Sport Climbing for Beginners: Everything You Need To Know

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Written by: Ashley Vitiello
Fact Checked by: Derek Vitiello

Updated May 27, 2023

Rock climbing is a fun sport for people of all ages and ability levels. It’s super easy to get started, and many people become addicted, but growing into the sport can leave you confused by all the terminology and gear required. That’s why we’re here – to break down all you need to know about sport climbing for beginners, including what sport climbing is, what gear you need, common terminology, an explanation of climbing grades, and more. This information will help you feel more comfortable getting out there and focusing on your climbing skills.

What is Sport Climbing?

At its simplest definition, sport climbing is a type of climbing that uses a belayer and rope while climbing with permanently fixed protection like bolts and anchors. As the climber ascends, they clip into the bolts and anchors using quickdraws, and the belayer lets out rope as they go.

Before you can go outside and climb a route as a beginner, that route must already exist. First, experienced climbers scout areas and pick cool-looking potential lines. From there, they use a drill to place the anchors and bolts and can begin ‘projecting’ the line or spending time working on it. They are usually the first ones to complete it; therefore, they get to name the route and suggest a grade (more on grades below). Once the route is open, other sport climbers can attempt the second ascent and any future ascents.

Most sport climbs are single-pitch routes, meaning they can be climbed with a single rope that usually measures around 60-70 meters (196-230 feet). It would be best to start with these more accessible, shorter routes. There are many routes out there that are multi-pitch routes, many of which are on big walls like in Yosemite. This type of sport climbing requires two climbers to climb the route pitch by pitch together, and some routes can even take multiple days.

Is sport climbing dangerous? All types of climbing come with an inherent risk and are dangerous to a certain degree. You can minimize risks by having the proper gear and knowing how to use it, thoroughly communicating with your belayer, and more. You can read more about the dangers of rock climbing.

What’s the Difference Between Lead Climbing and Top Roping?

Lead climbing and top rope climbing are methods for protecting a climb, but they use different techniques for handling the rope. Both use a belayer who manages the rope, but the starting point of the rope is different. In lead climbing or sport climbing, the entire length of rope starts on the ground with the belayer and lead climber, and the climber clips into quickdraws as they ascend the route. These quickdraws provide fall protection, so you must clip into each one as you climb. Top roping is when the rope is looped around an anchor point at the top of the route, so the climber and belayer clip into separate ends, and the climber can ascend freely without worrying about clipping in.

What’s the Difference Between Sport Climbing and Trad Climbing?

The main difference between sport climbing and trad climbing, or traditional climbing, is that sport climbing routes use permanently placed bolts and anchors. In contrast, trad climbing uses temporary gear and anchors like nuts and camalots.

Traditional rock climbing requires a lot more gear and generally there are fewer routes. Also, sport climbing focuses on the climb, so the bolts are pre-placed. You’ll often fall, and it’s expected, while in trad climbing, you should take careful measures not to fall and place unnecessary strain on the anchors you’re setting.

What’s the Difference Between Sport Climbing and Bouldering?

Two main differences between sport climbing and bouldering are the height of the routes and the protective gear. Sport climbs are usually tall walls, while bouldering utilizes smaller rocks and boulders that don’t usually go much higher than 15 feet or so (but taller ‘highball’ boulders do exist). As for protective gear, bouldering uses nothing besides crash pads; otherwise, they only need climbing shoes and chalk. On the other hand, sport climbing uses protective equipment, so climbers will have a rope, a harness, quickdraws, shoes, and chalk.

Bouldering and sport climbing are the two of the most popular types of rock climbing indoors and out. While both types of climbing require a similar skill set, a sport route requires endurance and strength, whereas a boulder is all about power with strong, quick moves.

SPORT CLIMBING vs bouldering
Sport climbing vs. Bouldering

Our #1 Piece of Advice

As a beginner, the best thing you can do to help you learn while staying safe is to find a mentor. While most people can learn by themselves in the controlled gym environment with a reasonable amount of success, once you start wanting to head outdoors, you must find someone you can learn from. These techniques are best understood in person, from places to go and best practices to knot tying and wall etiquette. Chances are you probably already know someone – you just have to ask.

Where to Sport Climb


The first logical step to sport climbing is starting at your local gym. It’s relatively safe, many people are around to help, and it’s set up in a way that’s easy to navigate and learn. Climbing gyms use an artificial climbing wall with pre-placed ropes and handholds that make it easy to focus on climbing. Check out our complete guide to indoor rock climbing for beginners.


Once you’re ready to start sport climbing outdoors, first, you should find a mentor. They will have some precious information and knowledge to bestow on you and can show you the best local places to climb. You can also spend time online researching places to go, and there are several ways to find fun sport climbs.

Before you can find a place to climb, you need to understand climbing grades (see below) and your favorite range. You want that sweet spot between something that’s not too easy but within your ability. Most climbing gyms should have suggestions of the difficulty of the routes in their gym, and you should find what number(s) get you going.

Once you know your desired difficulty level, you can start by asking around your climbing gym. Locals are the best source of knowledge and can point you in the right direction of where to start.

Next, spend some time on Mountain Project. On their home page, you can search routes, find a state-by-state climbing guide (scroll down to the middle of the page), and even an interactive map (bottom of page) where you can browse your local area for cool routes.

Then see if your area has a Facebook page for climbers in the area. This can be a great way to meet new friends, meet at social events, and find information about the best local climbs. If your area has a guidebook, that would also be a great resource – you can usually find these at local gear shops.

While there are some really popular climbing areas in the United States (e.g., Red River Gorge, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain National Park, and lots more), you can likely find some climbing near you. Then once you get more into the sport, you could vacation to some of these awesome climbing destinations.

