Gym to Crag: The Real Deal

You’ve heard of farm to table, but all across the country, there’s a new artisanal movement taking place among rock climbers. It’s called gym to crag, and depending on your tastes, it either smells delicious or stinks like a 12-month-old roquefort.

For better and worse, many climbers these days are introduced to climbing in a gym. Climbing gyms are excellent places to learn proper belay technique and hone the fundamentals of free climbing. The walls of most gyms are also equipped with fixed quickdraws to practice leading.

Sport climbing areas, as opposed to trad crags, are as close to an indoor gym arena as you get outdoors, though their differences are vast when it comes to the super important stuff like safety, and the other important stuff like etiquette, good behavior, and leaving no trace.


Black Diamond S14


Practice Leave No Trace

It seems obvious to me and many people that you shouldn’t throw garbage where it doesn’t belong, but after seeing this latest ugly story of some college students who trashed a lake, apparently not everyone has that respect.

Obviously, the goal is to leave crags cleaner than when you found them. Stay on trails, don’t leave trash, and properly dispose of your own waste.

The Basics

Gym climbers who venture outdoors must learn how to become completely self-reliant and responsible for their actions. This begins with knowing the basics of how to belay a leader, and extends to knowing how to evaluate the integrity of your own gear as well as any gear that’s fixed on the wall: whether that’s bolts, permadraws, or just manky old slings. Also important is knowing how to avoid loose rock, and respond appropriately to bad weather, especially lightening. Be aware of these crucial points:


Don’t assume any fixed gear you find outdoors is reliable. In a gym, setters and gym owners make sure that their ropes are in top condition, that bolts are properly tightened, and topropes are safely strung. Outdoor crags have no one checking to make sure anything is safe.

Bad bolts may be a legitimate concern in some places. However, at most crags, especially on popular routes, older bolts have been replaced with honker ½-inch five-piece expansion bolts or glue-ins, which are extremely solid. Look at the bolt’s nut: Is it securely threaded on the bolt, or is it about to unscrew itself? Is the hanger loose? Is the bolt heavily rusted? (A little rust can actually be perfectly safe). Is there a gap between the bolt/hanger and the rock itself? These things may indicate a dubious bolt.


A more common concern will be the integrity of those fixed quickdraws that have been hanging on routes, sometimes for years. Be wary of faded nylon quickdraws, and always check the basket of every carabiner you clip to see if it is sharp. Never clip a sharp carabiner—replace it with your own new one.

Outdoor climbing areas are dangerous. Rocks fall, people drop gear and bad weather moves in. Wear a helmet, even for belaying. Dress properly, and always be prepared for the cold and rain.

Gear Up

Many companies in the outdoor industry are recognizing that there is an impending mass exodus of all the hundreds of thousands of brand new gym climbers who want to try their hands at real rock climbing, and they are catering to that lifestyle movement by making the transition as easy as possible. I checked out Black Diamond’s newest “Gym to Crag” line of gear for this spring, and picked three items that I think would be good fits for those looking to start climbing outdoors.

Pipe Dream 45 Pack

681159_BLAK_Pipe_Dream_45_Pack_Front_webOne way the outdoor crag differs from the indoor gym is that you will hear birdsong instead of dub step. Also, the “floor” that you walk on will also be made of rocks and/or dirt as opposed to cush padded flooring. This first time you go to put on your climbing shoes, you will quickly learn that having a bunch of erratic sharp rocks jabbing into your ass is not cool. This pack helps alleviate that problem by giving you a little taste of padded gym flooring in the great outdoors.

This pack unfolds into a tiny little foam spot pad that offers the perfect place to change into climbing shoes, lounge, chill, chillax, or even change the baby, as I’ve been doing lately.


If you are no minimalist, and you like to carry a bunch of stuff to the crags beyond the basics, you may find it’s easier to pair the Pipe Dream 45 with another lightweight duffle bag, which is what I do. I use Stone Duffel to house all my gear/water/food/clothing, and shove both it, and a rope, into the Pipe Dream. Yeah, I roll heavy out to the crags, but so what? This isn’t the set up for the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat. And I’m comfy.

The Pipe Dream 45 is 25% off at right now.

