Buying the Right Gear
Climbing is a purist’s pursuit. Just you and the wall. Mostly. And a litany of gear.
Climbing is a purist’s pursuit. Just you and the wall. Mostly. To help us get up the climb we do need shoes and, arguably, chalk. Oh, and to protect ourselves from an unforgiving impact, we use ropes, protection, carabiners, harnesses, belay devices, and a litany of gizmos.
OK we take back the “pure” part, but the help gear offers is indirect. Climbing is still just you and the climb. We go up by pulling and stepping on the holds. Gear is our safety net, a crucial link in the chain that con- nects you to rock. Here’s what you need, and how to choose it.
< Climbing Ropes >
< Nuts and Cams >
< Crash Pads >
< Helmets >
Rock Climbing Shoes
Without specialized rock shoes it’s tough to leave the ground. Make them your first purchase or rent several pairs at the gym to get a feel for what type and size works great for you. There are countless shoe designs from an abundance of brands, and every pair is designed for a different style of climbing—even the sticky rubber on their soles will vary by shoe brand and model type. Shoe selection is critical because climbing shoes are the only item of gear that will actually help you get up a route. What to buy depends on the type of climbing you are apt to try.
Neutral shoes allow your foot to lie flat much like street shoes, and they don’t compress your feet, which means lots of comfort, but less power when you really need to crank up steep or overhung routes. Neutral shoes are both for novices, who need comfort so they can focus on technique and learning, and experienced climbers, who may require a comfortable shoe for wearing most or all of the day on long routes. The beginner models will usually have harder and thicker rubber, which is great for durability and edging when you first start out and don’t have expert technique.
Moderate shoes are your all-arounders. These have a slight downturn and often have a tensioned rand to compress your feet, increasing toe power without sacrificing (much) comfort. They can be either asymmetrical or symmetrical, and are great for slab climbs, technical edging, and even somewhat overhung sport routes. This style of camber includes the widest variety of models, so carefully check each shoe’s specifications to understand what you’re buying.
Aggressive shoes are very downturned. Use these for significantly overhanging sport routes, technical boulder problems, and vertical face climbs that demand extra power and precision. It’s tempting to purchase a pair of top-end, aggressive shoes right off the bat, but these types are uncomfortable if you are not used to them. In addition to their camber, aggressive shoes are usually asymmetrical to place more weight on your big toe for micro edges.
Slippers. Some slippers are thin, sock-like affairs, while others are simply shoes that you slip on and tighten up with hook-and-loop straps, so “slippers” by themselves doesn’t mean much beyond the method for how you tighten down the footwear—in fact, many companies offer lace and slip-on versions of the same models. Slippers offer fast on/off making them great for bouldering and gym use, where you climb in bursts then rest.
Fit. Regardless of the shoe design, getting a proper fit is imperative. A well-fitting neutral shoe won’t have any extra room, but it will be comfortable enough to wear for hours. A moderate shoe will curl your toes, but not painfully so. Aggressive shoes press your toes into a significant curl for maximum power, also pain. The stiffer the shoe, the more comfortably you can size it. Usually, flat-lasted, medium-flex, all-purpose shoes are designed to let your toes lie flat, while soft, curved sport shoes and slippers are meant to bunch up your toes.
First shoes. When you’re just starting out at the gym or crag, a neutral shoe is the way to go. Unless you’re climbing difficult indoor boulders, durable and comfortable neutrals are great until you get the hang of climbing.
You may want to sample every type of climbing, including longer routes where you’ll wear your rock shoes most, if not all, of the day. In that case, a solid all-purpose shoe is your best bet. A stiffer shoe like this will support a rookie’s weak feet, is comfortable, and will help protect your feet from being crushed in cracks or bruised when you fall off a boulder problem.
YOUR FIRST SHOES
When you are learning to climb, you’ll tend to paddle and scrape your feet on the wall, accelerating rubber wear. Your feet will also tend to hurt, as you’ll be unaccustomed to rock shoes, and your feet will be weak. As you learn to climb you’ll develop good footwork that is easier on your shoes, and your feet will strengthen and hurt less.
Try on several pairs of rock shoes to find your perfect fit. Neutral cambered shoes are best for beginners, being the most comfortable of the various shoe shapes. Until you start banging out V6 boulder problems, neutral shoes should serve you well. It’s wise to buy a pair with thick rubber soles and rands for extra wear. Some companies make gym shoes specifically for beginners.
