You’ve been climbing inside and are pulling hard on the plastic, but now you’re looking for a new challenge: You want to get out to real rock. There are significant differences between the controlled environment of the climbing gym and the dynamic nature of the outdoors. In order to be safe and have fun (of course), there are key skills you need to know before you make a successful transition.

1. Pay Attention!

Climbing gyms were originally designed to help climbers master their technique without concerns for weather, approach logistics, or other impediments which can provide a false sense of security and require you to pay much closer attention once you head outside.

Watch out for environmental factors like rock falls, uneven surfaces to belay from, wet holds, slippery mud, people and nature to distract you (hello, mosquitoes!), and much more. Of course, weather will play a factor as well, from humidity to rain to blazing sun (which can lead to say, sweat seeping into your eyes). Communicating these factors with your partner becomes more important.

A common mistake for experienced and inexpereined climbers alike also comes from not double-checking their system, which includes whether or not harnesses and gear are on correctly, belay devices are set up correctly, knots are right, anchors are double-checked, and more.


2. Proper Belaying Technique

Belaying takes on particular importance outdoors for a variety of factors.

Climbers indoors and out use what is called a dynamic rope, which means it stretches under a load and absorbs some of the impact of a fall. Gym ropes typically have less elongation, or less stretch, so the climber will not fall as far. As a belayer, it is important to understand this variable because more stretch means a longer fall, and a higher likelihood of a climber hitting the ground or other obstacle, i.e., if they fall from an early bolt or from above a ledge. This is a key factor for belaying a lead climber, where recognizing how much slack in the system is imperative. For a top-rope belayer, know that your climber will fall slightly further than they would in the gym.

3. Knots

While your gym may have required you to learn and tie-in with a figure-8 knot, many allow climbers to just clip into the end of the rope with a carabiner, which means a figure-8 (the standard tie-in knot for climbers) and several other knots are critical knowledge before heading outside. Aside from the figure-8, a barrel knot or another stopper knot are important to make sure the unused end of a rope never slides through a belay device. Other knots like the clove hitch, bowline, water knot, prusik hitch, and more are important to know for anchor building, emergency situations, or other utilities.


4. Route Finding

In the gym, your route is marked by brightly colored plastic pieces that are easy to spot. That’s not the case outside. The challenge lies in choosing the proper hand holds and foot placements from a near limitless set of options, which often slows down climbers as they have to work out their moves. Choosing the wrong holds can make the route feel several grades harder.

Cheyenne Chaffee, an AMGA certified rock climbing guide, calls this “micro route-finding,” or the ability to read your next moves while climbing, close up and fatigued. He says it is one of the most challenging aspects for beginner outdoor climbers to get used to.

Study the guidebook for the route you want to climb and match the prescribed route to what you see on the rock face. How might that move go? Where is the bolt placed and what hold might you clip in from? Identify key reference points and look for rest spots as well as the crux.

5. Footwork

There is incredible diversity of terrain outside and it can take some time to learn what actually constitutes a foot hold. Microchips, smearing, drop knees and flagging are all skills you need to learn in order to make your way up the rock.

Chaffee encourages you to practice traversing on the lower parts of the crags or on boulders to get a feel for the precision needed for small foot placements.

6. Endurance

Another key difference is the need for physical (and mental) endurance. It is common for outdoor routes to take 15 minutes or more to climb (good climbers can scale routes so large they take days) because route-finding and proper body positioning can take longer to figure out. Not to mention, the walls outside can just be taller than they are inside!

There are also many minute muscles in your feet and hands that may tire faster than they would indoors where they are less likely to be used. Be forewarned, your core is going to get a workout as you will find yourself in more varied positions compared to indoor route setting.

Chaffee suggests preparing by doing laps on a moderately graded route indoors, with the goal of seeing how long you can stay on the wall. Aim to climb continuously for 15 minutes to get used to a typical outdoor route.


7. How to Set and Clean a Top-Rope Anchor

Outdoor climbs don’t come with ropes pre-installed, so you’ll need to learn how to choose anchor points and set up your top-rope on your own. It is important to install your own top-rope anchor in order to minimize wear and extend the life of the existing hardware attached to the wall. Common systems include using quickdraws (if there are bolts or hangars ready to use), or using lengths of slings or static chord to lengthen the system or anchor off trees of other natural features.

Anchors are a highly customizable, technical, and critical piece of climbing, so it’s best to learn how to use them safely with an expert like the guides at EMS Schools who can teach you everything you need to know about anchors and the technical aspects of outdoor climbing, before you step out of the gym on your own.

8. Risk Management

Outdoor climbing is far less controlled than it is inside. Without gym employees to check on gear and make sure it’s in good shape, that falls to climbers. There are all sorts of precautionary measures you should consider before even attempting a climb:

  • Identify a compromised rope: When you flake your rope, check for softspots and visible signs of wear. If the sheathing is cut through that’s a serious red flag.
  • Evaluate anchors: Is the anchor rusted or loose? Can you swivel the anchor bolt around? Weigh the bolts before loading them with your weight. If they seem unsafe, don’t use them.
  • Reading the guide: Learn to evaluate what to expect on a route. Is the route new and prone to having rocks pull off? How are you getting down? Is it a walk off? How much sun does the route get? Is it prone to being wet?
  • Nutrition and hydration: Diminished attention can be caused by dehydration or low blood sugar levels. Stay sharp by packing tasty sustenance.  

9. Bouldering Safety

“I know more people who have been hurt bouldering than on a rope,” Chaffee says.

In the gym you have a uniform landing. Outside you have to place pads and spotting needs to be much more dynamic and aggressive. Take note: Where are the hazards? Where are the hard moves? Where is someone likely to fall?

As a spotter, you are not trying to catch a climber, rather you are attempting to direct their hips, and to stop their head and neck from smacking on something hard. With bouldering you always hit the ground.


10. Ethics

Access to climbing areas has become an increasing tension and challenge as the sport has increased in popularity. According to the Access Fund, 1 in 5 climbing areas in the United States are threatened. Crags are often located on private land with easements, at a National Park, or on Forest Service property, and Howard Sebold, Metro NY Section Chair of the American Alpine Club (AAC), warns, “It doesn’t take a whole lot to get an entire crag shut down.”

It is the very popularity of the sport that is leading to some of the gravest challenges. “In many cases crags are becoming loved to death,” Sebold says, whether from trail degradation, improper waste management, or even illegal parking which causes friction with the local municipalities or private landowners.

When you go outdoors, be sure to abide by the Leave No Trace principles, which are best practices to follow to keep the land you love protected for everyone’s enjoyment. The Seven Principles cover topics from how to minimize human-impact to respecting fellow visitors. You can read the full list here.

Beyond this, there are basic “good neighbor” guidelines to follow specific to climbing, such as not monopolizing routes in an area, being respectful of fellow climbers, and donating to crag maintenance efforts to further support preservation efforts.