Rock climbing is one of the most exhilarating and adventurous sports around. But to make the most of it, you need the right equipment – and to know how to use it.
If you feel the urge to scale a cliff face but don’t know how to do it safely, we’ve got you covered. Here’s our comprehensive checklist of the rock climbing equipment you need.
Table of contents
- Climbing rope
- Belay device
- Climbing cams
- Climbing helmet
- Climbing shoes
- Chalk bag
- Climbing tape
- Crash mat
Climbing ropes are the single most important piece of rock climbing equipment. There are only a couple of instances in which a climber wouldn’t need them:
- When they’re bouldering – typically climbing no more than around 15ft, with a crashmat underneath for safety.
- When they’re free soloing, which only a fraction of climbers worldwide even pursue, such is the risk.
For every other type of climbing, ropes are an essential part of the sport. In tandem with proper use of your harness, carabiners, belay device, quickdraws, and cams, climbing ropes will save your life if you slip or fall off the rock face.
It isn’t enough to own climbing ropes, though. You also need to know how they function and work with the associated apparatus. Most indoor bouldering gyms or climbing centres have dedicated belay systems for rope climbing and offer tutorials so you can get to grips with them.
Once you become more experienced and want to buy your own rope, there are several factors you need to consider. For example:
- Rope type
- Rope features
- Safety ratings
You need to decide upon the above relative to the route you intend to climb. You should also bear in mind that too much rope can be an issue, as it can lead to drag on the wall. You’d be surprised how heavy a rope can feel when you’re exhausted.
If you’ve bought a suitable climbing rope, you’ll need an appropriate safety harness to attach it to. There are two primary considerations here:
- How much you want to spend.
- What type of climbing you intend to do.
If you want a catch-all harness to serve you in multiple climbing disciplines – whether you’re into trad, sport, winter, or indoor climbing – versatility and comfort should be your primary focuses. When purchasing your own climbing gear, this is also the approach we’d recommend – you want to own equipment you use regularly. You can always hire anything more specific if you need it.
Ideally, your harness should comfortably work with your clothing to ensure a full range of movement. Padding, extra-wide webbing, ventilation, and moisture transport are just some of the key features to look for.
As for a harness’s anatomy, it contains two front tie-in points where the climber can thread the rope and tie it in – one at the waist (the belay loop) and one at the leg loops. The waist belt fastens (yep, you guessed it) around your waist.
Given that a harness is designed to keep you safe, you need to examine the harness for defects or damage even when buying one new. The below video can help you identify them:
Not that long ago, more than 100 dangerous harnesses were seized from an eBay seller – showing how important it is to do your research before buying one.
If they don’t own one already, a belay device is one of the first pieces of rock climbing hardware a trad or sport climber will buy when planning a climb.
If you haven’t heard of a belay device before, it’s essentially a mechanical friction brake used to protect climbers from falls or lower them from an ascent. The belay provides multiple points of friction, meaning the belayer doesn’t have to hold the climber’s full weight as they descend.
It doesn’t take long to get to grips with the basic function of a belay. However, we highly recommend practising in a controlled environment first, particularly with help from a climbing instructor. It isn’t so much that the device is complicated to understand. Rather, the consequences for inattention are grave, so you’ll want to know it inside and out.
The below video shows you everything you need to know (but, of course, practise first):
In some cases, like in a climbing gym, the belay device you’re fastening your rope to might be mechanical. But in most cases, it’ll be another person.
There are three types of belay devices to choose from, depending on the type of climbing you want to do – tubular, assisted-breaking, and Figure 8. Here’s a guide to all three.
A carabiner, in simple terms, is a device to which you can attach things without fear of them becoming detached. So, in climbing, they’re used for all sorts of purposes, such as connecting climbing rope with other pieces of climbing protection such as nuts, camming devices, and bolts.
They’re usually made from steel rigorously tested for strength and feature a gate to allow your rope or equipment to pass through. This gate then shuts to prevent the equipment from slipping out of the carabiner.
