How to Make the Transition from Indoor to Outdoor Rock Climbing

Opt for new challenges on new horizons.

By: Amber Locke

Save List
2 Saves

Grasping the final orange hold at the top of a 5.11a route called "The Coffin" in the climbing gym after two months of frustrating, anticlimactic and, adversely, elating attempts will forever live in my memory as one of my first big climbing accomplishments. However, the air conditioned, unchanging atmosphere of the gym will never live up to the experience of hiking (sometimes scrambling), exposed to the elements, to a real rock face and working out one of natures problems. Standing at the face of a wall that lacks the rainbow routes and top ropes, preset and taut with friction, is far more mentally challenging and exciting for me. 

Photo: Amber Locke

Here are 5 things to consider before making the transition to outdoor climbing: 

1. Go with a pro

There are plenty of outfitters who will take you climbing and teach you the ropes for a day, week or even month if you've got the time. My first climbing experiences were guided by my wonderful friends who work for the Alaska Mountain Guides. I was fortunate enough to know a few personally, but the company guides trips all over the world and is a great resource for climbing knowledge. I also had the opportunity to take a day course with the Arizona Climbing and Adventure School in Phoenix. I learned how to set an anchor, tie a few new knots, repel and I completed my first multi-pitch climb with body placement instructions from my guide. The course cost about $250, but I left with a better understanding of outdoor climbing safety and a new confidence in my skills.

If you don't know someone who has the skill set and gear for climbing outdoors, I suggest a quick Google search of guides in your area. There are all sorts of accredited schools out there for learning at every level of climbing. Many gyms even offer outdoor beginners courses. Hit up the front desk the next time you're in for a session and see what your gym has to offer.

2. Literature

There are plenty of textbooks and guide books to help you learn the basics of climbing outdoors. Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills is a good resource for everything to do with getting out and up in the mountains. There are lots of illustrations on knots, anchors and how-to guides for any number of climbing related challenges.  

You can also find guides on where to climb in almost any given area and how to get there by searching on Amazon. Climbing gyms, national park visitor centers and outdoor stores like REI are often stocked with these awesome resources, as well.

3. Approaches, anchors, gear and knots 

For first-timers, going with a pro can help you learn about the technical aspects of setting up a top-rope anchor, the gear needed to do so, different knots, and the safety aspects of each of these essential elements of climbing.

You should be prepared to scramble your way towards the climb, too. While some crags are easily accessible from a paved parking area, others will take some nerve to even approach. My climbing friends have led me to some awesome spots, but it took some effort (essentially climbing sans harness and rope) to get there.  

Photo: Lindsay Daniels

4. The mind game

Climbing in the gym will certainly make you face a fear of heights and test your self esteem. However, the lack of visual direction on the face of an actual rock, along with the trust you must have in your gear and its placement, as well as your partner, can be the hardest obstacle when climbing outdoors for the first time. Real rock will scrape your knees, elbows and places on your body you didn't even know had touched it. Nature is unrelenting and if you thought you had blisters from those plastic holds at the gym, they will be nothing compared to the toll that granite or limestone can have on your hands.

Not only will it physically challenge you, but nature has a way of wreaking havoc on your mindset, as well. Will the bolt that my anchor is set on actually stay in the wall? What if I grab a ledge and it suddenly breaks? Can my fingertips really grip that tiny thing? Can my shoes really make me a mountain goat?

I make this all sound terrifying, because it is in a way. The terrifying aspects of climbing outdoors are actually what make it so much fun, though. If you can learn the fundamentals, you can challenge yourself in ways you never imagined were possible and oftentimes, with much effort and endurance, overcome.

5. Ratings

Another major difference in outdoor climbing is the rating system. You may be scaling the 5.11d routes in the gym, but don't expect to do the same outside. Routes in climbing gyms are rated much more leniently than those you'll find in outdoor climbing guides. When you're beginning to climb outdoors, you should prepare yourself for a totally different experience than you've had at the gym. Don't expect to climb route after route. Relax and enjoy learning new techniques and skills. Bring lots of friends and maybe a picnic.  Spend all day outside, but not necessarily on the wall.  

With a little motivation, patience and attentiveness, you might find that gym climbing is a good work out, but outdoor sport climbing or bouldering is a passion.

Cover photo: Colton Marsala

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.