Climbing Gear Essentials by The Backcountry Pros in Utah
Whether you're a seasoned climbing veteran or brand new to the sport, having the proper equipment is crucial to both performance and safety. Emphasizing on the importance of the right gear while climbing, let's explore some climbing gear essentials recommended by the Backcountry Pros in Utah.
Both high-quality climbing shoes as well as approach shoes (shoes to get you to the climb) are the foundation of any climber's gear arsenal.
The fit and style of a climbing shoe you choose to use should vary by the type of climbing done. In general, a snugger fit will allow you better precision and power. If shoes are too small, though, they will be too painful to use. The longer you are in a shoe, the more comfortable it should be. Climbing a single pitch near the ground allows you to take off your shoes between climbs to give your feet some reprieve but a long trad route may require wearing shoes for several hours at a time.
In general, shoes with less 'camber' or arch are recommended for longer climbs. These shoes are also usually stiffer and provide more support but lack the feel or precision of other more aggressively cambered shoes. Highly cambered shoes are designed for keeping a climber's feet on the wall on steeply overhanging routes, allowing a climber to effectively grab the rock with their toes. These shoes are very uncomfortable to be in for any length of time but may be the difference in a really tough ascent..
As with any specialty piece of equipment there isn’t one shoe that will be great for every type of climbing. If you can only get one though, get a shoe that is comfortable.
Having appropriate footwear to get to a climb is as important as having climbing shoes. Some climbs may involve walking on a trail for a long distance to get to them, while others may require some rock scrambling over easy climbing terrain. Generally speaking, the more comfortable the shoe is to walk in, the worse it will be to climb in, as excess padding or free space in a shoe will work against you while climbing. When walking long distances, trail running shoes or hiking boots (if carrying a very heavy pack) are great options. If walking shorter distances and/or rock scrambling is involved, a more dedicated climbing-specific approach shoe will be better suited. One should think about how long they want to be in any one pair of shoes and when rock specific climbing shoes will be put on, if at all, to decide which shoes to wear to the crag.
For getting to most crags around the Wasatch Mountains I will wear comfortable trail running shoes. If I am climbing a long easy route in the alpine that requires spending a lot of time rock scrambling, I will use dedicated approach shoes. And if the climbing gets hard I will then put on climbing shoes. If I am backpacking into, say, the Wind River Range to climb from a camp for a few days, it's likely I will have multiple pairs of footwear with me with the majority of trail miles happening in trail runners or hiking boots and then day trips in dedicated approach shoes and/or climbing shoes. That’s a lot of shoes!
Personal Protective Equipment
Your climbing rope is your lifeline and there are several types. If any lead climbing is done you will need a dynamic rope because they are designed to absorb the energy of a climber falling with it’s stretch. The exact rope you should get depends on its intended use. There are three general certification types of dynamic ropes: Single, Half and Twin. Generally speaking, the stretchier the rope is, the better it will absorb energy in a fall, but the more distance the climber will fall as a result. Thinner ropes tend to stretch more than thicker ones and they are also lighter and less durable. Mull that over.
For most climbers a Single rated rope will be what you know of and perhaps have used. These ropes by themselves are rated to withstand a falling climber alone and are comparatively quite durable. They stretch to absorb energy, but don't stretch a huge amount compared to other rope types. Half and Twin ropes are designed to be used with a second rope at the same time. These ropes are very thin, lightweight and super stretchy. On long multi-pitch climbs, where a climber will need two ropes to get down, using Half or Twin ropes can save weight and also add some redundancy in the case one rope is damaged. Some ropes also have multiple ratings and ‘triple rated’ ropes, or ropes certified to be used singular or together, are becoming more and more popular. These ropes tend to strike a good balance for multi pitch climbing. Don’t be fooled though, stretchy, thin ropes aren't good for everything. If you are going to primarily top rope and don't want a following climber to fall very far off the wall, these are not the ropes for you! They are also not nearly as abrasion resistant as thicker Single rated only ropes.
When seeking an appropriate climbing harness, fit and comfort while hanging in it are first and foremost. Some streamlined harnesses are a little lighter than others and that's great if it doesn't cause too much discomfort. If you hang in a harness all day on a big wall, you will want a harness with more padding. If you only climb single pitches and hang out on the ground a lot, something more minimalistic may suit you. Regardless of the harness you seek to use, having one with modern speed type buckles that avoid having to double back a waist belt are easier to use and safer overall. Harnesses with dedicated belay loops are also a must for convenience and comfort while belaying.
There are several types of belay devices on the market and you will want to use one that is suitable for the type of climbing you do. It is also possible that you may find that you would like more than one type of belay device on you on a climb.
In today's age, it is generally common practice to have a backup to any belay. This can be in the form of a second person ready to assist with the brake strand or by a single belayer using an assisted braking belay device (ABBD), that will fail-to-safe. The only real disadvantage of the ABBD is that they are often not well suited to rappelling (if it is needed to get down off a climb) as is often the case with multi-pitch climbs. The exact device someone chooses to use is largely based on personal preference, but having a combination of a plate/tube style traditional belay device for rappelling, in addition to an ABBD such as a Gri Gri is quite normal.
Protect your head. In rock climbing we not only face the danger of falling ourselves, but also the possibility of objects, including rocks, falling onto us. Modern climbing helmets are light and unobtrusive and there really isn’t a good excuse to not wear them considering the risk. This is especially the case at recently established climbing venues, climbs with soft rock such as limestone or sandstone, and anywhere there can be other climbers, people, or animals far above. Take the possibility of rockfall, even small rocks falling, quite seriously.
Some helmets are rated for you as the climber falling into objects and some are not. Traditionally helmets are not rated in this fashion, though that trend is slowly changing. Do your homework and know what you are buying and for what reason. New lead climbers in particular should strongly consider a multi-rated helmet as their ability to avoid getting tripped by the rope in a fall and ending up upside down may be less developed than with more seasoned/trained climbers.
What should I look for in a climbing shoe?
Depends on the type of climbing you do. Climbing shoes should offer a snug fit, but you should be able to wear them for the length of the climb without excessive pain. Flat sole shoes tend to be the most comfortable for being in for longer periods of time.
How often should I replace my climbing gear?
The longevity of gear varies. Check for visible wear and tear regularly, and replace as needed. Many soft goods, such as ropes, slings, dog-bones and harnesses will have a finite lifespan and each varies by manufacturer. UV light and chemicals are hard on soft goods!
Can I rent climbing gear?
Rentals are a great option for beginners, and they are available in some instances. Many climbing gyms rent shoes and harnesses but will likely not let you take them climbing outside of the gym on your own. Many outdoor shops rent climbing shoes, but you will have a hard time renting any soft goods such as harnesses or ropes due to their sensitive nature. Harnesses are relatively inexpensive and should be any climber's first purchase. Guide services often also will commonly rent or provide equipment for their clientele.
In the adventurous sport of climbing, your gear is much more than a collection of tools—it's your safe-keeping. Stay equipped, informed, and always favor safety over performance. As always, learn from experienced climbers, instructors and guides like the Utah-based Backcountry Pros. Happy climbing!