Rock Climbing for Kids

In the past 18 months, I’ve developed an intense love (bordering on obsession) of rock climbing, both on my own and with my kids. It’s been an amazing way for me to gain strength and keep my body healthy, as well as a great way to spend time and bond with my teenager (who is just as hooked on climbing as I am). 

But when I walked into our local climbing gym in the fall of last year, I was so intimidated. Everyone seemed so hardcore and competent. I didn’t know the technique, the lingo, or the skills needed to do much besides hook myself and my kids into the auto-belay or do easy bouldering. Rock climbing with your kids is so rewarding, but there is also a lot to learn and many essential skills to develop to climb safely.

Over time and through instruction with organized courses and mentoring from experienced climbers, I am now the one in the gym who can answer (most) questions and guide newcomers. So I’m writing this from the perspective of a mom who came to climbing late in life and with kids along, and hoping to encourage more parents and kids to try something new and hard, whether it’s climbing or a different outdoor activity.  

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A girl in a red helmet sits on a rock in the foreground, while a kid in a green t-shirt belays another kid who is climbing up the rock face.
Climbing has also been a sibling bonding activity for my kids and a great way to teach clear communication and skills as they have fun together.

Why Rock Climbing for Kids?

Besides being just plain fun, there are so many benefits to climbing for both adults and kids. Here are a few of my favorite reasons why I climb:

Improves Balance and Coordination

This one is obvious, but for kids and adults alike, climbing is a great way to work on strength, balance, and coordination. 

Dopamine

Rock climbing fulfills a need for dangerous activity, which gives kids and teens a hit of adrenaline while climbing and dopamine when they succeed which leaves them feeling satisfied.  

Teaches Problem Solving and Resilience

In rock climbing (in particular bouldering), routes are called problems. And they aren’t simply solved by brute strength but rather skill, technique, and sometimes particular body movements that need to be figured out by the climber in order to complete them. While it can be frustrating to do a route/problem over and over again while figuring out the “beta” (or movements through the route), it is also a way to build resilience and develop important problem-solving skills.

A person in a pink shirt and floral shorts belays a teen climber at a climbing gym.

Mental Stimulation

Climbing is a bilateral activity offering mental stimulation that can soothe anxiety and provide an outlet for neurodivergent brains (for example, those with ADHD). If your kid is struggling with their mental health, climbing can offer a form of therapeutic recreation in addition to traditional therapies. 

Socialization, Not Competition

While there is some competitive climbing, most recreational climbing focuses more on encouragement and everyone succeeding. It’s also a really social sport where you can make friends and hang out. I love hearing the encouragement from the older “boulder bros” when my 14-year-old is challenging himself on his bouldering project (the problem that you are trying to complete). 

Climbing Lingo

When I first started climbing, I did not understand so much of the lingo and felt really out of the loop. There is a lot of climbing-specific terminology! Here are some of the most common.

  • Route: When you get to the gym, you’ll see colorful holds overlapping and making their way up the walls. These are specific color-coded routes and each one will be graded with a specific difficulty level. For rope climbing, these are graded from 5.2 (easiest) to 5.15 (expert). Easy climbs will be in the 5.2-5.6 range (if you are new, these are the ones you’ll want to look for!), while intermediate climbs fall into 5.7-5.10 with more advanced climbs being 5.11-5.15. You’ll also notice that some climbs have a + or – sign next to them, and these indicate what you would expect with a 5.10- being easier than a 5.10 which is easier than a 5.10+. Bouldering problems are graded from V0 (easiest) to V17 (expert). 
  • Belay: A belayer is the person standing on the ground feeding the rope through the device to catch the climber should they fall. The belayer also lowers the climber from the top of the route (or wherever they would like to stop). 
  • Problem: In bouldering, routes are referred to as problems (to be solved).
  • Project: A project is a route a climber is working on, but hasn’t completed yet. “Projecting” is the act of working on your project. Sometimes just called a “proj.”
  • Send: To complete a route! “Did you send it?” is a common question floating around climbing gyms. 
  • Take: When climbers are rope climbing, you’ll sometimes hear them shout “Take!” to their belayer. This is to indicate they need a break from climbing and for the belayer to take up all the slack in the system so they can release their grip and rest.
  • Beta: Beta is the sequence of moves a climber makes while climbing. Sometimes, other climbers will offer “their” beta of how to solve a problem or climb a specific route or move within the route. But unsolicited beta (telling someone where to put hands and feet to move through a climb without them asking for it) is frowned upon in climbing etiquette. 
  • Crux: The “crux” move of a route is the hardest part. 
  • Crimp vs. Jugs vs. Slopers: Climbing holds come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but these are the three main styles, meant to simulate how rocks are shaped outdoors. Jugs are more common on easy routes, since they offer a lot of surface to hold on. Crimps and slopers are more likely to be found on more advanced routes. There are also a few other kinds, including pinches, edges, and pockets. 

