Indoor vs Outdoor Climbing: What You Need to Know


Once you’ve been climbing indoors for a little while and are comfortable with the mechanics of climbing and belaying, you might be interested in climbing outdoors. Climbing outdoors is a lot of fun, but there are some added risks and challenges that you need to be aware of.

The biggest hurdle for indoor climbers to overcome is the increased mental focus and exposure. While gym climbing takes place in a nice climate-controlled cushioned playground, outdoor climbing is full of adventure and risks. Indoor climbing is great training for outdoor climbing, and is great because it’s more accessible and can be done year round.

Indoor Climbing vs. Outdoor Climbing

Here are some of the main differences between indoor and outdoor climbing:

  • Indoor climbing is a safer than outdoor climbing
  • Indoor climbing focuses on strength, whereas outdoor climbing focuses on endurance
  • Indoor climbing is a more social activity and outdoor climbing is more solitary
  • Rock is a lot more abrasive than plastic, so climbing outdoors is harder on your hands
  • Indoor climbing is easier than outdoor climbing, meaning that outdoor routes are usually harder than indoor routes of the same grade
  • Outdoor climbing requires more gear than indoor climbing
  • Outdoor climbing can have long, remote approaches, while indoor climbing is just a short drive away
  • Indoor climbing can be done year-round, but outdoor climbing is dependent on the season and weather
  • Climbing outdoors requires more puzzle-solving skills, while indoor climbing requires more special techniques

Is Rock Climbing Indoors or Outdoors Better?

Climbing indoors or outdoors shouldn’t be treated as an either/or. Each one has its distinct advantages and disadvantages, so the best routine is a mix of both. For me, I love the convenience of indoor climbing and the adventure of outdoor climbing.

Some people only climb outdoors, and ridicule those who ‘pull plastic’ a few days a week (or heaven forbid, on the weekends!). They say that rock climbing in its purest form is only trad, and that all others are lesser forms. Nevermind that the strongest climbers in the world all train indoors!

Other climbers only ever climb indoors because the thought of climbing outside is intimidating. I compare it to running around a track or on a treadmill versus trail running- you have to run on a treadmill or around a track in order to stay in shape, but trail running is a lot more fun.

Is Rock Climbing Indoors or Outdoors a Better Workout?

Excluding the long and strenuous approaches required to get to some crags, indoor climbing is a much better workout. A climbing gym hosts a wide variety of routes and problems from 5.easy to around 5.13. You would have a really hard time finding that variety of routes in a single area anywhere in the world.

When you climb outside you spend a lot of time clipping bolts or placing protection, hiking in and hiking out, and setting and removing anchors. With indoor climbing you just have to harness up and slip your shoes on. A day at the crag can consist of climbing only 4-6 routes with a group of 3 people. In the gym you can climb 4-6 routes in two hours!

In the gym it’s easy to push your grade and tackle a bouldering problem that’s outside of your comfort zone. You have a big thick pillow to catch you if you fall. The same thing applies to top rope routes- it’s just not a big deal if you fail at a harder route.

This makes it easy to get better and stronger. Climbing outdoors, especially leading, climbing above your grade means sketchy falls and leaving gear on the wall.

The main advantage that climbing outdoors has over climbing indoors in terms of a workout is the overall height of the routes. Outdoor routes are usually a lot longer than even the tallest indoor walls, so climbs take endurance instead of just strength. Multi-pitch days can mean climbing hundreds of feet straight without stopping.

For more information on rock climbing as a workout, read the articles by our Registered Dietitian, Is Rock Climbing a Good Workout? and Does Rock Climbing Burn Fat?

Is Outdoor Climbing Harder than Indoor?

There are two main factors that make climbing indoors easier than climbing outdoors. The first is that the routes are marked out in front of you with bright colored holds. You can tell exactly where you need to put your hand or foot, and you just have to figure out which goes where (kind of like Twister!).

This is in contrast to climbing outdoors where you sometimes have to examine a slab of rock for minutes, hours, or days (see The Dawn Wall) in order to find a good enough hold.

The second reason climbing indoors is easier than climbing outdoors is the mental aspect. I find it kind of hard to get the fight-or-flight adrenaline pumping during an indoor climbing session like happens all the time outside.

A fall indoors is a fall in a controlled environment. Outdoors there is always more risk- Will the protection hold? Will I hit the deck? Will I pendulum? Will I dislodge a rock?

All of these questions go through your mind in a split second as you cling to the rock holding your breath and reaching for the next placement. It can be really hard for some climbers to overcome the increased exposure and risk of climbing outside.

Aside from the physical difficulties with climbing outdoors, you also need to accrue a lot more technical knowledge and expertise. This includes anchor building, leading (whether trad or sport), and basic wilderness first aid and self-rescue.

Climbing Grades Indoors vs Outdoors

It’s common knowledge that climbing grades vary between gyms, states, and countries. I re-learned this the hard way after college when I took my 5.12a gym grade at The Quarry in Provo, Utah and barely got up a 5.9 at the Cochise Stronghold in Southern Arizona. In addition to varying between regions, grades also vary between indoor and outdoor climbing.

Part of the reason that this happens is that gyms are often targeted at new climbers. The bouldering system in the US (Hueco/V-scale) starts at V0, which is a moderate grade for roped climbing (see my article about top rope climbing for more info).

Gyms set routes and problems with big holds and close placement and call them V0, even though they wouldn’t even count as a bouldering problem outdoors. The easiest gym route of 5.7 wouldn’t match a 5.7 route outdoors.

This does vary by gym, since some try to more closely match what is going on outside, but is pretty common. You can usually plan on climbing a full grade lower outdoors from your indoor best based on the increased difficulty and sandbagging that can occur. At the same time, gyms max out at around 5.13, but you can find more difficult routes outside.

Is Climbing Indoors Safer than Climbing Outdoors?

Climbing indoors is a lot like climbing outdoors- after wrapping yourself in bubble wrap. With big thick padded floors, indestructible anchors, and safety rovers, it’s sort of surprising that there are even accidents in climbing gyms. There actually have been a handful of fatalities in climbing gyms over the past twenty years, and all can be largely attributed to user error.

Universal Climbing Accidents

No matter where you climb- indoors or outside- and no matter what style of climbing you do- from bouldering and top rope climbing to trad and ice climbing- there are a few common injuries that you can expect at some point. These include finger strains, twisted ankles, and bumps and bruises. The most extreme common injuries are broken bones.

These happen when people fall ‘funny’ bouldering or when their belayer lowers them too quickly. It can happen when people forget to tie into the rope, or tie in incorrectly.

These can pretty much all be prevented by safe climbing practices like clear communication, proper belaying technique, and double checking your setup.

Outdoor Climbing Accidents

Rock Fall

One of the first things that you’ll notice when you start climbing outside is that you need to wear a helmet. While helmet usage is far from 100%, it has steadily grown over the past decades as helmet technology has made them more comfortable. I wrote more about helmets in the article Do I Need a Helmet for Rock Climbing?

We wear helmets when climbing outside because of the risk of rock fall. In a gym you can conceivably be hit by a piece of falling gear or a cell phone if someone is careless above you, but they aren’t going to break off a hold.

Climbing outdoors though, it’s fairly common for climbers to break off softball-sized holds and accidentally send them hurtling towards the belayer. This is dangerous for both parties. Additionally, you never know when the top rope will knock some rocks free. Like the road signs say, watch for falling rocks.

Falling

Just like climbing indoors, lots of outdoor climbing accidents result in sprained ankles or wrists when a climber is lowered too quickly. Keep in mind that the ground, whether dirt or rock, is a lot harder than the thick foam pad at your gym. Try not to come in quite as hot, and be especially careful when bouldering.

Bumps, Scrapes, and Bruises

You learn pretty quickly that different types of rock are sharper than others, but that all rock is sharper than climbing gym plastic! Between abrasive sandstone and razor-sharp granite, you can really get your hands in bad shape quickly. It’s important to be prepared with tape and bandages and to be ready to call it a day if you get a bad cut.

Oversight

Occasionally someone at the crag (usually an old guy) will point out something about your technique that could be improved (or so I’ve heard!). It can be annoying, but we’re all grateful for the reminder. At the gym though, 15-year olds police the area looking for anyone exhibiting less-than-stellar belaying technique.

Climbing outside, without someone constantly looking over your shoulder you can easily get complacent and make mistakes. Check your knot and your partner’s knot, and then check them again.

Proximity to Rescue

Another very important factor to keep in mind is your distance from help. Every step of a hairy approach is a step that you would have to be evacuated by stretcher, so the farther you go into the backcountry the more careful you need to be.