Climbing ropes are not the ones you see spelunkers using to zip down into those dark holes they so love. Nor are they the cords Boy Scouts rig to zip across canyons and streams. Climbing ropes, though they look much like the average nylon rope, have crucial distinctions.
Rated falls and real life. Each rope will be rated for a certain number of falls, indicating the number of falls the rope can take in a lab before it breaks. Each rope is tested far more severely than you are likely to punish it ever, so don’t feel you have to retire your cord just because it’s rated for five falls, and you’ve taken six. In real life, climbing ropes are subjected to hundreds of falls, and a rope doesn’t fail unless it is running over sharp rock, which cuts it, or a worn carabiner with a sharp edge. Exposure to acidic chemicals such as bleach, battery acid or even fumes from a car battery (think a car trunk or closet that has been used to store a battery) can cause a rope to break, and easily.
Examine the tag on the rope for Rope Designation, Diameter and Length. The numbers listed for Falls Held and Maximum Impact Force are good marketing, but all certified ropes have passed the same baseline series of rigorous fall and impact-force tests, and will serve you well when you’re starting out.
Rope designations. Ropes come with a designation for Single, Half and Twin use. A single rope is the most common and is used by itself, as a single strand. This is the rope you want. Single ropes range in thickness from roughly 9mm to 11mm. Smaller ropes are lighter, but wear out faster. Leave the thin ropes for later, and get one close to 10mm. Be aware that the diameter of your rope may affect which belay devices you can use it with. Some devices will not work well, or at all, with very thin or very thick ropes.
Half and Twin ropes are thinner ropes, 9mm or less, and are intended to be used as a pair. These ropes offer a greater margin of security against cutting, since odds are that both ropes won’t cut, but they complicate belaying and leading. Double ropes are usually reserved for ice and mixed climbing, where you need two ropes to rappel.
Relatively new on the scene are ropes that are certified for single and double, or even single, double and twin use. A rope of this design is a good idea if you need one rope to climb rock and ice or for alpine climbing.
THE GYM ROPE: If you’re staying inside, you can purchase a gym-specific rope, which is shorter and less expensive than standard ropes, and is designed to handle the savage beating that constant laps put on ropes. Most gym ropes are 35 meters long and about 10mm in diameter.
Lengths. Standard rope lengths are 60, 70 and 80 meters. For cragging, where anchors are usually fixed 30 meters off the ground, get a 60-meter rope. Many newer routes, however, might have anchors at 35 or 40 meters, making a 70- or 80-meter rope mandatory. Pay attention to route length, and make sure your rope is long enough. If you’re staying in the gym, there are shorter ropes for indoor walls—they are usually between 30 and 35 meters and have a tough sheath for the extra laps a gym allows.
Middle marking. If you’re going to do multi-pitch climbing, it is worth spending some extra bucks for a “bicolor” rope, which will have a different color or pattern on each half. If you stick with a single-color rope there will be a mark on its sheath indicating the midpoint. Knowing where the middle of the rope is gives the belayer a gauge for how much rope a leader has left on a pitch, and is helpful for rappels where you need the middle of the rope perfectly centered at the anchor. Beware of ropes with middle markings that have been shortened on one end. A rope that has been trimmed to remove a frayed end will have one side longer than the other, making the middle mark misleading. If you trim one end short, trim the other end to keep the middle mark accurate.
Treatments. The final consideration is whether the rope has a “dry” treatment. This water-repellent coating helps keep the rope from getting waterlogged in the rain or absorbing meltwater during a winter climb. The primary advantage of a dry coating, however, is that it makes the rope smoother, so it runs across the rock and through carabiners with less drag than if it was untreated.
New ropes are generally kinky and difficult to manage. Running the length of the rope through your hands or a belay device a few times will straighten it. To keep your rope clean, uncoil it onto a rope tarp—dirt accelerates rope wear.
Retirement community. After three seasons your rope is as fuzzy as a squirrel’s tail and has flat and mushy spots. Is it time to retire it? Probably. Flat and soft spots in a rope indicate internal damage. Ropes that are merely frayed are more difficult to judge. Slight fuzzing is no big deal and can happen in just a couple of weekends of use. Severe fuzzing may or may not make a rope unsafe. As a rule, if you can see a rope’s inner core, the sheath is worn too thin. Let common sense guide you, and when you feel uneasy, retire the rope.
