The Complete Guide To Climbing By The BMC

The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) is the voice of climbers across the UK, from novices to professionals. With over 75,000 members, they’re dedicated to helping more people get out and enjoy climbing, and to make this possible their members receive discounts on kit, travel, insurance and more. We've teamed up with the BMC to bring you a complete guide to climbing, whether you're just getting started or ready to take on rock for the first time.

Start Indoors On A Wall

The best way to start climbing is indoors, on a climbing wall. It's safer, more fun and cheaper for beginners, as most walls have kit available to rent. Walls are also great places to meet like-minded people who are also just getting started!


To find your nearest wall, take a look at the BMC’s climbing wall directory.


Moving From Wall To Rock

Once you're confident on the wall, it's time to venture out onto rock. Climbing outdoors lets you experience new places, push your abilities further and learn new techniques - and is where the real fun begins.


There are a few ways that you can make the transition from indoors to outdoors both easier and safer:


1. Take a climbing course


A great way to make the transition is to sign up for an indoor to outdoor course. You’ll learn the basic skills needed to use ropes safely, as well as being introduced to issues unique to the outdoor environment like access and conservation. The BMC offers Ready to Rock courses regularly across the UK. If there isn’t a BMC course near you, ask at your local wall if they offer any similar courses.


2. Join a climbing club


Joining a local club is a great way to meet new people, discover new places and benefit from the other group members' experiences. Look out for clubs advertising at your local wall, or join your local BMC club if you're a member.


3. Go with more experienced climbers


One of the best things you can do when you first start climb outdoors is to go with people more experienced than you. You'll not only get to see amazing new places, but you’ll also learn a huge amount about staying safe.


4. Hit the books


It’s a good idea to take a look at some of the information and support that’s available to you before you hit the rock. There’s a huge amount of online videos on BMC TV, demonstrating the equipment and skills needed to climb outdoors. We'd also recommend getting a trad guidebook for the area. You’ll be able to find detailed routes, plus information about the type of rock you’ll encounter.

What's The Difference Between Indoor And Outdoor Climbing?

Learning how to climb outdoors can be a challenge, but to help you to make the transition we’ve highlighted a few tips below:

  1. The most striking difference between the indoor and outdoor environment is the lack of safety equipment already in place. This means that at least one person in your group needs to be comfortable leading so that they can put up the rope for others to second or top rope.

  2. In addition, you need to understand the routes you intend to climb. Unlike indoors, outdoor climbs are not clearly marked, and spotting the ‘line’ can take some practise. It therefore helps to go with a guide or somebody who already knows the area.

  3. You also need to think about things like the length of the route, how much rope you’ll need, how many quickdraws you’ll need, and whether you can safely use a prusik and abseil. These things are simple to resolve when on the ground, but can pose significant problems if encountered when you’ve already set out.

  4. It’s also important to understand what type of climbing you will be attempting. This is vital as different forms require different types of equipment.


Types Of Rock Climbing

There are three main types of rock climbing, each with their own styles and equipment:

Sport Climbing

Sport climbing is the type that's typically done in gyms, and the one that people are usually familiar with. It involves climbing up to where metal bolts have been drilled into the rock, at which point a quickdraw is attached, and the rope is secured. This process of ‘clipping in’ is repeated throughout the route.

Trad Climbing

Traditional (Trad) climbing involves the first climber placing protection into the rock which are then removed by the following climber, resulting in no damage. This type classically requires the most equipment and, because you’re placing your own protection, generally requires a good technical understanding.


Bouldering involves tackling short, difficult climbs on sections of low-lying rock. As it takes place close to the ground, bouldering is done without the use of ropes but to make it safer, portable bouldering mats are used that protect from falls. Bouldering outside is very different from indoor centres and is a great way to develop strength and problem solving.

Outdoor Climbing Equipment

Once you know what sort of climbing you'll be doing, you need to consider what type of equipment you'll need. These include but are not limited to:

  • Climbing shoes: Snug-fitting with sticky-rubber soles, designed to give your feet better traction on rock.

