As I started indoor climbing this year I would like to know what distinguishes it from outdoor sport climbing, especially when you are lead climbing.

I know that there are huge differences in safety, like outdoors

  • there aren't always bolts available as belay points (like indoors) so we need to use the less safe cams/friends, nuts, ...
  • bolts might be insecure
  • stand isn't as stable so we should belay dynamically
  • bigger falls because of less belay points

This list isn't complete.

  1. What could you add to this list of safety concerns?

  2. Besides from safety, what are major differences between sport (indoor) climbing and rock (outdoor) climbing?

  3. Are the difficulties comparable to indoor scaling systems?

As for the last point I can think of tougher conditions outdoors (again safety issues or strong wind, wet rock, psychology aspects and so on) and pure length of the routes. Besides that, I guess an indoor UIAA 6 should be as tough as an outdoor UIAA 6.


You are right guys, the question was too broad when asked about comparing sport to trad climbing.


Why do you still think, the question is too broad, comparing bolted indoor sport climbing to bolted outdoor sport climbing?

  • 5
    You need to distinguish between outdoor sport and outdoor trad, and also between leading and following outdoors. Anatolyg's answer is nice, but doesn't discuss lots of issues that you will experience if you lead or if you climb trad. There isn't just a list of new safety concerns. Outdoor climbing requires a whole new set of rope skills. Some of your questions seem to indicate that you're thinking about leading. You really need to start by following someone who knows what they're doing (or else figure out your lead skills from serious textbook study, not asking an SE question).
    – user2169
    Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 4:14
  • @Ben Crowell Like I said in the question I am thinking of routes where you can't use bolts all the way up (like you have indoors). So the step to trad climbing isn't big I guess. For me, leading is a part of it, I don't want to follow all the time. Indoors I am leading since I started climbing. I don't assume that asking questions here will be the key of wisdom, but it is very informative. Therefore the broad question, I like to know what I have to expect and I can think of others who like to read the answers, too.
    – Wills
    Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 5:48
  • 1
    One big difference (though not explicitly mentioned in your question is) What to do at the top of a sport climb
    – user2766
    Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 11:55
  • @Liam I am speaking about outdoor routes which might have bolts and might have not. So you also have to set belay points with friends (cams), nuts and so on. I wrote this in the question already. For me, this is just called "rock climbing".
    – Wills
    Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 13:31
  • 3
    Ok, bolted climbing is sport climbing, climbing without bolt's is Trad(itional) climbing. The two are very different and you very rarely get "mixed" routes. The two have very different skills, safety issues (in particular are entirely different) and techniques. I've you've only climbed indoors your going to be more familiar with sport climbing. Trad climbing requires very specific skills around rope work (you have two ropes generally) and gear placement (badly placed gear can fail easily causing injury or potentially death)
    – user2766
    Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 13:38

1 Answer 1


This is a pretty broad question; I'll try to answer, but this is going to be long.

You have already noted many differences between indoor and outdoor climbing.

What could you add to this list of safety concerns?

Here are some more ideas on safety:

  • You mentioned "pure length of routes"; the issue here seems to be about having a too short rope, so if you don't have a knot on the other end, the climber will fall when he is being lowered (i.e. when both the climber and the belayer least expect that). In indoor climbing, someone more experienced is usually responsible for rope length, so this is less likely to happen.
  • Falling rocks are often a major safety concern (you should wear a helmet, even though it doesn't guarantee safety).
  • You mentioned insecure bolts, but there may be other hazardous pieces of gear; in the indoor gym they are certainly going to check and replace gear regularly.
  • In the case of an accident, help may be far away.

Besides from safety, what are major differences between sport (indoor) climbing and rock (outdoor) climbing?

Differences besides safety (just a few of ideas; there certainly is an enormous number of differences, like between "working out" in a gym vs. running natural trails):

  • Most important difference: natural rock is natural; it's just "the real thing" vs. pieces of plastic. Depending on your spiritual inclination, you may absolutely hate climbing gym after you try "real" rock climbing.
  • Natural rocks have different types (limestone/sandstone/granite/other), while gyms have plastic, maybe wood and the occasional imitation of limestone (plaster?).
  • Holds on natural walls have an infinite number of shapes, so "what you see" is not "what you get" (the hold may be better or worse than you expect). It may also be tricky to find the usable holds, when they are not painted in colours. It's common to have long holdable cracks in nature, which are hard to find in gyms. There is also "slab climbing" (60° walls with almost invisible holds), which you cannot find in gyms.
  • Depending on how many natural rocks you have, on-sight climbing may be either very hard or very easy to find. For example, when I go climbing to my usual crag(s), if I want to climb a route I have never tried, it has to be much harder than I am able to (because I have tried almost all routes there already) - but when I go to a new place, I climb just new routes. This is unlike indoor climbing, where they are constantly building new routes.
  • Route-finding may be tricky in nature - depends on the site.

Are the difficulties comparable to indoor scaling systems?

Regarding grades:

The idea is to have the grades for indoor and outdoor climbing as equal as possible; however, it's not really possible... For the reasons you mentioned (variable weather conditions; unusual bolting). Here are some more ideas on what differences you can find:

  • Some rock-climbing sites have a sort of "snobby" "elitist" culture: they insist that in their site "F6a is hard, and stop complaining", while others say that "F7a should be doable, otherwise no one will come here".
  • You may be individually well-suited for a particular type of rock, but ill-suited for another (overhangs/vertical walls).

So a route in outdoor climbing may be easier or harder then an indoor route of the same grade.

  • Thanks, this is the kind of overview informations I was looking for. With pure length of route I also meant the requirement for the endurance/strength for the climber. Therefore maybe an indoor 6 with 20m length isn't comparable to an outdoor 6 with 100m length.
    – Wills
    Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 5:42
  • Good answer, covers all the points asked, I've clarified the answers to each individual question, how that's ok.
    – user2766
    Commented Apr 28, 2014 at 11:53

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