Photo by Ross. Feature photo by groundzero.
BACK WHEN LEGENDARY climbers Royal Robbins and Warren Harding were hammering pitons into cracks on Yosemite’s big walls, climbing gear was pretty much do-it-yourself. Climbing pioneers fashioned harnesses out of ropes, used rubber-soled shoes or leather boots, and scavenged scrap iron to make carabiners and bolts.
As climbers became more and more ambitious, innovative athletes took matters into their own hands, inventing the tools, footwear, and safety gear that allows modern climbers to perform at their best.
The following guide will help you select the gear that’s right for you.
If you’re just getting started rock climbing, you can rent the basic gear at an indoor climbing gym. But once you get hooked on the sport, there are a few considerations when buying your own gear.
First, what kind of climbing do you plan to do?
If you’re interested in bouldering, (climbing on low routes without rope protection), you’ll need a different set up than if you plan to use “trad” or traditional climbing techniques. While bouldering requires only shoes, hand chalk, and a crash pad, trad gear is a weighty combination of hardware of all sizes and shapes.
For the purposes of this guide, the recommendations will be based on a style of climbing called “sport” which is growing in popularity all over the world.
Sport Climbing Gear
Sport climbers use a rope, harness, belay device, sticky rubber shoes, a helmet, and a series of carabiners and webbing (called quickdraws) to secure themselves to permanent bolts in the rock. Sport climbers use dynamic ropes with a little stretch to cushion falls.
Ropes come in many different diameters, and they’re carefully tested to ensure safety under extreme circumstances. Leading rope manufacturers include Blue Water, Metolius, Mammut, Sterling, Petzl, PMI, and Edelweiss.
Ropes can be expensive, with most retailing for approximately $200, so many climbers will share a rope with their climbing partner or use those handy seasonal sales to outfit themselves.
Harnesses are considerably less expensive than ropes. You can get a top of the line model for around $80.
For women we recommend the Petzl Luna, which is reviewed on Matador Goods.
Fit is very important for safety, so be sure to try on a few models before settling on the one you like best (because of this, I don’t recommend purchasing your harness online).
Also, never wear a worn-out or heavily-used harness. One of the world’s top big wall climbers, Todd Skinner, was killed in 2006 when a loop on his old harness broke.
Be sure to replace your harness if you notice any wear and tear.
The right climbing shoes can make all the difference when it comes to improving your performance. You want your shoes to fit snugly, with very little airspace in the toes and heel.
Some advanced climbers wear their shoes so tight that their toes curl up in the end!
If you find a particular brand fits your foot well, Zappos.com offers free shipping both ways which allows shoppers to return shoes that don’t work out. You can get a great pair of shoes for between $75 and $130.
Manufacturers have used a number of different techniques when designing climbing hardware to make the safety techniques easier and faster to execute under pressure.
Quickdraws usually have a straight-gated carabiner on one end and a curved-gated or wire-gated carabiner on the other. The curved or wire gate allows climbers to clip the rope through quickly and easily while still preserving the strength of the quickdraw.
Quickdraws and carabiners are inexpensive individually, but you will usually need about 12 draws for sport climbing outdoors.
Belay devices are also a matter of individual preference, though auto-locking devices such as the Trango Cinch and the Petzl GriGri can help absorb the impact of a fall.
Many beginning climbers will climb with more experienced friends before investing the $200 in hardware.
Climbers of all ability levels should invest in a helmet to protect themselves from falling rock and unanticipated outcroppings.
I’ve bumped my head a number of times on overhanging rock, and my helmet has prevented some nasty falls and painful bruises.
Both the belayer and the climber should wear a helmet, and they’re relatively inexpensive. Choose one that fits well and is lightweight so it won’t inhibit your movement on the rock. Petzl and Black Diamond are the two largest helmet manufacturers, and they offer a variety of styles and price points.
Finally, get the most use out of your gear by researching the cliffs near you. Mountainproject.com and rockclimbing.com both offer a wealth of information about climbing locations all over the country. These helpful sites also offer gear recommendations, climbing partner profiles, and fantastic photos from crags around the world.
Once you have assembled your gear, learned how to properly use it, and found a solid climbing partner, you’re ready to venture out into the vertical world.