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The Complete Guide to Climbing by the BMC

All you need to know about climbing on walls and rock... By The BMC
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Looking to get into climbing but not sure where to start? Or perhaps you’ve mastered the indoor wall and are looking to climb outdoors on real rock for the first time. We’ve teamed up with the BMC to bring you a run-down of top climbing tips.

The British Mountaineering Council, or the BMC, is the voice of climbers across the UK, from novices to professionals. With over 75,000 members, they’re dedicated to helping more people get out and enjoy climbing, and to make this possible their members receive discounts on kit, travel, insurance and more. Cotswold Outdoor customers can get a year’s membership for just £10, so there’s never been a better time to give it a shot!

Man in Helmet on Climbing Course

Start Indoors on a Wall

The safest and most fun way to start climbing is indoors on a climbing wall. Plenty of towns in the UK now have a wall, so it’s easier than ever to give it a go. At the majority of walls, you’ll be able to rent gear, allowing you to try it out without forking out a fortune on kit. They’re also great places to meet like-minded individuals who are just getting started too.

To find your nearest wall, take a look at the BMC’s climbing wall directory, where you can search by postcode or place name.

Indoors Climbing Wall

Moving From Wall to Rock

© Image courtesy of Mountain Equipment

Once you have become confident on a wall, you may wish to give it a go outdoors on real rock. Climbing outdoors offers lots of new benefits. You’ll be able to experience new places, push your abilities further and learn new techniques.

There are a few ways that you can make the transition from indoors to outdoors both easier and safer:

  1. Take a climbing course

A great way to make the transition is to sign up for an indoor to outdoor course. You’ll learn the basic skills needed to use ropes safely, as well as being introduced to issues unique to the outdoor environment like access and conservation. The BMC offers two outdoor courses at a subsidised rate. Rock Out is run at walls by local instructors in towns and cities across the UK, while Ready to Rock courses regularly take place at Plas y Brenin in Wales. If there isn’t a BMC course near you, ask at your local wall if they offer any similar courses.

  1. Join a climbing club

Joining a club has loads of benefits. You’ll meet new people, see new places, and benefit from the experience of all the members of the group. Most clubs are open to people of all abilities, and advertise for new members on notice boards at local walls or kit shops. The BMC also has a list of clubs on their website. If you’re a member of the BMC, you’ll be able to join your local BMC club.

  1. Go with more experienced climbers

One of the best things you can do when you are first starting to climb outdoors is to go with people more experienced than yourself. This means that you not only get to see amazing new places, but you’ll also learn a huge amount about staying safe.

  1. Hit the books

It’s also a good idea to take a look at some of the information and support that’s available to you before you hit the rock. There’s a huge amount of online videos on BMC TV, demonstrating the equipment and skills needed to climb outdoors. Finally, think about getting a trad guidebook for the area. You’ll be able to find detailed routes, plus information about the type of rock you’ll encounter. The BMC have an extensive range of guidebooks, so check them out before you go.

What's the Difference Between Indoor and Outdoor Climbing?

When you first move outdoors, you’ll notice some big differences. Learning how to climb outdoors is a skill that takes a lifetime to perfect, but to help you to make the transition we’ve highlighted a few pointers below:

  1. The most striking difference between the indoor and outdoor environment is the lack of safety equipment already in place. This means that at least one person in your group needs to be comfortable leading so that they can put up the rope for others to second or top rope.
  2. In addition, you need to understand the routes you intend to climb. Unlike indoors, outdoor climbs are not clearly marked, and spotting the ‘line’ can take some practice. It therefore helps to go with a guide or somebody who already knows the area.
  3. You also need to think about things like the length of the route, how much rope you’ll need, how many quickdraws you’ll need, and whether you can safely use a prusik and abseil. These things are simple to resolve when on the ground, but can pose significant problems if encountered when you’ve already set out.
  4. It’s also important to understand what type of climbing you will be attempting. This is vital as different forms require different types of equipment.

Climbing Rope

Types of Rock Climbing

There are three different types of rock climbing, each with their own styles and equipment:

Sport climbing is what you will probably be most familiar with, as this is what’s typically done in gyms. This involves climbing up to where metal bolts have been drilled into the rock, at which point a quickdraw is attached, and the rope is secured. This process of ‘clipping in’ is repeated throughout the route. This way the climber secures themselves as they progress higher.

Traditional (Trad) climbing involves the first climber placing protection into the rock. As traditional protection is only temporarily placed, these are then removed by the following climber, resulting in no damage. This type classically requires the most equipment and because you’re placing your own protection, generally requires a good technical understanding.

Bouldering involves tackling short, difficult climbs on sections of low-lying rock. As it takes place close to the ground, bouldering is done without the use of ropes. But to make it safer, portable bouldering mats are used that protect from falls. Bouldering outside is very different from indoor centres and is a great way to develop strength and problem solving.

Outdoor Climbing Equipment

© Image courtesy of Mountain Equipment

Once you know what sort of climbing you will be doing, you need to consider what type of equipment you will need. These include but are not limited to:

  • Climbing shoes: Snug-fitting with sticky-rubber soles, designed to give the foot better traction on rock.
  • Chalk bag: A small bag attached to the waist containing chalk that is used to dry sweaty hands, increasing grip on the rock.
  • Harness: A harness is worn around the waist and upper legs, and is used to safely attach a climber to the rope.
  • Belay device: Attaches to the central loop at the front of the harness via a karabiner, and works by applying friction to stop the fall of a climber.
  • Helmet: Falling objects and rocks are less of a problem indoors, but outside they are worth safeguarding against by using a helmet.
  • Rope: The length you will require depends on the length of your routes, but something like a 60 meter rope with a 10mm diameter is enough to do a good selection of climbs.
  • Quickdraws: This is two karabiners joined by a piece of webbing. Indoors these are already fixed to the wall, but outside you take, attach and remove your own gear.
  • Sling and Screw Gates: When lowering off a sport route, you will need to secure yourself with a screwgate karabiner and a sling, tie off with a bight, descend and retrieve your gear. The BMC have a video on how to safely lower off a sport climb.
  • A Trad Rack: If you intend to go trad climbing then you will need to place your own protection. These are either wedges of metal that are jammed into cracks in the rock, or camming devices that expand and grip in place.

For more information on selecting the correct harness, rock shoes or harness, read our rock climbing buying guide.

What's a 'Pitch'?

© Image courtesy of DMM

Once you start climbing outdoors, you’ll probably hear a lot of technical jargon being thrown about. One of the terms you’ll probably come across is a ‘pitch’. In this context, a pitch is a section of a climb that’s between two belay points. There are two types: single pitch and multi-pitch.

Single Pitch – A single pitch climb is the simplest to do. The climbers climb from the bottom to the top of a cliff, then down again. This is all done using one rope length. It’s a good idea to start off with single pitch climbs. Firstly, they’re the simplest to do, plus it’s easier to communicate with the other members of your group. You will also be able to complete more than one single-pitch climb in a day, giving you a good range of experience.

Multi-Pitch – A multi-pitch climb will require you to navigate more than one pitch in one climb. This type requires more work from both participants – you’ll probably need to be both the belayer and the climber at times. Multi-pitch climbing also requires more complicated communication, as the climber may need to instruct the belayer while out of sight.

Perplexed by any other terms? Take a look at our handy rock climbing dictionary.

Climbing Grades Explained

© Image courtesy of DMM

Both indoor and outdoor climbs are rated on difficulty using grades. To make things really complicated, different styles are graded different ways. There are French grades, adjectival grades, technical grades and combined grades.

French grades  – Despite the name, French grades aren’t just used on the other side of the channel. Most walls are rated using French grades, so these will probably be the first type you’ll come across as a newcomer. French grades are really simple. They start at 1 and increase relative to difficulty. Once you get to 4, subgrades are introduced, with 4a & 4b. There’s also 4a+, which sits between 4a and 4b.

French grades are as follows: 4 , 4+ , 5 , 5+ , 6a , 6a+ , 6b , 6b+ , 6c , 6c+ , 7a , 7a+ , etc.

Adjectival grades – Outdoor trad routes will often be given what’s known as an ‘adjectival grade’ to tell you how hard it is overall. The grades range from: Moderate (M), Difficult (D), Hard Difficult (HD), Very Difficult (VD), Hard Very Difficult (HVD), Severe (S), Hard Severe (HS), Very Severe (VS), Hard Very Severe (HVS) and Extremely Severe (E), which is split into E1, E2 & E3. Adjectival grades are based on a range of factors, including technical difficulty, rock quality and strenuousness.

Technical grades – While the adjectival grade takes into account lots of different difficulty factors, the technical grade is based solely on the single hardest move on the route. Technical grades run like this: 4a, 4b, 4c, 5a, 5b, 5c and so on.

Combined grades – As if that wasn’t complicated enough, British trad routes are often graded using both the adjectival and technical grades. It’s easiest to think of these grades in two parts. The adjectival grade will describe the overall difficulty of the route, taking into all factors (strenuousness, rock quality etc.), with the technical grade included so you know the technical difficulty of the route’s hardest move.

Expert advice provided by

The BMC

The BMC is the voice of climbers and hill walkers, representing their interests while maintaining our beautiful landscapes. Support our work for a discounted rate of £10 for the first year of membership and receive up to 15% off at Cotswold Outdoor.