Like any outdoor activity, the clothes you wear for rock climbing can have a significant impact on your performance. For a sport such as rock climbing, it’s vital to make sure your clothing doesn’t get in the way and potentially become a danger to your safety. Many of the top outdoor clothing brands offer outfits specific to rock climbing, but deciding what’s necessary can be difficult. Whether you’re a first-time climber, an experienced outdoorsman looking for an equipment upgrade, or you’ve spent hours in the indoor climbing gym and want to be properly prepared for your inaugural outdoor excursion, this article contains everything you need to know.
We’ll take you through the entire process of finding the proper attire for your adventure. From the top of your head (a climbing helmet) down to your toes (climbing shoes are important) you’ll be properly outfitted for an excellent climbing experience. Picking out your clothing might not be as intuitive as you think, as there are plenty of climbing-specific aspects to your clothing you might not consider. Now let’s jump in and find out what to wear rock climbing.
What you should wear for indoor rock climbing
Indoor rock climbers are lucky in that they don’t have to contend with the weather. Without the risk of biting cold winds, wet downpours, or blinding sun, your options are fairly open. The most important aspects of indoor rock climbing clothes are comfort and flexibility. So long as you can wear a harness over the top, and your clothing choices aren’t too restrictive of your movement, you can wear almost anything you like.
Most people wear regular gym clothes when indoor rock climbing or bouldering. The closer fitting and more stretchy, the better, but you don’t need to worry too much. Sweatpants, yoga pants, leggings, and shorts are all adequate choices for legwear. If you wear shorts, make sure they’re long enough to fit the harness over. There’s nothing stopping you from wearing a pair of jeans, but it’s much harder to bend your legs in them, and the risk of tearing is raised. It’s better to choose clothing that moves with you, so you don’t have to think about anything but your next hand or foothold.
Extremes are to be avoided when picking out climbing attire; too tight and you could become uncomfortable, while too loose may cause entanglements. For example, yoga pants with a wide leg may get in the way of your feet, and you may find yourself stepping on your clothing. This can lead to ruined clothing as well as risking you slipping on the material, so it’s best to avoid overly baggy clothing. You can always tuck your trousers into your socks.
On top, a t-shirt or tank top should be perfectly comfortable. If you want to be a little warmer, any of your usual sweatshirts should be fine. Again, just avoid any item of clothing which may restrict your movement, or have a lot of excess material. Remember, you’ll need to wear a climbing harness over your clothes, so a bulky hoodie or fleece might get uncomfortable. Tighter fitting sweaters made from a stretchy material are the preferred choice.
When it comes to fabric choices, cotton is an easy option. You’ll be comfortable in this breathable fabric, so make the most of not needing any synthetic fibers or waterproofs as you do outdoors. Merino wool blends are also a great choice as they can help wick away moisture if your indoor climbing gets strenuous. Overall, you only need three simple things from your indoor clothing attire; comfort, full range of motion, and a reasonably tight fit.
One other thing to consider is your waistband. As your body folds over when you climb, an overly tight waistband could press uncomfortably into your stomach and even make you feel sick. It’s better to go with a waistband that has some element of elastic to prevent any unnecessary discomfort. Specialized climbing clothing will cover all these bases, but beginners don’t need to buy this expensive equipment. Just add a few additional parameters to your regular gym clothes and they should function perfectly for a trip up the indoor climbing wall.
What about a gusset?
If you’ve never heard of a gusset, you’re about to. Many outdoor clothing brands sew a gusset into their outdoor clothing to make them more adaptable to your body. A gusset is basically an additional piece of cloth, usually shaped like a diamond, which is sewn into the crotch of trousers. This small added extra allows for much more movement without constriction, making squatting, walking, climbing, and many movements more comfortable.
Gussets are found in both men’s and women’s clothing, in shorts, leggings, and trousers. They allow for a better range of movement and make uncomfortable moments less likely. They also have the added benefit of adding reinforcement to this fragile area, so you’re less likely to split your pants part-way up the climbing wall. Whether it’s indoor or outdoor, having a gusset in your climbing wardrobe is a huge improvement.
