What Do You Need for Outdoor Climbing?

what do you need for outdoor climbing

If you are just getting started with outdoor sport climbing, it can be intimidating and even dangerous if you are not properly equipped. There’s also so much climbing gear available that it’s sometimes hard to know exactly what you do or don’t need in order to get started.

In this article, I’ll outline the bare bones equipment that is absolutely necessary for sport climbing, share a few things that aren’t critical but are very nice to have, and give you a ballpark of the cost. 

Note: This list is for outdoor sport climbing on routes that are permanently bolted, as opposed to traditional (trad) climbing, in which the climber carries and places all pieces of protection, or bouldering where no ropes are used at all.

If you go outdoor climbing with friends that have been climbing for a while and already have their own gear, chances are you can borrow or share essentially everything you need. However, I’ve created this list in the event that you are starting from scratch and want to be totally self-sufficient at the crag.

Here are the absolute essentials that you need for outdoor sport climbing:

1. Climbing Shoes

Evolv Kiras are my favorite climbing shoes.

A good pair of climbing shoes is integral to your success at outdoor sport climbing. In a gym, you can probably get away with climbing in tennis shoes because the holds are all textured and relatively clean, and if you slip you probably won’t get hurt.

But, when you are climbing outdoors, the stakes are higher, the danger is greater, and the ability to trust your feet relies heavily on having the incredibly grippy rubber, crisp edges, and rigid toe support of climbing shoes.

To choose a climbing shoe, I highly recommend going to an REI or other outdoor equipment retailer and trying on several different brands, shapes, and styles of shoes.

Shoes should be tight because most often they will relax and stretch a bit with use, and the tighter your shoe, the better you can feel the rock that your toes are gripping. You can expect to pay between $70 and $150 for a good pair of climbing shoes. Check out this article on choosing climbing shoes to help you get started.

2. Sport Climbing Harness

My boyfriend Aaron models his harness in front of the route he’s about to climb.

All climbing harnesses serve the same essential function: to catch you if you fall and to securely hold any necessary gear. However, sport climbing harnesses are specifically designed to be lightweight, streamlined, and comfortable while still providing plenty of space to carry gear. 

Choose a harness that fits snugly around your waist and comfortably around your thighs so that you can move freely. When selecting the size of your harness, account for the fact that you might gain or lose a few pounds or wear layers under your harness waistband — i.e. don’t buy a size small if it barely fits over your hips; go with a medium instead to give yourself some wiggle room.

Men’s and women’s harnesses are designed differently, so be sure you are shopping in the appropriate section to ensure the best possible fit.

Sport harnesses usually range from about $60 to $80, but I’ve seen them on sale for as low as $40. You can also purchase a climbing package, which typically includes the harness, chalk, a chalk bag, a belay device, and a locking carabiner. This is a great way to save some money if you are just starting out, but you won’t be able to select the specific pieces of your kit.

3. Climbing Rope

Our 70-meter rope used to be so fresh and so clean.

There are so many different rope characteristics and features available, but for sport climbing in general you will want a rope that is lightweight but still sturdy enough to handle repeated falls. Let’s talk about some of the specific things to look for in a good sport climbing rope.

Dynamic vs static – First, you want to make sure that you are purchasing a dynamic rope rather than a static one. Dynamic ropes stretch when they are weighted, so it will provide a soft catch when you fall. Static ropes do not stretch, and they are meant for other uses like rescue efforts, caving, ascending a fixed rope, and so forth.

Do not attempt to use a static rope for sport climbing, or you will have a very bad day at the crag — the rope (and/or your spine) could snap if you take a big fall.

Diameter – Next, you need to look at the diameter of the rope. Anything from 9 to 11 mm is practical for sport climbing, although the most commonly used ropes are between 9.4 and 10 mm.

Generally (but not always, depending on the core construction), the thinner the rope, the lighter it is, which makes a big difference as you carry the rope on long or rugged approaches as well as when you are lead climbing and carrying the weight of the rope on your harness (which increases the higher you climb as more rope is lifted off the ground).

