From Gym to Crag

So, you’re making the jump. You’ve honed your skills, you’ve built your strength, and your local gym feels a little small, a little boring. You’re ready to spread your wings and go outside.

Heading to the crag for the first time after only climbing in the (albeit noisy and crowded) clinical setting of a gym can be intimidating, and the opportunities for a beginning climber to commit a faux-pas or three are certainly there.

The many unwritten rules of climbing outside are not immediately apparent. So, we’re going to break some of them down for you. Keep these tips in mind at the crag and you’ll reduce your impact, keep yourself in the good graces of your local climbing community, and arrive home safe—and psyched—for the next day.


Climbers are generally an easygoing bunch, so when we say, “etiquette,” think more common sense and less Emily Post. That being said, here are the big points to be aware of:

Limit your spread

The crag is a shared space and it’s important to be accommodating to other climbers—they have just as much of a right to climb there as you do. This means keeping your stuff neat and tidy, not spread out yard sale style all over the trail.

Quit hoggin’ the wall

Don’t ever “claim” routes. If your rope and gear is on a route, you should be actively climbing it. If you need to leave a rope up unoccupied, be proactive about letting other climbers know that they’re welcome to the route.

Also, be wary of spending a lot of time on the classics, because chances are that someone else is eyeing them as well.

Keep your party lean

Having a smaller group size (generally 3-4 people max) will help with your overall impact at the crag. Additionally, having less people in your group will also help keep noise levels down—a big safety concern at some crags.

Be Kind!

Say hello and be friendly! It’ll go a long way towards ingratiating yourself with the other climbers at the crag. The climbing community tends to be relatively small and fostering goodwill helps everyone. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, either. It should go without saying that respect is paramount. Respect the landowners, cliff closures, the rock and your fellow climbers!


Don’t offer any unsolicited advice (unless someone is doing something unsafe). It’s a bummer to have your concentration broken by someone on the ground yammering at you or telling you how to do your next sequence.

Be aware of your surroundings

If you need to rappel, be sure there’s nobody below you. Yell “ROPE!” before you need to toss your rope for rappelling or top roping. When you’re climbing, be extra aware of any loose rocks (which may or may not be notated with a chalked “X”). If you do knock a rock down (or drop anything) yelling “ROCK!” will help those at the bottom of the cliff stay safe.

Mind your Dog

Be in control of your dog if you decide to bring them along. There’s nothing worse than having your dog eat someone else’s lunch because they were left loose while you climbed. And know this: an incessantly barking dog is anathema to a good time at the crag! Seriously. Everybody will be annoyed with you.


Know what you’re doing

Goes without saying, right? Wrong. There are a lot of small details when it comes to setting up a top rope or leading a sport route. These systems are often complex and botching a detail could lead to a trip to the ER. Get the appropriate gear and know how to use it. If you have any questions, ask an experienced climber, or hire a guide for a day.

Don’t get in over your head! Bring enough gear, knowledge and food/water to keep from having an epic. Listen to that little voice in your head that says “this might not be a good idea”.

Don’t be complacent

Even professional climbers need to double check their knots. When you’re climbing outside, your safety is 100% on you and your climbing partner. At the end of a long day, it’s too easy to try and take short cuts. On the flip side, it’s also easy for climbers too eager to start their day and not see that the tree they chose as an anchor was dead. Whenever you feel yourself getting tired, dehydrated, too excited, or distracted, tell yourself to focus on the task at hand.

Learn how to fall

Unlike the gym, not every fall outside is a safe fall. Learn to read the route and rock for any hazards—ledges that you could fall on, objects you could hit if you took a swinging fall, or sharp edges that could damage or sever your rope.

In the same vein, learn how to catch a lead fall safely. A soft catch can save your climber from a broken ankle if you’re climbing a vertical or slabby route, but a soft catch can also cause injury if it means your climber falls further and hits a ledge.

Be an expert communicator

Use names when talking with your climbing partner.  It’s a great habit to get into, even when you’re the only one at the crag. Hearing, “you can take me OFF BELAY ANNA!” inspires much more confidence than a simple “OFF BELAY!” from someone who sort of sounds like my climbing partner.

Last, but not least, it’s important to give back to your local crag. Take a day off from climbing and help build trails with your local climbing organization. Become an Access Fund and/or American Alpine Club member. These groups help local coalitions obtain and maintain the cliffs that YOU just enjoyed! So, get out there, get involved, and have a blast!

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