READER’S TIP: SOAP ON A ROPE
Washing ropes is a matter of safety—grime and grit compromise a rope’s strength—but it can create a nightmare of knots. To prevent a mess, first make a neat butterfly coil, and then girth-hitch the center of the rope with a sling or daisy chain. Stuff the rope into a washer without an agitator (the plastic tower in the middle of a top-loading machine). Wash the rope in cold water on a gentle cycle. To dry, remove the sling/daisy chain and flake the rope over the top of a door or on an indoor clothesline—whatever will keep it off the ground and out of sunlight.
—Jay B. Williams, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
You have a good rope, but how do you fasten it to yourself? With a climbing harness.
Many harnesses are fully adjustable, and these are great for getting a perfect fit in the legs. They are, however, a few ounces heavier than the types that only adjust at the waist.
Your harness should fit snug, but still lets your legs move freely. There’s a difference between a sport/gym harness and a trad harness. The sport variety is lighter, less padded and will have few if any gear loops. A “trad” harness or big-wall harness will have at least four rigid gear loops, a haul loop, and extra padding for long ascents. We suggest a harness with at least four gear loops for ease of carrying your quickdraws or protection up a climb. Most harnesses have single-pull buckles, which lock automatically, but always remember to double-back the waist buckle if it’s a manual buckle that doesn’t lock itself. Climbers have died when they neglected to buckle their harnesses correctly.
DOUBLE CHECK THE DOUBLE BACK
Before you make the first move up any climb, check that your harness buckle is properly threaded. Some harness buckles require a “double back” thread, while others are single pass. Read the instructions and cautions that come with your harness, and always have your climbing partner check that your harness is safe and secure.
YOUR GYM HARNESS
Gym harnesses are different from outdoor harnesses. Indoors, you don’t need the sort of padding you’d want for long days with your butt in the sling, so the gym variety is much lighter. Indoor harnesses also don’t have as many gear loops or a haul loop.
These are the metal “snaplinks” with spring-loaded gates that attach the rope to protection, anchor you to belays and rappels, rack gear, and do dozens of other tasks. Carabiner, or“biner,” shapes come in many shapes, but the asymmetrical-D is the backbone of your “rack.” Lightweight and strong, the design (which has many variations), is just about perfect. Most climbers will purchase most of their carabiners already rigged on quickdraws, but you will need a number of loose carabiners for rigging and racking gear on.
Gates. Carabiner gates come in solid-bar, that can be either bent or straight, and “wire” designs. Bent gates form a cradle that makes clipping the rope easier, and are used exclusively on the bottom end of quickdraws. Wire gate, because of their flat surface, are also inherently easier to clip, open wider, and weigh less than solid-bar gates. On the safety side, a wire-gate doesn’t give up any strength, and, since the wire has less mass than a bar, is less likely to whiplash open, a phenomenon that can occur when a carabiner vibrates or smacks against the rock in a fall. In short, wire-gates are better mousetraps. For that reason, some quickdraws have wire-gate carabiners on both ends.
Locking carabiners. In situations where a carabiner absolutely must stay clipped, such as connecting a belay/rappel device to your harness and the power-point to an anchor, always use a locking carabiner. There are two types: auto- lock and screw-gate. Auto-lock carabiners have a spring-activated gate that locks itself whenever the gate snaps closed, a handy feature for the absent-minded among us. Self-locking carabiners, however, while convenient, can jam up with grit and fail to lock. Keep them clean. Screw-gate carabiners require that you manually screw a collar over the gate to lock it. The main advantage of this carabiner is that once you screw down the gate, you know for certain it is locked. The disadvantage is that you can forget to lock it, or it can lock up too tightly to undo.
Be aware that carabiners may “cross load,” meaning they can turn sideways, allowing a rope or belay device, bolt hanger, or piece of gear to load on the carabiner’s weakest point, the gate. Carabiners can break when they are loaded across their gates. For safety reasons, some locking carabiners are designed specifically for belaying and rappelling by having either a cross bar or sleeve, often plastic, or some form of capture mechanism that traps the rope in place and keeps it off the gate—a great idea.
SLINGS: RUNNERS AND QUICKDRAWS
There are two types of slings: runners and quickdraws. You’ll need both when climbing outside.
Runners are open-loop slings used mostly as extensions clipped to the wired nuts and cams, helping to prevent them from being jostled out of place by the tugging action of the rope. Runners come in many lengths. Over-the-shoulder runners are the most useful; if you need shorter ones, simply double over the longer ones. The number of runners you need depends on the climb. Six may suffice for short routes, while you might need a dozen on a full-ropelength pitch. If you’re planning to set up natural anchors outside, invest in several longer-length runners.
