The first time I went to a rock climbing gym as an adult, I felt like a visitor from another planet. As I watched the instructor—who was teaching me and a group of other fitness editors proper rope technique—tie a complicated knot and loop it around their harness in one effortless motion, I was acutely aware that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. The one thing I assumed I could figure out was how to put on my harness—after all, you step into it like a pair of pants—but it turned out I was wearing it backward, which I didn’t realize until a different instructor noticed and gently pointed out my error. Any excitement I felt about trying a new sport was completely overshadowed by the fact that I was clearly and totally unprepared for a situation that seemed very risky.
Fast forward about two years, and I go to the climbing gym about once a week. I no longer spend five minutes sweating and quadruple-checking that my harness is tight enough. But if you’re thinking of trying indoor climbing, know that it’s very natural to be intimidated at first. Any experienced climber has been there too.
Below, you’ll find a ton of info about what you’ll probably see and hear in the gym your first time, which will (hopefully) make it a bit easier to get outside your comfort zone and up the wall. And yes, your forearms and hands are going to be sore in places you didn’t even know existed. It happens.
Before you go
There are really just two important things to keep in mind before your first climb, and they’re both super practical. One: Wear comfortable clothes you can really move in. You’re going to be stretching your limbs every which way, which is a thing you can’t really do in jeans. Two: Make sure your nails are trimmed. You don’t need to have super short nails to climb, but I’ve found that, as someone who has longer nails, keeping them trimmed down makes it easier to grip with my fingertips and also helps me not worry that I’m going to tear off a whole nail accidentally. Also, climbing is a great way to ruin a manicure, so don’t go right after you’ve had one.
When you get there
The climbing gyms I’ve been to have always been pretty casual, and anyone who climbs will tell you how supportive and laid-back climbers are; it’s a community that’s known for being chill and welcoming—even though it can feel like you’re walking into a locals bar where everyone knows each other but you the first time you go. “Everyone’s here to have a good time, and no one’s looking down on anyone else. We’re all here to help everyone out in their own goals—it’s not a competitive sport where you’re trying to beat other people, and it’s about camaraderie,” Jacob Leonard, general manager at Riverfront Rock Gym in Wenatchee, Washington, tells SELF. “Just come in and have fun.”
Most climbing gyms offer day passes and will give you a quick orientation so you know where everything is in the gym. You may then choose to do an intro session with a staff member, where they’ll belay you—control/anchor the rope from the ground while you climb—and help you get comfortable. If you’re going with an experienced friend who is belay-certified (you get certified by taking a class and passing a test), you may also choose to just hop right on the wall and have them help you. Any of these options are fine, and you should choose the one that makes you feel most comfortable. For most people, that’s probably getting a little professional help.
Typically, climbing gyms have both rope climbing and bouldering. Bouldering basically just means climbing on much shorter walls with denser crash pads below and requires only shoes, no harness; you can do it completely solo, so you might want to hop on the wall and give it a try when you first get there. It can help you get a feel for the handholds and how your toes really can grip onto the holds if you trust them.
When you go climbing for the first time, you’ll rent a harness and shoes. You may also get a chalk bag. Most harnesses are similar across the board, Mickey Ashmont, head coach at Gravity Vault Hoboken, tells SELF. “There’s going to be a waist loop and two leg loops, and you basically stand in the leg loops kind of just like putting on pants,” he explains. Then you’ll pull the strap around your waist to tighten it. There will also be a loop on the front of the harness—that’s where the belay attaches, so make sure that you put the harness on so it’s in front. The harness should sit just above your hips. It takes some getting used to and does feel like a diaper at first, but you’ll be walking around normally and forget you’re even wearing it in no time.
Perhaps weirder than the feeling of wearing a harness is the feeling of slipping into climbing shoes for the first time. They’re going to feel like they’re too small, by maybe a half size or so. They are meant to be snug; the idea is that the less shoe you have on your foot, the better you can feel the wall as you climb, which translates to getting a better grip on the holds. They should be mildly uncomfortable, but not painful, says Ashmont.
Climbing shoes are typically worn sans socks, which, IMO, is a little disturbing if you’re renting from the gym. (Honestly, how many feet have been in and sweat in those shoes? Shudder.) Luckily, Ashmont says it’s totally cool to wear socks with climbing shoes when you’re first starting. (Once you’re doing more advanced climbs with tinier footholds, the foot-to-shoe contact matters a lot more, so you’ll want to skip socks, but at that point you might just invest in your own shoes anyway.) Ashmont adds that a lot of people ask if they can just wear their sneakers—and the answer is: nah, not really. Climbing shoes make a difference, so if you want to increase your chances of getting up the wall, use the rentals.
And a quick note about chalk: It should be your friend. Its purpose is to remove moisture from your hands, says Ashmont, and it can really help you grip the handholds. A lot of people underutilize it, but you can also use too much, so aim to just have a thin layer of white on your hand as you climb.
The ropes system
Ropes deserve their own section because you have to trust them to feel comfortable climbing. And I’ll be totally honest here: It takes some time to trust the system. But once you do, getting up on the wall is a million times less scary.
“Our facility and other high-volume gyms have most of our top rope stations set up so there’s really not a lot of work needed on your part in terms of setting the belay device up properly,” TJ Ciotti, director of climbing at The Cliffs, tells SELF. But in my experience, it really puts your mind at ease to learn that the rope setup makes it so that you basically cannot fall.
As I mentioned before, bouldering is when you climb up and around a rock wall without any kind of rope. There are crash pads under you, and you’re typically not going very high. But when you want to top rope—that is, climb high while using a system of ropes to keep you from falling—you need to be belayed. When someone is belaying you, it just means that they’re on the ground as you climb, and the rope that’s attached to your harness passes through an anchor on the wall and clips into the belayer’s harness. The belayer’s job is to take up (and also let out) slack in the rope so that if at any time the climber falls, they fall only a short distance. These ropes systems are engineered to have a decent amount of friction so that even if the belayer isn’t doing a perfect job, the climber is still safe.
Once belayer and climber are tied in safely and have checked each other’s work, climbing instructors suggest going up the wall just a few feet and then letting go and so you can experience how the rope can hold you. Doing this a few times will help you get a feel for how the system works and make it easier to trust it. I highly recommend doing this. I actually do it every single time I go to the gym before my first climb just to remind myself of how it feels to “fall.”
Another option is to use an auto-belay when you’re first getting started. An auto-belay is a device that’s anchored to the top of the wall and automatically takes up slack as you climb. When you’re ready to come down, the device catches you and lowers you slowly—no second person needed. Leonard says they start a lot of beginners on these at Riverfront Rock Gym. It’s a good way to focus on simply climbing without worrying about whether a belayer is doing their job right. You should also test falling with the auto belay so you can get a feel for it. Unlike when a person is belaying you, the auto belay sort of works like a seat belt: It feels like the rope won’t catch you at first, but when you actually put your weight into it, it tightens up and keeps you from falling.
Climbers and belayers have their own little language—basically a bunch of calls and responses to make sure all safety measures have been taken before a climb starts, and it’s secretly one of my favorite parts about climbing. The commands just sound so official (especially if you say them with real gusto), which feels out of place in such a casual setting…and it makes me giggle every time. But they do serve an important purpose! “Communication is key. I really like stressing that,” says Leonard. “Knowing what the other person is going to do is kind of a backstop in making sure everyone has a good time and nothing bad is going to happen. Lack of communication is how a lot of accidents do occur.” Gyms can be loud, and there are other climbers potentially right next to you, so it’s extremely important to have good communication and establish a plan with your partner before anyone gets off the ground.
Climbing commands are pretty standard across all rock gyms, so you’ll likely hear (and be taught in any beginner class) this exchange that happens before the climb begins:
Climber: “On belay?” – This is the climber asking the belayer to confirm that they are hooked into the belay system properly.
Belayer: “Belay on.” – The belayer will double-check the carabiner to make sure it is locked in place before saying this.
Climber: “Climbing.” – This means the climber is about to start climbing.
Belayer: “Climb on!” – This is the belayer confirming that they are ready for the climber to begin.
Other commands you may learn:
Climber: “Slack!” – The climber needs more rope to move comfortably.
Climber: “Up rope!” – There’s extra slack in the rope and the climber wants the belayer to take it in so the rope is taught.
Climber: “Take!” – The climber is ready to be lowered down off the wall, so the belayer should take the climber’s weight on the rope.
This is not a complete list of the commands used in climbing, but a lot of the other ones won’t really be needed in the gym and are more for outdoor climbing.
One of the coolest things about climbing is that unlike other sports or activities where you have to really learn a movement pattern before you can do it, the movement is pretty intuitive; you look at a wall with a bunch handholds, and your body just knows what you need to do to get to the top. If you’ve ever climbed anything before, you’ll have the basic motion down.
The thing that most people need to be reminded of, though, is to use their legs. “A lot of people think climbing is all in the arms, but I would say it’s actually all in your feet,” says Leonard. He suggests that instead of looking at your hands and planning your next move based on them, focus more on your feet and think about how to walk yourself up the wall. “That way, you’re using your leg muscles instead of trying to do pull-up after pull-up,” he says. That’s going to make climbing a lot easier.
Ashmont notes that when you do an initial session with an instructor, you’ll learn some really helpful form tips and be able to learn IRL what they feel like. A few things he says to keep in mind: “Keeping your hips over your feet as much as possible is very helpful.” Basically, keeping your center of gravity in the middle of your body and close to the wall will help you stay strong and in control of your movements. He also suggests keeping your arms as straight as possible when you don’t need to actively use them, to reduce fatigue in your forearms.
Speaking of forearm fatigue…it’s inevitable. “Oftentimes people who climb for the first time or two wind up sore, with body parts hurting that they never used before,” Ciotti says. The reality is that unless you play another sport that requires a lot of grip and forearm strength, your body is not used to using these muscles so heavily. Your fingers, hands, and forearms are going to get tired really quickly. What I always experience is that I have to call it quits on climbing way before my legs and back get tired, because my hands and forearms have reached their limit. That’s totally normal—and Ashmont reassures that you’ll notice improvement week after week.
“Climbing twice a week is ideal if you’re really trying to see some quick improvement over the first couple of months,” he says. “But even climbing once a week you will see an increase in form, endurance, and strength.”
And the best part, I think? Once you just go for your first session or two and learn how to climb safely, it’s a sport you can do totally on your own terms. You don’t need to rely on staff members at the gym throughout the rest of the process, Ciotti says. So you can go with a friend, or go solo and sign up to be paired with a partner at the gym (many climbing gyms have a belay-partner sign-up sheet), and get right in the harness and up on the wall. Before you know it, you’ll stop overthinking (read: worrying about) every little thing and start feeling as at home in the climbing gym as an old pro.