You can see how the rock in Yosemite would draw in climbers from around the world.

Sport Climbing Grades

Roped climbs are classified using the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) or French system. If you’re in America or Canada, you’ll use the YDS, while the rest of the climbing world uses the French system. The first ascent climber suggests a grade, then each climber after that can verify that grade or propose a different one. Once there are several suggestions, you’ll start to see a consensus on the difficulty.

A grade considers the route’s most complex move(s) and how sustained or strenuous the climb is. Read our complete guide to rock climbing grades for more information about grading systems worldwide, protection ratings, and commitment grades.

Yosemite Decimal System

The Yosemite Decimal System ranges from 5.4 to 5.15c and can initially seem a little complicated, but here’s a general breakdown.

  • 5.1-5.4: Easy climbing with large handholds and footholds, suitable for beginners.
  • 5.5-5.8: Intermediate climbing requires some skill on small handholds and footholds.
  • 5.9-5.10: Intermediate but more technical grade that may have overhangs.
  • 5.11-5.12: Hard to difficult, technical, and vertical. Dedicated climbers may reach this grade with lots of practice.
  • 5.13-5.14: Strenuous climbing that’s extremely difficult. Best for expert climbers who have lots of training and natural ability.
  • 5.15+: Only expert and highly talented climbers reach the extremely severe grade of 5.15, with even fewer reaching 5.15c and 5.15d. There are only four 5.15c sport routes and two 5.15d – four of these were established by Adam Ondra.

Grades 5.4-5.9 are just numbers, while 5.10 and up have a letter assigned to them to denote difficulty within that number range further. For example, there’s 5.8, 5.9, 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 5.10d, 5.11a, 5.11b, and so on.

The French System

The French Grading System is an internationally recognized grading system and ranges from 4a to 9b+. It loosely converts to Yosemite using the chart below but is slightly complicated.

It starts at 1 and goes up to 9, but in between there, it can be complicated. A plus sign denotes a more challenging version that’s not difficult enough to increase a whole number grade – for example, 3 is more manageable than 3+. Once you reach number 4, you add a letter to denote difficulty further – for example; there’s 6a, 6a+, 6b, 6b+, 6c, and 6c+.

Sport Climbing Terminology

Here’s a small dictionary (in alphabetical order) of the most common climbing terms you’ll see and hear as a beginner.

  • Anchor: a device or point you can use to attach a rope to the wall.
  • Approach: the walk or hike to the rock where you intend to climb.
  • Beta: Information about a climb that usually involves the best way to ascend and where the holds are.
  • Clip the chains: to reach the anchor point on the top of a sport climbing route, therefore completing it.
  • Crag: slang for a climbing area or rock.
  • Crux: the most challenging move or sequence of moves on a route.
  • Flash: to climb to the top of a route on your first try with the aid of knowing beta beforehand. Similar to onsight and redpoint.
  • Onsight: climbing to the top of a route on your first try without prior knowledge or beta beforehand. Similar to flash and redpoint. Onsights are rare because of all the information available online and in guidebooks.
  • Project: to ‘project’ a route or to have a project means working on a route that takes several tries. Some of the most challenging routes on the top end of your abilities can take days or weeks of projecting.
  • Pumped: when your forearms are fatigued, making it harder to keep going.
  • Redpoint: successfully climbing a route after having practiced it before. Similar to flash and onsight. If you hear about someone climbing near their redpoint, that means they’re climbing near the threshold of their ability.
  • Send: to climb a route.
  • Spray beta: providing unsolicited information, which includes pointing out holds to a climber currently on the rock. This is a no-no.

Sport Climbing Etiquette

Here are some of the top do’s and don’t of climbing. Remember that while it can be pretty social, it’s ultimately an individual sport, and you shouldn’t infringe on others’ space and experience.


  • Keep it quiet and respectful.
  • Consolidate all your gear into one spot that’s out of the way.
  • Be encouraging and friendly, not unkind or condescending. Let everyone climb their climb.
  • Communicate, especially to your belayer.


  • Break the rules. Always follow closures, restrictions, closures, etc.
  • Spray beta. Only give tips when people ask for them and don’t yell at climbers about where to place their feet or hands.
  • Play music or make lots of noise.
  • Leave behind trash – pack it in, pack it out.
  • Let your pet annoy other people.

The golden rule is to be someone you’d like to climb around. Think about everything that annoys you when others do it, then don’t be that person.

Safety Tips

Learn your climbing knots – you can do this by watching YouTube videos and practicing or in-person tutorials from experienced climbers.

Purchase highly rated equipment and know how to use it properly.

Always double-check everything. A lot of the danger of climbing is mitigated by simple double-checks with your partner before each climb.

Communicate. Never assume, and always communicate your intentions. Issue commands loudly and clearly, even if it may seem obvious.

Research the weather conditions before venturing out. Stick to ideal weather and don’t climb during rain, storms, or extremely hot weather.

What Climbing Gear is Required for Sport Climbing?

Some essential pieces of climbing gear are necessary to venture outdoors successfully, plus lots of optional equipment that may make your adventure more enjoyable or easier. For beginners, start with climbing shoes, a harness, and chalk with a chalk bag. The next phase of gear you need requires purchasing your protection, which means a rope, a belay device and locking carabiner, quickdraws, and a helmet.

When you first start climbing at your local gym, just rent the necessary equipment from them. You can have fun, see if you like it, then upgrade to your equipment if you decide to stick with it for a while.

For information about all the different types of gear you may need, as well as some great beginner suggestions and fun accessories, check out our article on climbing gear for beginners.

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.

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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