What you should wear for outdoor rock climbing
When it’s time to venture outdoors and climb a real mountain, picking your clothing requires a little more thought. You’ll need to think about both weather and the environment to make sure you’re adequately protected as well as comfortable. Layers are your friend, as with all outdoor activities, because you’ll get hotter when climbing the rock face, but cooler when waiting and belaying. In the summer and warm temperatures, choosing your outfit is easy. A hard-wearing pair of shorts with a gusset is all you need, along with a sports bra or tank top if necessary. Note that when wearing shorts you benefit from freer movement, but your knees are exposed to cuts and scrapes.
Outside of the fairer times of the year, picking your outfit gets a little more difficult. This is especially the case in winter when biting winds can give you a serious chill. Waterproof and windproof layers are a must, as well as insulated mid-layers. For your bottom half, a sturdy pair of trousers is a good idea. You could opt for the same sweatpants or yoga pants you wear inside, but sharp rock edges can easily tear holes in these items. The same rules apply as before; nothing too loose but make sure you’re comfortable and have a full range of motion.
On your upper body, a decent base layer is necessary. You could wear a t-shirt or long sleeve made from either synthetic materials or merino wool or cotton blend. A windproof mid-layer is also a great idea, something breathable and comfortable offering a decent layer of protection. Finally, a lightweight waterproof rain jacket should always be carried. Choose something thin that’s easy to pack away; you won’t need it most of the time but it will save your skin in a downpour. There’s no need for ultra-durable materials like Gore-Tex for your outdoor climbing excursions.
For long belays in cold weather, a puffer jacket is also recommended. Whether it’s down or synthetic, you’ll be thankful for some real protection from the cold while you’re hanging off the side of a mountain. Check out the best down jackets here. Some jackets and coats are designed with a hood to fit under your helmet, so you won’t lose any excess body heat while remaining safety conscious. These will be seamless and more fitted than your average coat hood. Waterproof jackets may have an extra-large hood to fit over the top of your helmet and cover you entirely. Here’s what you need to consider when deciding on your rock climbing outfit:
- Fit: As with indoor climbing clothes, prioritize a tight fit with a good amount of stretch. Loose and baggy clothes can be uncomfortable for one, and more importantly dangerous, so don’t put yourself at unnecessary risk. For roped climbing, trousers with a high waist can be much more comfortable with a harness, but it doesn’t matter for bouldering.
- Fabric materials: If you’re purely climbing, that is ascending a single rock face before returning to the bottom, and going back home, cotton is a fine choice. This material is more durable than expensive synthetic layers, so there’s no reason to risk tearing your fancy base layer. However, any expedition involving hiking, multi-pitch climbing, and belaying requires a moisture-wicking layer, otherwise, you’ll be wet and cold in between your times on the rock face. Synthetic-spandex and wool-spandex blend materials offer a good compromise between moisture control and stretch.
- Fabric technologies: You might want to choose a pair of trousers with a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating. We all know how uncomfortable it can be to do anything with wet trousers, and climbing can become downright impossible. A DWR coating has the added benefit of additional wind protection. Reinforced knees are also a common sight on climbing gear and a great idea for rock-scraping durability.
- Special Features: There are a number of special features you should look for in your climbing clothes which make time on the rock face much more pleasant. We’ve already mentioned helmet-fitting hoods, which are fantastic when climbing in the cold and rain. Many shorts and trousers made for climbing have a loop sewn into the waistband to hold your chalk bag when bouldering, so you don’t have to bother with an unnecessary harness. Zippered pockets are an absolute necessity, so you can have easy access to your phone, camera, and snacks. You should also look for clothing where the pockets are accessible even when wearing a harness, as many will be covered up. Chest and thigh pockets are the easiest to access, and these should be zippered also.
