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A quick guide to rock climbing

Updated: Feb 19, 2023

Top rope climbing in North Wales

Whilst daunting to some, rock climbing is a fun and safe activity for all ages and abilities. There is something for everyone, whether you are scrambling around below head-height on a big boulder or in an indoor climbing wall, or whether you are roped up and tackling some of the stunning rocky crags that are scattered around the UK. It is a fantastic way to have fun, learn new skills, test your brain and your mettle, and improve your fitness and strength.

What are the different types of rock climbing?

The term rock climbing covers a wide range of activities that range from very safe and accessible, to insanely challenging and dangerous. There are numerous variations and styles, and the key ones are described below.

Climber bouldering outdoors
Outdoor bouldering


Bouldering is where you climb at a height that does not require you to have a saftey rope. It is traditionally done on large boulder formations (hence the name) but it can also be done on any rock face or indoor wall as long as you stay below a height you would be okay to drop from. Normally padded mats are used to cushion a fall. Bouldering is a great way to practice you climbing skills and its an excellent form of exercise.

Climbers tying in ready for a climb
Rope climbing**

Top and bottom rope climbing

Most climbing requires the use of a saftey rope. The rope runs from the climber's harness to their climbing partner's harness via a karabiner that is firmly attached to the top of the wall. The partner (called the belayer) uses a belay device to adjust the rope to ensure that it is always tight and that the climber can never fall. The belayer can be positioned at the top of the climb (top rope climbing), or at the bottom (bottom rope climbing).

Climber lead climbing
Lead climbing

Lead climbing

If you want to climb a rock formation where the top cannot be easily reached to attach your rope, or that is too high to allow you to reach the top in one go, then someone needs to lead the way up. This is called lead climbing and it is a significant step up from bouldering and top and bottom roping.

The rope still runs from the climber's harness to the belayer's harness, but instead of it running through a karabiner attached to the top of the wall, the climber has to find safe places to attach it as they climb up. The climber can only fall about as far as the last place they attached the rope. When the climber runs out of rope or reaches the top of the 'pitch', they find a safe place to attach themselves and their partner climbs up to join them. If needed, they do a multi-pitch climb where they keep repeating this until they reach the top.

Climber abseiling down a waterfall


Abseiling is a rock climbing technique used to lower yourself off a climb using a rope - it is also great fun as an activity in its own right. The person abseiling firmly attaches the rope at the top and then carefully lowers themselves to the bottom using an abseil device. It's common, especially for beginners, to have a second rope attached to your partner who can take over if you get into difficulty.

Child top rope climbing indoors
Indoor climbing

Indoor climbing

Indoor climbing is now hugely popular across the UK as it enables people to climb at all levels in a safe and managed environment, even when it's cold, wet and dark outside! They are a great fun place to learn and develop skills and to get fit. Most indoor climbing walls have a bouldering area with padded mats to cushion your fall and a roped climbing area with a mix of bottom rope and lead climbing options. They all cater for total beginners and often have kids climbing area.

How do I get started with rock climbing?

Whilst it may sound daunting to some, rock climbing can be as easy or hard as you want to make it. You can try scrambling around on some boulders when you're out for a walk, but perhaps the best way to start is with a bit of bouldering at your local climbing wall. Ideally go with a friend who can give you some tips, or let the staff know that you're a beginner and they'll set you off on the right track.

If you want to progress beyond bouldering then you need to learn some basic rope skills. These are easy to learn but you will need to go with an experienced friend or guide, or join a club or sign up to a lesson. You can check out great places to climb, including indoor climbing walls, with the Outdoor Nation Activity Finder - use the search filter to find places that are suitable for beginners and that provide instructors and guides.

What are the risks of rock climbing?

It will come as no surprise that rock climbing comes with the risk of falling and injuring yourself, especially if you climb at height, beyond your abilities and don't know what you are doing. But, rock climbing is actually a really safe sport if you start easy, don't overstretch yourself and always go with an experienced climber. For more on how to stay safe when climbing, check out the Outdoor Nation Top 10 safety tips for climbers.

What skills do I need?

There is very little you need to know to have a go at bouldering or to join in on an organised climbing session. But, to be able to rock climb with ropes without expert support does require a good level of technical knowledge, skill and experience. The following skills are a good place to start if you want to give climbing a go.

Climbing footwork
Climbing skills - know the basic techniques

Know the basic climbing techniques

Anyone can fumble their way up an easy bit of rock, but there are some basic techniques that will make it much easier. You will quickly improve if you learn to plan your route, adjust your body position, use your legs, and use the different types of foot or hand grip.

Climber with figure of 8 knot
Climbing skills - know how to use a rope

Know how to safely use a rope

If you plan on climbing with ropes you need to know how to use them. The harder and longer your climbs the better you need to be. The basics are easy - you simply need to know how to put on your harness, tie on the rope and belay your partner.

Climber being helped to the summit
Climbing skills - know your climbing calls

Know your climbing 'calls'

Communication is important in climbing. Your partner needs to know what you're doing, and climbers around and below you also need to know. Its easy to pick up the basic terminology of "that's me", "climb when ready", climbing now", and most importantly, "below!!"

What kit do I need for rock climbing?

The kit you need for climbing depends upon what sort of climbing you're doing and where and when you're doing it. You can have a go at bouldering with no kit at all, although it's much easier in a pair of climbing shoes which you can hire from all indoor climbing walls. The more technical your climbing, the more kit you need. If you're climbing outdoors, especially somewhere remote, then check out our packing list for walkers to supplement your climbing kit.

Packing list for climbers

For all climbing

  • Clothes that allow a full range of movement

  • Climbing shoes (although trainers will just about do)

  • Chalk bag (as hands can get sweaty and slippy)

  • Approach shoes (for wearing when you're not climbing)

In addition for top and bottom roping

  • Climbing harnesses

  • Climbing helmets

  • Climbing rope

  • Belay device

  • HMS (or pear-shaped) Karabiner

  • Locking karabiners and slings (for anchor at top of the climb)

In addition for lead climbing

  • Selection of climbing nuts and camming devices

  • Nut key

  • Extra slings and karabiners

  • Figure of 8

  • Quickdraws/extenders

Where can I rock climb?

For most people in the UK, you local climbing wall will be your closest place to climb.

Finding places to climb outdoors (crags as they're called in the climbing world) can be tricky. This is partly because not all of the UK has good places to climb, but also because there are both land access and conservation factors that can complicate things. These can be contentious issues and it is not unusual for a previous climbing spot to be put out of bounds.

You can check out great places to climb, including indoor climbing walls, with the Outdoor Nation Activity Finder - use the search filter to find places that are suitable for beginners and that provide instructors and guides.

Where do I find more information about rock climbing

The British Mountaineering Council (the BMC) is the UK's representative body that exists to protect the freedoms and promote the interests of climbers, hill walkers and mountaineers, including ski-mountaineers. The BMC website offers a huge range of advice on rock climbing, including where to climb and how to develop your skills.

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