What to Wear Rock Climbing to Stay Comfortable

So you’ve discovered the joys of climbing, and spent a pretty penny buying the necessary items on your gear checklist. Now that you’ve got the essentials covered, there’s one more thing that you might have overlooked until now… Just what are you supposed to wear while rock climbing?

While it’s hard to go wrong, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I’ll walk you through some of the more established fashion “rules,” as well as my own personal preferences, so you can feel prepared while climbing inside and outside.

Indoor Climbing

woman bouldering in a gym

It’s hard to go wrong with your wardrobe when it comes to climbing inside. The space is climate controlled, and there’s no risk of rain, snow, or other extreme weather conditions so there’s very little to think about. Like wearing shorts? Go for it. Jeans are more your jam? No judgment here. Feeling like a pair of stretchy yoga pants? Not a bad option.

Personally, I like to stick with a short sleeve shirt and a pair of athletic pants when I’m in the gym. At the end of the day, all you really need is something comfortable and easy to move around in, which is why I stick with semi-baggy clothes. If you think you can do a high foot in those pair of jeans, by all means, go for it! If not, maybe a pair of sweatpants would be a better option. Think about the types of moves you might need to make, as well as the various positions you’ll need to contort your body into, when you’re making your decision on what to wear.

Outdoor Climbing

man rock climbing outdoors

Anyone who’s climbed outside knows that you have to be a little more picky about what you wear. Rain showers might come out of nowhere, you could start off cold but warm up as the blood starts flowing, and exposed skin might be a prime target for the harsh sun.

As a rule of thumb, it’s always a good idea to layer your clothes when you’re outdoors, no matter what activity you might be taking part in. Bring an outer shell to protect against water, and wear a wicking base layer to keep excess moisture away from your skin.

People have different preferences when it comes to this, but I always wear pants when I climb outside, no matter the temperature. I scraped my legs too many time when I used to climb in shorts, and like to have fabric between my knees and the rock. Not to mention I’ve taken one too many whippers into a tree, where the branches cut up my legs, and pants are a good barrier against this.

The Essentials

I know I said that almost anything goes when it comes to indoor climbing, but there are a few must haves when it comes to determining your wardrobe – for both inside and outside.

Make sure you have plenty of room in your crotch. Don’t underestimate how important this is, especially for us guys who have more reason to be concerned about tight fitting clothes. The more you spread your legs in order to reach that next foot placement, the more uncomfortable your pants will become, potentially shortening your climb time. Save yourself the frustration and pain of having to deal with limited range of motion and fabric pressing in on all the wrong places by wearing something a bit more baggy.

Also, it’s a good idea to wear a longer shirt. The reason for this is because it’s always ideal to be able to tuck your shirt under your harness, so it’s not hanging over any gear loops. I’ve know a few people who had their hard points covered by their shirt, making them forget to pass the rope through both as they were tying in. If they hadn’t done their safety checks before climbing, it would have been a far more dangerous experience.

And for those of you who like to carry things while you climb, I strongly recommend wearing clothes with zippered pockets. My friends think I’m crazy for doing this, but I like to carry my phone while scaling a route. Most of the time I do it because I don’t feel like leaving it in a locker or my backpack, depending on where I’m climbing. But I also like to have it on me in case I’d like to snap a photo, since I don’t suggest bringing a nice DSLR up the wall with you.

Climbing Shoes

person putting their climbing shoes on

Perhaps not part of your daily routine, climbing shoes are an integral part of the sport and count as part of your choice of clothing…at least in my opinion. Wearing the right kind of shoe can make or break a route (or your feet), which is why it’s important to know about the different types of shoes and what they’re used for.

Sizing

Anyone who’s ever put on a pair of climbing shoes know they can be painful. Your toes feel like they’re being squished together, and you better hope you trimmed your toenails recently, otherwise there might be blood. To avoid the unpleasantness of these shoes, a lot of new climbers buy a pair that feel relatively similar to what they wear on the street. While I can understand the sentiment, it’s bad practice for anyone looking to seriously get into the sport.

A few years ago, a friend of mine who grew up climbing in Colorado told me that your shoes should be “almost unbearably tight.” Which is to say, they aren’t going to feel good at all, but it won’t be so painful that you can’t stand it. I know that’s not what most people want to hear, but it’s a good practice that I’ve stuck by since getting my first pair of shoes.

Neutral Climbing Shoes

This is what most people go for, and what I recommend for beginner climbers. The bottoms of these shoes are flat, so they work really well for slab climbing, which is what most new climbers are going to be starting off on. They’re also the most comfortable type of climbing shoe, which is why I encourage folks to get this type of shoe if it’s their first pair.

Moderate Climbing Shoes

Good for people starting to get into more technical climbs, moderate climbing shoes are a little down turned at the toes, and are generally stiffer than neutral shoes. Generally used for bouldering and routes that have some overhangs to give the climber more accurate foot placement.

Aggressive Climbing Shoes

My far the most painful, aggressive shoes are certainly useful in some situations, but I don’t think anyone actually enjoys wearing them. They fit tight, are extremely stiff, and even more down turned at the toes than the moderate climbing shoes. However, they are fantastic if you want to toe in on a small edge or pocket. On overhung routes, the severe curve in the toe helps you “hook” into the rock, making it easier to keep your lower body attached to the wall

Sun Protection

man trad climbing shirtless

Now you have a good idea of what kind of clothes to wear climbing, it’s time to cover a pretty common occurrence in the climbing world: going shirtless. There are many professional and recreational climbers who enjoy being topless in nature, and while I’m not one of them, I can respect those who are.

However, just because that’s one more thing you don’t need to think about doesn’t mean you’re free and clear. Now that you’ve taken your shirt off, a large amount of skin is being exposed to the sun. As someone who’s worked in Dermatology for a few years, let me tell you…it’s a bad idea to get burned.

Make sure you bring plenty of sun screen and apply it regularly. Consider putting your shirt on whenever you aren’t climbing to decrease the amount of time the sun is beating directly on your skin.

Final Suggestions

woman standing on top of a cliff

We’ve covered the basics, but there are a few more things worth noting when it comes to your climbing wardrobe. These tips are applicable for both indoor and outdoor climbing, and have saved me from more than a few mishaps and discomforts.

Wear baggy clothes, but not too baggy! If there’s too much fabric around your feet, you’ll constantly be stepping on your pants every time you try to put your foot somewhere. Not only will you get the bottom of your pants dirty, you may fall a few times as well, if you keep tripping all over yourself.

Aside from your pants, baggy clothes have a tendency to get caught in gear as well. You don’t need to wear tight athletic shirts and yoga pants if you don’t want to, but make sure the fabric isn’t sticking out too far.

I always wear something breathable when I climb, since sweating is an unavoidable part of this sport. Combine that with moisture wicking properties, and you should be able to stay comfortable in about any environment you find yourself in.

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Spencer Yeomans

Spencer Yeomans

A lover of the outdoors, and especially the mountains, Spencer has always enjoyed pushing people to step outside their comfort zones. His mission is to help others get out of their homes to have fun and stay active in nature.

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