Recently we were asked by a client who has previously joined us for one of our climbing courses for advice about buying some basic climbing equipment. They were looking to buy their first rock shoes, harness, and helmet. Adam Clarke our climbing guru and aspirant mountaineering instructor offers these sage words on the subject …

Will Legon, founder of Will4Adventure, enjoying the delights of climbing on Scavenger at Three Cliff Bay, The Gower Peninsular

Image of William Legon of Will4Adventure leading Scavenger at Three Cliffs Bay, