Flagging Climbing Technique: Why and How to Do It

By: Derek Vitiello | Last Updated on December 22, 2023
Discover the essentials of the flagging climbing technique. Learn about outside, back, and inside flags to improve balance, efficiency, and safety.

You know, I’ve often thought of rock climbing as a dance with the rock face. Every move, every twist, every foot placement is a calculated step, much like the choreography of a dance routine. And in this intricate dance, there’s one move that I’ve always found fascinating – flagging. It’s a technique that, when done right, can transform a seemingly impossible move into a graceful and efficient progression up the wall. Your feet, not just your hands, hold the secret to fluidity.

Over the years, from boulders in Fontainebleau to sheer cliffs in Yosemite, flagging has been a staple in my climbing toolbox. Not just a way to navigate tricky sequences but an art form that marries balance with precision. Whether you’re just starting out or have years of routes under your belt, mastering the art of flagging will bring a new level of grace, efficiency, and control to your climbs. So, grab your chalk bag and let’s embark on this journey together.

Types of Flags

Depending on the situation and the specific demands of the route, you’ll want to choose from one of three main types of flags: the outside flag, the back flag, and the inside flag. Each of these variations offers its own advantages and applications, and understanding when to deploy each can elevate your climbing game in profound ways.

Outside Flag (aka Side Flag)

Let’s start with the outside flag, the bread and butter of the flagging world. This technique is often the first type of flag that climbers learn, and for good reason—it’s straightforward and effective. Imagine you’re on a route and you have a handhold and a foothold that are more or less aligned on the same vertical plane, but you’re using opposite foot and hand. For example, you are using your left hand on a handhold and your right foot on a foothold. In this case, your side flagging leg will be your left leg and left foot, or the one foot that isn’t settled on a foothold.

You’ll use it to shift your center of gravity and maintain balance as you reach for the next hold. You essentially “flag” or extend your other foot and leg out to the side, using it almost like a counterweight. This keeps your body close to the wall, enhancing stability and reducing the load on your arms.

One of the key advantages of the outside flag is its simplicity; it’s relatively easy to execute but provides significant benefits in weight distribution and balance. New climbers often underestimate the importance of weight distribution, but once you’ve got a good grasp of it—thanks in part to techniques like the outside flag—it can significantly improve your efficiency and endurance on the wall.

I’ve personally found the outside flag invaluable in situations that require quick decision-making and seamless movement, from bouldering problems to big wall challenges. It’s a fundamental tool that can make your dance with the rock face more eloquent and less strenuous.

Back Flag (aka Rear Flagging)

Next up is the back flag (aka rear flag), a technique that’s a bit less common but has a lot of specialized applications. Unlike the outside flag, where you’re working with holds on opposite sides of your body, the back flag involves using the same side hand and foot holds. For instance, if your right hand and right leg are engaged on holds, your left foot becomes the free leg or flagging leg. The key here is that your flagging leg crosses behind your standing leg, but your hips remain square to the wall during this move, providing a unique form to achieve balance and stabilization. This move helps you move in the opposite direction of your holds – in this example, we want to move towards our left side but the holds are on our right side.

The back flag shines in situations where you need to make a precise, calculated move, and your hand and foot holds on one side of your body are particularly advantageous. It’s like having a stabilizing tail that allows you to pivot or reach with finesse. Square hips during a back flag facilitate greater control and can significantly reduce barn-dooring, that frustrating phenomenon where your body swings away from the wall like a door on a hinge.

While the back flag might take a little more practice to master compared to the outside flag, once you get the hang of it, you’ll find it indispensable for complex routes. I’ve found it particularly useful on overhung routes and intricate bouldering problems where control and precision are paramount. So if you’re looking to diversify your skill set and tackle more challenging climbs, the back flag is a technique you’ll definitely want to add to your arsenal.

Inside Flag

Finally, let’s talk about the inside flag, the least common but perhaps most intriguing of the three. This technique is somewhat of an enigma in the climbing world; it’s rarely needed, but when the situation calls for it, there’s no better alternative. Like the back flag, the inside flag is executed with holds on the same side of your body. For example, if your right hand and right foot are on holds, your left leg and left foot becomes the flagging foot. What sets it apart is the body position of the hips. Rather than keeping them square, you’ll twist your hip inward so that your flagging leg—your left leg in this case—flags on the inside, either next to or just in front of your planted foot.

The inside flag tends to be used in very specific scenarios. It shines brightest when your foothold is slightly ahead of your handhold, or when both are in the same vertical plane but the usual outside or back flag just won’t do. I’ve seen it employed most often on starting or finishing holds, where the subtle adjustment of your body’s balance can make the difference between a clean start or finish and a frustrating slip.

Because of its rarity, this flagging technique might not be at the top of your list of climbing techniques to master. However, understanding how and when to use it can make you a more adaptable and thoughtful climber. I’ve come across just a handful of situations where this flag was the best—or only—option, but in those moments, I was grateful to have this specialized move in my climbing toolbox. Sometimes, it’s the least common techniques that prove most memorable.

This is by far my favorite YouTube video explaining the different kinds of flags and when to use them:

Why Flagging Technique is Important

If you’ve been climbing for any amount of time, you’ve likely realized that brute strength can only get you so far. Sure, a strong grip and powerful arms are important, but climbing is a whole-body endeavor that requires finesse, balance, and technique. That’s where flagging comes in. This family of climbing techniques allows you to better distribute your weight, reduce muscle fatigue, and reach those holds that might otherwise seem just out of grasp. I can’t overstate how critical these skills have been throughout my climbing journey.

