From Gym to Crag: A Guide for Transitioning to Outdoor Climbing

In recent years, rock climbing has exploded in popularity around the globe. And according to a recent study released by the Climbing Business Journal, 2020 is keen to be the year the industry reaches its highest growth rate yet.

In the United States alone, more than 75 new climbing gyms are anticipated to open across the country.

Yet, after getting some experience under your belt at the gym, the next question almost every new climber asks is “how can I start climbing outside?”

If you want to join a group, check for climbing groups in your area or post an invitation on Actively Northwest Insiders.

Climbing Classifications

Top Rope Climbing

This is when the climbing rope is already set-up through the anchor at the top of the climb. You can tie-in, start climbing, and if you slip, there’s no real fall because the rope immediately catches you.

Sport Climbing

This is when you carry quickdraws and are bringing the rope up with you as you ascend. As you approach the metal bolts on the climb, you clip the draw, then clip the rope, and continue climbing. If you fall in-between clips, you often will fall double the distance between you and the last bolt clipped before the rope catches you.

Traditional Climbing (Trad)

Consider the “more dangerous option,” most trad climbers will actually argue that this form of the sport is the safest, once you know what you’re doing. Trad climbing uses protective gear known as “Cams” and “nuts.” These pieces of gear come in a multitude of sizes, and the climber has the ability to set their protection at their own discretion as they climb, as opposed to the idea of sport climbing having predetermined bolts. In order to place this gear, you need to have access to cracks in the rock, so oftentimes, Trad climbers are also known as “crack climbers.”


If you’ve been going to the gym, you’ve most likely tried your strength on the bouldering walls. Bouldering is climbing without any additional gear except your shoes and a crash pad on the ground for some fall protection. Most of the time, you won’t go very high when bouldering. However, that’s not to say there aren’t “highball boulders” out there.


From Gym to Crag

Top Rope, Sport, and Trad

Protective Gear

In addition to the types of protective gear listed in the above descriptions, you are also going to need to invest in a helmet. Although some photos of famous climbers might show them sporting a naked noggin’, that doesn’t mean it’s the smart thing to do. Safety is cool, ok?

Learning Anchors

Whether you are top rope climbing or leading a sport climb, you want to have the ability to inspect an anchor and make sure it is safe. As a trad climber, you take things a step further by learning to build your own anchor. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you may want to take a class first.

Learning to Rappel

Once your anchor system is secure, and the rope is through the top, you can lower a climber (or be lowered yourself) the same as when climbing at the gym. And, if a climb has an anchor that doesn’t require any of your personal gear, then you can simply pull the rope when you’re done climbing that route. However, there are often times when an anchor is going to require some of your personal gear, such as quick draws or locking carabiners. In which case, once you’re done climbing, you’re going to want those items back (gear is not cheap.) In order to do this, you must know how to clean an anchor and safely lower yourself off the climb. Again, if you don’t have this skill yet, a class is a good idea.

Lead Climbing

At the gym, you may have been cleared for lead climbing. If a certified gym employee has signed you off on this skill, and you’re familiar with anchor systems, you can pretty easily transition this skill to outside sport climbing. An additional step though is checking your own gear for safety (including the rope you’re using, your harness, the bolts on the climb, etc.) However, leading trad is a very different skill set and is not taught (nor really practical) at the gym. So if you’re looking to learn trad climbing, you’re taking on a new form of the sport that requires some training.

Additional Things to Consider

There are some other challenges and hazards to be aware of when climbing outside, such as rock quality, rock fall, weather, and so on. Also, you’re going to want to buy a local guidebook or download the Mountain Project app because learning to find routes outside, as well as actually climbing them, requires some additional problem-solving skills compared to the clearly marked routes and grades at the gym.

Lastly, always research the area you’re planning on climbing for current rules or regulations. Sometimes there are seasonal closures, permits required, hazards in the area (like rattlesnakes in Leavenworth), and so on. Know before you go!



For most beginners, trying your hand at outdoor bouldering is a great first-step in transitioning from gym to crag. It still presents the opportunity of finding routes, learning the grading system of an area, building strength on real rock, and so on – yet it removes some of the technical knowledge that sport and trad climbing require.

Plus, if you’re heading outside to boulder, the only gear you need is:

  • Local Guidebook or Mountain Project app
  • Crashpad
  • Climbing Shoes
  • Chalk
  • Band-aids or climber’s tape (this one is a suggestion but you may find real rock to be less forgiving than the plastic gym holds)

No matter what form of climbing you do, experiencing the sport outside is a whole other level of joy and fulfillment. However, above the desire to have fun, you should always make safe decisions.

Because as a mentor of mine always says, “the best days in the mountains are the ones we all come home from safely.”


Image by thinair28

Brooke Jackson

Brooke Jackson is an internationally featured writer and photographer based in Seattle. As the founder of Wandering Trails Media, she specializes in travel, outdoor adventure sports, and environmental studies. Brooke also instructs for REI Outdoor School, where she finds joy in educating others on how best to get outside in a responsible and sustainable way. See more of Brooke's work at

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