A father and son, preparing for rock climbing together at indoor climbing gym

Tips for Rock Climbing With Kids

Climbing can have huge social, mental, and physical benefits for kids. Here’s how to get them started.

When it comes to climbing, most kids are total naturals. As young as 2, you might catch your child scrambling up the side of the couch or clambering up boulders in a friend’s backyard. The same inclinations that draw kids to climb playground structures and trees can make rock climbing—either indoors or outdoors—a fantastic outlet for an energetic child. 

Climbing is also a great way to teach your kid critical life skills. Both bouldering and sport-climbing help children develop problem-solving, communication skills, and self-confidence. Learning to cope with falling and failure is another vital skill that applies to all sorts of life challenges. Ask any adult who started climbing young and you’ll hear much the same: The lessons they learned on the climbing wall served them for the rest of their lives.  

But how young is too young? And what are the best ways to make sure your child’s first experiences climbing are fun and safe? The following guidance will cover the best ways to start off on the right foot. 

The Right Age To Start Kids Climbing

The short answer is that if kids can walk, they can generally climb. 

“There is no age that’s too young for a kid to start climbing,” says Jason Antin, a Colorado-based climbing guide, mountain athlete, and father of two, “as long as they’re having a good time and as long as you feel comfortable with the safety systems.” (Sharing that level of comfort means knowing how to belay or spot your child, set up strong anchors if you’re climbing outside, and manage any other hazards.) By the time Antin’s older daughter, Avery, was 3, the two of them were climbing outside together regularly. 

The right age, of course, depends on the child, Antin says. Kids who are more mature and are good listeners can start on the younger side, while kids with shorter attention spans may need to wait until they’re able to follow basic safety commands and stay put rather than wandering near an edge or messing with their safety knot. You also need to make sure your child is big enough to fit securely in a harness

With any child, Antin says the trick is to ease them into things. 

“Kids are natural climbers, but they’re not natural believers in the safety systems like the rope and harness,” he says. “Before we had our girls actually climbing, we would just put the harness on them and let them walk around and hang out in it. Then, when we finished [climbing an outdoor] pitch, we’d rig my daughter up on top-rope a few feet from the ground and let her swing and get her used to what it feels like to be in the harness.” By the time she started climbing, many of the systems felt safe and familiar to her—which let her focus on finding holds and having fun. 

Tips for Rock Climbing With Kids

In the beginning, rock climbing can feel a little overwhelming. Here are a few of Antin’s tips for keeping things fun and comfortable every step of the way. 

Belay from the top

If you’re rock climbing with kids outside for the first time, have one parent positioned at the top of the route, belaying from above, while the other waits at the ground or climbs alongside your child, Antin suggests. If your child is always moving toward a parent, they’ll feel safer.

Have a plan to get down

For most lowering systems, the climber has to weigh a certain amount for gravity to do its work. For that reason, lowering really lightweight kids can be a challenge, Antin says. Consider tying a tagline to your child’s harness so the adult on the ground can give them a light tug when it’s time to lower, he suggests. Also be sure to practice lowering from a few feet off the ground before it’s time for the real deal; letting go at the top of a climb can be scary for first-timers, for kids and adults alike. 

Make it a game

If you’re climbing outside, try hiding toys or treats in rock crevices to make a scavenger hunt, Antin suggests. “The goal isn’t to get to the top or even to climb in general,” he says, “it’s just to keep it fun.”

Let them dictate the agenda

It’s important to listen to your child’s needs and only climb as much as they’re excited about. “Don’t go out with the mindset of going climbing; go out with the mindset of enjoying the rocks,” Antin says. “That might mean hanging out at the base. It might mean swinging. It might mean climbing. Make it fun, and come with low expectations for the amount of climbing you’ll get to do.” 

Bring friends

If you have the opportunity to climb with other kids, take it, Antin says. A child alone with their parents can get pouty when things get hard, but two kids together tend to feed off each other's energy and keep things positive and fun. 

