What to wear rock climbing?
A beginner's guide to what to wear rock climbing indoors and outside
Posted on Tue 14 Jun 2022 · Climbing Tips
Rock climbing gear has evolved a lot since the early days of the sport, and so has the clothing. While present day sport climbers may not look as cool as the lycra-clad climbers of the 1980s, we do have a much larger range of specialist clothing at our disposal - from super stretchy climbing jeans, to sports bras designed especially to fit climbers' broader backs.
If you are new to rock climbing, however, the price of this specialist clothing can be a little off-putting. Thankfully, you don't actually need to invest in all of the latest climbing clothing straight away to enjoy a fun and successful session at the crag. With a little creativity, most people find that they can make do with items they already own.
This guide is designed to help you get a better idea of what to wear rock climbing both indoors and outside. The main takeaway is that you should climb in whatever clothing feels most comfortable to you. After all, you are the expert on your body!
The best rock climbing outfit is whatever you feel most comfortable in © Faustine Wheeler
What to wear rock climbing indoors
Indoor climbing walls are generally sheltered from the elements, so finding an outfit to climb in is pretty straightforward. When climbing at the gym you should aim to wear comfortable, breathable clothing that you can move freely in.
The clothes you usually workout in should be suitable. If in doubt, a t-shirt and tracksuit, shorts or leggings is a good place to start.
Here are a few things to bear in mind:
- Avoid excessively loose clothing as this can catch on holds and equipment. Items such as scarves should be tucked into t-shirts to avoid this.
- Consider whether you’ll need to wear a harness (unless you’re bouldering, then yes). If so, we recommend wearing a top long enough to tuck into the waistband (avoid crop tops). If you opt for shorts, then make sure that these are long enough to cover the area under the leg loops. Women's shorts in particular tend to be a bit too short for this, so I would choose some longer biking or hiking shorts that come to a few inches above the knee.
- Many gyms are located in converted warehouses, churches, quarries - basically buildings that are not very well insulated. This means that it can get very cold in winter! Come prepared: a fleece, belay jacket (or extra fleece), hat, and warm socks are recommended.
- We’ll talk about climbing shoes later in this article, but if you are top-roping or lead climbing it's worth bringing some shoes to wear while belaying. Best practice is to wear shoes that cover your toes, such as trainers or crocs.
You probably already own some suitable clothes to wear climbing in the gym, such as a t-shirt and tracksuit or leggings © Mapo Tapo
What to wear rock climbing outside
If you’re planning to go rock climbing outdoors, you may have to think a little more carefully about what you wear. There’s two reasons for this. Firstly, you’ll be exposed to the elements all day, so you need clothing to help you adapt to weather and temperature changes. Secondly, rock tends to be a lot more abrasive than plastic holds - choose clothes made from durable fabric!
Here are some of our recommendations:
Rock climbing pants
As mentioned above, the rock can be sharp and easily tear clothing made from thinner material. So while I'm a big fan of wearing harem-style pants when climbing at the gym, if I'm going to the crag I'll usually choose something a little more tight-fitting and made from thicker material. You’ll find plenty of specially made climbing trousers on the market but hiking trousers (if you already own these) can be a great alternative. Otherwise, thicker tracksuits or gym shorts generally do the trick.
A quick note on leggings: while many people do choose to wear these when climbing outdoors, they can rip quite easily! I've personally destroyed a couple pairs by falling over during the approach to the crag... If in doubt, you can buy some specially made sturdy climbing leggings, or choose some made from a more durable material such as bamboo.
Above: Climbers during the first Mapo Tapo trip to Jordan, demonstrating the wide range of different clothing that can be worn climbing © Diego Lape
Below: Aaaaaand stretch. Climbing trousers definitely have their uses: stretchiness if one of them! © Dario Cressoni
Rock climbing tops
When it comes to t-shirts and tops for rock climbing, choose something breathable, sweat-wicking and long enough to fit under a harness. You probably already own a t-shirt or vest from another sport (e.g. running or hiking) that is suitable. In winter, wear a long-sleeved base layer under your top to help keep you warm.
If you want to demonstrate your commitment to responsible tourism, why not invest in one of our Mapo Tapo 'I climb off the beaten track' tops? Made from a blend of organic cotton and bamboo, these will keep you comfortable and protect you from UV rays, all while looking super cool :) Head to our shop for more information.
Mapo Tapo co-founders Alessia and Dani bouldering in the awesome 'I climb off the beaten track tops' © Roberto Mori (above) and Dario Cressoni (below)
Rock climbing sports bra
Although rock climbing is a pretty low impact sport, you may want to wear a more supportive sports bra for the walk-ins. Bear in mind that climbing uses your lats and other upper-back muscles a lot, so avoid anything that restricts you in this area.
If (like me) you end up falling in love with climbing, you'll probably find that regular sports bras become quite uncomfortable as your back muscles develop. Luckily, there are a number of climbing specific sports bras on the market designed to circumvent this problem. Check out holdbreaker x if you haven’t already.
Sport climbing in Sicily almost always means warmer weather © Massimo Cappuccio
Outer layers for rock climbing
Layering is essential when climbing outdoors as you’ll be going between periods of intense exertion (while climbing or hiking in to the crag) and standing still while belaying. Some crags are more windy and exposed that others, so it's best to come prepared.