Carabiners, along with ropes and your harness, are usually the crucial pieces of rock climbing equipment that stand between safety and serious injury, if not worse. For this reason, you should invest in carabiners with long-standing reputations for quality and strength, such as those made by Petzl, Black Diamond, or the Tommy Caldwell endorsed Eldelrid.
There are several different types of carabiners, including the wire carabiner, the straight gate carabiner, and the locking carabiner. There are other types, but they largely fall somewhere between those three, with minor variations. This video will help you identify which type of carabiner is best-suited to you:
We did say carabiners are used for all sorts of things in rock climbing – one of these is the quickdraw. It’s made from two carabiners connected by a textile sling.
The idea is to attach one end of the quickdraw carabiner to a bolt hanger on a route, and your rope to the other. This gives you some slack on the rope by allowing the rope to move around while remaining attached to the bolt hanger.
As with other forms of rock climbing equipment, though, the purpose of a quickdraw varies depending on the climbing you’re doing. Once again, YouTube is your friend for this one – the below clip will help you pick the right quickdraw for your climb.
Climbing cams – or spring-loaded camming devices (SLCDs), to be specific –fit into cracks and gaps in rocks where they’ll grip to provide protection. Cams are particularly useful in trad climbing where a nut or bolt won’t work. With that in mind, cams offer a little more flexibility in the route you can take up a rock face, and they’re commonplace in every outdoor rock climber’s arsenal of tools.
The basic mechanism of a cam is that the harder you pull on it, the farther it spreads apart, thereby gripping the walls of the crack you’ve placed it in. It’s more of an advanced piece of rock climbing equipment, but essential nonetheless.
Another advantage of a cam is that it’s a non-invasive form of climbing protection – it doesn’t damage the rock when in use, like bolting or pitons. Incidentally, this philosophy of conservation and ethical climbing is held by climbing pioneer and Yosemite big wall legend Yvon Chouinard who founded the outdoors clothing company Patagonia, amongst other achievements.
Unfortunately, rock faces and mountains occasionally have a habit of spontaneously fracturing, sending stones, rocks, and sometimes boulders tumbling down below. This is obviously a hazard for any climber, which is why the helmet is another key piece of rock climbing equipment.
The climbing types you’ll most commonly need a helmet for are mountaineering, trad climbing, and sport climbing, as they typically take place in wild mountains or well-worn routes. The untouched aspect of wild mountains makes the rock unpredictable, while the well-worn routes of trad and sport climbing can sometimes mean the wall has weakened.
Some (though not all) climbing helmets are also designed to provide protection in the event of a fall. However, if you’re climbing at a bouldering gym, you generally won’t need one. That’s because (as we mentioned above) they often have thick crashmat floors, and the walls are typically no higher than 15ft.
Ideally, your helmet should fit snugly and sit flat on your head but not feel too tight. You should also make sure the helmet does not obstruct your line of sight up the wall.
Stepping foot on a wall without climbing shoes is unheard of. They are as closely related to climbing as the racket is to tennis. In short, there is no rock climbing without them.
Climbing shoes are characterised by their tight fit, thin material, and rubber sole and outer edges. These design features all come together to give your foot the best grip on the wall to allow you to stand on holds you otherwise wouldn’t be able to in normal shoes or barefoot.
Buying climbing shoes isn’t simply a case of buying the best shoe on the market, either. For one, it’s mostly about subjective preference, and the ‘best’ shoes are often unwearable for a beginner. For this reason, climbing shoes are most often categorised by skill level, which is closely related to the degree to which the climbing shoe is downturned.
Beginner shoes are relatively flat, with intermediate shoes being slightly arched, and advanced or ‘aggressive’ shoes arched further still. In fact, advanced climbing shoes are so uncomfortable for general use that it’s common to see climbers taking their shoes off as soon as they’re off the wall.
Advanced climbing shoes are purposefully designed for vertical climbing, so the climber is able to transfer power through their foot to make better use of small holds. Achieving this ability takes immense foot strengthening through years of climbing, hence why advanced shoes would be unwearable for a beginner.
When weighing up a pair of climbing shoes, it’s important to try them on and test them out – more than with any other type of shoe. You need to make sure the shoe is suitable for your foot shape.
