Transitioning from Gym to Outdoor

A few guidelines for hopping from the gym to the crag

Recent years have seen substantial growth in the number of indoor climbing gyms and gym climbers, and that means a whole host of fresh adventurers that may one day take their newfound skills to the great outdoors. If you’re one of these spring chickens – welcome! The climbing community is a warm and vibrant bunch that would love to have you join us on the rock. However, outdoor climbing comes with a myriad dangers and unspoken laws of etiquette in which you should be versed to enjoy a safe and smooth session.

To help you out, here are a few guidelines for hopping from the gym to the crag:

Back in ye olde days, standard procedure for entering the world of outdoor climbing involved finding an experienced mentor to take you under their wing. Nowadays, however, there are heaps of newbies looking to learn the ropes and seemingly only a handful of mentors willing to play teacher. This has led to a mentorship gap of sorts, which means that many are heading out into the mountains without invaluable knowledge and skills such as self-rescue, crisis management, risk analysis and bombproof anchor building. 

Nevertheless, climbers remain a breed that loves to share in their passion, and if you have the courage to ask you for guidance, will likely be met with enthusiasm and support. Try and figure out what goals you are looking to meet in your climbing; maybe you’d like to boulder 8a, or see beautiful places on the path less travelled, or push your mental limits. Find whatever drives your decision to get rock, and look for a mentor that will be able to help you realise that dream. You can also do your part to be the best mentee you can; after all, it’s a big investment and a lot of responsibility on the mentor’s side. Be proactive in your learning, be prepared and punctual, contribute to travel expenses, and remember that it never hurts to have some chocolate or a six pack of cold ones on hand.

You can find a mentor anywhere you can find climbers, and you can make use of forums like this one to get the ball rolling.

When it comes to safety, you can never learn too much. Take the time to read about local crags, enquire about etiquette for particular areas (unspoken rules can change from place to place), research outdoor climbing styles and pursuits, and brainstorm what kind of gear you want to invest in. 

Better yet, get those hands dirty! Enquire about outdoor courses, crag days and guided outdoor adventures at your local gym to learn from the pros. Consider checking out courses on self-rescue, abseiling and other emergency skills in addition to the climbing basics. 

When you first start out, you will likely need to borrow and/or rent outdoor gear. That’s totally okay! Gear can be tear-inducingly expensive, and it makes sense to hold off on investing in a full trad rack before you’ve earned your salt on the rock. However, the time will come when you’ll want your own set of toys. 

Bouldering is the least gear-intensive discipline, requiring only shoes, chalk and a boulder pad. Pads can be fairly expensive, but they can also double as couches, mattresses and backpacks (just pack your things in the middle and buckle it up), so they’re a great adventure investment. If a pad is out of your price range, you can consider going in on one together with your climbing buddies. Sport climbing requires some more gadgets; a basic lead climbing kit includes shoes, a chalk bag, a harness, rope, quickdraws, a belay device and a helmet. Trad climbing calls for similar gear: a chalk bag, shoes, a harness, half ropes (these are slightly thinner ropes that you clip into alternating draws for increased protection), a belay device, an abseil device (depending on what belay device you’re using, you may not need a second device for abbing), a rack of nuts and cams (and hexes, if you’re old school), and a helmet.

You will most likely see climbers who do not wear helmets, but it is highly recommended that you protect that precious noggin during both sport and trad, whether you are climbing or belaying. Rocks can break, debris can fall, accidents happen – wear a helmet.

The number one way to alienate yourself from the community is to disrespect the crag. At the end of the day, we’re out wrestling pebbles and tackling cliffs because we have a fierce love for the outdoors. When you head out, be mindful not only of your impact on the environment, but also on your fellow climbers. Leave the speakers and beats at home, keep your gear and supplies neatly packed in one area (away from the base of the climbs), keep your noise levels reasonable, and leave no trace. That means taking trash home with you, being mindful of vegetation and wildlife, and leaving rocks, flowers and other natural treasures where you find them. 

You may notice that some climbers leave quickdraws up on a sport route or mark small holds on a boulder with chalk. This is generally accepted by the community; draws up on a climb mean that someone is projecting it and will most likely be back at the area in the next few days (just don’t be that person that leaves their gear there for months on end). Some boulder problems are so chalked up that it’s virtually impossible to clean them, and chalk can serve to highlight holds; however, make a habit of brushing the holds and removing any tick marks you may have left when moving on from a climb – the community will thank you for it!

If you’re climbing hard in the gym, it can be tempting to head out ready to crush on the rock. It may be frustrating, but when you first head outside you need to pace yourself. You might warm up on 18 on plastic, but battling rock is a whole new playing field. You’ll need to get comfortable with finding and using holds without the help of nicely colour-coded grips; and, even more importantly, you will be faced with a big mental shift. Climbing outdoors is much more nerve-wracking than hitting the gym; the elements will be coming at you, exposure hits hard when you’re leading up a legitimate cliff face, and you are likely going to be dealing with some less-than-perfect belay bases and drop zones under the boulders. 

Don’t be afraid to dial things back and let yourself play on easy mode until you’ve adjusted. The more clear your mind is and the more confident you are in your competencies, the less likely you are to make mistakes. PLUS, it’s way easier to enjoy a tasty climb when you’re not panicking about which side of the draw to clip – master the fundamentals, then crank up the difficulty.

Even the roughest and toughest among us remember their beginner days. No one is going to ridicule you or lose respect for you because you’re new to the game – at the end of the day, we just want our fellow climbers to be safe and to show respect for the space and community. If you aren’t sure about something, ask! It’s way easier to answer a “stupid” question than it is to undo someone’s mess if they’ve made a blunder. 

Most importantly, be patient with yourself. You will almost definitely find that your outdoor grades are a few notches below your gym level, and it can be easy to get discouraged. Give yourself time to adjust, and make it work for you. If you can’t do someone’s beta, try and find little tricks that will work for your body, and believe that you are strong enough to execute. There are so many ways to climb outdoors – some people will project a few routes for months at a time, others will head out and try to snag as many onsights as they can. It’s all about what makes you excited and, cue the cheese, what makes you happy. It’s all about striking a balance between challenging yourself, and allowing yourself to just have fun. 

Life is there to be enjoyed. So, get talking to the community, be eager to learn, be safe, and climb on.