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Rock Climbing : Articles : Introduction to Climbing : Start Here Part 2: The Essentials of Gear

Start Here Part 2: The Essentials of Gear

Submitted by hunna03 on 2007-09-17

Rating: 12345   Go Login to rate this article.   Votes: 31 | Comments: 22 | Views: 75201

by Clinton Andersen

If you missed the earlier article in this series, click here for Part 1.

        Before you continue to read further I want to preface this by saying that I too am a novice and therefore some of the stuff in my articles may be inaccurate or may be termed wrong. If this is the case please write me and tell me and I will fix it. Furthermore if you have any advice or have been in a similar situation such as myself then please add a comment so those reading will know that everybody share’s the same beginnings. I guarantee Chris Sharma made a fool of himself plenty of times when he first started… now look at the guy.

        The first time one looks at a picture of a rock climber or goes to the local gym the item that probably stands out the most is the shoes. Sure, we expect the harness and a helmet, the other two essential items in this article, but why are there special shoes? The answer, so I’ve learned, is a combination of both power and ‘stickiness’! I will tell you what to basically look for in a shoe and then explain why which will also reveal how power and ‘stickiness’ come into play.

The Shoes:

        As a beginner the one thing you need to realize is that your shoes are going to get trashed. You’re going to beat them up because you haven’t quite learned about the special soles and you’re using them a lot without much technique…. i.e. you’re falling and slipping all the time. When I shopped for my shoes I did a lot of research online. Then when I finally went into the greatest outdoor store of all time, REI, they had excellent guides on the different kinds of products, what they are used for, and what you should be looking for. What I wanted was one of the most expensive shoes because I wanted quality. Well, here’s what you should remember:

  1) Price DOES Matter – It matters because there is no need to spend a lot of money on your first pair of shoes so go cheap (I.E. $40 - $65).

  2) All-Day Comfort – When you progress and start climbing more technical climbs you will need more technical shoes, which will cost more money and be less comfortable (until you get used to them). But right now, while your feet are learning technique and getting used to the shoes, all you care about is a shoe that provides all day comfort.

  3) Shoe Size - When you first try on a shoe start half a size smaller then your current shoe size. Your feet should be nice and snug inside with no moving room. Your toes should be pushed together sideways, all your little toes pointing to your big toes, but they should NOT be curled up. They need to lay flat like they normally do… your toes that is. But by redirecting your toes into a sharper point the power from them is transferred much smoother and you are able to hold onto smaller bumps/ledges with your feet. Furthermore you do NOT need to start out with an arched shoe. You know how you have a natural arch in the bottom of your foot? Arched shoes over-exaggerate your natural arch and are used for fine and power work. .. basically technical climbing. If, when you try on the shoes, they meet that criteria and feel comfortable then go down half a size. If that feels comfortable then keep going down half sizes until you reach an uncomfortable level. Once you reach that level go up to the previous level where your shoes feel good. And yes, your toes should be touching the front of the shoe when your feet are in them. Basically these shoes are like a shrink wrap for your feet. When I tried mine on they made my size 13 clown feet look like pretty little ballerina feet… it was definitely weird.

  4) Synthetic vs. Leather – The only significant difference is that leather will stretch a little bit around your feet while synthetic will not. This really only matters if your trying to decide on that pair of shoes and it might be a close call but will be better if it stretches a little bit.

  5) Velcro vs. Tie – I bought shoes that you tie. As a beginner I do NOT recommend these and here’s why. When you’re getting use to your shoes, after climbing a route or two, you’re going to want to take them off to give your feet a chance to relax. It’s about 100 times harder to do if you have shoes that you tie. Every time I see a Velcro newbie takes theirs off then put theirs on in 1/20th the time it takes me I get upset. When you progress and you climb longer and want to be able to snug up your shoes a little better then go tie.

  6) Look Weird – When you try on your shoes they may feel fine when you stand up. But remember you are not going to be standing up when you’re climbing so put your shoes to the test. Hold onto a wall and stand on your tippy toes. How do they feel? Stand on the side of one foot. How does that feel? Remember that when you’re climbing you’ll use the tips of your toes a lot and you usually don’t have very much to hold onto. If your store has a little wall, or even a big wall, give it a shot. The staff is usually eager to help out.

  7) Breaking In – After you’ve finally bought your first pair of shoes the first thing you’ll want to do is to wear them around the house so your feet start getting use to them. I could only wear mine for 10 minutes the first time before the sides of my feet started to hurt. I figured, however, that I probably pulled the laces too tight because I don’t think blue feet are natural. But rock climbing shoes have ‘sticky’ soles. While they don’t actually feel sticky, like a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe, they do feel different and it’s that difference that helps you stick to the wall when you’re only hanging on by a big toe. However, this requires a breaking in warning. If you walk around the house in your tennis shoes and then you look at the bottom of your shoes you’re really not going to find anything on the soles. If you walk around the house in climbing shoes you’re going to see every single dirt and lint particle and rocks and candy and tiny little mounds of crap (which turn out to be dust mites all piled up on top of each other), and you could even possibly find your little brother or son or daughter. Trust me, I made that mistake (yes, my son is recovering well… thank you for asking). I took five steps on what I thought was a clean floor and to this day I still have not gotten everything off. So the morale of the story is to ensure that you’ve cleaned your floors really… really well.

  8) If you get nothing from this article then search the internet. The internet is a great place to do the necessary research, whether for shoes, or harnesses, or chalk bags, and many times it will have reviews and comments and things you judge a little better off of.

        That’s basically it for shoes! Not too complicated. Next we will focus on the other three gear essentials, a harness, a helmet, and a chalk bag, which are far easier to do.

The Harness:

        When you pick out a harness you are again looking for something not too expensive, I bought my excellent Singing Rock Rhythm Harness for $45. While you are in the store you can do what I did, struggle for 40 minutes trying to figure out how to put the thing on, or you can ask the professionals… by far the easier way. A general rule I’ve learned is that when ever you are putting something on, a harness or a rope, you always want 6 inches left over. If you try on a large harness and you only have 2 inches of the harness strap left over then you need to remember safety, not vanity, and go up to an extra-large harness. The most important aspect of buying a harness, however, is how it feels when you sit in it. If you walk into a store to buy a harness and they do not have a rope where you can attach yourself to and try out your harness then you need to leave. You have to realize that when you first start climbing you will probably be spending a lot of time ‘sitting’ in that harness so it needs to feel somewhat comfortable. The more technical a harness gets the skinnier the leg straps get and the more it cuts into you, and off your circulation. So try it before you buy it.

The Helmet:

        A helmet is a helmet. They all basically fit the same way and all have to meet certain standards. Some have foam interiors while others have straps and choosing between them is a matter of preference. When you try on a helmet I suggest making it snug, like you would if you were climbing, and then move your head up and down a couple of times, as this is the major motion being conducted when you climb. When you start climbing you shouldn’t be in any situation high enough where you need a helmet, however, a helmet has protected and saved many climbers and it won’t be long before you read an article or hear a climber tell you about that. When you start getting good and start taking bigger chances it only makes sense to wear it because you’re destined for a bigger fall and a greater chance for permanent head injury.

The Chalk Bag:

        Finally, a chalk bag, and of course chalk. This is just like the helmet and is a matter of preference. They are not too expensive, $15-25 bucks for most, so if you don’t like one it’s not too hard to replace. When you buy chalk loose chalk is easier to put on but if you’re climbing in the gym most climbing gyms do not allow loose chalk so you will have to opt for a chalk ball or something similar. The purpose of the chalk is basically to absorb the sweat from your hands and allow you to stick to the wall better. I’m not one for putting anything on my hands, like getting them muddy, and I thought chalk was going to be bad but you won’t notice it because the pain in your hands takes over.

        So there you have it. Your quick and easy guide to getting the gear you need to start climbing. Oh, you will also need to buy a belay device, which allows you to hold somebody on the rope just incase they fall, and a corresponding carabineer but do not buy these things until you take an Introduction to Climbing course because other people besides yourselves rely on these devices so understanding them is best left done for teaching in person. I just took an Intro to Climbing course and it lasted about 45 minutes and taught me proper belaying techniques and how to tie in as a climber. It’s a must/mandatory class for every climber and can be done at most gyms for around $25.

        As always, climb safe and if you’re looking for a partner or have any questions hit me up! Until next time…


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22 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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4 out of 5 stars Wonderful article, I liked it a lot more than your first. A large improvment on what is important and I only wish that this will be read before posting a new thread on beginners gear. My only suggestion would be a further analysis of shoe stretch. Hopefully this is told when trying on a shoe at the store, but just in case. (I would hate to buy Mocs only 1/2 size small, or even at a point were they just start to feel uncomfy.) And a huge THANK YOU for pointing out the importance of a belay class, as apposed to a gear recommendation.
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Just a couple observations...

Helmets also protect you from falling objects, so they are not just for experienced climbers.

The gym belay classes I have observed and taught do not so much "teach" proper belay techniques as they introduce the learner to proper belay techniques. The learner then is asked to demonstrate an adequate understanding of them under controlled conditions. Those conditions reflect the gym environment in which the climber will then practice the technique. Proper belay technique is acquired over time and with practice in a wide variety of situations not contemplated by gym conditions. I am sorry if I sound pedantic, but I think the comment goes to keeping with the "I'm a learner" position of your article. Good Job!
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Nice article. Two comments:

1) Shoes- generally speaking, velcro shoes are more performance oriented, and therefore not beginner shoes. So, chances are, your first shoes will be lace-ups.

2) When you test a harness, you should clip into the testing rope and the harness should keep you in a sitting position when you're hanging. if you fall backward, the harness does not fit properly. The folks that have testing rigs should know this.

