How to Choose Climbing Chalk

How to Choose Climbing Chalk

Climbing chalk is like fairy dust. Sprinkle a little on your hands, slap them together, and suddenly you’re high off the ground, floating from hold to hold with a light touch and a secure grip. The secret lies in a not-so-secret ingredient: magnesium carbonate, which absorbs moisture (goodbye, sweaty hands) and acts as an abrasive agent. That combination adds bonus friction to provide a better grip on rock climbing holds. 

All the best climbing chalk is made of magnesium carbonate. However, variations in texture, format, and additives like drying agents can produce different results from one brand of climbing chalk to the next. Full disclosure: When you’re starting out, these differences likely won’t be noticeable. But if you’re doing a lot of outdoor bouldering or other types of climbing that involve small or slippery holds, you’ll begin to realize what a difference high-quality climbing chalk makes. 

In this guide, we’ll go over some tips on how to buy climbing chalk, plus a few considerations for using it responsibly. By the end of this article, you’ll understand these topics:

  • Types of Climbing Chalk
  • Common Climbing Chalk Additives
  • Climbing Chalk Quality vs. Price
  • Local Chalk Ethics and Leave No Trace 

Types of Climbing Chalk

The best climbing chalk for you depends almost entirely on your preferences. Chalk comes in a few different formats. Here are the most common:

Liquid Climbing Chalk

Liquid chalk is a favorite among competition climbers. It also became popular during the COVID-19 pandemic because a liquid chalk with 80% ethanol effectively works as hand sanitizer. But the biggest benefit of liquid chalk is that it allows the climber to achieve a smooth, even coating of chalk over their hands before drying in place. 

Liquid chalk tends to last longer on the skin than powdered chalk, and because it’s contained in a bottle, it’s hard to accidentally spill. The drawbacks: It’s more expensive than dry chalk, and it can dry out your skin over time. And if you’re familiar with the sad, sinking feeling that comes with finding your favorite magic marker left uncapped overnight, beware: Liquid chalk can dry up if you don’t close the container tightly between uses. 

Climbing Chalk Ball

A climbing chalk ball, or chalk sock, is a small mesh sack filled with loose chalk and cinched tight. They’re designed to be kept inside a chalk bag. Chalk balls are refillable and easy to grab mid-route for an even coating over the fingers and palms. Chalk balls keep chalk contained, they limit spills, and are also useful for dabbing damp holds to absorb moisture on outdoor routes. 

Chalk Block

Buying a chalk block, or a brick of compressed climbing chalk, allows more customization—by starting from scratch, you can crush the chalk to your desired consistency. Blocks are also more compact than loose climbing chalk, so they’re easier to store and ship.

Loose Climbing Chalk

Many climbers keep a bag of loose chalk on hand either to directly refill their chalk bag or the chalk ball within. Like salsa, chalk comes in a variety of consistencies, from chunky to ultra-smooth. Some climbers love the even coating that a fine powder can provide, and others like having a mix of powder and compressed-chalk pebbles—it’s totally a matter of preference. 

Common Climbing Chalk Additives

If you’re familiar with nutrition or food science, you’re probably used to thinking of “additives” as taboos. But in climbing chalk, added drying agents, essential oils, and even dyes can be useful additions.


Liquid chalk is generally a mix of chalk and ethanol. The ethanol lubricates the chalk to enable an even spread, and it has the added benefit of drying out the chalk (and your hands) as it quickly evaporates. Downside: Those with dry skin might find that it makes their callouses stiffen and even crack after a long day with many applications. 

Other drying agents: 

Some chalk brands use silica, Upsalite, or other ingredients as drying agents. While some climbers and chalk manufacturers claim that these additives don’t have much noticeable effect—or even serve to disguise lower-quality chalks—some climbers like the drier feel that the additives provide. The only caveats: Climbers with drier skin find that the drying agents can cause cracking after a long day of climbing.  

Essential oils: 

Because climbing chalk is a drying agent, some brands add essential oils to help condition the skin. These oils, especially the scented ones, can be pretty polarizing: Some climbers love them, some don’t. Again, it’s totally a matter of preference.


Certain areas prohibit white climbing chalk, which can leave permanent smears on cliffs that don’t receive much rain. In this case, the only option is a colored chalk: generally dyed gray or reddish-brown to match different types of rock. This can be a great option for reducing your impact as a climber and helping preserve natural areas.

How To Buy the Best Climbing Chalk: Quality vs. Price

“Premium” climbing chalks can cost a pretty penny. Some premium chalk brands charge up to three times as much as entry-level brands for the same quantity of chalk. For climbers working on cutting-edge routes at the limits of their ability, high-quality chalks with certain additives or specific consistencies can make a big difference—or at least give them the confidence boost they might need to succeed. Premium chalks are also less likely to contain fillers like gypsum or calcium carbonate, which sometimes sneak their way into lower-quality chalks and don’t perform nearly as well as pure magnesium carbonate.

If you’re just starting out, the truth is that any climbing chalk will do. Feel free to experiment with a few different varieties and see what you like, but it may not be worth paying the big bucks just yet. Conversely, if you’ve been using the same climbing chalk for a while and find you’re soaking through it quickly, it might be worth trying a more premium chalk.

Local Chalk Ethics and Leave No Trace 

There’s no doubt about it: White chalk marks up rock. In fact, chalk stains on popular routes can be spotted from a quarter-mile away—a serious distraction for others out enjoying nature. For that reason, climbing chalk has been banned entirely in some places, like Garden of the Gods Park in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which is known for its unique sandstone fins that hikers and tourists often flock to see.

As climbers, it’s our duty both to protect the natural places we visit, and to preserve the visual integrity of those places for other user groups. When you climb outside, follow these guidelines to limit the marks you leave:

  1. Don’t use climbing chalk in areas where it’s forbidden.
  2. Consider using liquid chalk or a climbing chalk ball to limit spills.
  3. If you spill chalk at the crag, clean it up.
  4. Use colored chalk in sensitive areas that receive little rain.
  5. When climbing outdoors, use as little chalk as you can.
  6. If you’re prone to over-chalking, carry a small brush to scrub holds clean. 
  7. If you leave tick marks on holds, brush them off before you leave.

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.