A little girl climbing a rock wall indoor

Climbing Teams and After-School Programs

If you’re short on time or aren’t 100% confident in your climbing safety knowledge, consider enrolling your kid in an after-school program at a local climbing gym. 

Climbing Clubs

Clubs, camps, and after-school programs are great ways for kids to make friends, get exercise, learn new skills, and wear themselves out under the watch of an experienced instructor. Before enrolling your child in any program, make sure they’re excited about climbing regularly. 

Laurie Normandeau, program director at Colorado’s Boulder Rock Club climbing gym, also recommends touring the gym, meeting the coach or instructor, and asking about ratios. Three kids per every one supervisor is a good ratio for kids 4 to 5 years old, she says, while 4:1 is ideal for kids between 6 and 12. (Kids under 4 years old often get worn out quickly and don’t get as much benefit from group programs, she adds, though this again depends on your child’s individual maturity and energy levels.) 

Climbing Teams

If you have an older child or teen who’s repeatedly expressed interest in climbing, consider helping them search for a local climbing club or team to join. (Most big climbing gyms have their own teams.) In contrast to after-school programs or climbing summer camps, teams tend to have more structured practices and training schedules, says Normandeau.

Before joining any team, make sure the coaches are experienced with kids, and ask them about their coaching philosophy to gauge whether it will be a good fit for your child. Also check in with your kid regularly throughout the season to make sure they feel supported and encouraged. As with any sport, if your child starts to feel undue pressure or stress surrounding competitions, have a serious talk about what they enjoy about the sport and whether they want to continue. 

How To Find a Kid-Friendly Crag

Want to climb outside? To qualify as kid-friendly, a crag should have a short approach (10 minutes or less along an easy trail) and a flat, shaded, safe zone at the base for unpacking, belaying, and hanging out, says Antin. Look for short, single-pitch cliffs with good rock quality, easy top-rope access, and little chance of rockfall. Routes should be fourth-class to 5.3 for really young kids, and 5.3 to 5.7 for older kids on their first outing. Look for a variety of terrain so you can provide your kid some challenges as well as some easy wins, Antin says. 

“Also make sure there’s easy access for you to rig a rope,” he adds. “If the day is over and it’s time to move on, it’s nice to be able to grab everything and pack up quickly.” It can also be good to have other activities nearby in case your kid doesn’t feel like climbing for long. A stream or some scrambling can make great Plan Bs. 

Where To Find Kids’ Climbing Gear

Kids’ Indoor Climbing Gear

The great thing about indoor climbing? The only gear your kid needs is a pair of climbing shoes. Though climbing shoes aren’t critical for really young kids, Normandeau recommends them for most, even down to ages 2 and 3. They slip on easily and tend to provide extra grip, which gives kids more success on the wall, she says. They’re also available for rent, even in small sizes, at most gyms. Normandeau recommends looking at online forums and outdoor gear consignment shops for used shoes, as kids tend to outgrow them quickly. 

If you plan to climb on ropes, your child will also need a harness. Normandeau recommends a full-body harness for most children under 40 to 45 pounds, but says the right choice for your child will depend on the weight ratings for the particular harness, the manufacturer recommendations, and your child’s physiology: Toddlers and young children tend to be top-heavy, which means they can tip over backward without chest support. When they’ve developed further and can sit in a seat-style harness without tipping (usually around 5 to 7 years old), it’s safe to upgrade.  

Kids’ Outdoor Rock Climbing Gear

As with indoor climbing, your child will need climbing shoes for both bouldering and sport-climbing outdoors. Older children may also benefit from a small chalk bag if they’re beginning to climb longer routes. 

For outdoor roped climbing, your child will of course need a harness. The rules are similar: If your kid is further along developmentally and no longer tipping backwards, a seat-style harness should be sufficient. Otherwise, stick with a full-body harness. 

Finally, your kid will need a helmet and plenty of warm layers. Children’s insulated jackets, rain shells, and other gear can be found at consignment shops, as well as online through Public Lands or other outdoor retailers. You can also find kids’ helmets at a number of outdoor gear shops. (Like used harnesses, used helmets are not recommended). 

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.