Quickdraws, or “draws,” are short—four- to six-inch-long—runners stitched into a solid bar, with a carabiner on either end. Quickdraws are mostly used to clip bolts on sport routes, but you can also use them as mini-runners on cams and nuts when a long runner isn’t needed. In areas where the cracks run vertically, such as Indian Creek, Utah, quickdraws are more useful and easier to use than runners. For straightforward sport climbing, it is often most economical to purchase quickdraw packages, which can have six per pack. Buy in bulk and save.
LEAD GEAR IN THE GYM
Most gyms offer lead walls, and these will almost always have fixed draws— no quickdraws necessary. You don’t need to build a rack if you’re going to be spending most of your time under the lights—reevaluate your protection needs when you venture outside.
Belay and Rappel Devices
A belay/rappel device is a metal clamp that cinches on the rope. This braking action lets hold a fellow climber on rope tension, or rappel. Rappel/belay devices are as plentiful in design as fishing lures. On the whole, though, there are two basic designs, the “tube,” (few are actually tube shaped these days, but years ago most were and the name stuck), and “brake assist” types.
The tube is the most economical, lightest and versatile, letting you belay and rappel on single and double ropes, an advantage for multi-pitch routes with rappel descents. Some tube designs are partly self- locking, offering a brake-assist without any moving parts—nice. Other designs might have only one slot, for a single rope.
Disadvantage? A tube can produce so much rope friction it can be difficult for a lightweight person to rappel or be lowered, or a tube might not generate enough friction for a heavier-weight climber. Rope diameter and the size of the slot(s) in the tube will determine friction.
Brake-assist devices have an internal cam or other feature that pinches the rope when it is weighted. These are popular among sport and gym climbers, who might catch dozens of falls for hours at a time on a single route. Brake-assist devices are more expensive, heavier, and more complicated to use than the simpler tube. Most also require a steeper learning curve.
Check out Rock and Ice‘s belay and rappel device reviews.
Nuts and Cams
On sport climbs you clip bolts that have been drilled into the rock, but on crack climbs and numerous other traditional or gear routes you’ll need a rack of nuts and cams to fix in cracks and other features, protecting yourself as you climb. Nuts are considered “passive protection” because they lack moving parts. Cams are “active protection,” because they mechanically alter their shape to adjust to crack sizes, and are spring-loaded to lock into a placement.
Nuts are wedge-shaped bits of metal that you jam in constrictions in a crack, similar to a cork in a bottle. The first nuts were actual hex nuts from machine bolts with the threads filed out, and slung with cord, hence the name now in general use. You’ll find nuts in three basic shapes: the wedge, generically referred to as stoppers (Stopper is a specific name for a branded product); Tri-cams (a brand name, but now used generically for the shape); and hexes.
Wedges, or stoppers, can be straight-sided or curved. The curved ones present three points of contact instead of two, making them the most stable, and the curve often fits more naturally in cracks, which are seldom perfectly straight. Exceptions are the “micro” wedges, sometimes made of brass or bronze, which only come with straight sides. A well- rounded rack will have two full sets (usually 10 or so to a set) of wedges, and one set of micros.
Hexes are the odd-looking six-sided nuts. These work two ways. You can jam them into constrictions, or cam them into nearly parallel-sided cracks. Sounds great, but because wedges and cams collectively do about everything a hex can, and usually better, hexes have fallen from favor. They are, however, invaluable for building a lightweight rack. The larger sizes can cover the range of heavier cams. Hexes also can fit into cracks and pockets that are too oddly shaped for nuts or cams. Plus, you can buy five hexes for the price of one cam.
Tri-cams are pyramid-shaped nuts that, like hexes, can be placed either to cam or wedge in a crack. These are usually used when other protection pieces aren’t fitting well, such as in solution holes. On certain climbs, having a Tri-cam means the difference between a dangerous runout and having great protection.
Cams have spring-loaded lobes that expand and press against the sides of the crack, locking them in place. The more weight you put on a cam, the more it resists pulling out. To remove a cam, you simply pull a trigger and the cams retract. Because cams are so easy to place, are secure in parallel cracks where wedges and hexes aren’t, and are easy to remove, they are the nucleus of the rack. The popularity of cams has bred a host of designs, nearly all of them good. Look on any shop wall, and you’ll find units with four lobes, three lobes, one axle and two axles, and in sizes from smaller than your pinky finger to as large as your head.