You should also bear in mind that traditional sizing is most likely redundant when choosing a climbing shoe, as you’ll probably be looking for something at least a size smaller than your usual trainers.
Many bouldering gyms have integrated climbing equipment shops and test holds so that you can both try on the shoe and try it out. If you’re climbing at an advanced level, indoor vs. outdoor use might be worth considering. In most instances, beginner and intermediate shoes are suitable in both environments.
Chalk bags are a pretty straightforward bit of kit. They’re typically a small canvas or synthetic bag designed with an opening to comfortably fit your whole hand, though some are large enough to fit both. They also come with a side-release buckle and a loop of fabric, so you can attach them to your harness or pants.
There are endless options on the market, all roughly as good as each other, given the simple design. Plus, chalk bags are one of the few pieces of rock climbing equipment that allow you to flex a bit of your personality. So, whether it’s a naturalistic Aztec patterned number or a furry monster face, there’s something for everyone.
Just make sure whatever bag you get is wide enough to fit your hand, suitable for the type of chalk you’re using, and tailored to the length of your climb. A cylindrical bag is ideal for longer climbs, whereas a tapered bag is best suited to shorter routes.
Now you have the chalk bag, you’re going to need some chalk.
As is the case with climbing shoes, it’s unthinkable for rock climbers to climb without chalk. As with the chalk powerlifters and gymnasts use, chalk is used in climbing to increase grip and friction on the surface of your hand by drying sweat and other moisture. It’s not hard to see why increased grip is of vital importance when scaling cliff faces using only your hands and feet.
If you’re starting out, any climbing chalk will do the job. That said, you should look for smaller grained chalk if possible, as it’s sometimes a hassle to break up the clumpier stuff.
You might also want to buy a chalk ball. This is essentially a sealed bag of chalk made of a thin fabric material. Many climbers find them less messy than loose chalk, plus they more economically apply chalk to your hands, which means you’ll cause less chalk build-up on the holds, which other climbers will appreciate.
If you’re really not a fan of chalk or you’re allergic or prone to dry hands, there are alternatives such as liquid chalk you could use instead. However, this might be more suited to bouldering because if you’re halfway up a route, liquid chalk isn’t half as easy to apply as loose chalk.
Flappers are the bane of a rock climber’s existence. These are the tears on the pads on your fingers that form when your hands slip off a hold, and they’re so named because of the tiny flap of skin they leave behind. They can also occur as your skin is gradually abraded over a day’s climbing.
That’s why climbers always tend to keep a roll of climbing tape handy. Some apply it pre-emptively, while others only apply it after flappers occur. Many climbing tapes contain zinc-oxide to help heal the abrasions and decrease the chances of infection, too.
Over time, the pads on your fingers and palms should develop callouses, and you won’t be so prone to flappers. But until then, there’s climbing tape.
Flappers aren’t the only use for climbing tape, though; many climbers also tape up their fingers to strengthen them and support the small tendons and muscles within the fingers. This video shows how it works:
Though a crash mat isn’t required for most types of climbing, it makes the cut for the most important rock climbing equipment because bouldering is one of the more dominant forms of climbing. If you plan on doing any kind of outdoor bouldering, a crash mat is essential.
Given that bouldering is practised without ropes due to the smaller heights involved in the climbs, a crash mat is the only thing between you and the hard floor below. Fifteen feet can still do some damage if you fall from that height.
Ideally, you’ll also want some friends on hand to spot you while you climb as well, or even multiple mats. As with most rock climbing equipment, you need to look at the type of bouldering you intend to do when weighing up what type of crash mat to buy. Here’s a helpful video that explains more:
Whether you’re sending pitches on trad and sport routes or bouldering outdoors, climbing always comes with a risk of injury. Further still, your rock climbing equipment could be damaged, lost, or stolen.
That’s why you need our specialist rock climbing insurance. This insurance will ensure you’re not left out of pocket for your equipment or an injury, and covers a whole range of scenarios.
Find out more by clicking the link above or get an instant online quote today and see what we can do for you.