A basic guide to finding your route at the rock climbing gym

This controlled environment can boost the confidence of beginners and experts alike.

Nothing beats pawing dirty rock with your bare hands.

But, just like with any sport, participants are sometimes forced to practice indoors. For climbers, late nights and stormy days often mean a trip to the rock-climbing gym -- but playing inside isn’t a bad thing at all.

While there will be quite a few rocks around you to use, try to only land on the grips labeled with your route's color. Photo by Brandon Scherzberg.

While there will be quite a few rocks around you to use, try to land only on the grips labeled with your route’s color. Photo: Courtesy of Brandon Scherzberg

Climbing gyms are safe, controlled environments where beginners can learn and advanced climbers can brush up on their technique without worrying about sunburn and spiders. Win-win.

Check out our basic guide to finding the right route for you at the climbing gym.

The basics

Most climbing gyms are the same: a tall building with artificially constructed walls (usually 20 to 60 feet high) with grips for both hands and feet that mimic the sizes and shapes of holds on outdoor rocks.

The walls can be brick or wood, but most are made from thick multiplex boards with holes drilled into them. (Your gym may even use steel or aluminum.) The grips on the walls vary in size, shape and color and gym staff swap them around to design routes for all levels of climbers.

The tie-in

Photo by Brandon Scherzberg.

Go ahead, step it up. Photo: Courtesy of Brandon Scherzberg

Almost every gym offers top-roped climbs, with a rope running through a carabiner attached to a bolt in the ceiling of the gym or to the very top of the wall.

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You’ll tie into the end of the rope coming down from the ceiling, and your belay partner will stay on the floor. Some gyms have slings bolted to the floor that the belayer can clip onto to keep them from flying into the air or slamming into the wall if you fall while climbing.

If you don’t have a partner or just want to play around, try bouldering to the left or right while staying below a marked line on the wall.

Finding your route

First find the route with the right rating, then follow that color up the wall. Photo by Brandon Scherzberg.

First find the route with the right rating, then follow that color up the wall. Photo: Courtesy of Brandon Scherzberg

Top-rope routes are rated by level of difficulty. Each country has its own rating system, but for the U.S., gyms usually offer routes rated from 5.5 (beginner) to 5.14 (expert). Under each grip there will be a label or piece of colored tape.

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First, find a route with the rating you need -- it might be named, for example, “5.7, Wayne’s World” -- and notice what color tape it’s written on. As you start climbing, use only grips labeled with the same color tape.

If you’re really struggling, there will be other grips all around you can use, but try as hard as you can to only use grips with the right color tape.