Types of Climbing

Bouldering

Bouldering is a form of free-climbing lower to the ground without protection (i.e., ropes). It can be a great way for kids (especially younger ones) to start climbing because you can spot them and help them along while they are getting accustomed to the different ways to hold on, place their feet, and move their bodies. It also requires less gear: all you really need to get started is climbing shoes, which you can buy or rent from your gym. 

A kid with blonde hair and striped leggings climbs up a bouldering wall.

But at the same time, bouldering can also be more likely to lead to injury, especially if falling from the top of a problem (sprained ankles are not uncommon!) So make sure you learn falling technique and stack extra crash pads if you are tackling a harder problem. Start slow and controlled, testing your strength and skills as you go. 

Bouldering problems are graded starting at V0 and going up to V17. You’ll want to find ones in the V0-V1 range if you are new. 

You’ll want to make sure to observe and learn climbing etiquette at your gym, especially with taking turns on the bouldering walls. Be sure to give other boulderers plenty of space and teach kids not to walk or stand under the bouldering walls, as there is a lot of jumping off and falling from the higher holds. 

Top-Rope Climbing

Auto-Belays

Most gyms these days have auto-belays set up, with no skilled belayer needed to rope climb. It’s the best way to get started with ropes, since no particular skills are needed, the auto-belays are simple to use, and the gym will offer instruction when you are new. 

A kid in a pink shirt and shorts with blue rock-climbing shoes climbs up the side of a wall hooked into an auto-belay system.

Most gyms won’t let kids under a certain age (at our gym, the minimum age is 12) operate the auto-belays, so you’ll have to be taking kids on and off the devices. This can be difficult if you are climbing with multiple little ones (been there, done that!) Even if your kids are above the age to operate themselves, you may want to double-check their harnesses and connection to the system every time for the first few gym sessions, just to make sure. 

Belaying with a Device

If you think you’ll want to dive into climbing more often, you’ll get more choices of routes and technique if you learn to belay. Again, the belayer is the person feeding the rope through a device to catch the climber should they fall. 

Although it seems super intimidating at first to belay a climber, the technique is fairly simple and most gyms will offer some sort of instruction or climbing course to teach you how to belay safely. Nearly all gyms will also require you to take a test to be “top-rope belay certified” in order to do so in their gym. 

When using a belay device rather than the auto-belay, the climber (or their belayer can do this for younger children) will also need to learn to “tie in” with the rope. This is done with a figure-8 knot follow-through, which is basically a figure-8 doubled over again. Here is some instructional video: practice, practice, practice, and if you are unsure, ask another climber! 

A kid in a long-sleeved green shirt shows his Figure-8 knot on his rock-climbing harness.

A belayer can use a variety of different devices. While many climbers start on what’s called an ATC device (which are the simplest to learn on and use), these do not have an “auto-locking” function if the belayer drops or loses control of the brake strand for whatever reason.

A kid in a red helmet, floral pants, and a purple hoodie climbs up a rock face while a man with a beard belays them.
We use our ATC device for belaying smaller kids on top-rope since it’s easier to use.

For this reason, some gyms require using auto-locking devices, like the popular Petzl Grigri. Our gym requires kids under 15 to belay with the auto-locking device, so if your kid wants to learn to belay, it’s a good idea to simply start them on this rather than teaching on an ATC. 

Not knowing much about climbing when I was a newbie, I learned on an ATC, but then moved quickly to the Grigri once I was learning to lead climb. The ATC device, however, is useful to keep though for use while rappelling should you take your climbing outdoors.

A woman in a yellow shirt and blue helmet belays at the base of a rock wall
Lead belaying outdoors with a Petzl Grigri.

Belay technique is typically referred to as PBUS, or Pull – Brake – Under – Slide. Once you watch others do it and then belay a few times on your own, it becomes second nature and you don’t think about it really at all while you belay. Your gym may require you to practice belaying while your climber is also connected to an auto-belay or while someone experienced is offering a “back-up belay” (essentially holding the brake strand of the rope for you).

