When you decide to go to the climbing gym for the first time, figuring out what to wear when rock climbing shouldn't be the part that's intimidating. There are lots of other things to think about when you're climbing, because even in a controlled environment like an indoor gym, climbing or bouldering can be a little risky.
If you're willing to get over any lingering fear of heights you may possess, however, you'll find that climbing is a great, engaging workout. Even though it might look like you need jacked biceps to be a good climber, what you really need is a strong core and some good techniques. It's more of a puzzle than anything else — figuring out how to twist and adjust your body so you can make it up the wall as easily as possible. Once you start, it's easy to get hooked on the challenge.
At many indoor climbing gyms, there are two types of climbing offered: Bouldering and top rope climbing, or top roping. Both are fun, but require slightly different equipment and knowledge, and what to wear is part of what you need to know in advance. So if you're ready to hop on the wall, here are some tips about what to wear so you can feel as comfortable as possible and focus on cranking out a bunch of routes rather than worrying about your clothes.
Women's Short-Sleeve Triblend Yosemite V-Neck Tee, $25, Thenorthface; Northern Lights Chalkbag in Coral, $11, Amazon; Patagonia Women's Active Mesh Bra in Ombre Stencil: Radiant Magenta, $21, Patagonia; Nike Pro 5" Compression Short, $30, Amazon; La Sportiva Oxygym Rock Shoes in Coral/Turquoise, $99, Amazon; S'well Satin Collection Turquoise Blue in 17oz, $35, Amazon; Goody Ouchless Scrunchies in Cherry Blossom, $5, Amazon
Bouldering doesn't require a harness or any ropes, and you can do it solo. You generally climb a marked route up a wall that's about 20 feet high, and then climb (or jump or fall) back down.
You can wear shorts when bouldering, so don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise. Just remember that if you are wearing shorts, it is a little bit more likely that you'll scrape or bruise your knees on the wall (but, realistically, scrapes and bruises can happen if you're wearing pants, too). I've seen people climbing in everything from denim cut-offs to basketball shorts, and really, the kind of shorts you wear is totally up to you. If they're comfortable and you can move around in them, then go for it. As a former volleyball player, I personally love spandex shorts with a longer inseam. I don't worry about them riding up or whether anyone is seeing up my shorts. Track shorts with a liner work well, too.
I usually pair shorts with a T-shirt and a sports bra. Remember that cotton kills, so getting a shirt and a bra that are a mix of cotton and polyester will help wick away unwanted moisture. You'll also want a chalk bag. Climbers put chalk on their hands to get rid of sweat, oil, and any other moisture before tackling a climb, and dry hands makes gripping small holds much easier. The thing about chalk is that it's messy, so make sure you're not too precious about your clothes because you'll inevitably come out of the climbing gym coated in a fine, white layer of chalk.
There are climbing shoes specifically designed for indoor climbing and bouldering that are made of a synthetic material rather than leather and are designed to be washed regularly. You shouldn't need to wear socks when you're wearing climbing shoes because you want them to fit snugly; this will help you make more technical moves. You'll probably be sweating a lot when climbing, so bring a water bottle, and if you have long hair, tying it up will help a lot.
Evolv Andes Chalk Bag in Emerald, $19, Amazon; J.Crew Elastic Hair Tie Pack in Forest Mint, $13, Jcrew; Nalgene 32 Ounce Ultralite Narrow Mouth, $14, Amazon; Patagonia Women's Coastal Range Cotton/Poly T-Shirt in Navy Blue, $29, Patagonia; Adidas Techfit Capri Tights in Black, $16, Amazon; Mammut Ophira Harness in Space-Infinity, $50, Amazon; La Sportiva Nago Rock Shoes in Sage, $64, Amazon
Top roping requires a bit more equipment than bouldering. You need ropes, a harness, and a partner. The climbing gym will set up the ropes that you'll use, set on top of the route that you'll be climbing (hence the name "top rope climbing"). Make sure you know how to belay before starting; most gyms require that you prove to them that you know how to belay before they let you tie in.
Since top roping requires a harness, you might be more comfortable in pants or leggings, as the harness has a tendency to cause shorts to rise up. (But you can still totally wear shorts when you're top rope climbing if that's what makes you feel comfortable.) If you do choose to wear pants, avoid ones with flares because that extra fabric might interfere with your footwork. Three-quarter leggings are that kind of sweet spot of providing enough coverage without being bothersome. Again, I like wearing a poly-blend T-shirt.
To top rope climb, you'll need a harness to which you can clip your chalk bag. (And to be clear, you don't need a different chalk bag for top roping and for bouldering; it's the same chalk.) The climbing shoes you wear when top rope climbing are a bit less aggressively shaped than those you'd wear for sport climbing or bouldering because the climbs tend to be longer. If you have long hair, it is absolutely necessary for you to tie it back when you're top roping, otherwise your locks might get caught in a knot in the rope and that would be horrible. You'll also want to stay hydrated, so bring along that water bottle.
You don't need all of this equipment before you go to the climbing gym for the first time, of course. You can usually rent climbing shoes, harnesses, and chalk bags, and you probably already have a lot of clothing in your closet that will work for climbing. Just make sure you're comfortable, and follow some of these basic tips. The worst thing that will happen is you'll fall, get up, and just try again.
Images: mariachily/Flickr; Courtesy Brands