It’s really helpful to have basic first aid training and to be ready to treat common climbing injuries. Always let someone know where you are going and when to expect to hear from you.

The Elements

One big challenge to climbing outside is the weather. On hot days you can be at risk to heat stroke, and on cold days frostbite. There are some crazy stories of climbers getting hit by lightening too. Dress for the weather and be ready to call it quits if a storm rolls in. See my article about What to Wear for Outdoor Climbing for more info.

The Cold, Hard Truth

Lots of people worry that ropes will get severed or carabiners will break, but those types of gear failure are extremely rare. Accidents happen when people lose their focus and either get distracted or lazy and make mistakes.

Climbing outdoors is more dangerous because the margin for error is much lower and the stakes are higher. Most climbing risks can be mitigated, but outdoors there is always the chance of a freak accident.

For more information on climbing accidents and how to stay safe, read these two articles: How Many People Die Rock Climbing? and Is Indoor Rock Climbing Dangerous?

Skills Needed to Translate Indoor Climbing to Outdoor Climbing

There’s really not much to climbing indoors. You need to be comfortable tying a figure 8 follow through knot. You need to learn how to take slack in a Grigri or other belay device.

If you take up lead climbing indoors you need to understand a little bit more about belaying and clipping bolts. While these are build a necessary foundation for outdoor climbing, there’s a lot more you need to know.

Lead Climbing

One of the most google’d questions about rock climbing is ‘how do climbers get their rope up there?’ It can be pretty mind-boggling for someone to image a climber free-soloing to the top of a cliff so they can tie a rope for others to follow! Fortunately, as you know, that’s not how it works.

Lead climbing, whether sport or trad, takes rock climbing to the next level. It introduces a healthy amount of risk that helps you really dial in your focus and fully commit to the rock. The penalty of a fall is increased as the risks are heightened. With this added risk comes some additional required knowledge.

Constant, clear communication is extremely important. Your belayer needs to know when you are placing protection or clipping bolts so that they can feed slack and watch for a fall. They need to know when you’re going to attempt something that could likely lead to a fall.

For sport climbing, clip quickdraws so that the gate faces away from the direction of the route so that the rope doesn’t push the gate into the rock as you go. Be careful not to z-clip by always grabbing the rope right at your harness and pulling it up. Make sure quickdraws go all the way through bolts and don’t get caught just resting on the nose, since they can easily break this way.

Don’t step over the rope- it should always go down between your legs or else you’re at a risk of getting flipped upside down. Practice taking controlled falls as both a climber and a belayer so that you’re ready for the real thing.

Practice clipping draws into bolts and clipping the rope into draws so that it becomes second nature. There’s nothing worse than fumbling with the rope while shaking on a couple of tiny holds well above the protection below.

Anchor Building

The most important thing to remember about anchors is that they only work if you are tied to them. Lots of accidents happen when climbers neglect to secure themselves to the anchor before untying the rope or when they are walking along a cliff’s edge setting up a top rope. Use a personal anchor system of some sort to keep yourself always attached to some sort of protection.

There are two main types of anchors you’ll encounter when climbing outdoors. The vast majority of crags have bolts and chains or other permanent hardware like Shuts or Mussy Hooks.

The ethics in most areas dictate that you add your own carabiners or quickdraws to the anchor and run the rope through those instead so that you don’t wear out the communal permanent hardware.

The other type of anchor you will come across is a natural anchor, such as a boulder or tree. Some have chains, but most use webbing and quick links. Evaluate the webbing for any signs of wear or sun damage before using it. Webbing can wear out very quickly in certain conditions.

Whether you use permanent anchors or build your own, make sure that they are safe. Use the acronym EARNEST as a checklist for anchor safety. For more information on building safe anchors, read my article on Top Rope Climbing. Learn how to make safe anchors from a reputable source and practice them before you are 100ft. above the ground.

On Rappel!

Rappelling versus Lowering

Going along with the need to understand anchors, you need to decide how to get down. When you’re climbing indoors and you either reach the top or decide to come down, you simply call out to your belayer and lean back on the rope while they lower you. The anchors consist of a huge metal bar that will probably never actually wear out.

Climbing outdoors, the anchor materials are a lot thinner. Aluminum quick links, chains, and even carabiners start to wear out after ropes saw back and forth through them for a while. Ropes pick up little grains of dirt and sand, so they run through the metal hardware like sandpaper.

