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What are the bare essentials that I need in terms of equipment when it comes to rock climbing? I've done indoor rock climbing but always rented my equipment from the rock-climbing gym.

(For the purposes of this question, I'm excluding bouldering because I've done that with no special equipment.)

Are climbing shoes necessary? What types of harnesses and ropes do I need? What other equipment is recommended to ensure safe climbing?

I do not have a particular place in mind for doing this climbing; I am looking for absolute-beginner-level equipment that will be suitable for any rock climbing area advertised as "all levels".

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5 Answers 5

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I would say you need things in this order. Only #1 is required:

  1. A harness. You can't climb with a rope unless you have one.
  2. Shoes. You can get by with runners, but climbing shoes make a world of difference.
  3. Chalk/chalk bag. If you don't sweat much, this is not crucial, but a little chalk is very nice for keeping your fingers from being slippery.

If you are going to an outside climbing area, a helmet is pretty much required equipment as well.

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It might be worth noting that an experienced guide/climbing partner is one of the most important pieces of equipment! –  A.A. Grapsas Jan 25 '12 at 2:01
I would say that anywhere that things can fall on you a helmet is essential. Your lead climber will probably be carrying things that they could drop. I'd put helmet as more important than chalk by far. –  StephenPaulger Jan 25 '12 at 10:14
I don't think that chalk gives a nice extra grip. It's useful to absorb fingertip(s)-sweat. That's all! Too much chalk on a grip (can make it a muddy grip!) or on fingers will decrease the actual friction. I would rephrase the respective sentence to be accurate in what and how the use of chalk does whatever it does. –  Nikos Alexandris Jul 15 '12 at 13:23
@NikosAlexandris - good clarification, I will edit –  Ryley Jul 16 '12 at 15:26

Your equipment list will depend on whether you are:

  • Free soloing (climbing without protective equipment; not good for a beginner!)
  • Top roping
  • Lead climbing

Assuming that you aren't Free soling, because there you don't need anything, you'll need at least the following in order:

  1. A friend that can belay you

    You're definitely not going to go solo when starting out if you want to make it back home alive. Don't even start unless you've got one of these.

  2. A belay device

    Don't think you're going to be able to be safely protected just grabbing the rope. A belay device places lots of friction on the rope, so you can easily control the stopping force by simply controlling the angle the rope enters the belay device.

  3. A dynamic climbing rope

    The real, expensive stuff, UIAA certified dynamic single rope. Not the stuff you get at the hardware store for $8.99 on sale. While you may only weigh 150-250 pounds, when you fall, the force placed on the rope is many times your body weight. Further, the rope is responsible for absorbing the energy of a fall, and if not properly designed for this purpose either it or the climber will break in a serious fall. Hardware store ropes aren't designed to absorb impact energy, even if they are "strong enough" in terms of working load.

  4. A climbing harness.

    This is how you attach yourself to the rope. From what I've seen, the difference between harnesses for different applications boils down to how light they are, and how many gear loops you get. If you are just starting out, find a reasonably priced one that's comfortable, and worry about the other stuff and upgrade after you're a skilled climber. And of course, learn to tie in both yourself and your belayer and practice until you can nearly do it properly with your eyes closed.

  5. Shoes

    You'll want shoes. Real climbing shoes. I've tried climbing barefoot and with vibrams before. It doesn't work well. Different shoes have different ratings for how suitable they are for gym vs outdoor climbing. Again, find a pair that is comfortable and worry about shoes that are specialized after you've become a skilled climber. Until then, the small differences aren't going to have an impact until your technique catches up.

Note: Some outdoor places ban chalk. So it's obviously not a necessity.

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I doubt anyone should own a rope before they know how to set an anchor. For that matter, a belay device falls in the same category. If the plan is to be doing anything like that, step 1 should be "take a class or get a mentor" :) –  Ryley Jan 25 '12 at 0:09
Ryley, but if you do own a rope, more experienced people are more likely to take you with them and teach you stuff. That's what I did: Got a rope pretty soon and then said to experienced climbers: Hey, would you help me with setting up secure anchors if I provide you with a rope and a ride? Has worked pretty well so far :) –  Lagerbaer Jan 25 '12 at 0:38
Ah, fair point! –  Ryley Jan 25 '12 at 0:47
@Lagerbaer - I'm not convinced many experienced climbers would trust the quality/care of a rope owned by a complete novice. –  HorusKol Jan 25 '12 at 1:48
A good answer but I have to say the life saving ability of a climbing rope is not in it's strength otherwise we'd climb with steel cable. It is in its ability to stretch and absorb the force of the fall so you don't stop suddenly just like you would if you hit the ground. –  StephenPaulger Jan 25 '12 at 10:17

In addition to the obvious stuff regarding climbing equipment in the other answers, I would add:

  • Woolly hat (it can get chilly waiting for your turn on the crag)
  • Gloves (there's a type of glove, can't remember the brand, where the seams are at the knuckle and not on the tip - offering fingertip dexterity when climbing)
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Sturdy shoes for the approach and walk-off (the British Mountaineering Council have statistics that show more accidents occur on the way back from a climb to the car park than actually climbing - mostly sprained and twisted ankles)
  • A thermos (you'll be the most popular guy on the crag)
  • Water
  • Cereal bars

Lastly - I'd get a guidebook for the crag you're going to visit (depending on availability - most of the popular crags in the UK are covered quite well, not sure about other countries).

Guidebooks describe the best routes to approach the crag, help identify different climbing routes (and grade them), and you can tick the routes off as you complete them.

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Its not a piece of equipment, but if you're transitioning to climbing out doors, you probably want to have some training in how to rig a toprope, and / or how to lead. Climbing guidebooks that advertise areas as "for all levels" still presume a basic understanding of how to rig a toprope, or how to lead a route. Indoor climbing programs don't always emphasize these skills. Rigging a toprope isn't complicated, but there are still ways to do it wrong. Ever year there seems to be a needless death that was cause when an improperly rigged toprope failed.

Here's a report of a death in 2012 from an improperly rigged toprope: http://www.climberism.com/climber-dies-at-the-gunks/

There are numerous guidebooks about this, and you and a friend could take a class from a guide service in your area. But probably the best way is to go climbing with friends that are already climbing outdoors. Climbing can be very safe when its done correctly, and learning these skills will give you the tools to enjoy a lifetime of rock climbing. Good luck!

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Youth, conditioning, and a great attitude towards safety, common sense, and pushing yourself. Safety first. Dead climbers don't get do-overs. You can die very easily at twenty feet up on a 5.6 beginner route. I saw the consequences, his dying body in front of me and his distraught wife just..broken, maybe forever. You don't "get" that reality probably until you see the consequences. Once you see that - someone dying with so many actually-important things left to live for - climbing becomes so obviously absurd, you understand why it's a sport of "Conquistadors of the Useless."

Yet, if I wasn't in such crappy aging condition, I would still do more. But remember, you can't really "manage" all risk like it's an entity to put in a safe place. The risk of your making a poor decision is inherently impossible to predict, regardless of what people want to believe. Nobody who died or got injured from poor decision-making thought, "Hey, I can't control personal risk but I'll climb anyway." No, they thought they could. Yet they couldn't control their own imperfection.

So, stay alive, take care of your buddy and have them take care of you. That would be having the best equipment you can have.

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That's a good post about mental equipment and an emotional story. Still, not everybody has to climb tough routes so I don't think you have to be in your youth period or be super athletic. There are so many normal people climbing nice plaisir routes, as we call them over here. Just don't climb outdoors out of your comfort zone! –  EverythingRightPlace yesterday

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