Lead Climbing

If you are new to climbing, you might just enjoy watching the lead climbers at your gym for a while; they take some exciting falls, but don’t be alarmed, most are very controlled and sometimes even planned for practice. Not every climber wants to learn to lead or ever does. However, if you want to do a lot of climbing outside, it’s necessary to learn to lead unless you are always climbing with someone who does know how to. 

Our gym allows kids to start lead climbing when they are 12 and lead belaying another climber at 15. When my oldest was 13, we took a course together to learn to lead climb, and we continued to climb together regularly as we were learning and improving. It’s been one of our most important bonding activities to date, and I love the connection we’ve been able to keep as he’s getting older and entering the teenage years of independence. 

In a rock climbing gym, a kid with long blonde hair is lead climbing and about halfway up a tall wall

Start Indoors

Climbing requires a lot of unique skills, which are often easier to learn in a safer, controlled environment like an indoor gym with set equipment and a padded floor! While we are all about getting kids outside, climbing is also a great activity for those days it’s not possible to do so. 

Many gyms have programs for kids, including lessons, clubs, camps, and competitive teams. My oldest got into climbing at a parks and rec run summer camp that included indoor and outdoor climbing. Once he did that week of camp, he was hooked! So, you can either get started with an official program or simply start on your own.

A kid with blonde hair and a blue Adidas jacket climbs up a bouldering wall with colorful holds.

While it can be intimidating to start at a gym with no experience (and your kids in tow!) Most experienced climbers are more than happy to answer questions or offer tips to new climbers. Many gyms also offer instruction for newcomers for free or relatively cheap. Our gym offers a free Intro to Climbing course to all new members where you learn lingo, a bit of climbing technique, how to tie in with a figure-8 knot and how to safely belay another climber. 

Climbing Gear to Get Started Indoors

Shoes

The first thing you’ll definitely need is climbing shoes. These are tight-fitting, narrow shoes with a grippy rubber bottom that aid you in climbing, which is surprisingly just as much about using your feet as it is your hands! 

There are so many different climbing shoes out there and sizing is inconsistent and hard to get right, so I would recommend going to a local sporting goods store or REI (or your climbing gym may even sell shoes) to try them on. I made the mistake of buying online and now have several pairs of ill-fitting shoes sitting in my closet that I pull out sometimes when friends go climbing with me. 

For kids, there are a variety of options and most are pretty similar. Just find shoes your kid is comfortable in and happy to wear! My kids have worn La Sportiva Stickits and the Butora Bravas (and just a tip: climbing shoes are VERY easy to lose at the gym, so stick a carabiner on their harness and attach their shoes to their harness every time you leave the gym!) 

A kid in a purple hoodie and red helmet climbs up a rock wall outdoors, tied into a blue rope.

When you are getting started as an adult, you’ll want to look for a “neutral” shoe rather than one marked as “aggressive.” These shoes will be flatter and more comfortable. Until you are tackling more overhung routes or doing higher-rated bouldering problems that require very specific foot placement, an aggressive shoe will just be unnecessary pain for little climbing gain. A great starter shoe for adults or older kids is the La Sportiva Tarantulace: they are inexpensive, comfortable, and durable. 

Harness

For rope climbing, each climber will need a well-fitted harness. Even if you are only belaying your kids and not climbing yourself, your harness still needs to be in good shape and fit well. Climbing gyms will have these available to rent, but if you are planning to commit to climbing on a regular basis, it’s much cheaper to purchase your own. 

While I buy a lot of our outdoor gear used, with protective gear like helmets and harnesses, I always opt for buying them new. I don’t like not knowing the wear and tear a harness or helmet has received, which can affect performance and safety. 

For little ones, many reputable climbing brands make full-body harnesses. My daughter wore a full-body harness (Edelrid Fraggl) until she was 5 (and still sometimes wears it outdoors).

A kid in a red helmet gets help with taking her hiking boots off by a woman in a blue helmet. They are sitting over a pile of leaves.
Even when not climbing, helmets should be on all the time at the crag, especially when there is a hiking trail above you as we had here.

Now my girls (5 and 11) both wear the Petzl Macchu. For older tweens/teens that outgrow the Petzl Macchu (the weight limit is 88 lbs), there are adult harnesses available starting in XS that are rated for higher weights. I use the Petzl Corax harness, but there are a variety available that fit different bodies more comfortably, so try things on and find what works best for your body.

