Indoor Climbing Gyms: A Beginner’s Guide

By: Ashley Vitiello | Last Updated on December 22, 2023

Indoor rock climbing gyms are gaining popularity year over year and the sport has been growing dramatically. Gyms seem to be popping up everywhere, and every decent-sized town or city seems to have at least one, if not multiple. If these climbing gyms have caught your attention, you’re not alone, and if you’re looking to try your hand at climbing, they’re the perfect place to start.

Before you visit your local indoor climbing gym as a beginner, we’re going to help you learn the ropes (pun intended). This includes understanding the different types of climbing, what gear you need (and what you don’t), what to wear, and much more.

Know that while it can be quite intimidating at first, most people find that climbing is easy to pick up and learn. The climbing community is one of the friendliest and most accepting we’ve ever encountered, and they want you to succeed just as much as you do. While there is such a thing as climbing competitions, at its heart climbing isn’t a competitive sport where you’re trying to beat other people. It’s more about camaraderie and doing your best – so be friendly, put yourself out there, be respectful, and you’ll be golden.

What is Indoor Climbing?

Indoor climbing is rock climbing on man-made walls that uses plastic features and climbing holds instead of natural rock. Climbing gyms started as homemade plywood setups in people’s garages and basements, but now modern climbing gyms have taken it to a whole new level, and many include training facilities like a weight room, yoga studio, and more.

Just like outdoor climbing, the goal is to not fall, but it’s also about building endurance, increasing strength, and overall improving your skill. Indoor climbing is perfect for beginners and experienced climbers alike, and gyms provide an opportunity to train regardless of weather conditions or location (e.g., if it’s too hot or if you don’t have many outdoor climbing locations near where you live).

Most indoor climbing gyms offer day passes, as well as punch passes and monthly memberships. You can either rent the basic gear for the day, or bring your own. We recommend starting out with renting, then purchasing affordable beginner gear once you’ve decided you want to stick with it for a while.

Fun Fact: Vertical World in Seattle claims to be the first climbing gym in America. It opened in 1987.

What Indoor Climbing Gear Do You Need?

To go indoor climbing, you’ll need climbing shoes, chalk and a chalk bag, a harness, and a locking carabiner. This gear can be rented at the facility for the day for a small fee or you can bring your own.

Climbing Shoes

Rock climbing shoes are small, compact shoes that you don’t usually wear socks with. That being said, if you’re renting shoes it’s totally cool to wear socks, especially since you’re sharing foot sweat with who knows how many other people. The shoes will feel like they’re about half a size too small, which should feel mildly uncomfortable but not painful. The idea is that you don’t want excess shoe on your foot, and that will help you feel and traverse the climbing wall more effectively.

If you’re only going to the gym a few times here and there, you may prefer to just rent the standard equipment they provide on site. But if you’re trying to get into the sport, the first main purchase you’ll need to acquire is climbing shoes. Start out with entry level models that have a mostly flat sole and are snug but comfortable. If you’re someone who’s progressing quickly, you may try a more advanced shoe with a slight downturn (banana-shaped) and tight fit so you can grow into them more.

Chalk and Chalk Bags

Chalk helps keep your hands dry and sweat-free so you can maintain better friction and a stronger grip. Most climbers opt for a chalk bag that hangs on your backside – that way you can re-apply as needed as you ascend up the climbing wall. If you’re bouldering, you may enjoy a chalk bucket, which has a wider opening and will stay on the ground for access in between sends.

As for the chalk itself, you can have loose chalk, chalk balls or socks, or the newer invention of liquid chalk. Loose chalk is easiest but can be quite messy, while a chalk sock requires a good squeeze even though you’ve just tired out your forearms. Liquid chalk can be more expensive but is less messy and can be good for humid conditions.

