Rock Climbing for Beginners: Learn Rock Climbing Basics with NOLS


Sep 29, 2023

Want to start rock climbing but find indoor climbing gyms unexciting and the prospect of attempting your first outdoor climb intimidating? With the guidance of  NOLS rock climbing courses, you can ease into the thrilling adventure of outdoor climbing with confidence. 

becca_parkinson_climb-1024x680-1Photo by Becca Parkinson

At NOLS, our approach to teaching not only covers the fundamental techniques of rock climbing but also emphasizes personal and community growth, leadership development, and risk management, ensuring you get the most out of your experience.

Starting with the basics, you'll learn essential terminologies, get introduced to rock climbing gear, and gradually build your skills under the expert guidance of NOLS instructors. As you progress, you'll discover core values such as environmental stewardship and have the opportunity to explore world-class climbing locations. 

NOLS climbing courses are designed to support cohorts of students of all abilities and experience levels. Whether you are brand new to climbing or have already started leading outside, a NOLS climbing course will ground your practice in sound risk management and industry-standard technical systems. Further, you will walk away a better leader - both at the crag and in your career.

Key Takeaways

  • NOLS offers comprehensive rock climbing courses that can be tailored to beginners and experienced climbers alike.
  • Essential techniques, gear usage, and movement skills are taught in a supportive and growth-oriented environment.
  • Personal growth, leadership development, and risk management concepts are emphasized to ensure a well-rounded climbing experience.

Basic Rock Climbing Terminology and Gear Introduction

A Beginner-Friendly Glossary of Essential Climbing Terms

Below are definitions for foundational concepts in climbing outdoors. Understanding these will give you a better sense of what you will be learning on a NOLS course. When starting your rock climbing journey with NOLS, it's essential to familiarize yourself with common climbing terms. Here are some key terms you'll encounter:

  • Belaying: Securing and managing the rope for a climber by using friction on the rope to stop a fall or  provide tension so that the climber can let go of the rock.

  • Top roping: A style of climbing where climbers are secured with a rope anchored from above.

  • Lead climbing: The first climber ascending a route, placing gear (protection) to protect a possible fall as they go.

  • Sport climbing: A style of climbing that involves pre-placed, permanent protection (bolts) along a route.

  • Trad (traditional) climbing: Climbers place removable gear (nuts, cams, etc.) for fall protection as they ascend.

  • Bouldering: A style of climbing without ropes or harnesses, close to the ground, using crash pads for protection.

  • Anchor: A secure point where the rope or climber is attached, for belaying or rappelling.

For a more extensive list, check out A Beginner's Guide to Rock Climbing Terms.

Introduction to Basic Climbing Equipment

In addition to learning key rock climbing terms, familiarizing yourself with the following gear will help prepare you for a NOLS course.

  • Rock Climbing shoes: Specialized footwear designed to provide grip on rock surfaces.

  • Climbing Harness: A waist and leg loop system that securely attaches the climber to the rope.

  • Climbing Ropes: The essential lifeline used for top roping, lead climbing, and rappelling.

  • Climbing Helmet: A protective head covering to shield against falling debris or accidental impacts.

  • Carabiners: Metal clips used to attach ropes, slings, and other gear.

  • Quickdraws: Two carabiners connected by a sling, used for clipping the rope to protection while lead climbing.

  • Belay device: A mechanical piece of gear used to create friction on the rope, allowing control during belaying.

jessica-fuller-climbing-women-1024x768-1Photo by Jessica Fuller

Tips on Choosing the Right Gear for Your First Climb

At NOLS, we've got your gear needs covered when you enroll in a rock climbing course. Included in your course fee is the use of essential climbing gear such as climbing rope, protection, slings, carabiners, and belay devices, ensuring you're well-equipped for your adventure.

It's important to note that due to risk management, we generally discourage students from using personal climbing gear during the course. However, there are exceptions: If you already own them, you're encouraged to bring your own climbing shoes, a personal harness, and a helmet. Don’t worry if you don’t have those things because you can rent those from the on campus store.

