I’ve been fascinated with climbing for a long time. In college, I took a rock climbing class with my best friend. We were too broke to buy gear, so we ended up sitting in the cafeteria and dreaming big.
Fast-forward to having just turned 40. I realized that my body was converting itself into fat. I wasn’t overweight, but I no longer felt fit. My lifelong passion, snowboarding, didn’t keep me physically active year-round, and in Maryland the season was short. My wife and I talked about rebalancing our lives, like we rebalanced our spending every year. We decided to put more time into taking care of ourselves and less time into working overtime. (Hopefully nobody from my workplace will read this).
I took the kids to the local rock climbing gym, Earth Treks in Rockville, Maryland. The kids were instantly hooked and I was, too. A few weeks later I convinced my wife to try it, and although she resisted at first, she became hooked. It’s been four years, and we’ve never looked back.
Soon, we started buying our own gear. I scoured product reviews on Amazon, REI, Backcountry, Moosejaw, evo, and OutdoorGearLab. We’ve made some buying choices that turned out to be good, and others that turned out to be a waste of money.
I’ve explained here what worked for us and what didn’t. This is based on our experience and what we learned from our climbing friends. We don’t do systematic analyses like OutdoorGearLab. We don’t have the hundreds of reviews that Amazon has. But we will tell you what gear is like for us in real life.
1. Climbing Harness
Harnesses cost about $50. If you are set on saving $50, I know people who tie temporary harnesses with tubular webbing. But that’s time consuming, those harnesses are really uncomfortable and it’s hard to even go to the bathroom. Let’s not go there.
Harnesses come in two general flavors: padded, and unpadded. Padded are more comfortable, even on a top-rope. Because gyms use static ropes, even a short fall on a foot or two of slack is jarring. Padded harnesses are slightly more expensive and heavier than unpadded, and they are bulkier to store in your backpack, but weight and bulk are unimportant for indoor climbing.
The cheapest harnesses, and certain old-fashioned harnesses need for the strap to be double-backed through the buckle to create a secure lock. Double-backed harnesses are rare now since they’re being replaced by harnesses that don’t require double-backing, but there are still some around.
My family owns two Black Diamond Momentum harnesses and two Black Diamond Wiz Kid harnesses, which we’ve been perfectly happy with. These are inexpensive, padded harnesses that don’t need double-backing.
We’ve seen many makes and models of harnesses in the gym. Nobody talks about their harness (although I have a friend who complains that his isn’t double-backed).
Buy any padded, double-backed harness that you like and don’t sweat your decision.
No matter what, you will need to replace your harness every 4-5 years, since the nylon eventually breaks down. Nylon breaks down faster if you let it get dirty, because dirt particles work their way into the nylon where they abrade the fibers. Nylon also breaks down if you leave it outside in the sun, because ultraviolet radiation yellows and damages plastics. Don’t store your harness or your other rock climbing gear near gasoline or paint thinner since the vapors will dissolve nylon.
2. Locking Carabiner
You’ll need a pear-shaped locking carabiner for belaying. Biners last forever, so don’t be cheap.
Also, don’t bother comparing strength measurements, because all carabiners and other gear marked for rock climbing are designed to withstand at least 3,000 pounds of force or 15,000 newtons. At this amount of force the human body breaks into pieces. There’s no point to making gear stronger than this.
I really like the Black Diamond Magnetron VaporLock because it automatically locks when the gate closes and it’s very light due to its H-construction.
Another great choice that we’ve seen but don’t own is the Edelrid HMS Strike Screwlock which is a screwgate locking carabiner with a special clip that keeps your biner always in the correct orientation while belaying. Biners sometimes rotate during belaying, causing the stress to cross-load against the gate. Not only is the biner much weaker when cross-loaded, but in rare cases, the rope can rub against the gate and unscrew the carabiner.
3. ATC Belay Device
For an indoor gym with burly static ropes, you will want the original Black Diamond ATC.
