by Callie Bisset and C.J. Leger
Indoor rock climbing gyms offer a chance to explore the sport of rock climbing from the safety of a gym setting. Climbing indoors can prepare you to take your techniques outside, or it can simply serve as its own sport.
Most gyms offer two types of climbing: bouldering and belayed. Similar to in the outdoors, bouldering in the gym consists of free climbing, whereas belaying requires suspension from a set of ropes to climb. You can belay with a partner or utilize the self-belaying systems that many gyms have installed.
Basic Climbing Gear
When bouldering, you simply need a pair of sturdy climbing shoes to make your way up the wall, and some chalk to prevent your hands from slipping. But belayed climbing requires a bit more preparation.
The basic gear needed to belay usually consists of a pair of climbing shoes and a reliable harness. You’ll also want a chalk bag filled with chalk or a chalk sock.
Renting VS Buying Climbing Gym Gear
Chalk bags, shoes, and harnesses can typically be rented at your climbing gym. This might be an option if you’re just starting out and want to climb while you save up for better gear. And if you’re just testing the waters to see if climbing is right for you, renting gear may be the way to go, at first.
However, if you’re climbing more often, you will want to look into purchasing your own gear. The price of constantly renting gear in addition to paying for climbing passes can be more costly than simply investing in your own. There’s also the matter of wear and tear.
For a comfortable climb, you’ll want gear that only you use; shoes that are broken-in to your specific foot shape, a chalk bag that hasn’t been abused by others, ect. Essentially, you want a kit that features your unique wear patterns, which will tailor to your movements. Comfort also refers to cleanliness, which we’ll discuss below.
Read our guide on how to buy climbing gear on a budget to learn more about sourcing gear.
Climbing shoes will mold to your feet over time, so investing in your own shoes will ensure they fit better and can actually help you climb better. You typically do not want to wear socks with climbing shoes, as they are supposed to fit very snuggly, but you may not feel comfortable going barefoot in rentals. Though rental shoes and harnesses are thoroughly sanitized between wears, wearing your own gear certainly feels cleaner.
Shoes are rated by experience level, though most climbing gyms only offer basic shoes for rental. Pointer shoes make it easier to stick your feet in small holds on more challenging sets and force your feet into a downturned position to make it easier to ascend.
If you’re a beginner, you will still want to start with less aggressive shoes and work your way up as you begin feeling more comfortable and try to climb harder sets. You also want to ensure you are always sizing down in climbing shoes, the shoes will stretch a bit and you want to make certain that they fit as tightly as possible. Rented shoes may exhibit excessive warping due to the variations in foot shapes they mold around, which can make them uncomfortable to wear.
When purchasing a harness make sure you look for durability and comfort. Though climbing harnesses can be adjusted with tug straps, they are still sized. If possible try on multiple harnesses, and compare the fits. If you can’t physically visit a store that specializes in outdoor recreation like REI, compare your measurements to the size chart provided on the online product page.
Once you receive your gear try to make sure the harness fits snug yet still comfortable. It should not feel as if it is digging or pinching your skin, as this will only feel worse when you are belaying.
If you are solely using the harness indoors, you do not need to worry as much about the weight. However, if you are considering climbing outdoors as well, you will want to look for a harness that is lightweight and functional for outdoor climbing. Petzl harnesses are exceptional and can be purchased on their webpage, climbing stores, or their official Amazon store page.
There are some small accessories to think about. These will make climbing more comfortable and accessing your gear more convenient.
Climbing Chalk & A Chalk Bag
Chalk is necessary for long climbing sessions, as it eliminates sweat and prevents you from losing traction on holds. Chalk is sold using a system of grades that determines if it is best for recreational or competitive sporting. Brands also tailor their formulas to meet the needs of various areas of concern such as climbers who suffer from sweaty hands. Every climber will eventually come to prefer a specific brand and a specific formulation of climbing chalk.
You’ll need a chalk bag to carry your chalk in, which attaches to your harness by way of a carabiner.
Carabiners are essential for any kind of climbing, and there are different grades. Carabiners are small D-shaped clamps that loop onto your harness, packs, and clothing to hold accessories and gear. When purchasing carabiners, you’ll encounter inexpensive ones that say “not for climbing.” Others are labeled for climbing, but these come with a bigger price tag. What’s the difference?
Some carabiners are graded for climbing, meaning they are rated to carry large amounts of weight such as the weight of an adult human. These are more expensive and are considered heavy-duty. They are often referred to as belaying carabiners.
Other carabiners are small, thin, and lightweight and can cost between $1.00 for a single one and $15.00 for a pack of ten. These are labeled or engraved with the phrase “not for climbing” because they will not hold the weight of a human when climbing. These carabiners should only be used for attaching small items to yourself or your pack such as a chalk bag, water bottle, phone, or towel. Do not purchase these as an alternative to more expensive carabiners with the intention to use them as belaying carabiners or similar.
Hand Cream, Balm, & Hand Care
Frequent rock climbers also carry hand balm and nail clippers with them to the gym. Climbing can be very rough on your hands, and you will want to use balm at the end of a session to remoisturize after the chalk has dried out your skin.
In a previous conversation with climber Fredrik Sträng, he revealed that he uses olive oil to treat his hands when excessively dry. -C.J. Leger, Editor-in-Chief of Base Camp Magazine
It’s not uncommon for the skin on your hands to split during a climbing session, and you will want nail clippers to trim back the hanging skin or “flappers,” as it’s commonly known by climbers. These items can be kept in a bag attached to your harness, which is also where most chalk bags are clipped, the bags attach to your harness with a carabiner.
Note: Keep your clippers sterilized, and contact a physician to advise you on how best to treat broken skin when climbing. A dermatologist can advise you on a useful moisturizing routine.
Tips for Beginners
If you’ve never climbed before, don’t feel as if you need to purchase gear before going, climb a few times with rentals and make sure you want to stick with the sport. Then, once you’re serious about climbing, start by investing in your own shoes.
You can check if your local gym offers any sort of gear swap to perhaps pick up some discounted items. Buying used gear is both economical and beneficial for the environment. But for safety, make sure the items, especially the harness, are not ripped or damaged in any way. Though you may have to replace your shoes more often depending on how frequently you climb, a harness can last up to ten years with proper care. Read more in our guide to buying gear on a budget. Outdoor climbers might want to check out our Essential Mountaineering Gear Checklist.
Even if you’re not yet ready to invest in gear, don’t let it feel like a limitation on your climbing. Whether you’re climbing with rental shoes or the latest La Sportiva shoes, the gym should feel like a judgment-free space. Most gyms even offer amenities like belay workshops or one-on-one instruction to help work on your climbing.
Though climbing is typically an individualized sport, the gym offers a place of community, and if you’re curious about gear or anything else, you can usually always find someone willing to provide advice and recommendations.