For me, rock climbing was never about sending as many gym routes as I could. I climbed rocks because I wanted to be in nature. When I first got started climbing, I had no idea what I was doing or what to expect. My dreams of outdoor climbing were a little far off and not well researched. If you’re anything like I was, unknowledgeable and ambitious, have no fear. The great outdoors is not far off. In order to get into climbing outside, there are a few things to know in order to prepare yourself for the adventure.
This might be the hardest part about climbing outside. Whether you go sport climbing (where the walls are bolted), outdoor top rope climbing (where the rope hangs from above on a fixed anchor or a natural anchor) or trad climbing (where you place gear in order to protect yourself as you climb), you need equipment. This can get expensive. Finding friends who already have the gear can be your foot in the door of the outdoor climbing world. This minimizes having to teach yourself how all the gear works, having to invest all at once in your own rack (set of gear) or having to take on the outdoors alone. Which brings me to the most important part about going with someone experienced - it reduces the risk of injury. Climbing buddies are invaluable. With someone experienced, he or she should know how to climb outdoors safely and will be able to teach you, belay you and have your back in case anything were to happen. If you’re terrible with maps like I am, a climbing buddy can be helpful with this too.
Aside from showing up to the crag (outdoor climbing area) with a pair of your own climbing shoes, a safe climbing harness and maybe some chalk and carabiners, getting to the base of the wall also requires some gear of its own, mainly footwear. I tried to hike and approach in tennis shoes only once before I realized that hiking boots were a necessity. Sometimes you get lucky and the climbing area will have nice paths, but more likely than not, hiking shoes are a safe bet. When you aren’t climbing and you’re belaying instead, it is nice to not have to stand around in your toe-crunching climbing shoes. I always bring along some strappy sandals so wear among the talus or duff so that my feet don’t get too sore. I used to wear Birkenstocks and just normal flip-flops while waiting around, but I found that they slip off and cause more problems than being barefoot. I switched to some strappy sandals, like Tevas or Chacos, in order to keep my feet safer, and so far, they work like a charm.
I have a few friends who show up to climb with tupperware boxes of chicken and bags of fried rice. To me, this seems like overkill. When I am out at the crag, I survive by strictly snacks and water. This way, you avoid tupperware leaks, overstuffing or getting hungry later on when your big meal is all gone. Instead, I graze all day. I also make sure to bring a balanced array of snacks. Granola bars made of whole grain ingredients, fruit, nuts, jerky and even some type of kale chips allow me to have lots of energy, lots of food and still get all my nutrients and protein throughout the day. I usually bring three or four bottles of water (Reusable ones! Go green!) just to make sure I stay hydrated all day. Before I even hit the trails, I drink an entire bottle of water, too. Taking care of my body is important, especially when I have to rely on my body to be able to climb.
Believe it or not, your life depends on knowing how to tie knots when you’re climbing. Even if you go with someone else to climb outside, being able to check your knot and his or her knot before anyone climbs is important. The figure eight knot, which is what you tie yourself to the rope on the wall with, is easy to learn but also easy to mess up. When you climb, ask your partner to look at your knot before you start going up, just in case it got messed up. If you plan to rappel, also double check that you have overhand knots or barrel knots on the bottom of each end of the rope. This assures that if for some reason the ropes are uneven or not touching the ground, you do not accidentally rappel off the rope and fall. We are all only humans, and humans make mistakes. By checking each other’s gear and knots before each climb, we can hopefully reduce the amount of accidents, especially involving first-time outdoors climbers.
It is really easy to look at climbing outdoors as a vacation, but it should be looked at a little bit more like a trip. What I mean is that research will help you get the most out of your time at the crag. Most climbing areas have guide books. Borrowing one from a friend, your local climbing gym or investing in one yourself are all not bad ideas. Spend some time looking through it before you even leave for your trip. Decide what areas you want to spend time at, which climbs are worth doing and what gear you’ll need to do each climb. Have a backup plan ready if the inevitable group of 15 boy scouts is posted up at your first choice area. Mountain Project is also a good resource. It is online, it has an app, it is designed and compiled by a bunch of real world climbers and it is free. Needless to say, this site has boundless amounts of information, from what kind of nuts to use while building a top rope on a route to where to park your car and get the easiest approach to a crag. There are maps and photos of the routes, too. Download these before you leave to climb in case you lose service. Believe me, it may sound like homework, but the effort you put in beforehand will save you a lot of time, confusion and frustration later on at the crag.
Yup, this is the reminder that nature does not have bathrooms. So just like your mother might remind you, try to use the facilities in the parking lot or at a restaurant or gas station before you hit the trails. When nature calls when you’re out in the wilderness, bring some wet wipes (they come in clutch). Some people think that bringing a roll of toilet paper to the crag, but this can cause more problems than solutions. The second that your roll of TP gets wet, the whole thing is ruined and just a mushy gob of flaky white uselessness. If you do plan to use wipes, bring a little baggy to carry out whatever you carry in. Before you take care of your business, dig a quick hole so that you can cover up whatever you leave behind. Whatever you leave needs to be at least 6 inches below the surface. This prevents animals from eating it later on and getting sick. Peeing under an overhang might seem like a good idea because of the privacy but rain can’t wash it away. This can hurt the environment and also just end up really stinking later on. Avoid peeing on living plants, too, because the chemicals can harm them as well.