Even as a person with a life-long fear of heights, after the first time I saw the documentary Free Solo, I knew I had to try rock climbing.

A man rock climbing from the documentary Free Solo.

If you're interested in getting in shape while having fun and pushing your limits, I suggest you give this wonderful sport a shot! Start by going to an indoor climbing gym.

There are two types of indoor climbing for newbies:

  • bouldering

  • top rope climbing

Learn about each type and all the information you need to make the most out of your first visit to a climbing gym!

What is "bouldering"?

Bouldering is climbing without a rope on walls that are generally no more than 15 feet (4.5 meters) high. A soft pad is placed on the ground below to cushion a climber's fall.

A person at a bouldering gym, jumping from one hold to another

Pros of bouldering

A man by himself

  • You can visit alone: Since you don't need a partner to secure a rope for you, you can visit a bouldering gym by yourself.

Money with arrows pointing down

  • Cheaper than top rope climbing: Bouldering requires less equipment than top rope climbing, so you'll spend less money.

Cons of bouldering

A hand holding a weight

  • Requires strength: Bouldering tends to be more strength-based than top rope climbing.

A man with a scared face

  • Can be scary: Since boulderers are not secured by a rope, it can sometimes be scary to fall or climb back down after finishing a route.

What do I need to know about bouldering?

Problems and their betas and grades


A problem is a sequence of holds a boulderer follows to complete a route up (or across) a wall. The holds for one problem are generally the same color. The climber can only grab or step on the holds for the problem they're doing. They can also use the wall itself.


The beta for a problem is the "how to" for a problem. It's the tried and true optimal way to do a sequence of moves needed to complete a problem.

A girl with an X over her mouth

It's considered improper etiquette to shout out the beta as unsolicited advice while a person is in the midst of climbing. Instead, ask them if they'd like the beta.

A woman climbs up a wall using a specific beta to solve the wall's problem.

Grades rate a problem's difficulty. Most countries use a V scale, which begins at V0. V1 is a little harder than V2, and so on. The highest grade in the world is a V17. Grades are written on tags and posted on the wall next to the first hold in a problem.

How to fall

Check out the video below for an explanation of how to fall safely when bouldering:

What is "top rope climbing"?

Top rope climbing requires a rope, which is draped over or through equipment at the top of the wall and is secured by a partner called a belayer. This allows you to reach higher peaks safely.

A person climbing a wall while attached to a rope at a climbing gym.

Pros of top rope climbing

A piece of cake

  • Easier to get down: A belayer lowers you down slowly once you reach the top.

A man with a flag at the peak of a mountain

  • Conquer fear of heights: You'll need to conquer a fear of heights if you want to consistently climb to the top of very high walls!

A group of people talking

  • More social: Since you need a partner to top rope, you can spend time with friends or even befriend other climbers.

Cons of top rope climbing

Flaticon Icon

  • A partner is necessary: You won't be able to climb by yourself as you'll need a belayer to secure the rope for you. At some gyms, you can pay extra for a worker to belay you.

A certificate

  • Requires training and certification: You'll have to learn how to belay, take a test that proves you can, and carry a certificate in the gym that shows that you know how to do it.

A woman throwing up a bunch of money in the air

  • More expensive than bouldering: At a minimum, you'll need shoes, chalk, a harness, a rope, and a belay device. Renting or buying these items can be expensive.

A heart with plus signs

  • Requires endurance: Since climbing routes are long, you'll need both muscular and cardiovascular endurance to complete one.

What to know about top rope climbing

Routes and their betas and grades

In top rope climbing, the sequence of holds to reach the top is not called a problem, but a route. However, just like bouldering, the "how to" is called the beta.

The grading scale is a little different. In the United States, the Yosemite Decimal System is used, which grades routes on a scale from 5.1 (the easiest) to 5.15c (the hardest). Grades are written on tags and posted on the wall next to the first hold in a route.

Other countries may use a different scale. See the chart below to compare the scales. Alternatively, you can read about the scales here.

A sport climbing grading scale chart (click the link above for an accessible version). Top rope climbing vs lead climbing

Since it is your first time, you will be top rope climbing. That means the rope is attached to something at the top of the wall. This is the safest way to climb to high places.

Once you have more experience, you can try lead climbing. This means you pull the rope up with you as you climb and attach it to bolts along the way. This is more dangerous.

Check out this video to see the difference. 👈

What should I bring and do I need to rent anything?

All you're required to bring is:

  • Comfy clothes

  • Water (and snacks if you so desire)

  • A positive, adventurous attitude

A happy woman wearing a helmet and looking up at a rock face.

Rentals for bouldering

  • Climbing shoes (specially designed for stepping on small holds)

  • Chalk (for neutralizing sweat on your hands so you don't slip)

An animation depicting a climbing shoe.

Rentals for top rope climbing

  • Climbing shoes

  • Chalk

  • Harness

  • Belay device

  • Helmet (if you so desire or the gym requires it)

  • Rope (if you're lead climbing)

A climber in a harness with a belay device and a rope. Photo by John Tuesday on Unsplash

Quiz: Which gym is best?

A man's face Mike

Mike has a limited budget and isn't very social when it comes to climbing. He is more concerned with building strength than building stamina.

A woman's face Jessie

Jessie wants to conquer her fear of heights. She has many friends who love to join her for any activity. She doesn't have any budget limitations.


Which type of gym should Mike and Jessie visit?

Take Action

Are you ready for your first visit?

A happy woman at a bouldering gym. She sticks up her thumb as she prepares to climb.


Your feedback matters to us.

This Byte helped me better understand the topic.

Get support to take action on this Byte