Notion Pants

WD86_720_GOLD_Mens_Notion_Pants_Front_web2The Notion Pants have a stretchy elastic waist super comfortable and protects my waist from harness-chaff. These are kind of like yoga pants but they’re more durable and can handle everything from climbing in the gym to climbing outdoors. I like how wide the pant legs are, which allow me to roll up the pants to my upper thigh and put on a knee pad so I don’t have to change into shorts. Two complaints: I wish that they had an internal drawstring on the waist to really secure the waist in place, and I wish that they didn’t have drawstrings at each ankle, because they felt clunky (I just cut those ankle drawstrings out, which worked fine).

black_diamond_credo_pants_captainI like the Notion pants much more than the Credo Pants, even though both are great options. The Notion is much more minimalistic, while the Credo has a nifty waist belt and additional pocket space.

My only complaint with both pants is that I wish that BD made them with longer/taller inseams. I usually wear 32 waist, 34 length pants, and I found the medium sizes to be a bit short.

All new apparel is 25% off when you buy directly Black Diamond till May 27, but also check out for good deals.

Solution Harness

I’ve worn a bunch of BD harnesses over the years, and I haven’t been blown away by any of them in the past few years.


But this season, the designers at BD got the Solution exactly right. This is the best all-purpose gym/crag harness out there, and at under $70, it’s also one of the best deals you can get on a rig. ( is offering 25% off the Solution harness.) If you’re in between sizes, I’d suggest ordering one size up as the Solution seems to be a bit snug.


Route vs. rope length.

Lowering a climber off the end of the rope is never a concern in the gym, but it is outside. A 60-meter (200-foot) rope will get you up and down 75 percent of all single-pitch climbs in the U.S., but don’t assume that it will. Consult guidebooks and other climbers about a route’s length, and make sure that you will be able to get all the way down on your cord. If a route is 30 meters long, you need at least a 60-meter rope!

And whatever you do, always tie a knot in the end of the rope.



“Strong” Doesn’t Always Matter Here

Gym climbing is not sport climbing. With the plethora of training apparatuses like tread walls, system boards, hang boards, and campus boards, you can get ridiculously strong in a climbing gym. However, that strength doesn’t always transfer directly to sport climbing. Standing on plastic footholds and following a taped route on a wooden wall will not fully prepare you for climbing on real rock. Here’s a few reasons why:

• Real rock can be sharp and painful. Your skin may be callused, but if it’s only accustomed to grabbing plastic, friendly holds, you may find that your skin gives out before your muscles do. If this happens, make sure to take care of your skin that night by rubbing vitamin E oil into your tips and moisturizing. Skin with more moisture has more water in it, which makes it stronger. Dry, cracked skin tears easier. Lightly file down calluses and any raised tissue that could catch on a sharp nubbin and tear off.

• People set gym routes; rock is natural. This is obvious, but the point is that rock climbs demand moves that you may have never seen or practiced before. Real rock climbs are more three-dimensional than gym routes. Prepare to be frustrated, stymied, and more pumped than you think you should be.

• Sport climbing may feel scarier. People are instinctually afraid of anything unfamiliar. If you’ve only climbed in the gym, you might find climbing outside to be a bit headier. Don’t worry about it; this is natural. Relax, breath and drop the tension from your shoulders. Take comfort in knowing that the more you do it, the easier it will be.

Whitney Boland White Mans Shuffle_08

Remember: Not All Routes Are Safe!

Not all route developers know what they are doing, and I have definitely climbed my fair share of routes that were just unsafe. Sometimes, loose rock hasn’t been properly cleaned, or the route takes you up a sketchy loose flake that, while it may be covered in chalk, looks like it could pull out at any moment. Threats such as this one could potentially injure your belayer or cut your rope. Sometimes developers have mistakenly placed bolts in such a way that it will cause your rope to run over/around a sharp corner/edge—if you fall, there’s a chance your rope come taut on the sharp rock and cut. Though the route developer may be to blame, it’s still your responsibility to recognize dangerous situations and avoid them. Bail off any climb you think is dangerous—there are plenty of good, safe and enjoyable routes out there.

  • Ben Hoste

    Hi Andrew, what route is that lead photo from? Thanks!

  • James Madelin

    Good post! I’m shocked how many people I know say they climb, but then when I invite them climbing say, “Where? Outdoors? Oh, no thanks!” My attempts to explain that’s like spending your life in a gym on a treadmill and never going for a run only get me quizzical looks most of the time.