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5 out of 5 stars Flint: Thank you. I am trying to write articles from my point of view as a beginner but also stuff that other's will find useful and interesting. If you can think of anything else let me know. I'll look further into shoe stretch and see if I can find some documentation on it.

Viciado: Great note on the helmets. Thank you. Also, I agree on your gym belay class assessment. Nothing substitutes for the real experience but it is the perfect introduction to somebody who's never done this before.

Vegasstradguy: Yea, I read that somewhere, I just didn't remember that, but there's got to be a couple out there made for beginners. I'll have to look into that because like I said, I have tie's and they are a pain just because they take so long to get on and take off (especially when my fingers are raw). Also, great note on harness testing.

Thank you all for your feedback. It helps me out a ton. If you think anything else should be addressed in the future let me know!
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regarding shoes: as a beginner, you shouldnt need to take your shoes off between climbs. shoes should be snug enough that there's no dead air, but not so snug as to be painful enough that you need to take them off. as you progress, you can make more personal choices about your shoe style. personally, i never take my shoes off once i put them on until i'm done climbing for the day- but then, i will not wear a painful shoe under any circumstances.
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I browsed this over, a nice reference for beginners. A couple things though, helmets definitely do NOT all fit the same, and most gyms IME teach basic belaying for free.
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One way I found to partially break in shoes is to sleep in them. After two hours I would wake up in pain, but my shoes fit much quicker because of it. Walking around in them can really wear on your shoes.
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EMS Makes good velco beginer shoes for 40 bucks. I went a different route with shoes. I planned on bouldering mainly so I got a pair a ridiculously tight katanas. THey gave me blisters and hurt like hell! But, in the end they got my feet conditioned in no time, calluses and all. I'm glad I did too, because I didn't have to go buy a brand new pair of 130 dollar shoes when I wanted to start sending harder stuff. Cool artical though! Thanks!
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4 out of 5 stars Good stuff. A note on shoes: My first pair were velcro 5.10's. I personally think that plenty of velcro-tie shoes work fine for yeah. Also,after climbing for a month or two, I started to realize that my shoes were too loose. When I had tried them on in the store,they felt much tighter than a normal shoe should fit so I assumed it was what I wanted. The problem is that most(all?) climbing shoes have a heel pocket(some are more exagerated than others) and as you climb-after 30-40 mins- your heel gets more and more "lodged" into the heel pocket and your toes are no longer smashed against the toe of the shoe. SO basically, when you try a shoe on in the store, it needs to be a bit painful in my opinion.
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4 out of 5 stars *woops,didn't finish there. It needs to be painful in the toe when you first try them on so that when you actually get climbing-as your heel adjusts itself- you still have plenty of grip in your toe.
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Great introduction article. Some very good advice IMO.

One thing that I found helpful when I bought my first shoes, was that the sales assistant said that it's like buying any performance footware - ski boots, ice skates etc - They never feel the way you think they are going to feel and, if you continue with climbing, you will probably buy a new pair of shoes within a few months once you learn that the shoes you have just bought are too tight/too loose/wrong shape/etc.

It is excellent advice to buy comfortable shoes to start with. You will still use them years later as an all day, multi-pitch alternative to your bouldering torture devices!
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I've just started climbing and both your article reassured me that I have much the same questions and insecurities that most newbies have - huge thanks!
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??ATC??,locking biner??..i think should be included...imho...or at least a mention of belay device
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I started with a pair of Five Ten lace ups and here is why I would recommend doing the same.
1. The rubber is so sticky- of course you will be further addicted to climbing
2. They are pretty inexpensive
3. You can fit them a little on the comfy side as a beginner, although you will still think they seem pretty tight at first. They will indeed stretch.
4.As you progress in your climbing and move on to more technical shoes, these will still be great for crackclimbing and long routes. I definitely still use mine years after purchasing them- super on moderates in Yosemite.

Something like the Five Ten Spire is perfect!
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Great Intro...I'm ready for your next installment. Can you recommend a book or two,which would help intro to the sport?
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Great Intro! :) Really helped me out. I appreciate your tips. Yes, a book recommendation for a beginner would be greatly appreciated :)

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Appreciate the view point of a "newbie" as I have ALL the same questions. I have the books - mags - shoes and harness, but no one else is interested around here. I decided to just do it and found extremely helpful experienced folks that where more than willing to bring me along. I will repay the kindness when I have enough experience to assist others.
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You spent twice as much time on chalk bags then you did on helmets.
"a helmet is a helmet"?!
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hey I'm just starting out ( as you were saying looking on the net for things to help me along ) and I found this article very helpfull.

Many Thanks, kyle =)
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I've read two articles today oriented towards beginner climbers written by novice climbers. I was looking for information to pass on to buddy who wants to start climbing, but why would I pass on novice information? I came to this site looking for expert info.
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dude this article is awesome for me man i just started climbing and this article helps me so much!!!!! all i have to do now is find a shop in my area that actually sells climbing equipment
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Thanks for these. Very helpful

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