When selecting your shoes, harness, and helmet, safety is paramount, so ensure that all climbing gear bears the UIAA approval, typically indicated by the brand. To help you make confident gear choices, here are some key tips:

  1. Climbing shoes: Try on multiple styles and sizes to find a snug but comfortable fit. Climbing shoes are often sized down from someone’s street shoe size. Consult a professional at your local climbing gym for guidance.

  2. Harness: The most important thing is to pick a harness that fits your body. Adjustable leg loops and a well padded hip belt will  maximize comfort and support.

  3. Helmet: Pick a lightweight, well-ventilated model that fits securely and comfortably on your head.

With these insights and our support, you'll be well-prepared for an exhilarating climbing experience with NOLS. Or, visit the NOLS store for our recommendations!

Foundational Rock Climbing Skills

rosemary-saal-rcs-teach-climbPhoto by Rosemary Saal

At NOLS, beginner rock climbing students start by learning the essential movement techniques to build a strong foundation. These techniques include understanding different types of handholds, foot placements, and body positions.

By focusing on these fundamentals, you can improve your climbing efficiency and decrease the likelihood of injury. As you progress, NOLS instructors will introduce more advanced movement techniques, such as using crack climbing jams and steep route climbing strategies.

Basics of Belaying and Minimizing Risk

A crucial part of any rock climbing course is learning the basics of belaying and risk management. NOLS ensures that students become proficient in essential skills like tying knots, rope handling, partner climbing communication, and top-roping.

Our instructors also teach you how to place protection effectively and create secure anchor points. These skills will help you manage risks while climbing on varied climbing routes.

Emphasis on the Balance Between Mindset, Strength, and Technique

Our rock climbing courses place a strong emphasis on developing the right mindset alongside physical strength and proper climbing technique. This balance allows you to tackle new challenges, whether you're a beginner or an experienced climber looking to improve your skills.

The mindset cultivated during a NOLS rock climbing course is one that prioritizes personal growth, adaptability, problem-solving, and resilience. This mindset extends beyond the climbing walls and rocky crags. It's about embracing challenges in all aspects of work, play, and life with enthusiasm, viewing obstacles as opportunities for personal development, and continually seeking ways to improve. It's a mindset that empowers you to thrive in the face of adversity and embrace the journey of self-discovery.

In a NOLS rock climbing course, you'll learn to adapt to ever-changing conditions. Whether it's adjusting your climbing strategy to suit the terrain or facing unexpected challenges in the wilderness, adaptability becomes second nature. 

Problem-solving becomes a fundamental skill as you tackle complex climbing routes and navigate through rugged landscapes. You'll learn to approach problems methodically, breaking them down into manageable steps and finding creative solutions even when the path ahead seems uncertain.

Resilience is at the core of this mindset, as you'll encounter moments of doubt, physical fatigue, and mental strain. Through these experiences, you'll discover your inner strength and learn to persevere, not only in climbing but in all aspects of life.

Engaging in various climbs will help you refine your mental and physical abilities. During this process, you'll have the opportunity to explore the theory behind different climbing styles and environments, work with experienced climbing partners, and learn from professional climbing instructors.

Tips for First-Time Climbers

rainbow-weinstock-climb-desert-1Photo by Rainbow Weinstock

Mental Preparation

Starting to climb can be both exciting and nerve-wracking. As a beginner, it's important to mentally prepare yourself for the challenges that climbing presents. Focus on developing a strong mindset that embraces challenge, supports personal growth, and takes a proactive approach to risk management. NOLS courses will guide you through this process, helping you build the necessary mental tools for success in climbing and in life.

Physical Readiness

Climbing involves a combination of strength, technique, and endurance. While NOLS does not require pre-course training, many of our students choose to start a basic strength and endurance routine at home, including activities like walking and basic bodyweight exercises. Keep in mind that injury prevention is key; knowing when to rest and allowing your body to recover is essential.

What to Wear and Bring on the First Day of the Course

It's important to come prepared with the right gear and clothing when embarking on a NOLS rock climbing course. Your attire should include comfortable, non-restrictive clothing that can withstand abrasion from the rock. In addition, make sure to wear well-fitting climbing shoes with good grip. A harness, helmet, and appropriate climbing gear (quickdraws, belay devices, and locking carabiners) are also required.