Rock climbing shoes
Complete rock climbing beginners can get away with wearing sneakers or running shoes, but after you’ve caught the climbing bug, you’ll probably want to invest in some more appropriate footwear. Climbing shoes are specially made to help you grip the rock, and they also allow you to feel the wall through your shoe much more than regular footwear. Unfortunately, climbing shoes are completely inappropriate for hiking, and given the curved sole of some designs can be very uncomfortable to walk in for any distance.
The approach to your climbing wall will require a different pair of shoes, so think carefully about your choice. If it’s only short distances from one climb to the next, any pair of shoes will do. Sneakers, walking shoes, and even sandals could suffice, and these have the benefit of being lightweight if you have to bring them up the wall with you. If you’re traversing rocky and uneven terrain on your way to the climb, then hiking boots are your only option. You don’t want to sprain your ankle on your way to the wall, or you’ll be watching your friends make the ascent from the bottom.
Your non-climbing footwear needs to be appropriate for the distance and terrain you’ll cross. Above all, it needs to be comfortable, as you need 100% of your foot power for the climb. Try not to injure or tire your feet too much before you reach the wall, as this will make climbing less pleasant. Now, on to the most important part of your entire climbing outfit. These are the three main types of climbing shoes you could use:
- Neutral climbing shoes: These are the most comfortable climbing shoes, an ideal choice for beginners, and the preferred option of many experienced traditional and multi-pitch climbers. These have a flat sole which allows your feet to remain straight and relaxed, a necessity for all-day climbing expeditions. However, the thicker and stiffer sole is less sensitive so you’ll feel less of the rock under your feet. For challenging overhangs, you’ll likely prefer a shoe with a better grip.
- Moderate climbing shoes: Moderate shoes are characterized by a slightly downturned shape, also called a camber. They’re also known as all-purpose climbing shoes, good for slab routes, crack climbs, slight overhangs, and bouldering. The camber puts your feet into a stronger position, allowing for more power in challenging positions. They’re less comfortable than neutral shoes, but more so than aggressive shoes, with a thin and sticky sole for improved grip and feel on the rock.
- Aggressive climbing shoes: This form of rock climbing footwear is purely performance-based, and doesn’t offer much in the comfort department. They have a steep camber and a downturned toe for the best grip on the smallest of holds. Most climbers only wear these shoes for single-pitch climbs as they’re very tight-fitting and hold your toes at quite the angle. However, for short bursts, the thin soles and optimized shape allows you to push your climbing ability to the limit.
When you’re out on the rock face all day, there isn’t much to shelter you from the sun. There’s little shade or coverage on mountain faces, so steps must be taken to protect you from harmful UV rays. Wearing suncream is a must, and SPF lip balm is also recommended. Some climbing and outdoor clothing have special technologies to help you stay safe while you adventure. If you’re climbing in the desert or other very sunny environments, wear a long sleeve top with ultraviolet protection fabrics. Don’t forget to wear a hat and protect your head if not using a helmet!
Specialized climbing clothes
While it isn’t necessary to have all the best gear for your first or second climbing excursion, eventually the cost of this equipment is worth it. Brands such as Patagonia, The North Face, Outdoor Research, La Sportiva, Prana, and Black Diamond offer clothing designed for climbers. They offer such features as abrasion-resistant knee patches and a gusseted crotch in climbing pants, which for sport climbers will come in incredibly useful. If you’ve decided that climbing is a hobby you want to pursue, buying lightweight technical apparel from expert brands is a worthwhile investment.
Choosing the right clothing for your climb isn’t just about looking good; it makes a huge difference in both your performance and enjoyment. The correct attire will let you climb anyway you like, and give you complete freedom on the rock face. On the other hand, pick the wrong clothes and you could be in for a quite unpleasant experience. The most important thing is that you’re comfortable, you have a full range of movement, and that you’re safe. To ensure these three parameters are fulfilled, choose loose-fitting clothing with a good amount of stretch, but without any baggy excess material. Make sure you have the right protection from the elements, and you’re good to go!
Bonus tip: Check out this handy video from REI on how to pick the correct climbing shoes!