Conversely, thicker ropes are generally more durable and can withstand more falls and wear. Very thin and very thick ropes are also more difficult to use with belay devices, particularly auto-locking types, because they either slide through too loosely or make it hard to feed slack.

A medium-diameter rope offers the best combination of durability, strength, weight, and ease of handling. Choose one that has a UIAA safety rating regardless of what diameter you go with.

Length – The next factor is the length of the rope. A 60-meter rope will suffice for most sport climbing, but if you favor extra-long routes, a 70-meter rope is a good choice as well. You need a rope that’s at least twice as long as the routes you intend to climb. Look for a rope that is two-tone or has a distinct middle mark to help you rappel safely as you clean routes.

Finish – The finish of the rope is also important. There are dry-treated ropes available, but these are more expensive and generally not necessary for sport climbing as most climbers pack up if it starts to rain. 

Plan to pay between $150 and $200 for a good sport climbing rope.

4. Quickdraws

Aaron’s got the quickdraws on his harness since he led this route.

Sport routes are permanently bolted which means you just need quickdraws in order to climb them, as opposed to the many, varied, bulky, and expensive pieces of gear required for trad climbing. Quickdraws are made of two carabiners that are linked together with a piece of super-strong webbing called a dogbone.

You clip one carabiner to the permanent bolts in the rock and clip your climbing rope through the other carabiner, which keeps you safe as you lead climb a sport route. 

There are different types of gates available for the carabiners on quickdraws (the main factors being weight and personal preference) as well as different lengths and styles of dogbones (again, to save on weight or to prevent rope drag).

Quickdraws are normally sold in packs of six, which sell for about $80 to $100. Unless you are climbing super short routes, you will need two or three packs of six in order to have a quickdraw for each bolt in the route plus two quickdraws to serve as anchors at the top of your route plus a few spares in case you drop one or run into trouble.

Always count the number of bolts on a route before you start climbing, or, if you can’t see them all, consult a climbing guidebook for the area or the Mountain Project app to determine the number of quickdraws you will need. When in doubt, carry more than you think you’ll need.

5. A Belay Device (Actually, Two of Them)

Our grigri is bright blue. Do you see a theme here?

This is what your partner will use to catch you if you fall. Belay devices range from very simple ones like Black Diamond ATCs (which require your belayer to be paying 100% attention for a successful fall catch) to more intricate devices like Petzl grigris, which are autolocking so if your belayer becomes injured or unconscious or just isn’t paying attention, the device will still catch a fall.

You should still pay 100% attention with a grigri though! ATCs cost less than $20 while a grigri costs about $100. There are several mid-range options as well that offer varying levels of braking assistance.

The reason I say you need two belay devices in the heading of this section is that, in order to be totally self-sufficient at the crag, the belayer will be using one device to obviously belay the climber, but whoever climbs the route last will need to ‘clean’ it (remove all of your gear) and then rappel down, using an ATC or similar device.

6. A Personal Anchor System (PAS)

Here I am clipped in directly with my PAS as I get ready to clean this route.

A PAS is an extremely strong piece of webbing that is made of several small loops. This is girth-hitched to your harness and allows you to safely clip in directly to the anchors at the top of a climb in order to clean your gear. Without this piece of equipment, you would have no choice but to leave two quickdraws at the top of every climb, which would be a huge bummer. A PAS costs about $30.

7. Carabiners

Always use a locking carabiner for rappelling, belaying, and building anchors (like the one pictured above, bottom left)

It almost seems like you can never have enough carabiners, but you can get away with just three big locking carabiners. One will be used by the belayer to connect the belay device to the belay loop on their harness. Double-check that this is locked before anyone touches the rock. 

