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First Time Climbing Outside? Here are 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me

A few tips and tricks for your first day at the crag, from someone who learned all these lessons the hard way.

Whether you’ve spent years crushing routes at the gym or you only started climbing last week, heading to the crag for the first time is a completely different experience, especially if you plan on lead climbing. Outdoors, there are no color-coded holds to lead the way, and you may not be able to see all the bolts, much less the anchors, from the ground.  

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to make the transition easier. It’s a topic we frequently cover here at Gym Climber, but here are five tips and tricks you may not have already heard.  

1. Don’t Skimp On Gear

Whether you’re an indoor veteran or a newbie all around, you shouldn’t concern yourself with climbing hard your first few times outside. You should be focused on getting to the top and getting back down, safely. Take a look at the crag guidebook (if one is available), and however many draws it suggests for your route of choice, bring that many plus a few extra. A couple of lockers and a sling or two could also come in handy, particularly if you can’t see the anchors. 

On longer climbs, it can be quite hard to tell exactly how many bolts there are, and the extra weight is nothing in comparison to the bummer of realizing you don’t have enough draws to finish your route. Extra gear is also needed for changing over and bailing (see below). A rappel ring or other backup rappel device is a great idea, too.

You don’t need to rack up like you’re taking on a solo ascent of El Capitan. But don’t be afraid to have a bit of extra gear with you; you never know when you might need it.

 

2. Use a Rope Tarp

If you’ve been climbing indoors for a while, you may be used to just flaking your rope out on the padded gym floor. Outside this is a major no-no. Your rope is your lifeline, so take care of it. A rope bag and tarp are invaluable to keep your rope protected from dirt and grime at the crag, which can get rubbed into the rope and deteriorate its strength over time. 

If there’s a large, flat rock at the base of your route, you can get away with simply flaking the rope onto it, but in general the important thing is that you aren’t laying your rope directly on the ground. You can always use an old towel or blanket if you don’t have anything on hand, but rope bags with built-in tarps aren’t that expensive, all things considered, and tend to last forever. I still have the first Metolius rope bag I ever bought, over a dozen years ago, and it’s in stellar condition.

3. The Triple S (Sandals, Sliders, or Something Comfy)

Particularly at crags with long or techy approaches, it may seem stupid to bring a third pair of shoes. Just your boots or approach shoes and your climbing shoes, right? 

Wrong. No one wants to leave their rock shoes on after a climb, and outdoors you can’t just walk around barefoot after you get off the wall like you can in the gym. Well, you can, but you’re getting your feet super dirty and you then have to put ‘em back into your climbing shoes… it’s just a bad combination.

Always, always, always bring a pair of slip-on sandals or some other casual footwear that you can take on and off easily in between climbs, and that you can wear while belaying. The added weight in your pack is nothing compared to the extra comfort you’ll have.

4. Know How to Change Over

At popular sport crags we’re starting to see more and more permadraws (permanent carabiner anchors at the top of routes, which you clip the rope through to lower). That said, even if you get lucky for your first dozen or so climbs, eventually, you’re going to get to the top of a route and just see a couple of rings. You’ll need to know how to lower or rappel off those bad boys if you don’t want to leave gear up top. I won’t pretend to provide an exhaustive tutorial, but here’s a quick summary.

The process of changing over involves anchoring yourself into the anchors, via a couple of spare draws most likely, then calling off-belay. At this point, you’ll pull some slack and secure the rope to your harness via a clove hitch or similar method, then untie from the end of the rope and run it through the anchor before tying back in again, undoing your clove hitch, and calling to your belayer to put you back on belay. Once they confirm you’re back on belay, you can unclip from the anchor and lower.

Alternatively, if the chains are large enough (most are), you can clip yourself into the anchor and still stay tied in. Pull some slack, and thread the rope through the chains on a bite. Once the rope is through both chains, tie a figure-eight on a bite, then clip that through your belay loop. Then you can untie your original tie-in knot and pull the tail end of the rope through the chains and lower like normal, without ever having to come off belay.

All told it’s a simple process, but it’s perhaps the most dangerous point in any sport climb since mistakes can be high consequence. Just be sure this is a process you and your belayer are comfortable with, and ensure you have the rope properly secured to your harness before untying if you’re using the first method. You don’t want to drop your rope!

Proper communication with your belayer is also key. Accidents while changing over are often the result of belayers failing to realize they need to place their climber back on belay, or taking them off too soon. Be 100% sure you’re both on the same page before you come on and off belay (if changing over using the former method).

 

5. It’s Okay to Bail

The #1 thing I wish I knew when I started climbing outside was that bailing is a fact of life. If you climb outdoors enough and you project hard enough, you will end up leaving gear on the wall. It sucks, but it’s the truth and there’s no way around it. 

Trying to unclip your draws and downclimb will put you in a prime position to take unsafe falls, particularly considering that you’re already pumped and worn down enough to be bailing on your route in the first place. So just carry a designated bail carabiner with you on every climb and don’t be afraid to use it. The ten bucks you spent on that carabiner aren’t worth the shattered kneecap or ankle you might get from trying to unclip and downclimb.