For your convenience, many NOLS courses provide gear for beginners, but check with your local course for specific requirements. Remember to stay hydrated and bring water, snacks, and sun protection to help you maintain energy levels throughout the day.

Encouragement on Adopting a Learner's Mindset

Embarking on a NOLS course is a transformative learning experience. At NOLS, you'll be introduced to a variety of climbing disciplines, such as bouldering, sport climbing, and trad climbing. Through exposure to different styles of climbing, you'll gain valuable insights and discover the techniques that best suit your individual interests and strengths.

As you tackle new challenges, it's crucial to adopt a learner's mindset: be open to feedback, ask questions, and embrace the learning process. During your climbing course, you’ll work closely with your climbing partner and course instructors to develop both technical skills and leadership abilities.

You’re Ready to Take the First Step!

Countless beginners, like yourself, have embarked on a life-changing journey with NOLS Rock Climbing Courses. These inspiring individuals have transformed their lives and developed critical skills that propelled them forward both personally and professionally.

Rock climbing offers an unparalleled sense of accomplishment, as you push beyond your limits and conquer new heights. Throughout your time at NOLS, you'll not only build a strong climbing foundation but also experience the personal growth, leadership development, and environmental stewardship that sets NOLS courses apart. These experiences will take you to remote locations where you’ll get to know the environment in a new way and gain practical skills for both climbing and life, helping you grow as a climber and a person.

The unmatched feeling of accomplishment will stay with you long after you conquer your first climb.

Start Planning Your Rock Climbing Adventure

Now is the perfect time to start your rock climbing journey with NOLS! No matter your current experience level, NOLS offers tailored courses that cater to both complete beginners and those looking to enhance their current climbing skills. Take the plunge and embark on an unforgettable adventure that will take you to remote, once-in-a-lifetime locations and leave you with a fresh outlook on life. Don't hesitate—climb on with NOLS today.

kathryn-martin-climb-birdland-e1458330414675-1Photo by Kathryn Martin

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the essential skills for rock climbing beginners?

As a beginner, you will learn to develop a few important skills to climb efficiently. Some of the essential skills include proper climbing techniques, footwork, hand grip, body positioning, and knot tying. With NOLS, you'll focus on building these skills through hands-on experience and practical lessons under expert guidance.

How does NOLS prepare beginners for rock climbing?

NOLS provides a comprehensive and structured approach to teaching rock climbing basics. Our courses are approachable for all skill levels, with beginners being introduced to movement on rock, belaying, rope handling, building anchors, and more.

What risk management measures should beginners take in rock climbing?

For all levels, it's crucial to develop proper risk management habits when engaging in outdoor rock climbing. NOLS courses focus on teaching you essential rock climbing practices such as using a helmet and harness, understanding proper climbing etiquette, learning how to read climbing routes, and using equipment correctly.

What are the basic climbing gear and equipment needed?

The basic equipment needed for rock climbing includes a helmet, harness, climbing shoes, a chalk bag, belay device, carabiners, quickdraws, slings, and a climbing rope. NOLS courses provide an opportunity to familiarize yourself with this gear and learn how to use it effectively. Additionally, each course description provides a detailed list of required gear and equipment, with many students opting to rent gear from the NOLS store.

How can I choose a suitable climbing route as a beginner?

Choosing a suitable climbing route involves understanding factors like grading systems, route types, and your physical abilities. NOLS instructors will guide you through the process of selecting appropriate routes based on your skill level, ensuring a gradual progression in technical skill, transformative personal growth, and leadership development.

What physical and mental preparations should I make before starting a rock climbing course with NOLS?

One of the best things about NOLS is the approachability of our courses — we tailor our rock climbing courses for all skill levels! That means you can show up without ever having touched a rock face (unless otherwise noted in the course description).

But, if you want to do something to prepare, you can work on building strength, flexibility, and endurance. Participating in activities like hiking or other aerobic exercises can help improve your overall fitness. Mentally, NOLS will help you to develop a growth mindset and be open to learning, as climbing involves problem-solving and decision-making.

Joining a NOLS course is an effective way to prepare both physically and mentally for a life of rock climbing while transforming your skills and perspective on life.


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NOLS is a nonprofit global wilderness school that seeks to help you step forward boldly as a leader.

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