The second and third will be used by the climber who cleans the route: one on their PAS to clip into the anchor and one on their ATC that they’ll use to rappel after cleaning. In an ideal scenario, all climbers would have their own PAS and locking carabiner, although you can trade off using the PAS based on who is cleaning the route.

Each locking carabiner will cost $10 to $20 depending on the locking mechanism and brand.

8. A Partner (Preferably One Who Knows What They’re Doing)

Aaron provided a backup belay for Dustin as we taught him and his wife Tonya how to sport climb outdoors.

It takes two to tango, as they say. You sure can’t sport climb without a trusted partner to belay you. Obviously, this isn’t something to purchase, but I’m putting it on the list because a partner is essential.

If you and your climbing partner are unfamiliar with outdoor sport climbing, make some friends at the gym who are experienced and will show you the ropes (ha) outdoors or consider taking a class where you will get formal training on how to safely climb outdoors.

Even if you buy every piece of gear on this list, if you have no idea how to use them, it’s unlikely that you’ll be successful climbing outside. Climbing is something best learned by hands-on experience, and it’s more fun to learn with your spouse/S.O./family member/friend so then you can climb together afterward!

Non-Essential But Still Very Useful Gear for Outdoor Sport Climbing…

For the rest of this list – These are all things that, technically, you could sport climb without. However, they will greatly increase your safety and comfort!

9. Chalk and Chalk Bag

Even the tiniest bit of sweat or moisture on your hands can make you much more likely to lose your grip or slip off a tiny hold, so use climbing chalk to absorb that moisture and improve the grippiness of your finger skin. You can choose either a chalk sock that releases a little bit when you grab it or just loose chalk in your chalk bag.

Clip your chalk bag to the back of your harness so you can re-chalk periodically as you climb. Chalk bags range from about $15 to $40 and the chalk itself is around $10 for a good-size bag of loose chalk and about $5 for a refillable chalk sock.

10. Belay Glasses

I can still see you!

Belay glasses employ prisms or mirrors to allow you to have your head and neck in a neutral, looking-straight-ahead position while you are actually seeing straight up the wall in front of you. This way you can keep an eye on your climber without craning your neck.

I used to get pretty bad neck pain after a day of belaying and climbing without the glasses, but a $20 pair from Amazon has totally changed the game for me. Outdoor retailers sell belay glasses that are upwards of $80, but for me, the cheap ones work just fine.

11. Rope Bag and/or Crag Bag

I carry the rope bag…

Rope bags are designed to allow you to easily carry your rope to the crag in a backpack or cross-body bag which, upon your arrival, you can open up to reveal a tarp on which to place the rope as you climb, keeping it safe from dirt, thorns, moisture, etc. that might be on the ground. Most tarps also have two loops for tying each end of the rope so that you don’t lose them in a 70-meter jumble.

When you are moving between routes on the same wall, you can easily grab the corners of the tarp and shift the rope over without having to fully pack it up or mess up your nicely flaked rope. Rope bags cost between $30 and $50. 

Alternatively, you can just purchase a rope tarp without the backpack or strap portion, use a tarp you already own, or even use a heavy-duty plastic table cloth to keep your rope safe and dry, and pack the whole thing into your crag bag to carry.

…and Aaron carries our crag bag.

You will need a bag of some kind to carry your harness, shoes, quickdraws, belay device, rope, water, snacks, etc. I was lucky enough to win a Black Diamond Creek 35 backpack in a raffle at my climbing gym, and it has been an excellent crag bag.

My boyfriend usually carries that bag with all of our gear while I carry the rope bag and sometimes another ultralight pack with extra shoes, snacks, and so forth (I definitely got the better end of that deal). However, any large backpack will work just fine as a crag bag, but it will eventually get dirty, covered in chalk, and smell like sweaty climbing shoes.

12. Stick Clip

Stick clips are devices that allow you to clip in to the first bolt on a route before you’ve even left the ground. This comes in super handy if the first bolt is very high off the ground, the fall zone isn’t safe, the first few moves are very difficult, or the belayer isn’t in a prime belay spot.

