralight flying slowly past at your own altitude. (I’m sure he was thinking exactly what I was thinking: “That guy’s got to be crazy!”)

  12. Anonymous says:

    “or you’re crazy and like to free climb”

    You’re thinking of “free soloing.” What you do when you go to the gym or climb outside IS “free climbing” (at least until you hang on the rope or take up aid climbing).

    Wiki sez: Free climbing is a type of rock climbing in which the climber uses only hands, feet and other parts of the body to ascend. No artificial aids are employed to make upwards progress; ropes and protection are used only as insurance against falls and their consequences.

  13. Chrs says:

    @#6, I’ve honestly had decent luck with the rental shoes, for indoor climbing. I haven’t gone more than ten times, but the rental shoes went pretty well.

    It’s definitely worth trying some indoor to get started. It’s more typically game-like, with designed challenges and holds. Mostly, though, just getting used to climbing somewhere you KNOW the handholds aren’t going to break off is really nice.

  14. Ito Kagehisa says:

    I use perfectly smooth soled red wing wellies for free-climbing. No sneaks, no vibram. It’s harder at first but you get used to it.

    The extremely stiff sole and goodyear welt let you “stand” on a half-inch ledge as long as you keep your weight poised correctly over your foot – you can’t do that with climbing sneaks.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Many outdoor areas of the country frown on chalk use, and for many climbers it becomes more of a crutch than a help. I was at a climbing competition once where a person took their chalk ball out and chalked up their entire arm up to the pit…and this was for a bouldering section with no cracks *sigh* Many areas where I’m in (Minnesota) have outlawed chalk because of it’s visual degradation of the environment, so learning to use a chalk substitute is never a bad thing.

  16. HeatherB says:

    I really do want to start rock climbing. Just need to get my husband involved.

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