OutdoorGearLab recommends the Black Diamond ATC-XP based on an over-cooked analysis. I believed them and bought an ATC-XP, but it’s too narrow, and pulling a burly (11+ mm) gym rope through it is exhausting. For outdoor climbing, the Black Diamond ATC-Guide is a more versatile choice because it can be used for multi-pitch routes.
Common sense says that a Petzl GriGri 2 should be a safer belay device than an ATC because it auto-cams. This is helpful if you don’t trust your belayer, or if you take huge leader falls, or if your friend hangdogs for hours on end. We own one, but again, with a 11+ mm gym rope, the GriGri is so tight that we almost can’t get our kids down from the climbing wall.
4. Climbing Shoes
Shoes come in three materials: old-fashioned unlined leather, synthetic, and lined leather. Old-fashioned unlined leather shoes are the most comfortable and, after they break in, they fit like gloves. They also breathe well. But, they stretch terribly, so they are difficult to size correctly at the store, and you can’t return stinky shoes six months later and explain that they didn’t break in as expected. Synthetic shoes don’t stretch at all so they are easy to fit at the store, but they quickly develop an ungodly stench that will clear your home of friends and family (sadly, the cockroaches will stay, and the stink bugs will try to mate with your shoes). Lined leather shoes are the best of both worlds and are the most expensive: they stretch less than unlined leather and are easier to size, but they do stretch just enough to offer a customized fit. They also breathe and don’t smell like death, at least not quickly.
Shoes come in two shapes, called ‘trad’ and ‘aggressive’. Trad shoes, named for trad climbing where they are most popular, are flat-footed and more comfortable. Outdoor climbers need to keep their shoes on for long periods of time, especially if they are climbing multi-pitch. Aggressive shoes have a pointy toe, downturned sole and a narrow fit. They are usually uncomfortable if not downright painful, and are used for competitive climbing or bouldering.
You don’t want to start climbing with aggressive shoes. They can turn people off from the sport and make going to the gym a miserable experience. I’ve bought uncomfortable shoes and hated them, and I’ve watched my wife and daughter complain that their feet hurt. Every complaint caused me to experience pangs of sympathetic pain. You won’t need aggressive shoes until you are reliably sending at least 5.10a, if not higher. I know people who are sending 5.11s in comfortable trad shoes.
For a beginning indoor climber, I can’t recommend the men’s Mythos or the women’s Mythos enough. OutdoorGearLab rated these the most comfortable shoes on the market and they are good performers. Look around at the gym and you will see Mythos everywhere. These are shoes that most people can leave on their feet for hours, and they don’t build up stink too quickly. Even after you’ve advanced to aggressive shoes, you’ll want to keep your old Mythos for outdoor climbs.
Our family owns three pairs of Mythos. We’ve resoled two of these pairs.
The hardest thing about Mythos is sizing them. They are unlined leather, so they will stretch up to a full size. They also come in European sizes, and the conversion between European sizes and US sizes is inexact. This is what I recommend:
First, find your size on the ruler below from La Sportiva, which is more exact than using a table. Are you tight or loose in your typical US size? I am a little tight in a US size 10, and a little loose in a US size 10.5. Using this ruler I can see that my exact European size is close to 43.5.
Second, subtract up to (but not more than) one European size from this size.
If you are a woman with wide feet, you might want to order the men’s Mythos, which are a little wider than the women’s.
One last word on the topic of shoe stink. Even with leather shoes, you will have some stink. You could wear thin socks, which would help. We wear our shoes barefoot, like most climbers. We spray our shoes after every climbing with the enzyme-based McNett Mirazyme Odor Eliminator and that works well. We pour this into a cheap spray bottle that we bought from Amazon. I think that any enzyme-based pet store odor eliminator would probably also work, although the McNett products are geared toward exercise equipment and may contain different enzymes.
I hope this helps someone. Climb on!