You can also use one as you climb to clip the bolts above you so that you are always protected, which is useful if you are just starting to project a very difficult route.

My boyfriend and I have had some close calls where he’s fallen on lead just before clipping the first bolt (which was about 20 feet up) and obviously hit the ground, and instances where my belaying stance wasn’t ideal and we were on a very steep slope, which meant that if he fell before clipping the bolt, we would both tumble down the mountain.

So, we are planning to purchase a stick clip very soon. Some stick clips can also be used to remove quickdraws from bolts, which is useful if you find that you can’t finish a route and have to bail.

Stick clips run about $50 to $80 which is expensive in my opinion for such a simple tool, but still much cheaper than a visit to the ER.

13. Extra Carabiners

It’s always a good idea to have a few extra carabiners on your harness. You can get a set of six basic carabiners for about $40, which will give you one to clip on your chalk bag and a couple to keep on you as bail ‘biners (to switch out for your $14 quickdraw if you have to bail on a route because you will need to leave one piece of gear unless you can get it with a stick clip or by swinging over from another route).

You can also use them to clip a water bottle to your harness if you are climbing extremely long routes, or to hold any other miscellaneous items that you don’t want to drop while climbing.

14. A Climbing Helmet

Safety first.

Climbing helmets are another good safety precaution. They are designed to protect your head in case you hit it on an overhang while climbing, take a whipper and hit your head on the rock, or if loose rock or detritus falls on you from above.

Helmets are equally important for the belayer and the climber, because if your climber kicks a rock loose and it falls on you as you’re belaying, it could knock you out, leaving you both in a serious pickle. Climbing helmets cost anywhere from $60 to nearly $200, although the helmets with the best mix between price, safety, style, and comfort are roughly $100.

FAQs

How much does it cost to start rock climbing?

If you want to start rock climbing in a gym, all you’ll need is a harness, climbing shoes, and a day pass or gym membership. If you got the cheapest available harness and shoes, you’re looking at about $150 (less if you buy used gear or shop killer sales). Day passes at climbing gyms are usually $15-$20 or monthly memberships are in the $60-$80 range.

However, to start sport climbing outside, it’s a more significant investment. If you purchased everything on the ‘essentials’ list at low to moderate prices, you are looking at a total of about $600. Add roughly $150 more to outfit a partner with a harness and shoes.

If you want to go whole hog and get everything from both the ‘essentials’ list and the ‘non-essentials’ list for two people, you’re looking at a total of about $1,000.

What should I wear to go rock climbing?

Wear comfortable clothing that you can move in. Climbing often requires contorting your body a bit, so tight jeans aren’t the most practical. I recommend wearing leggings or hiking-style pants that hit below the knee, to protect your knees from being scraped up on the rock.

I always wear a tank top because I feel like t-shirts impede my range of motion, but any top that you would wear to work out will be fine for climbing. Just be aware that your clothes may get dirty or damaged, so dress accordingly.

If you are climbing outdoors, wear or bring layers. Even on chilly days, you can work up a sweat on hard climbs, but then you will be cold standing around and belaying. I recommend bringing (or wearing, if the approach is easy) Chacos or flip flops for belaying, especially when it’s hot.

The last thing you’ll want to do after crushing a climb is stand around in your hot, sweaty, uncomfortable climbing shoes while your partner climbs.

Layers can also be used as sun protection when you forget sunscreen…

How many carabiners do I need for climbing?

The limit does not exist, as far as I’m concerned, but at least three locking ones. As I mentioned above, it’s a good idea to have extra cheaper (but still climbing grade) carabiners for things like hooking your chalk bag to your harness, to use as a bail ‘biner if necessary, and other miscellaneous purposes.

What else should I bring to the crag?

Snacks. Water. Sunscreen. Chapstick. Sunglasses. First aid kit. Headlamp. Basically anything that you would bring with you if you were going hiking.

 

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