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Top 7 Differences Between Indoor and Outdoor Climbing

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

Rock climbing, nowadays, is arguably more synonymous with indoor gyms filled with brightly colored bits of plastic than pristine outdoor granite, limestone, or sandstone walls where climbing first began.

Indoor rock climbing is awesome! It's accessible, builds community, and hosts many programs for kids and adults. But how is indoor climbing different from outdoor climbing? Many climbers still solely climb outdoors, while some have adopted a love for an indoor gym and outdoor crag. Yet others have only dreamed of climbing outdoors as they have grown up in a generation with indoor climbing accessible at their fingertips.

Keep reading for the top seven differences; while some may seem obvious, others may have never crossed your mind.

7 Differences Between Indoor and Outdoor Climbing

1. No Colored Path

Climbing gyms are great because they have brightly colored holds or pieces of tape denoting which holds are "on" for each climb. Outside, it isn't as straightforward. While more trafficked boulders and routes may have residual chalk marks, it can be tricky to distinguish where good hand and foot holds are on the wall. Frequently, climbers will ask other climbers or consult online climbing sites for tips on where the good handholds are, or they will first go up the climb stopping every few feet and feeling out/searching for the path of least resistance. But that's part of the challenge! If you thought figuring out beta indoors was difficult, try it outside! You may be in for a (good) shock.

2. Weather

Outdoor climbing does not warrant the luxury of year-round, all condition availability that indoor climbing provides. If the rock is wet from rain, snow, or ice, climbing outside will be nearly impossible due to decreased friction. Likewise, climbing outside in super hot temperatures is often challenging due to increased sweat and reduced friction. Colder temperatures can increase friction. However, you have to balance that with not freezing your fingers off. On the other hand, the weather does not affect indoor climbing (unless a blizzard shuts down all roads to the gym, but we'll pretend that isn't usually the case).

3. Exposure

You are in a safe and controlled environment inside a climbing gym, per insurance policies and liability rules. The setters must ensure their routes are within a safe distance of top-rope anchors and quickdraws, and the bouldering pads are in strategic positions to provide the safest falls possible. However, transitioning to outdoor climbing may leave you feeling more exposed. Bolts for quick draws may pose trickier clipping positions and be farther apart. Often first-time outdoor climbers used to indoor climbing feel exposed when the rope is below their feet, and they are 75 feet up in the rock face. Oh, and that too. Outdoor routes and boulders can be much taller than artificial walls. Similarly, with bouldering, five pads may only cover some potential falling spots, further upping the ante.

4. Time Commitment

Ah, the convenience of deciding at 4:30 pm you want to climb, rolling up to the gym at 5 pm, and being home for 6:30 dinner is fantastic. Unfortunately, outdoor climbing takes a bit more planning and time unless your backyard is the New River Gorge or Yosemite (if it is, lucky you). Most outdoor climbing locations have an "approach," or a hike to the climbs from the parking/access point. Even if you live five minutes from the New River Gorge, most approaches take 10-30 minutes to hike. Add that to 1-2 hours of climbing time, and you'll need at least a 3-hour chunk of time to make the outdoor trip worthwhile.

5. Required Gear

For liability purposes, most indoor climbing gyms have boulder pads permanently fixed into place, top ropes set up, and quickdraws hung from lead routes. You only need climbing shoes, a harness, or chalk. Some gyms require you to bring your lead rope, but others may provide even that. But no insurance company is setting safety guidelines for outside. That means you'll be responsible for bringing your bouldering pads, quick draws, ropes, cams (if trad climbing), and any other gear.

6. Difficulty

The general rule of thumb is that outdoor grades usually feel harder than the equivalent indoor grade. While there's no definitive reason for this, it is likely a combination of factors. Returning to the first difference, indoor climbing facilities have color-coordinated or denoted climbs. Outdoors you may have to hold one position on the wall for longer as you feel around for the next hold. Additionally, outdoor climbing relies on the natural features of the wall, so there may be movements and "holds" to grab you have never utilized before. Top rope and sports climbs are also likely to be longer and taller than any indoor climbing wall you have ever tried. That alone will make a 5.9 outside feel way more taxing than an indoor 5.9.

7. Etiquette

As with any outdoor activity, your actions have the potential to impact the natural world around you in a negative manner, so be mindful. Large, rowdy groups outside are usually frowned upon as they can disturb other climbers or wildlife. Additionally, outdoor climbing areas have defined paths to stay on and a pack-in, pack-out policy. The overall goal is to minimize your impact on other inhabitants of the climbing area. Indoor climbing and gyms cater to group events and have the luxuries of seating areas, tables, and trashcans at your convenience. Keep in mind that what flies inside might not fly outside.

Whether or not you could've told us some of these yourself, we hope the difference between the two is more apparent, and as always, we encourage you to climb - indoor and outdoor alike!

Let us know in the comments below if you prefer indoor climbing, outdoor, or both!

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