First Steps with Indoor Climbing – What Gear & Clothing Do You Need

practicing rock-climbing on a rock wall indoors

Indoor climbing is a fun, social and exhilarating way to stay active. What started out as a way to keep climbers fit in the winter has transformed into a fitness movement. Climbing gyms can be found all over the world. They’re surprisingly safe and lots of fun.

But before you get started with this sport, there are some things you should know.

What gear is essential for indoor climbing? What can you expect when you enter the gym? We’ll answer these questions and more in our indoor climbing guide.

What to Wear for Indoor Climbing

Like with any other sport, wearing the right gear is crucial. Indoor climbing is a little more flexible in the apparel department, but climbing shoes and a belay device are essential.

Climbing Shoes

Many indoor climbing gyms rent shoes, which may be a good option for you if you’re a casual climber. But if you’re serious about indoor climbing or want to use your time on the wall to train for outdoor climbing, you need to invest in a good pair of climbing shoes.

Shape

Beginner shoes should be comfortable but snug and flat-soled. Bouldering shoes should be banana-shaped (or downturned) with a tight fit.

For overhanging terrain, shoes should be slightly downturned. Top roping shoes should also have a tight fit.

Closure

Climbing shoes have three closure options:

  • Slip-On: Also known as slippers, slip-on shoes use an elastic closure system for an ultra-low profile and high sensitivity. Slip-on shoes are great for training, as they allow your feet to get stronger, faster.
  • Lace-Up: The most versatile option. Lace-up shoes give you the option to loosen the laces if your feet start to swell, or tighten things up if you need to boost the shoe’s performance.
  • Straps: Strap closures make it easy to put on the shoes and take them off. Many indoor climbers prefer straps because it’s easy to slip the shoes on and off in between climbs.

Material

Climbing shoe uppers are either made with synthetic material or leather. High-performance shoes are usually made of synthetic material, but leather shoes offer easy care.

  • Lined Leather: Lined leather uppers minimize stretch to a half size or less. With some shoes, only the toes are lined to keep costs down and minimize stretching where it occurs the most.
  • Unlined Leather: Unlined leather shoes can stretch up to a full size. Color bleeding is common with this type of shoe.
  • Synthetic: Stretching isn’t much of an issue with synthetic material. These shoes tend to soften up a little over time, but the fit will generally stay the same. Some synthetic materials are more breathable than others and may even wick away sweat and moisture.

Shirt and Pants

There aren’t too many rules when it comes to apparel. You can wear what you would wear to any other gym.

Many indoor climbing experts recommend wearing slim-fitting tops and pants. Shorts are okay, but be aware that you may walk away with some bruises on your legs if you’re just getting started with indoor climbing. Loose-fitting shirts are also okay, but avoid baggy clothing.

Baggy clothes can easily get caught up in the rope.

Lightweight, breathable fabrics are ideal, but make sure they’re comfortable. Flexibility is also important, as you’ll need full range of motion in your arms and legs.

Gloves vs Bare Hands

There’s still much debate about whether gloves are ideal for indoor climbing. Many people find that gloves are great for outdoor climbing but get in the way when climbing indoors.

For indoor climbing, it’s usually best to go with your bare hands. You’ll get a feel for the “rock” and you’ll build up calluses that will give you an advantage when climbing.

Chalk and Chalk Bag

If you’re skipping the gloves, you’ll probably need some chalk and a chalk bag. Indoor climbing can get intense, and sweat can make it hard to keep your grip. Chalk will help keep your hands dry, and a chalk bag (usually worn around the waist) will give you easy access to your chalk while you climb.

Belay Device

A belay device is another important piece of climbing gear, and you’ll find a few different types on the market. Most gyms require either an ATC or a Grigri.

ATCs are the budget-friendly option, and they provide enough friction to catch climbing falls. The main issue with this type of belay is that it doesn’t have an assisted brake mode or an assisted braking mechanism. If the belayer lets go of the brake side of the rope while the climber is falling, the climber will fall to the ground.