Harness

If you’re going to be using a rope at all (which most beginners do), you’ll need a harness. This is easily rented for the day so don’t worry about purchasing one right off the bat. All harnesses pretty much look the same – there’s a waist loop and two legs loops. Step into the leg loops, then pull it up so the waist loop sits just above your hip bones and tighten it.

There will be a fist-sized loop on the front of the harness near your belly button – that’s where the belay or rope attaches so make sure it’s front and center. Wearing the harness may feel awkward at first, but once you start climbing you’ll pretty much forget about it.

If you’re looking to purchase your own harness, look at something that’s extremely comfortable and durable. Assuming you’re going to be taking lots of falls while you practice and get stronger, you’re going to want something padded that you can wear for a while. Some of the more expensive, high-end harnesses are more low profile and lighter. They are intended for outdoor climbers who want something lightweight that they can wear all day long, but no need to splurge on something like that early on.

Other Accessories

When indoor climbing at the gym, you will only need to worry about shoes, chalk, and harness. Once you start progressing into your own gear, you may consider getting a belay device. If you plan on moving outside at all, you’ll also need other gear, which can vary slightly depending on which type of climbing you want to pursue.

The belay devices required in most climbing gyms are ATC’s and Grigris. Each has their own pros and cons and the price is quite different, so do your research and pick which one is best for you. It’s worth noting that some gyms require a certain type of belay device, so ask before making any purchases.

What to Wear Indoor Climbing?

When indoor climbing, you should wear clothing that’s comfortable and stretchy, and nothing oversized since it will hang weird and potentially get caught on climbing holds and gear. Yoga clothing like leggings and tank tops works well. Make sure whatever you’re wearing can withstand abrasion from the textured surfaces and that it’s something you don’t mind getting chalk on.

Pro tip: while this isn’t really something that you ‘wear’, make sure you trim your nails so they’re quite short. This will make it easier to grip the climbing holds and leave your less prone to breaking nails.

Types of Indoor Climbing

There are three main types of climbing that you will see in almost every indoor climbing gym: top roping, lead climbing, and bouldering.

Top Roping

Top rope climbing uses pre-placed ropes that are already looped over an attachment point at the top. This is the safest and best option for beginners and is seen on taller climbing walls. One end of the rope will attach to the climber, while the other end will attach to the belayer. As the climber ascends, the belayer will manage the rope, then lower the climber down when they’re finished. Many gyms will also use auto belayers that manage the rope instead of a person.

indoor climbing top roping
These are top rope climbing walls, notice how the ropes are already pre-set so both the belayer and climber can tie in at the bottom.

Sport Climbing / Lead Climbing

A sport climb starts with the entire length of rope on the ground. The climber and belayer will tie in, and the climber clips the rope into carabiners on the climbing wall as they ascend. It’s most similar to outdoor climbing, except that the quickdraws are already placed in the bolts on the climbing wall. You still need a belayer to manage the rope, and this form of climbing is more advanced so it may require a mentor or even a class since it puts more responsibility in the hands of the climber.

leading climbing indoors
This climbing wall is for sport climbing or lead climbing – notice the preplaced quickdraws that are just waiting to be clipped in to.

Bouldering

A bouldering route is close to the ground and doesn’t require a spotter, harness, or rope. Some say it’s the purest form of climbing since it’s just you and the rock, and some indoor climbing gyms may exclusively be for bouldering. That being said, most climbing gyms will have a combination of both roped and boulder climbing.

Instead of tall routes, bouldering uses shorter climbing walls that are typically less than 15 feet tall and require a short sequence of powerful moves. As a bonus, bouldering is more social since people can hang around the same problem while you take turns giving it a shot. Also, the cost is relatively low since you just need shoes and chalk (and mats once you venture outdoors).

bouldering wall gym
This is a bouldering wall. Notice the mats on the ground and the short wall with no ropes or clips.

What is a Belayer?

A belayer is a person who manages the rope in case you fall. This could be trained staff members or climbing instructors, an experienced friend who has passed a belay test, or even an auto belay device. Their job is to take up and let out slack in the rope as the climber ascends, that way the climber falls only a short distance if they slip or let go.