What to get?
Units that fit cracks one to three inches wide are generally the most useful, though if the crag you frequent has a surplus of finger or fist cracks, you’ll need smaller or larger units. Check with a local climber or shop to see what is appropriate protection for your area. Ergonomics are another consideration. Beefy fingers may have trouble with certain trigger configurations. Handle the gear before you buy. Does it fit your hand? Get the brand that suits you.
Once you pick a brand, stay with it, at least for now. If you mix up the brands, the different color coding and range of sizes are likely to be confusing—hardly desirable when you’re pumped and need to know at a glance which unit will fit that two-inch placement.
The four-cam configuration is usually the strongest and most useful; we advise getting these to start your rack. Three-cam units (TCUs), however, slot into cracks too shallow for most four cams, and may, depending on brand, come in a couple of sizes smaller than four-cam units. Fortunately, such shallow and thin cracks, which tend to be most difficult, are rare on free climbs, especially at the level most people learn on. A good beginner rack is almost or entirely made of four- cam units, with TCUs filled in later as your experience and skills grow.
Check out Rock and Ice‘s nuts and cams reviews.
Bouldering may be the most free discipline in climbing—all that’s required are shoes, a daub of chalk and a brush for sweeping grime and chalk off the grips. At the gym, thick mats minimize potential for injuries, but you may still want to supplement the gym mats with your own bouldering or “crash” pad. When you climb outside, you are entirely on your own and having a crash pad, or two or three, is essential. Use a pad even when a landing is good and flat—the cumulative effects of repeatedly pounding the ground can tweak you from your neck to your toes.
There are dozens of crash pads, varying in size and thickness. A larger pad covers more real estate, making it an easier target to hit; a thicker pad offers greater cushioning. The biggest pads—often called “highball” pads—can take up an entire car trunk and be difficult to weave through dense trees and talus. They also cost more.
Some pads are composed of two or three pieces of foam and fold on “hinges”—spots where the pads meet. Be careful. A hinge is a soft spot, and you can be injured if you fall onto this area. Some companies offer hingeless pads, which fold over like a taco, or a burrito if the pad folds several times.
Most boulderers own a medium-sized pad, usually around three by four feet, and three inches thick. A pad of this sort usually folds in half and has a complement of shoulder straps for carrying. The better pads also have a secure closure system of buckles and flaps that snug up the folded pad into a pack of sorts that holds shoes, a chalkbag, brushes, food and other sundries. Other features to consider include an absorbent top surface for scuffing dirty shoes on, and metal buckles (which won’t break like plastic buckles) or Velcro.
Check out Rock and Ice‘s crash pad reviews.
Consider a helmet to be as necessary as a rope. A helmet will make climbing safer, just like a seatbelt makes riding in a car safer. Every year climbers suffer serious head injuries, either by hitting their heads during a fall or being hit with a falling rock or piece of dropped gear. Any helmet CE-certified for climbing will suffice. Some helmets have adjustable suspensions that let you loosen the fit when you’re wearing a cap, or tighten it down after your buzz cut. Most climbers don’t wear a helmet in the gym, but it’s a good idea if you’re belaying a partner much heavier than yourself on a route that begins with overhanging terrain—you could get pulled upward and whack your head into the wall.
Check out Rock and Ice‘s helmet reviews.
Chalk and Chalk Bag
Sweaty hands are slippery hands, so we use “chalk,” magnesium carbonate, to keep them dry.
You can get dry chalk in block or powdered form. Both are inexpensive, and which to use is personal preference. Experiment. If one type feels slick or doesn’t stick to your hands, try the other. Chalk balls, which are baseball-sized porous cloth sacks filled with powdered chalk, are good for keeping all that white dust off your clothes. Carry loose chalk or chalk balls in a chalk bag. Chalk bags fasten around your waist, and any one of the dozens of designs will do; purchasing one is simply a matter of taste. On popular boulder problems and routes, chalk can cake up on the holds, becoming unsightly and making the rock more slippery than ever. Scrub it off with a brush or toothbrush carried in a small sleeve sewn to the chalk bag for the purpose. If you’re bouldering, a chalk “bucket,” a large pot that you set on the ground and dip into before climbing, may be more convenient.
Check out Rock and Ice‘s climbing accessory reviews.
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