A Grigri belay costs more, but it comes with an assisted braking mechanism that kicks in when the climber hangs on the rope. This is not a hands-free device by any means, but in most cases, the climber will not fall if the belayer lets go of the braking rope.

There’s still much debate about which type of belaying device is best, but most gyms have their own preferences. Ask before you go out and buy.

Harness

A harness isn’t an absolute necessity, but if you’re training for outdoor climbing, you may want to invest in one.

For indoor climbing, comfort is the most important thing when choosing a harness. Most high-end harnesses are made with outdoor climbing in mind, which means they are lightweight and sleek.

Weight isn’t as much of a concern with indoor climbing. Comfort and durability are the most important factors.

What Kind of Rope is Needed for Indoor Climbing?

Ropes can be either dynamic or static. For the purpose of indoor climbing, you want a dynamic rope. This type of rope has a little stretch to it, which will absorb the impact of a falling climber.

There are three types of dynamic rope: single, half and twin.

Most climbers go with single ropes. They come in a wide range of sizes, which makes them a good fit for many climbing disciplines. They’re usually easier to handle than a two-rope system.

For gym climbing, stick to a rope with a diameter of 10mm or more and a length of 35m. Indoor routes tend to be shorter, so you don’t need as long of a rope. But make sure that the length of the rope is long enough to lower the climber.

What Carabiner for Indoor Climbing?

Carabiners are also essential for indoor climbing. You’ll need a few different ones, and you’ll have lots of choices when it comes to shapes, colors and sizes.

A locking carabiner has a screw gate that locks the gate in the closed position. This locking mechanism prevents the carabiner from opening while you’re climbing. Locking carabiners are ideal for attaching to your belaying device to anchor yourself.

Non-locking carabiners may have a wire or a straight gate. Both types of gates have a similar purpose, but their functionality varies slightly depending on how they feel when clipping them to your rope.

You’ll probably find quickdraw carabiners when lead climbing at the gym. These have two non-locking carabiners that connect to what’s called a dog bone. In most cases, the carabiners are attached to the wall for you. You won’t need to purchase any of these, but you should be able to identify them.

What to Know Before Going Indoor Rock Climbing

If you’re new to the scene, it helps to know what indoor climbing gyms are like before you even step foot on the mat. We have also a written an entire guide on indoor climbing here.

When you walk inside, you’ll probably see a number of shorter walls (10-15 feet) and some taller walls (25-50 feet). The floor of the gym will probably be foam mat, but you may also see foam gymnastic mats scattered under the shorter walls. You’ll also see ropes hanging from the top of the taller walls. Steeply overhanging walls will have metal clips hanging in certain spots going all the way to the top.

The shorter walls, which have no ropes or clips, are used for bouldering. Many people like bouldering because all you need is a pair of climbing shoes and some chalk. You don’t have to worry about having a belayer or dealing with rope.

The tall walls are for top roping. Top roping is considered the safest kind of climbing and is a great place for beginners to get started. With this type of climbing, you’ll need an experienced belayer and the right gear. The belayer will be in charge of securing you in case you fall and will also lower you when it’s time to come back down.

You’ll also find tall walls without any ropes. These walls are for lead climbing, or leading.  Leading is an advanced form of climbing and also come with greater risks than top roping. With lead climbing, you start with the rope on the ground. As you climb, you clip the rope to the metal clips, which hang every 5-10 feet. If you’re interested in lead climbing, take a class at the gym or work with a mentor.

Gym Etiquette

Like any other gym, climbing gyms have etiquette that climbers should follow.

First and foremost, don’t clog the routes. Everyone wants a turn to climb, especially on the best routes. Take some time to consider your moves from a distance. When you fall or climb it successfully, walk away and allow others to give it a try.

Other important things to know:

  • Don’t be afraid to spot someone.
  • Don’t offer advice unless someone asks for it.
  • It’s okay to spend some time hanging on the rope to figure out the climb, but be courteous to other climbers.
  • Keep an eye on your kids (if you bring them).

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