  • Chalk bag: A small bag attached to the waist containing chalk that is used to dry sweaty hands, increasing grip on the rock.

  • Harness: A harness is worn around the waist and upper legs, and is used to safely attach a climber to the rope.

  • Belay device: Attaches to the central loop at the front of the harness via a karabiner, and works by applying friction to stop the fall of a climber.

  • Helmet: Falling objects and rocks are less of a problem indoors, but outside they are worth safeguarding against by using a helmet.

  • Rope: The length you will require depends on the length of your routes, but something like a 60 meter rope with a 10mm diameter is enough to do a good selection of climbs.

  • Quickdraws: This is two karabiners joined by a piece of webbing. Indoors these are already fixed to the wall, but outside you take, attach and remove your own gear.

  • Sling and Screw Gates: When lowering off a sport route, you will need to secure yourself with a screwgate karabiner and a sling, tie off with a bight, descend and retrieve your gear. The BMC have a video on how to safely lower off a sport climb.

  • A Trad Rack: If you intend to go trad climbing then you will need to place your own protection. These are either wedges of metal that are jammed into cracks in the rock, or camming devices that expand and grip in place.

What's A 'Pitch'?

Once you start climbing outdoors, you’re likely to hear a lot of technical jargon. One of the terms you’ll probably come across is a ‘pitch’. In this context, a pitch is a section of a climb that’s between two belay points. There are two types: single pitch and multi-pitch.


Single Pitch – A single pitch climb is the simplest to do. The climbers climb from the bottom to the top of a cliff, then down again. This is all done using one rope length. It’s a good idea to start off with single pitch climbs. Firstly, they’re the simplest to do, plus it’s easier to communicate with the other members of your group. You will also be able to complete more than one single-pitch climb in a day, giving you a good range of experience.


Multi-Pitch – A multi-pitch climb will require you to navigate multiple pitches in one climb. This type requires more work from both participants – you’ll probably need to be both the belayer and the climber at times. Multi-pitch climbing also requires more complicated communication, as the climber may need to instruct the belayer while out of sight.


Climbing Grades Explained

Both indoor and outdoor climbs are rated on difficulty using grades, and different styles are graded in different ways. There are French grades, adjectival grades, technical grades and combined grades.


French grades  – Most walls are rated using French grades, so these will probably be the first type you’ll come across as a newcomer. French grades are really simple. They start at 1 and increase relative to difficulty. Once you get to 4, subgrades are introduced, with 4a & 4b. There’s also 4a+, which sits between 4a and 4b.


French grades are as follows: 4 , 4+ , 5 , 5+ , 6a , 6a+ , 6b , 6b+ , 6c , 6c+ , 7a , 7a+ , etc.


Adjectival grades – Outdoor trad routes will often be given what’s known as an ‘adjectival grade’ to tell you how hard it is overall. The grades are: Moderate (M), Difficult (D), Hard Difficult (HD), Very Difficult (VD), Hard Very Difficult (HVD), Severe (S), Hard Severe (HS), Very Severe (VS), Hard Very Severe (HVS) and Extremely Severe (E), which is split into E1, E2 & E3. Adjectival grades are based on a range of factors, including technical difficulty, rock quality and strenuousness.


Technical grades – While the adjectival grade takes into account lots of different difficulty factors, the technical grade is based solely on the single hardest move on the route. Technical grades run like this: 4a, 4b, 4c, 5a, 5b, 5c and so on.


Combined grades – As if that wasn’t complicated enough, British trad routes are often graded using both the adjectival and technical grades. It’s easiest to think of these grades in two parts. The adjectival grade will describe the overall difficulty of the route, taking into all factors (strenuousness, rock quality etc.), with the technical grade included so you know the technical difficulty of the route’s hardest move.


Produced in partnership with The British Mountaineering Council



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