Since the hardware doesn’t last forever, and since it is communal hardware put up by a local climber or a local climbing group, it is common practice not to lower off of fixed gear.

This means the leader adds their own carabiners or quickdraws to the anchor and threads the rope through them instead. The last person has to remember to remove them and go straight through the anchors, at which point the lowering vs rappelling debate begins.

Climbers are pretty split as to whether you should rappel off of the top of climbs or be lowered by your belayer. On the one hand, it’s a lot faster since the climber can start going down immediately, and the climber doesn’t have to disconnect from the rope at any point.

On the other, rappelling allows for more control, and less wear and tear on the gear. The belayer can still utilize a simple fireman’s belay to ensure the rappel is safe.

It’s really important to communicate with your belayer beforehand whether you intend to rappel or be lowered from the top. Lots of accidents happen when someone leans back against a weightless rope because the belayer assumed the climber would rappel. Communicate beforehand, especially when climbing with a new partner.

You can learn how to rappel in my article: How to Rappel.

Housekeeping

The other thing to keep in mind is that outdoors there is no cleaning crew to go through the crag after you finish for the day. If you drop some trash or make a mess, it’ll be there for the next climber. Lots of climbing areas are on private land, so leaving behind a big mess can jeopardize access for the rest of us.

Always use established trails and be careful not to interfere with any plants or wildlife. Trail erosion has become a serious issue at many of the more popular crags around the world, and land owners start to question whether they should continue to allow climbing.

Loud music isn’t welcomed when climbing outdoors unless you’re the only one in the area, and dogs (even yours that you promise doesn’t bite) should be kept on leash if anyone else is around. These can both interfere with or distract the belayer and hamper communication with the climber.

It’s important to learn and practice Leave No Trace principles. This includes going to the bathroom. While it can be okay to just dig a hole (6-8″ deep at least, and 200′ from the nearest trail or water source) in remote climbing areas, you can’t do that at more popular crags. Imagine the mess it would make in places that saw climbers every single day! Keep some sort of wag bag (like this one on Amazon) in your pack just in case.

What Extra Gear do you Need to Start Climbing Outdoors?

Most of the gear you accumulate climbing indoors can be used outdoors as well. Some people like to have a specific pair of climbing shoes for each, since shoes tend to get worn more quickly outdoors, but it’s not necessary. For specific information on the gear that we use and recommend, take a look at our Recommended Gear Page.

Essential Gear for Climbing Indoors

  • Climbing Shoes
  • Harness
  • Locking Carabiner (usually provided by the gym)
  • Belay Device (usually provided by the gym)
  • Dynamic Rope (for lead climbing, depending on the gym)

Essential Gear for Climbing Outdoors

  • Everything listed as necessary above
  • Helmet
  • Dynamic Climbing Rope (usually either 60 or 70 meters, shared)
  • 12-14 Quickdraws (shared)
  • 3+ Locking Carabiners (shared)
  • Personal Anchor System (shared)

Optional Gear:

  • Chalk Bag
  • Chalk (gyms don’t usually allow loose chalk, so do a chalk ball or sock)
  • Belay Glasses (shared)
  • Brush
  • Belay Device (used to rappel down after climbing)
  • Rope Bag with Tarp

Climbing multipitch and climbing trad require a lot more gear, but this list will get you started with basic sport climbing and top roping outdoors.

In Conclusion

It’s possible to teach yourself to start climbing outdoors after learning indoors, but I recommend learning from a qualified source or a friend (or both). There are lots of intricacies to climbing outdoors, but that shouldn’t keep anyone from trying it out.

What are you waiting for?

Related Questions

How do You Fall Bouldering Outside? When bouldering outdoors you lay down a thick pad of foam called a crash pad beneath where you anticipate falling. Additionally, your partner(s) gathers around to spot you and help direct your fall onto the pad or pads.

Is Rock Climbing Hard for Beginners? The technical skills and physical fitness are not difficult. The hardest part for beginners is overcoming their fear of heights and learning to trust both the gear and their partner.

See Also:

The History of Rock Climbing

What is Canyoneering?

What to Wear Climbing Outdoors

Jake Harmer

Husband, Father, Wild Animal. If I could explore canyons and cliffs every day, I would. For now, I dream about it during the week and go hard on the weekends. Living in the St. George area with my wife and kids.

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