Photo: Jacob Lund

How To Start Indoor Rock Climbing

Develop new skills, join an amazing community, and get the best full-body workout of your life.

After a stunning 2021 Olympic debut, indoor rock climbing is having a moment. And for good reason: It’s an incredible way to build strength, a great stepping-stone to outdoor rock climbing, and the most fun you’ll ever have inside on a rainy day. And for many climbers, it’s also a lifelong passion and a valuable source of community.

Yet, despite the Olympic hype and amazing benefits, it can still be really intimidating to step into a rock climbing gym for the first time. Fortunately, the climbing community is famous for being laid-back and welcoming, and climbing gyms are great places to learn new skills in a supportive environment. That said, it helps to have an understanding of the basics before you head in for your first visit. In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know to step into the gym with confidence.

  • How To Find a Rock Climbing Gym
  • Types of Indoor Rock Climbing
  • When To Go
  • Essential Gear
  • What Do the Grades Mean?  
  • Beginner Tips for Indoor Rock Climbing 
  • The Fine Print: Gym Etiquette 

How To Find a Rock Climbing Gym 

Finding a local climbing gym is usually as easy as a quick internet search. Make sure the gym offers the type of climbing you hope to pursue, whether that’s bouldering, top roping, or leading (not all gyms offer all three). Climbing solo? Ask if the gym has auto-belays, which are devices that allow you to climb on a rope without a partner. Also be sure to compare prices and offerings. Some rock climbing gyms offer yoga classes and/or weightlifting equipment—and upcharge accordingly. 

Types of Indoor Rock Climbing 

There are a few different disciplines of indoor rock climbing. You can pick one to specialize in, but many climbers dabble in all three. 

Bouldering

Climbing near the ground without ropes. Bouldering usually prioritizes strength, power, and problem-solving ability over endurance. It’s the most social discipline of climbing. 

Top Roping

Climbing with a rope attached at an anchor above you so that you can sit back into your harness if you need a break without losing progress. Top roping is a great way to build strength and endurance without much risk. 

Leading

Climbing from the ground up, clipping a rope into fixed anchor points on the wall as you go. Lead climbing requires a bit more gear and a steeper learning curve, but it most closely simulates climbing outdoors. 

When to Go 

Crowded gyms can be a little overwhelming, especially when you’re new and you’re trying to get your bearings. Many gyms experience a rush hour between 4 and 8 p.m., on weekdays, and those that offer kids’ camps and birthday parties are often busy on weekend afternoons. Try visiting the gym on a weekend evening, a morning before work, or during your lunch break.

Indoor Rock Climbing Gear Checklist

You can rent all the gear you’ll need at the gym. But if you’re buying your own stuff, here’s a complete gear checklist for indoor rock climbing.

  • Climbing pants, joggers, or leggings
  • A breathable T-shirt or tank top  
  • Sweater or long-sleeve shirt if you get chilly belaying 
  • Harness
  • Climbing shoes
  • Belay device
  • Locking carabiner 
  • Chalk bag 
  • Chalk 
  • Optional: 40-meter rope (required for lead climbing in some gyms)  
  • Optional: Chalk ball or liquid chalk (required in some gyms) 
  • Optional: Belay glasses
  • Optional: Belay gloves 

What Do the Grades Mean?

In the U.S., roped routes are graded on a scale from 5.0 to 5.15. The only number you really need to pay attention to is the one after the decimal. A 5.9 is easier than a 5.10, for example, and a 5.11 is easier than a 5.12. Within each grade, you might see a + or - sign, or a letter from A to D. That just designates an even more granular level of difficulty. 5.10+ is equivalent to 5.10c or 5.10d, which both just let you know you’re looking at a harder route within the 5.10 range. 5.10- is equivalent to 5.10a or 5.10b, which just means an easier 5.10. 

At an indoor rock climbing gym, the easiest routes with the biggest holds will generally be around 5.5 or 5.6, and will be marked with colored tape or holds of a certain color. These are great routes to start on. You can always progress up from there. 

Bouldering routes are usually graded on the V scale, which is simpler: V0 is the easiest, and V16 is the hardest. Most gym routes fall between V0 and V12 or so. 

Beginner Tips for Indoor Rock Climbing

  1. Warm up. To prevent injury, do 15 minutes of dynamic stretching, jogging, or calisthenics before hopping on the wall.
  2. Use your feet. The best climbers are extremely intentional about their foot placements. Try to move your feet before you reach with your hands.
  3. Rest on straight arms. When your arms are bent, your muscles are engaged. Save energy by channeling your inner orangutan: Keep straight arms whenever possible to hang on your skeleton instead of your muscles.
  4. Tiptoe. It can be tempting to put your whole foot on a hold, but you’ll get better purchase—and more reach—by staying on your toes. 
  5. Keep quiet feet. Good footwork is all about precision. Try to place your foot exactly where you want it on the first try. If you hear a lot of scraping or kicking against the wall, you’re wasting valuable energy. 
  6. Focus on your breath. Forgetting to breathe leads to faster muscle fatigue. Each time you grab a hold, exhale and relax before moving to the next one. 
  7. Ask for help. If you’re stumped by a route or feel a little lost, ask someone! You might just make a new climbing buddy. 

The Fine Print: Gym Etiquette

In rock climbing gyms, the big no-nos are loud and clear. Not so apparent? There’s finer intricacies of climbing etiquette you’ll get to once you start with these best practices.

  1. DON’T: Wear climbing shoes in the bathroom. (It’ll track nasty particles onto the climbing holds.)
  2. DON’T: Hog the wall. If others are waiting, let them hop on next. If you’re using an auto-belay, limit your laps to one or two at a time. 
  3. DO: Keep your things tidy and organized, especially when the gym is busy. 
  4. DO: Put a lid on that coffee. (Some gyms even prohibit food or drink, as stains can be tough to get out of the mats.)
  5. DON’T: Hit on people. Gyms can be a great place to meet new friends and climbing partners, but many climbers are regulars who consider their gym a safe haven where they can get a good workout and relax. See a cute climber? Be polite, but maybe save the flirting for outside the gym. 
  6. DO: Ask for advice, or “beta,” from other climbers. Climbing is a social sport, and it can be more fun to problem-solve with a friend. That said, if you see someone else struggling, ask politely if they’d like beta before sharing yours; some folks do prefer to figure things out on their own. 
  7. DO: Keep it light. Climbing is tough! Don’t be too hard on yourself or pitch a fit if things don’t go well. Climbing is about trying hard and learning from your mistakes, but it should never stop being fun.

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.