Belayers are an essential part of top roping and lead climbing, and communication between the belayer and climber is essential. In your gym introduction, they will likely teach you the terms you need to know, so pay attention and use them properly.

If you want to learn how to become certified to belay at your local gym, just ask the front desk how.

How to Start Indoor Climbing and Navigate the Gym

You may opt to do an intro session with a staff member who can belay you and help you start out, or you can focus on bouldering or auto belay devices. Either way, there will usually be an introductory video or presentation that will get you oriented with the gym and their rules. After you’ve signed your waiver, watched the introductory video, and rented your gear, where to next?

Find a Route

Indoor climbing walls are marked with either a single color climbing holds or colored tape. This marks a single route and you should only use the corresponding holds in order to ascend. When you’re starting out, you can use holds from multiple routes but know that the end goal is to focus only on one route at a time. Each route will have a difficulty rating and you should pick something within your abilities.

While this indoor climbing wall may look like a rainbow of mixed colors, it’s actually color-coded climbing routes. For example, if you follow the yellow holds or the bright orange ones, you will see a line that goes up the wall and onto the overhang above.
This indoor bouldering wall is marked by tape to show the intended climbing routes.

Route Difficulty

In climbing gyms in North America, you’ll use the Yosemite Decimal Rating System (YDS) for sport climbing and the V-Scale for bouldering. These numbers (or number-letter combinations) will give you an idea of the difficulty of the route and whether or not its within your skill level.

The harder the route, the smaller the climbing holds, and it may have a steeper climbing wall angle as well. A staff member can point you towards a beginner area so don’t obsess about learning the specific grades yet, but at some point we do recommend reading more about climbing grades in order to understand the numbers and what to expect with each rating.

Make a Clean Send

Once you’ve picked your route and clipped in, locate your starting hold and end hold on the climbing wall. Starting holds can be marked by a tag that indicates the difficulty or it will just be the most obvious hold in front of you. Both hands should start on the start hold and then you should get your feet off the ground. Once you no longer have contact with the ground, you can begin climbing.

To finish a route, you must make contact on the end hold with both hands for at least two seconds. Tapping the hold or slapping it while you fall doesn’t count.

Related Post: How to Get Better at Climbing

Climb or Belay Down

If you’re bouldering, you’ll then need to climb your way back down the climbing wall. You’ll commonly see large jug climbing holds that will make this much easier, and don’t be afraid to use them to descend. Climb down as much as possible before hopping off the climbing wall, as jumping increases your chance of injury.

If you’re using a rope, then follow the proper steps to belay down to the ground. This will involve notifying the belayer that you’re ready, then sitting back in your harness so you can be lowered down. Step by step instructions will be provided in the gym’s introduction video or presentation.

Fall Properly

Obviously the goal is to not fall, but it’s good practice to make sure you’re not falling in a way that makes you more prone to injury. If you’re bouldering and you fall, don’t put your arms out to catch yourself because you’re just asking to break a wrist. Land as softly as you can, letting your knees bend and allowing your body to roll backwards. There’s a great illustration of this in the linked YouTube towards the end of this post. It’s worth practicing it a couple of times so you get the hang of it.

Tips & Tricks for Indoor Climbing

Climbing Tips

  1. Keep your arms straight. This ensures that you’re putting less weight in your biceps and shoulders and more in your legs, which will help reduce fatigue.
  2. Focus on using your legs. Your legs are stronger than your arms, especially in beginners. Use this to your advantage! Think about walking yourself up the climbing wall, not pulling yourself up with your arms. Keep your hips over your feet as much as possible so your center of gravity is close to the climbing wall.
  3. Learn about the different holds. While it may be possible to ‘figure out’ how to most effectively grip that weird handhold you’re staring at, learning the basic of handholds beforehand will give you better intel and make the journey easier. Here’s a great YouTube video that breaks it down for you.
  4. Get creative. Move around on the climbing wall, try moves on the cusp of your ability, and be open to new ideas.
  5. The climb is a journey, not a destination to reach the top. Instead of having the mindset of topping out every time, treat each ascent as the opportunity to improve your skills and overcome challenges.

