Photo: EB Adventure Photography/Shutterstock

What Gear Do I Need to Start: Rock Climbing

by Katie Lambert Jan 4, 2012
I was 15 years old the first time I went climbing.

I HAD NO HARNESS, no shoes, and no rope of my own. I was shown how to tie a swiss seat, how to clip into the rope, and what commands to say to my partner. A pair of aqua blue climbing shoes that were two sizes too big were handed to me.

It was basic and simple that first day climbing. Now when I set out the door to the rocks, be it for wall climbing, sport climbing, or bouldering, I’ve a bag of gear, food, and water that I always bring with me. For those looking to get into climbing on rocks, getting started can be simple with a little guidance on what you need and where to get it.

I recommend that anyone interested in learning how to rock climb sign-up for a beginner class at a local climbing gym or outdoor gear shop or guide school. There are some techniques and skills that are needed in order to rock climb safely.


For the entry level climber, comfort and function are primary. Shoes can be a bit spendy and the rubber starts to wear out. In the days when I was a poor college youth I often found myself climbing in my Adidas Gazelles just to help make my real climbing shoes go the distance.

In general you want your shoes to fit snug; room around your toes leads to sliding inside the shoe and prevents you from being able to use your feet to the best of their ability. Let’s say in your street shoes you’re a size 6 – it’s best to get your climbing shoes in a 5. There are several companies that specialize in climbing shoes. La Sportiva has a great entry level shoe called the Nago, while FiveTen has an equally good shoe called the Spire.
As you advance in your climbing, you’ll start seeking higher performance shoes. But I must say, no shoe ever enhanced my climbing more than those over-sized aqua-blue shoes that first day. They were amazing and I felt I could stand on anything.

I spend a majority of my time climbing on granite and my go-to shoe is an old, discontinued relict of the past that I can only find on Ebay. My point is when getting started in the search for footwear, maybe your dad has some old climbing shoes in the garage, or maybe there is even something at the Play it Again Sports shop in town.

You can be creative with your footwear options but the same is not true of the rest of the gear needed for climbing. Do not skimp on ropes, harnesses, belay devices, quickdraws, or camalots – these things should be new and void of any defects.


The type of rope climbing you’ll be doing will determine what kind of harness you need. In picking out the one that’s right for you there are some key things to keep in mind – comfort and weight are the most important. You’re looking for a nicely padded waist band as well as comfortable leg loops. If you’ll primarily be sport climbing, then you won’t be hanging in your harness at the belay too much and the need for large gear loops and beefiness are unnecessary. Mammut makes a great sport climbing harness called the Ophir.

If you find yourself drawn to the toil and adventure of multi-pitch and wall climbing, then bring on the beefy! Mammut also makes a great all day, wall harness called the Togir. Black Diamond is another great gear manufacturer with one of the best all around harnesses called the Chaos.

Your harness should fit snug, be new, and have no defects.


Every route climber needs a rope. There is an array of lengths and diameters made by several companies. Some of the top rope manufacturers are Mammut, Blue Water, Sterling, and Monster. As with the rest of the gear, what type of climbing you’ll be doing largely determines what rope you need.

For the beginner, a good 70 meter, 10mm rope dynamic rope is ideal. Some come with middle marks and some are bi-color. I’m a big fan of the bi-color as it allows for easy recognition of where the middle of the rope is.
A great entry level rope is the Mammut Galaxy.

As you get more into climbing, a lighter rope will probably be desired, since you will want your sending rope to be light and easy to feed.

Belay device

Every route climber not only needs a rope and a partner; they also need a belay device. Belaying is one of the most essential climbing skills because you have your partner’s safety — and possibly even his or her life — in your hands.

In belaying, you control the rope’s movement to protect the climber at the other end. Your belay device applies friction to the rope, thus acting as a brake on the climbing rope. When used correctly, it stops the climber’s fall.

There are two styles of belay devices: manual and mechanical. I recommend the mechanical, auto-locking belay device called the GriGri for the beginner climber. This device feeds rope out smoothly and breaks automatically when the climber falls.

Another option for a belay device is the ATC. The benefit of this one is that it is lightweight and can also be used as a rappel device. But you must be very mindful never to let your brake-hand (the hand which locks off the free end of the rope) off the rope, as this device has no mechanical, auto-locking feature.

For your belay device you must have a locking carabiner. There are auto-locking and screw gate varieties out there.


There are an array of other hardware items that the to-be rock climber may need and want – it depends on what type of climbing is to be done. If you’re interested in sport climbing – a form of climbing that relies on permanent anchors and bolts fixed to the rock for protection – then you’re going to need some quick draws.

Quick draws are carabiners with short pieces of webbing attached two together. One carabiner clips into the bolt, one clips into the rope. Many companies offer quick packs in groups of five or more for fairly reasonable prices, such as Mammut and Black Diamond Equipment.

If you want to get into crack climbing then you would need to start investing in a rack. A crack climbing rack used to consist of not much more than a set of hexes and stoppers. But those days are long gone, and now a rack consists primarily of a triple set of cams.

This kind of rack can be spendy and quite heavy to carry, but the rewards and the adventures are broad and vast. There are numerous companies which specialize in producing cams. My personal choice is Black Diamond. Some companies such as Mountain Gear offer complete sets for fairly reasonable prices.


If you want to keep it real simple and forget about all the gadgets, ropes and harnesses, then you could opt to start bouldering. In this form of climbing all you need are climbing shoes, chalk, and a crash pad.

A crash pad is a large piece of foam covered in some type of durable nylon used for falling onto rather than biffing it into the dirt and rubble. They have straps used for carrying the pad on one’s back.

A figure walking carrying one of these things on their back can look quite funny to the unknowing passerby, and often times people will ask if it’s a portable bed. But never mind the odd comments and jeers – a crash pad is most important for the boulderer because when a boulderer falls, it is always a ground fall. This handy piece of foam has saved many from broken legs and twisted ankles – just make sure you land on the pad.

Odds and Ends

Some other essentials are tape, chalk, sandpaper, a brush, a helmet, and a bandana.

The tape can be used to protect your skin from rock abrasion – especially handy if you are just learning how to crack climb. The chalk is most useful in helping with grip, as your hands can get quite sweaty out on the sun baked rocks. The sandpaper is used for sanding down snags on the fingertips – the rock can cause a lot of wear and tear on your skin and the smoother the skin surface, the less likely you will develop cuts and tears from the rock.
The brush is to clean up the excess chalk on the rock. This is especially true for bouldering and sport climbing. Too much chalk left behind can make climbing holds slick and slippery. A helmet is optional for the rope climber and is up to one’s own judgement of what is safe. They are good things to have for crack climbing and wall climbing.

A bandana is another pretty handy accessory to have. They can keep your hair out of your eyes, keep the sweat at bay, and are handy for first aid.

And they look cool. One of the primary rules in climbing is if you look good, you’ll climb better.

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