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Best to Avoid These 5 Common Gym-to-Crag Mistakes

Climbing gyms make fantastic training and practice environments, but they also reward some bad habits that can be downright unsafe outside. Jump-start your transition to outdoor master by avoiding these five common mistakes.

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We’re full bore into a climbing gym boom. There are more gyms than ever, and that’s great for the sport. What we’re also seeing is a mass migration of first-timers from the indoors to outside crags. After a few recent visits to classic crags in the Northwest, my head was spinning from all the incorrect procedures bred from the gym. Although these plastic paradises make fantastic training and practice environments, they also facilitate or even reward some bad habits that can hold you back or be downright unsafe outside.

We all start off as clueless gumbies. But we don’t have to—and shouldn’t—stay that way. Observe, ask, and emulate the habits of more experienced climbers. Their practices are produced by years of experience and hundreds of days climbing outside, but you can jump-start your transition to outdoor master by avoiding these five common mistakes.

1. Don’t lead belay while standing far away from the base of the wall

This “stand back and observe” habit is a function of wanting to view the entire pitch while belaying, and some gyms require that belayers anchor themselves into the floor, typically 10 to 15 feet from the base of the wall. At the crag, stand adjacent to the wall, directly beneath the first bolt or piece of protection and slightly to the side of the climber, moving around if you have to. In the event of a fall, you want to be pulled up, not slammed forward into the wall. As the climber moves up a few bolts, you can step back just a bit, but you should remain relatively close to the first bolt. You’ll spend more than half your climbing time belaying, so it’s important to develop your safe-catch skills as much as you develop your climbing technique. For an array of intermediate and advanced tips on becoming a more proficient belayer, check out 25 Ways to Be a Better Belayer.

For a demonstration of what happens when the belayer stands too far from the wall when catching a trad fall, watch this weekend whipper.

2. Don’t anchor yourself in at the base of the wall when belaying single-pitch routes

Unless the route begins off a narrow ledge or your climber massively outweighs you, it’s better to be mobile and able to step side to side or be lifted up off the ground in the event of a large fall, which gives your climber a softer, more comfortable catch. This mobility will help you avoid small falling rocks and ensure low-impact catches on marginal gear, two considerations that don’t come into play when gym climbing.

3. Do spot your climber before they have the first bolt clipped

Gym floors are covered by huge mats of soft foam while crags are strewn with sharp talus and tree roots. Falling from the start of a route outside, even just a couple feet up, can have devastating consequences, especially if the climber isn’t wearing a helmet. Until the first bolt or piece of gear has been clipped, don’t consider yourself a belayer, consider yourself a spotter. Ensure that the belay device is rigged correctly and then feed out more than enough slack to allow the climber to reach and clip the first piece of protection. (The rope is useless until it’s clipped to something.) As the climber begins the climb, take both hands off the rope and belay device and focus on spotting the climber. Your goal is not to catch them if they fall, it’s to minimize the consequences. As she’s clipping the first piece, get into proper belay position.

For advice about how to spot effectively outside, check out “Everything You Need to Know to Boulder Safely

4. Don’t walk around in climbing shoes

Rather than walking around on (relatively) clean cloth floors as you are in the gym, when you’re outside you’ll be walking across gravel, mud, grass, desiccated guano, you name it. Your climbing shoes rely on pure contact between the rubber and the rock, so even a super-thin layer of dirt in between will reduce the friction. Furthermore, that dirt will over time damage your shoes and the rock (it coats the first few holds of the route in whatever you just stood in before starting up the wall, which not only makes holds slippery, but is also pretty bad etiquette).

5. Do ditch all of those “not for climbing” accessory carabiners

This might seem too cautious, but I’ve seen multiple novice climbers accidentally grab a plastic toy carabiner (which for some inexplicable reason is clipped to their harness) when they meant to grab a full-strength piece of gear. Leave those fake ones for your keychain, and if you must clip your shoes, water bottle, or chalkbag to your harness (something that, you’ll notice, very few experienced climbers do) make sure you use a fully strength-rated carabiner.