Making The Transition From Indoor To Outdoor Climber

Making the transition from indoor to outdoor climber: These days, almost all of us, myself included, learn to climb in a gym. Sure, there are those lucky few who have a quirky alpinist uncle or purist friend who insists they only climb outside, but let’s be real here, gyms are convenient and fun, and they’re popping up everywhere. Then, at some point we overhear our fellow gym rats talking about their weekend climbing plans or see a beautiful video of Sasha climbing in Spain, and our curiosity is peaked.

Making The Transition From Indoor To Outdoor Climber

Well, it turns out there are a lot of things to consider when making the transition from gym-only climber to outdoor adventurist, so today I’ll give you a few tips on making the shift to the great outdoors. Keep in mind this list doesn’t cover everything you need to know to transition outdoors, nor is it a substitute for hands-on experience, but I hope it gets you thinking about your first steps toward climbing outside.

Winning at your own head game; must-read!

Find A Mentor

If you know an experienced outdoor climber badger until they’ll take you out and show you the basics. No matter how many books you read or videos you watch, nothing replaces real experience. You’ll inevitably run into things that you didn’t think of or get yourself into tricky situations, so having a knowledgeable climber to show you the ropes is key. If you don’t know any experienced outdoor climbers you can get set up with a guide through your local gym.


Missy getting a little help from our friend Keith.

Get A Guidebook

And study it. You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the climbing area. What are the approaches like? What grades are the climbs? What types of routes are you looking at (sport, trad, multi-pitch)? What kind of anchors will you lower off of? See below for more exciting info on anchors! But seriously, a good guidebook will help prepare you for your trip and let you know about the nuances of the climbing area. In addition to a guidebook for the area where you’re climbing, I highly recommend MountaineeringFreedom of the Hillsa thorough guide to all things mountaineering.

Learn To Set Up And Clean Anchors

Outside you’ll run into a variety of types of fixed anchors and routes that don’t even have anchors. Your guidebook will tell you what to expect, but even if there are fixed anchors you should still know how to build one. That mentor I mentioned above could help you with this, or you could do some research on the topic. With chain anchors, you’ll have to know how to remove your gear if you have to lead the climb (we call this “cleaning” your gear).

Again, getting hands-on experience from a mentor is the best way to learn, but for a refresher (or an intro) to the process check out this article. While we’re on the topic of anchors, remember not to run your rope through fixed anchors unless you’re cleaning your gear. Top roping on fixed anchors or even lowering off of them when you don’t need to (i.e. when you or a friend is going to take another lap) wears them down, making their lifetime shorter for other climbers. 

Learn To Lead

Sure, there are crags where you can set up top ropes without having to lead the climb (this involves hiking up to the top of the climb), but to have your pick of climbing areas you should learn to lead the climb. This also makes you more of a self-sufficient climber, not dependent upon someone else.


A collection of bad bolts from the Australian non-profit group Safer Cliffs.

Know Your Gear

For the gym we’re used to throwing shoes, chalk, a harness, a belay device, and maybe a rope into a backpack and we’re good for a few hours of climbing. Outside, you’ll need all of this plus some. If you’re sport climbing you’ll need a full rack of quickdraws, and if you have to set up anchors you’ll need a few slings and locking carabiners. Not only do you need to know your gear, but you need to know how to inspect existing gear. Any time you hang a quickdraw on a bolt or use fixed anchors check them for rust, wear, and stability. If it looks sketchy, don’t use it.

Ask Questions

In general, climbers are a friendly bunch and are psyched to share their knowledge with the newbs. Questions will inevitably come up: Where do I go to the bathroom? Are there access regulations during certain seasons? Has there been any loose rock that I should know about? Where can I grab a bite to eat after climbing? Sure, you can probably find these things out online, but in case you forgot to check Mountain Project or Yelp go ahead and ask your fellow climbers.

Keep It Clean

I mean this in both the literal and figurative sense. Quite literally, keep our crags clean and free of trash, including small bits of tape and corners of protein bar wrappers. It’s a big, beautiful world out there, so let’s keep it that way. And figuratively, climbing is a family-friendly activity so we all try to keep the expletives on the inside. For more on a crag, etiquette checks out our previous post from last spring on the 10 Crag Commandments.


Beware of rocky belay stances.

Be Aware Of The Elements

Climbing outside reminds us that the gym is really a big padded playground. It doesn’t rain in the gym or get dark, or cold. You don’t have to beware of falling rocks or make sure you have a good belay stance atop a pile of rubble. All this is just to say that you should be prepared. Bring tons of layers, a headlamp, and appropriate footwear for the approach and for those tricky belay stances. To protect that noggin of yours, you can invest in a helmet as well. Also, FOOD, how could I forget? Bring lots of snacks and water.

You’ll probably be out there all day and you’ll certainly work up an appetite with all the hiking and climbing.

Now, I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you. Don’t let all of the natural elements and new skills deter you – they simply add to the adventure! So, onward gym climbers, go explore the great outdoors, but remember to be safe and arm yourself with knowledge!

Climb on!

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