A woman crack climbing detail of a hold

Crack Climbing 101

Going on a crack-climbing trip for the first time? Here’s what you need to know.

Some of the oldest, most classic routes in the U.S. are crack climbs, and for good reason: Cracks are easy to spot, they’re striking, and they take trad protection like nuts, hexes, and cams extremely well. They’re also a blast to climb—provided you’ve got a few crack-climbing techniques in your repertoire.

Unlike face climbing, crack climbing is pretty different from the kinds of routes you might find in a climbing gym, and it’s rarely intuitive. The good news? Your success in cracks will be largely technique-dependent, so you don’t necessarily need to improve your strength to see massive progress. Here are some tips and basic skills to help you get started.

8 Tips for Better Crack Climbing

1. Protect yourself

No matter how good your technique, crack climbing will be a little painful at times. Many crack climbers protect the backs of their hands with purpose-made crack gloves, or make their own from climbing tape. You can also tape your wrists, fingers, and ankles as needed to protect them from abrasion. 

2. Wear the right shoes

Cracks are no place for downward-turned sporty shoes. For the most comfortable (and most effective) jamming, look for stiff, neutral-soled climbing shoes with ankle protection.  

3. Try thumbs up and down

Thumbs-down jams can be better in tighter cracks, while thumbs-up jams are a little more ergonomic and give you better reach. Try both.

4. Alternate or shuffle

For straight cracks, it’s often more efficient to “swim,” placing your left hand above your right, then right above left, as you ascend. For a leaning crack or a crack in a difficult size, it may be better to shuffle.

5. Mind your placements

Avoid placing gear high above your head in cracks. Instead, place it near your waist where it won’t be in the way of your next jam.

6. Reach high, step high

The bigger the moves, the fewer you’ll have to do. Try to get your feet as high as possible to maximize reach.

7. Keep elbows and knees in

You’ll get the best purchase by pulling down, not out. When you step up, keep knees in and shins parallel with the crack. When you pull up, keep your elbows drawn in toward your midline.

8. Disregard the grade

All grades are subjective, but crack-climbing grades are more size-dependent than most. Someone else’s perfect fist crack might be your off-width. If a size is hard for you, embrace the challenge but don’t sweat the grade.

A crack climber climbs the rock

Common Crack Climbing Techniques

You’ll need different techniques to climb different size cracks. Here are some of the most common.

Finger Cracks

Jamming Technique: To finger jam, insert your fingers into the crack sideways. (If the crack is a little wider, insert them with your thumb pointing down. If it’s narrow, try with your thumb up.) Crank your elbow in and down to lock your fingers in place.

Footwork: You may be able to squeeze the tip of your shoe into the crack and get a toe jam. If the crack is offset, you may have better luck laybacking and squeezing the edge of your shoe’s rand against the wall of the crack. Keep an eye out for small footholds to either side of the crack, as well.


Jamming Technique: If the crack’s a little too wide for a finger jam but not wide enough for your hand, your best bet is a ring-lock. Stack your pointer finger and middle finger over your thumbnail. Insert this into the crack. Your thumb knuckle should be jammed against one wall of the crack and your thumb-tip should be rest against the other. Crank your elbow in and down to cam your fingers in place.

Footwork: Keep scouting for footholds to the sides of the crack, but don’t discount toe jams. Stick your toes into the crack sideways, then bring your knee up and in to cam your toes in place.

Hand Cracks

Jamming Technique: Slot your hand into the crack. (If the crack is a little bigger than your hand, you may have to cup your hand slightly to fill the space.) Then squeeze your thumb toward your palm. This expands the width of your hand. Pull your elbow to your ribs to lock your hand in place.

Footwork: For a classic foot jam, stick your knee out to the side and insert your foot sideways in the crack. Then rotate your knee up and in until your shin is parallel with the crack. Stand up.

Off-Width Cracks

Jamming Technique: For cracks that are slightly too big for your hands, you may be able to get a fist jam, either with your thumb tucked under your fingers or pressed against the side of your hand. Wider than that, and you’ll have to employ off-width techniques like stacking your hands, wedging your fist against the back of your hand, or sticking your whole elbow in the crack and twisting to get as much torque as possible. Off-width climbing techniques are endless, but the basic premise is this: cram whatever body part you can fit into the crack, flex hard, and shuffle slowly upward.

Footwork: Heel-toe cams are the foundational foot move for climbing wider cracks. Stick your foot straight into the crack. Then twist laterally so that your heel is pressed against one wall of the crack and the sides of your toes are pressed against the other. Mastering this takes practice (and generous layers of ankle tape).  

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.