While packing for your day out, remember that having sufficient warm and waterproof clothing is a matter of safety as well as comfort. In the unfortunate event that you (or someone at the crag) has an accident or gets injured, you'll need extra layers to stay warm while waiting for help to arrive. You also DO NOT want to be in a position where you get soaked to the bone because you forgot to bring a raincoat - at best it's unpleasant, and at worst, dangerous.
In colder weather, you will probably have to climb with a few extra layers on. Choose something lightweight and warm - such as the fleece pictured above. © Jan Zahula
Here’s what I usually have in my bag:
- A fleece (or two, depending on how cold it is). If you’re bringing two, make sure they can be worn together.
- A belay jacket (synthetic or down). These will keep you warm while waiting to climb, and usually have a zip system allowing for easier access to your harness.
- A waterproof hardshell - this is essential no matter how warm and sunny it is. If you’re far from your car or climbing in an area with lots of rain, it's worth having waterproof trousers as well.
- A warm hat and belay gloves (in winter), a cap and sunglasses (in summer).
- If it’s very cold, wear a breathable base layer under your usual climbing clothes to help keep you from cooling down too much in between climbs.
Having a good pair of sturdy approach shoes is essential if you plan to climb outdoors, especially if your approach includes technical terrain or scrambling © Roberto Mori
Approach Shoes for Rock Climbing
When climbing outdoors, you’ll often have a walk-in approach to get to the crag. This can vary from a few seconds to a few hours long, and can include some pretty steep and technical terrain! It’s important to wear the correct footwear for this to help prevent you getting injured, falling, or worse.
There’s a huge range of climbing-specific approach shoes on the market. These tend to be sturdier than your standard trainer, and have soles made from the same sticky rubber that you’ll find on your climbing shoes.
However, if you don’t want to invest in a new pair of shoes right away, you can always wear hiking boots or trail-running shoes for your approach, as these offer good support and traction. Normal trainers should be suitable for most of the less-technical approaches, but you'll definitely want something with better traction if your approach includes steep terrain or a scramble. You can find out all this information in the guidebook to the crag.
A note on flipflops: you may see some people belaying in these at the crag - don’t follow their example! Lead falls in particular involve significant forces, and often the belayer might need to run in or back to pay out / take in slack. You really don’t want your shoes flying off in these scenarios... However, sandals can be a good option when bouldering as a shoe to slip on between attempts.
Climbing shoes should be tight - but not so tight that you can bear to put them on © Mapo Tapo
What are the best rock climbing shoes?
To give you a concise answer, the best rock climbing shoes are those that fit you best. Unfortunately, it's not quite as simple as it sounds...
Finding the ‘best’ climbing shoes for you (and learning how to size them optimally) is a process that can take years. Often, your choice of preferred climbing shoe will also change as you evolve as a climber and your goals shift. Most advanced climbers usually own multiple pairs of shoes of different sizes and models, which they will use for different rock types and climbing styles.
As a beginner, the most important thing is to find a shoe that fits you well. This means it should be tight enough for you to step on smaller holds (your toes should be a little curled up at the end) but not so tight that you are constantly in pain.
I cannot stress enough the importance of going to a specialist climbing shop and trying on different models and sizes - let the staff know that you’re buying your first pair of shoes and they can help advise you. Most shops have a traverse wall or some small footholds you can try the shoes out on. Some shoes may also stretch more than others, so ask the staff if in doubt.
A well-fitted climbing shoe is essential if you want to be able to keep pressure through your feet when tackling steeper terrain © Dario Cressoni
Can you wear jeans rock climbing?
This is a controversial one! I would say it’s down to personal preference.
Commercial jeans tend not to be very stretchy or breathable, and so they’re not ideal for a sport that requires good mobility through the knees and hips. However, some climbers do find that stretchy skinny jeans work for them. I even met a guy at the crag who swore by his £4 Tesco jeans!
Brands such as 3rd Rock have developed jeans specifically made for climbing, which have the benefit of being super sturdy and looking great without compromising on the stretch. They do tend to be quite pricey though!
Jeans, leggings, or climbing trousers - what you climb in is down to personal preference © Esteban Lahoz
Should you wear gloves rock climbing?
While you’re climbing - no! It may be tempting if the rock is cold, but gloves will seriously undermine your ability to grip. We get it, every new climber goes through a phase of painful skin and blistered hands - but don’t worry, you’ll soon build up some calluses :) As for the cold rock, I have yet to find a solution aside from hand warmers, a vigorous warm-up, lots of layers, and hot tea…
That being said, you CAN wear gloves while belaying. In fact, many companies sell specially-made heavier-duty ‘belay gloves’ which keep your hands warm while increasing your grip on the rope. These can take a little while to get used to, but will come to save the day if you suffer from cold hands or poor circulation!
Rock climbing in gloves may be tempting in colder weather, but it really hinders your ability to grip the rock © Massimo Cappuccio
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We hope this article has given you some ideas of what to wear rock climbing. Remember, the most important thing is to choose a climbing outfit that you feel comfortable in. If you want to spend the money on specialist climbing clothing, then that's great - but there's many alternative options if you want to take part in the sport without a heavy financial commitment.
Any readers heading out on a Mapo Tapo trip soon should also check out this useful guide on what to pack for a climbing trip.
For any questions, don't hesitate to get in touch!
Cover photo © Jan Zahula