Climbing Gym Tips

  1. Know the rules of the climbing gym and don’t break them.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or for help. The employees are there to help.
  3. Share the climbing wall. Don’t hog the best routes and don’t infringe on other people’s space if they’re actively climbing. If you’re not actively climbing, stand away from the climbing wall so others know the route is available.
  4. Don’t walk around on the bouldering mats or in fall zones. This is especially important if there’s someone actively climbing, but is a good habit to get into. You don’t want to risk getting hurt by a climber who may fall while you’re in their zone.
  5. Don’t spew beta. Don’t offer advice (a.k.a. spew beta) unless someone asks for it. This includes pointing out holds or telling someone where to put their feet.
  6. Know your limits, but don’t be afraid to push them a bit.
  7. Don’t let your kids run wild. While many indoor climbing gyms are great places for kids and birthday parties, don’t let them play unattended. It’s not a daycare center and there are real dangers that kids don’t understand (e.g., walking under someone who is bouldering and could potentially fall). Supervision is essential.

Still want to learn more, including some beginners climbing tips? This video is a great resource and is especially great for visual learners.

How to Start Climbing Outside

Indoor climbing at a gym is an amazing place to learn the necessary skills to start outdoor climbing, but nothing really teaches you to climb like real rock. Outdoor climbing requires a more in-depth understanding of the finer details including equipment, systems, and knots, so you have to be fully prepared to take on those responsibilities when you move outdoors.

Consider finding a mentor to take you out for a few times, or perhaps a guided service in your area. Just make sure you’re picking climbs well within your abilities so you can get a hang of the new form of climbing.

FAQs

Is indoor climbing safe?

Even though you can frequently find yourself 20-30 feet off the ground, indoor climbing gyms are relatively safe. While you do have to sign a waiver (yes, accidents do happen), the ropes and equipment used are some of the safest forms of climbing. The main injury to worry about is a sprain or pulling a muscle, so make sure you warm up properly and practice good form.

Is indoor climbing a good workout?

Indoor climbing is a great workout and requires the use of your entire body including your arms, chest, back, core, and legs. At first your forearms will tire quicker than the rest of your body, but that can be trained quickly.

Can I bring kids to the climbing gym?

Indoor climbing gyms are great places for kids birthday parties and many will also have after school programs. Most facilities will even have areas geared towards children. But that doesn’t mean you can bring them and let them run wild either. Be respectful of other climbers and teach your kids safety

Is indoor climbing fun for beginners?

Indoor climbing can be super fun for beginners and is a great introduction to the climbing world. The staff at climbing gyms are amazingly helpful and will teach you how to make the most of your experience, and it’s super easy to spend a fun day there learning the ropes.

What are the 4 types of indoor rock climbing?

The main types of indoor climbing are top roping, lead climbing, and bouldering. While each type uses the same basic skills, they are different enough to have their own discipline.

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About The Author

Ashley is an adventurous soul who loves all things nature, especially warm sunshine, wildflowers, scenic snacking, and mushrooms. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast who has spent years enjoying time outside doing things like hiking, camping, and rock climbing.
Her goal with Know Nothing Nomads is to make these hobbies easily accessible through knowledgeable content and how-to's based on all the stuff she's learned on her journey. If she isn't writing an article, she's probably in a forest looking at big mountain views and tiny pieces of moss on the side of the trail.

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We are Derek and Ashley of Know Nothing Nomads. Whether it is hiking, camping, or just generally being outside, we love it. We are so happy that you have found our little blog and hope that you stick around a while. Feel free to contact us with any questions or get in touch with us on social media!

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