Chalk Bag and Chalk

Not a necessity, but can help with gripping climbing holds (especially while bouldering). While there are some pricey, high-quality different kinds of chalk out there, start out with what’s cheapest (you can get a block of chalk for $3 or so, either at REI or your local gym). 

A kid in a green shirt and blue helmet sticks his hand in a chalk bag while looking up at his climbing route.
Chalking up before starting to lead a route.

Gym Rope

If you do learn to lead climb and want to get started on that, you’ll need a rope. Most climbers will buy a “gym rope” to use indoors. These will usually be shorter than a rope for using outdoors since gym walls are usually not as tall as many walls outside. I have the Black Diamond 9.9mm Non-Dry Rope in 40m, and it has served me well for nearly a year of almost-daily climbing.

Just a note about ropes: a “dry” rope will be one you’ll want to use in wet or icy conditions, so if you aren’t climbing in those, you can opt for a cheaper “non-dry” rope. The 9.9mm refers to the diameter of the rope. Finally, for climbing outdoors, you’ll want a rope that is 60 or 70m, while an indoor gym rope can be 40m. The longer the rope, the more it can get tangled and can take longer to “flake” (basically, get the tangles out before you start climbing) and bulkier to pack up and haul around. So, you’d want the shortest rope that will suit your needs.

A Brief Intro to Climbing Outdoors

Climbing outdoors introduces a whole new element of fun and adventure AND risk. The information presented below is brief and not definitive, and it does not replace high-quality instruction or mentorship from AMGA-certified guides. 

a kid in a blue helmet sleeps outside next to a climbing rope
A well-deserved crag nap in the sunshine.

If you want to start exploring outdoor climbing, I highly recommend going with experienced friends or enrolling in a course. I took a weekend-long instructional course with an organization called Flash Foxy and learned so much from my guides. There are also many local guiding organizations that allow children and adults to learn together. 

Types of Outdoor Climbing

Like indoor climbing, if you are climbing with ropes, you can either lead climb or top-rope outdoors. But unlike in the gym, you can’t walk up to an outdoor crag (lingo for climbing wall) and have the rope all set up for you ready to go. 

For top-rope climbing, some crags will have walk-ups where you can safely access the top anchors and set up your top-rope, but more likely someone who is knowledgeable will need to lead the climb and set it up themselves. This is why learning to lead is pretty important for outdoor climbing, unless you are going along with a guide or experienced climber friends. 

A kid in a red helmet and grey leggings climbs up a rock face, looking back and smiling.

In addition to these different types of climbing, there are two main types of outdoor lead climbing: sport climbing vs. trad climbing. With sport climbing, the walls will be bolted along the route where you can clip the quick-draws you bring along, which will allow you to feed your rope through as you lead the route. 

But with trad climbing, the walls have no bolts (and sometimes have fixed anchors at the top, but sometimes don’t). On these routes, the climber will insert their own gear (also called “pro” or protective gear) in the form of either cams (also called “active” protection” or nuts (“passive pro”). The details of trad climbing are beyond the scope of this post, but just know it’s the way climbers climb without any fixed bolts or other hardware on the route itself.

A woman smiles in a purple hoodie and orange pants, she's carrying a lot of gear
Happy to be learning trad climbing, which requires a lot of heavy gear attached to your harness, but makes you look very cool.

Gear for Climbing Outdoors

To get started climbing outdoors, you’ll need a whole new set of skills and gear. While I’ll go over some of the different gear you’ll need, again, this post can’t replace instruction or mentorship, so I wouldn’t recommend going outdoors and trying this without one of those! 

Bouldering Crash Pads

Bouldering outdoors is great because it’s more accessible (without so many specific skills as rope climbing) and the entry is easier since you won’t need as much specialized gear. All you really need is shoes and a crash pad for placing below you in case of falls. Depending on where you live, there might also be more accessible bouldering in terms of locations. Big walls for rope-climbing might be more rare than fields of boulders you can get to for climbing. 

A kid climbs pretty high up a rock face, about 15 feet in the air, while a man with a hat and grey tank top spots her.