Here’s why using a flagging foot is so important:

  1. Balance: Flagging helps climbers stay balanced on tough routes.
  2. Center of Gravity: By shifting their center of gravity close to the wall, climbers become more stable.
  3. Conserving Energy: With proper flagging, climbers use less energy.
  4. Reaching Holds: By utilizing flagging techniques, climbers can easily grab and grip their holds.
  5. Barn Doors: Flagging also prevents barn door situations, where a climber swings away from the wall due to uneven weight distribution.

Beyond the physical advantages, flagging also helps you mentally map out your route more efficiently. As you gain experience, you’ll begin to identify potential flagging opportunities even before you leave the ground. This route-reading ability not only makes you a safer climber, but it also lets you tackle more complex problems with confidence. I’ve been in countless situations where correctly identifying the best flagging opportunity made the difference between a clean ascent and a potential fall.

So, investing time in mastering the different types of flags is more than just a box to tick off on your climbing skillset checklist. It’s a key component that enriches your understanding of the sport, enhances your performance, and even increases your safety margins. I highly recommend giving each type of flag the practice it deserves; your climbing repertoire will be far better for it.

Common Flagging Mistakes to Avoid

As with any technique, flagging comes with its own set of pitfalls that can compromise its effectiveness and even jeopardize your safety. One common mistake I’ve observed, especially among newer climbers, is overcommitting to the flag. This means putting so much weight onto the flagging foot that when you try to move, you find yourself awkwardly stuck or off-balance. The point of flagging is to enhance your balance, not hinder your next move. A flagging position should be a short and momentary move that helps you transition smoothly from one hold to the next, not a posture you get locked into.

Another mistake is poorly-timed flagging. The best flag in the wrong place or at the wrong time is not only useless but potentially risky. If you flag too early or too late in your sequence of moves, you could find yourself overreaching or even losing your grip. Timing, as I’ve discovered in countless climbs, is crucial for effective flagging. It’s not just about knowing how to flag; it’s about knowing when to flag.

Finally, neglecting to engage your core is a missed opportunity for maximizing the benefits of flagging. Your core is the powerhouse that controls your body’s center of gravity. When flagging, a strong and engaged core can help with maintaining balance and better control, particularly during complex or overhung routes. So while your limbs are doing the flagging, make sure your core is actively involved in the process. Believe me, integrating these aspects can make a world of difference in the execution and success of your flagging techniques.

Conclusion

Flagging is far more than just a trick to pull out of your bag; it’s an essential skill that, when mastered, can significantly up your climbing game. Each technique offers its own unique advantages tailored to different situations on the rock or wall. As you progress in your climbing journey, these moves can shift from being mere options to indispensable tools that make the difference between an average climb and a truly stellar performance.

By understanding the nuances of each flagging type and avoiding common mistakes, you set the stage for greater control, better weight distribution, and ultimately, a safer climb. And let’s face it, the safer and more efficient you are, the more you can push your boundaries and tackle greater challenges. That’s what climbing is all about, isn’t it? The constant quest to better ourselves, to reach new heights—literally and metaphorically.

So next time you’re gearing up for a climb, whether it’s a casual day at the gym or a big expedition, take a moment to consider where flagging could fit into your strategy. With a little practice and a lot of focus, you’ll soon find that these techniques become second nature, an integrated part of your climbing vocabulary. And in the vast and wonderful language of climbing, every word—or in this case, every move—counts

FAQ’s

Why should I use flagging climbing technique?

Flagging helps with weight distribution, balance, and efficient movement, allowing you to climb more effectively and safely. It’s especially useful for tricky holds or complex routes, giving you the control you need to move with precision. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced climber, mastering flagging techniques will undoubtedly elevate your climbing game.

What are the different types of flag in climbing?

There are three main types of flagging techniques: the outside flag (aka side flag), the back flag (or rear flag), and the inside flag. The outside flag is the most common and involves using opposite hand and foot holds that are on the same vertical plane. The back flag and rear flag use the same side hand and foot and is performed with your hips square to the wall. The inside flag is the least common and requires a hip twist, making it useful for specific, niche scenarios.

How does flagging help in rock climbing?

Flagging helps primarily by improving your balance and weight distribution. By extending a leg to act as a counterweight, you minimize the tendency to “barn-door” or swing out from the wall, allowing for more stable and controlled movements. This efficiency conserves your energy, enabling you to climb longer and reduce muscle fatigue. Flagging also opens up opportunities for reaching farther holds by adjusting your center of gravity.

How do I perform a flagging climb?

Executing a flag involves a few steps. First, identify the holds you’ll be using for your hand and foot, as well as where your flagging leg will go. Then, shift your weight onto the foot that will remain on the hold. Extend your other leg or flagging leg in the direction required for the specific type of flag you’re using—either out to the side for an outside flag, behind for a back flag, or inwards for an inside flag. Keep your core engaged for stability and control. Once you’re balanced, you can reach for your next hold. Each flagging technique has its own nuances, so practice is key for mastery.

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About The Author

Derek, Co-Founder at Know Nothing Nomads

My goal with my writing and Know Nothing Nomads as a whole is to share my passions of hiking, camping, and a love of the outdoors with our readers.

Making the difficult and uncertain feel more approachable to people that might not know enough to feel comfortable taking their first steps into the wilderness is a driving factor for me.

When I'm not writing you can find me on a trail, in a forest, or next to a river with hiking shoes on my feet and a fly rod somewhere close by.

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