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How to Transition from Indoor to Outdoor Climbing

2/27/18 by Emma Walker

Despite its history as a fringe sport, rock climbing has become much more mainstream over the last decade. It’s become so popular that we’ll see climbing featured in the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo for the first time ever, and the Outdoor Foundation estimates that more than 2 million Americans are into some form of climbing.

And many of these climbers were introduced to the sport indoors. In 2017, Climbing Business Journal reported that there were more than 400 commercial climbing gyms across the United States, which means that more people than ever have the opportunity to experience the joys of climbing.

The gym is a great place to start and pick up a lot of important skills: how to spot, top-rope, and lead belay, how to clip quickdraws, and the basic movements of climbing. But countless headlines from the last few years of the American Alpine Club’s annual publication, Accidents in North American Climbing, point at one thing: gym climbers need more experience and guidance before going outside. Just because you are strong enough to climb outside, doesn’t mean you have the outdoor skills necessary for cragging or multi-pitch climbing.

That’s part of the reason legendary boulderer and Marmot athlete Abbey Smith teaches an annual women’s clinic in Bishop on moving your bouldering from the gym to the great outdoors.

"Indoor and outdoor climbing are two different animals, but they can absolutely support each other," she explains. There are a few basic rules Smith says to keep in mind no matter what kind of climbing you’re doing outside.

One major rule: "Always scout the way down," she says. “Whether you’re downclimbing a boulder or need to find a walk-off or rappel anchor, know that before you head up!”

Here are a few more of Smith’s best tips.

Find a Mentor

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Heading out with an experienced outdoor climber is the best way to learn how to be safe on real rock. Marmot / ZACH DOLEAC

"When I first started climbing outside, it was with mentors. There were some guidebooks, but no online resources," Smith remembers. “That’s one thing that’s been lost in the boom of indoor climbing.”

Climbing mentors not only share rope management, anchor building, and important communication skills with newbies, they can also share the history of an area, remind mentees how to treat the environment, and offer rites of passage.

"You might go outside and be set on climbing a certain grade," Smith says, “But if you’re new, you might overlook an uber-classic [route] where you can learn techniques and classics that are really valuable to the area.”

A more experienced climber can also relay important etiquette information. "A lot of people try to bring the gym outside," says Smith, “but when you walk up to a climb, really assess the situation and approach with respect.” This means not rolling up to the crag with music blaring and dogs running amok, but checking out the scene before deciding if music is appropriate or whether well-behaved pups are okay off-leash.

Not sure where to begin? Many gyms have a bulletin board where climbers post notes looking for outdoor partners. Try looking there, or check out online climbing forums like Mountain Project. If all else fails, do it the old-fashioned way: by walking right up to an experienced climber at the gym and asking for some pointers. (Pro tip: Offer to belay them at the gym sometime first.)

Get the Gear

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You’ll need to bring much more gear when climbing outside. Marmot / ZACH DOLEAC

"Before you even leave the house, make sure you have the right kit," Smith recommends. “It’s not just what you’d bring to the gym.” For a gym workout, climbers need shoes, a chalk bag, and, for roped climbing, a harness and belay device with a locking carabiner.

For outdoor climbing, though, you’ll need some additional gear. If you’re headed out to boulder, for example, your group will need some crash pads, since your landing won’t be protected by padded gym floors. Climbing on ropes? You’ll need plenty of quickdraws if you’re sport climbing or an assortment of pro and anchor-building materials for trad.

This is a great topic to check in with a more experienced climber about. They’ll let you know what gear you absolutely need to purchase and what you might be able to safely borrow.

"You need to make sure you’ve got the right layers, too," says Smith. “The weather can change quickly!” The need to pack extra clothing increases based on your commitment: Are you just walking a hundred yards to the crag, or is it a longer approach? Are you headed to boulder for a few hours or climbing a multi-pitch route that will likely take your party until dark? The longer you know you’ll be out, the better prepared you need to be.

Nutrition and Hydration

"People really blow it on their snacks," Smith laughs. It’s true. Unlike at the climbing gym, where you’ll likely only be for an hour or two, an all-day climbing outing requires nutrition (and there’s no drinking fountain to fill up, so water bottles are not optional).

"Know your eating habits," she recommends. “Know your energy levels. Know what you perform well on, and bring that.”

Don’t Forget a Med Kit

A medical kit doesn’t add much extra weight to your pack, but it’s something you don’t want to be caught without when you need it. "Most people don’t bring med kits outdoors," Smith says, “But inevitably, someone’s going to get hurt. Knowing what to do will save lives.”

Buy an inexpensive med kit from your local outdoor retailer, or put together your own with the basics: ibuprofen, an Ace bandage, some band-aids and alcohol wipes. As you start spending more time in remote places, consider taking a Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder course. It’ll make you a very desirable climbing partner.

Get Involved

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Pro climber Abbey Smith has years of experience in mentoring new climbers on getting outside. Photo courtesy of Abbey Smith

Think it’s fun to show up at the gym and swap beta with familiar faces? Wait until you see what the outdoor climbing community is like. Once you start climbing at a local crag, show up to clean-up days, get involved with your local Access Fund initiatives, and start getting to know the folks who help take care of your favorite climbs.

"Outdoor climbing is really a meditative sport," says Smith. “You can really choose your own adventure in a lot of ways. When you’re outdoors there are infinite possibilities. Be open to that problem solving!”

Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.