Bouldering outdoors is especially great with kids because you can spot them for falls, which helps them feel safer and more capable. It can also be a lot more social. At popular spots, there might be other families hanging around to chat with, and kids can run around and play while parents and siblings climb. When a parent is rope-climbing or belaying, it can be difficult to be attentive to small kids, so bouldering might be a good option for these days with littles.

Rope Climbing Gear

Rope

As mentioned above, you’ll need a rope if you are going to be doing big wall climbing. For outdoor purposes, if you are climbing mostly dry weather, you can get away with buying a less expensive non-dry rope (you’ll want a 60m or 70m depending on the height of the walls you’ll be typically climbing). 

Helmets

For outdoor rope climbing, everyone should be wearing helmets at all times at the crag, even when NOT climbing. If you are standing below where others are climbing, there is always a risk of rock fall from above. While there are some expensive, fancier climbing helmets, for beginners, the inexpensive ones are safe and comfortable. My littler kids wear the Petzl Boreo, while the teenager and I each have a Black Diamond Half Dome helmet.

Quick-Draws and Anchors

Other gear you’ll need for ropes outdoors include quick-draws (I have the Black Diamond HotForge Hybrid) and gear for building a top-rope anchor if you’ll have littles climbing up routes too. I built what’s called a quad anchor with cordelette (skinny rope, you can buy it by the meter) and four locking carabiners. I like this because I can set it up on the ground and it’s ready to go once you are at the anchors. 

You’ll also need a “personal anchor system” or PAS, which allows you to clip into the wall for safety when you are building the anchor or otherwise adjusting something in the system. You can either buy a “ready-made” PAS like Metolius PAS 22 or use a cheaper sling like the Black Diamond 18mm in 120cm for this. Both are safe, just the ready-made PAS is more adjustable and easier to use. 

Considerations for Rock Climbing For Kids Outdoors

Safety

Again, climbing is inherently risky (especially outdoors) but there are ways to minimize that risk and climb as safely as possible. Start slow, learn as much as you can before you go, practice (and practice… and practice some more) skills on the ground before you are performing them on a wall. 

A kid in a blue hoodie practices rock climbing skills on a real rock with bolted anchors and rappel rings, but on the ground.
Practice on the ground until using a PAS and preparing to lower is a solid skill.

Our gym has fixed hardware (bolts, rappel rings, quick links, and mussy hooks) at eye level both indoors and outside for practicing, which is where I learned how to build and “clean” an anchor (essentially, getting the anchor unattached from the hardware on the wall and preparing yourself to lower) and practiced multiple times before doing it outdoors. Some crags even have these too (as in the photo above), but that’s more rare. 

Approach

When choosing walls to climb at, read about and consider the approach, which is the trail (or lack thereof) that you will need to take to get to the climbing wall or bouldering field. These can be quite short, even driving up, or can be miles long. Consider also you will be carrying more gear than a normal hike, so plan accordingly for that as well.

One great resource for finding climbing walls and reading about the approach is an app called Mountain Project. I highly recommend downloading the area you’ll climb in to have it on hand in case you don’t have cell service. Climbing guidebooks are also extensively informative and will detail all the routes at a certain crag. 

Family-Friendly Crags

Some climbing areas are more family-friendly than others. Look for areas with lots of easier climbs (Easy 5th-5.6) and a large area at the base of the crag to spread out and hang. We recently climbed at Rocky Face Recreation Area, which is an old quarry in central NC. It was an amazing place for kids with lots of easy climbs, a playground, and bathrooms nearby. While not an exciting adventure compared to other climbing areas, it was a great spot to get some practice in. 

Climbing for the Whole Family

Climbing can be a great way to get kids excited about the outdoors. It’s been especially important for our teenager to be more interested in family trips, since it’s become a passion for him too. There are so many benefits to climbing for both parents and kids, so while it seems like an intimidating outdoor hobby with a lot of skills to learn and gear to buy, start small at your gym and see how you and your kids feel about it. It may just be your newest outdoor obsession! 

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  • Cait currently lives in Western North Carolina with her three kids, but they have bounced all over from Utah, Texas, Wisconsin, and Sweden before moving to their current home. She loves any and all outdoor activities, and spends a lot of her week hauling her kids around on an electric cargo bike and trying to convince anyone and everyone to go backpacking or climbing with her. She has a PhD in Sociology with an emphasis on Gender and Sexuality, and currently works full-time as a User Experience Researcher in the tech industry. She loves to talk all things feminism, gardening, car-free life, and the Danish political drama Borgen.

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