lead climbing everything you need to know

New to lead climbing outdoors – Everything you need to know

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Lead climbing outdoors – Everything you need to know

If you have only been bouldering and top roping in a climbing gym, you are missing out on a lot of fun. The reason you are bouldering and top roping exclusively is most likely because it does not require any ropework and safety knowledge. Lead climbing is a key aspect of rock climbing and all climbers should experience the thrill of lead climbing outdoors.

For those who had just started your lead climbing journey here is everything you need to know about lead climbing outdoors.

Climbing partners

Climbers don’t need to have a partner when bouldering on an oversize gym crash mat and climbing a high wall using an auto belay. Modern-day climbing gyms allow new climbers to just climb without any worries for safety or knowledge of equipment. However, if you are heading outdoors to lead climb you’ll need a climbing partner. Climbing is not monogamy so have a few partners the more the merrier.

What makes a good climbing partner? Although this is not marriage but similar to looking for a life partner you need to find someone you can trust and have good communication with. And in fact, just like a marriage, you’ll need to “try” each other out so you’ll know if he or she is a right fit. It is important to have a feel of each other’s belaying skills and techniques in the safety of a gym prior to going outdoors.

However, if you can weasel your way to climb with an experienced group of climbers that will be the best option. Climbing with experienced climbers will help accelerate your learning curve. Experienced outdoor climbers can teach you things that you’ll never learn from climbing in a gym.

Understanding outdoor climbing grades

One thing about climbing grades that gym climbers may not be aware of is that outdoor grades can be very subjective. First of all, in a gym, the routes are set by route setters to be within a specific grade. The route will be test climbed by a few route setters and adjusted as necessary to fall within the desired difficulty. Of course, with coloured holds, it is easy for climbers to read the route.

In order to get more climbers into the gym, gym gradings can be generally soft. This gives a feel-good effect for the climbers and also allows them to monitor their progress. In fact, you may find route gradings to be very different between gyms.

Unfortunately, when it comes to outdoor routes. When it comes to outdoors, routes are not “set” thus the term route setting does not apply to outdoor routes. The correct term is bolting a line. The climber will identify a possible line up the wall and bolt the route. And the climber who bolted the route will give the route grade.

The issue with assigning a grade is climbers tend to under grade a route or more commonly known as sandbagging. The climber who bolted the line will assign the grade. Factors such as weather, how exposed the route is and route finding can make an easy route feels multiple times more difficult than it should be. Hence when you are climbing outdoors you’ll find that the difficulties of the grade may vary significantly from what you are used to in a climbing gym.


If you had never been to the crag and don’t know anyone familiar with the place then it is essential to get a guidebook. Alternatively, you can go search online or go to thecrag.com where you can get up-to-date information. However, guidebooks do provide more detailed information although may not be as up-to-date compared to online information.

To lead climb outdoors safely you’ll need 3 critical pieces of information. First is the height of the route so you’ll know how long your climbing rope needs to be. Second is the number of quickdraws required for the route you are climbing and lastly the grade of the route.


For outdoor sport climbs the only equipment you’ll find on the crag are bolts on the route and an anchor at the top of the route. Hence you’ll need to get your own personal equipment.

The equipment you’ll need for outdoor climbing is a dynamic climbing rope, quickdraws, a belay device, carabiners and a safety sling for cleaning anchors.

Climbing Rope

When it comes to outdoor climbing you’ll need to have your own climbing rope. The rope length to use is depending on the height of the route. Most outdoor sports routes are between 15 to 30 metres (50 to 100 feet). So the length of your rope needs to allow you to reach the top of the climb and be lower back down. Thus you’ll need a rope that is more than double the length of the route. A dynamic rope length of 70 to 80 metres (230 to 260 feet) should be sufficient to cover most outdoor sports routes.

Click this article Climbing Rope – Everything you need to know to find out everything you need to know about climbing rope and how to choose.


Quickdraws are required when climbing outdoor sports routes. Unlike in the gym where quickdraws are permanently fixed on the lead wall. Depending on the height and the number of bolts on the route 15 to 20 quickdraws should be sufficient for a single-pitch sports route. Most climbing guidebooks will provide information on the number of bolts available on the route. Thus the climber knows how many quickdraws to bring.

Quickdraws come in different lengths and carabiners pairings. It is important to know how to set up and the proper use of a quickdraw. Click this article Quickdraws – Everything you need to know to find out everything you need to know about quickdraws.

Belay Device

lead belaying
Lead belaying

There are 2 types of belay devices. A conventional fiction (or tubular) belay device and an Assisted Braking Device (ABD). ABD had become the go-to belay device because of its safety feature of braking the rope to help the belayer catch a fall. However, not all ABDs work the same way due to the various ABD designs from different manufacturers. Belayers will need to have experience with a specific ABD to be proficient with the device. Thus it is always good to have a good of fashion tubular belay device as a backup.

Learn how to use the ABD that your climbing partners are using in case you lose your device. Regardless if you are using a tubular belay device or an ABD you should never let go of the braking end of the rope while belaying.

The Best Belay Device
REVO – The foolproof belay device


Carabiner for belaying is something many new climbers overlook. Different carabiner designs and features serve specific purposes. Thus when it comes to belaying it is necessary to select the correct one. The carabiner for belaying should be pear-shaped (HMS) with a locking gate.

Climbing carabiners come in different designs, shapes and sizes. Find out everything you need to know about climbing carabiners here.

Safety Sling

Cleaning anchor
Cleaning anchor

Unlike climbing in the gym, climbing outdoors require climbers to place gear on the route. Climbers need to learn and be proficient with the procedure of cleaning an anchor in order to retrieve all gear after they are done with the route. To clean the anchor the lead climber will need to be equipped with a safety sling to secure themselves to the anchor. A safety sling is made up of a locking carabiner and a sling most commonly made of nylon or Dyneema.

Food and water

Climbers don’t have to worry about food and water when climbing in gym. But to climb outdoor and depending how long you intend to climb and the location of the crag. It is necessary to determine just how much food and water you’ll need to bring along to the crag.

If the crag is just a short walk from the carpark or even better a cafe or restaurant then there is no need for bring food. But if it takes you hours of hiking though difficult terrain to get to the crag then bringing along food and water can be a challenge.

Carrying climbing gear is heavy enough so it is advisable to bring along food that are energy dense (energy bars, chocolates, dry fruits and nuts) which are less bulky thus easy to pack. Use flexible hydration packs for water to save space in your backpacks because rigid bottles take up space even when they are empty.



When climbing outdoors climbers are at the mercy of the weather. Thus it is important to check the weather prior to heading out. Apart from knowing the weather condition and wearing the appropriate clothings. It is important to check the position of the sun on the crag that you’ll be climbing. This can change according to different seasons. But you do not want to be climbing at a crag that will be baked under the hot sun for the entire day. Make sure you check for this information in the guidebook or with local climbers.

Gym is for training

Lead climbing outdoors is fun and exciting. Although it is more of a hassle compared to climbing in a gym but the experience is worth it. Climbing gym is a good place for training and nothing more.

There is a greater sense of achievement in sending an outdoor route. Remember, routes in the gym changes all the time and no one will remember what you had send. Whereas outdoor routes are permernent. Think about it, you’ll be climbing on the same route using the same holds as climbers did decades before you. This makes climbing on natural crag way more meaningful then climbing in the gym.

So train hard in the gym and start climbing outdoors.

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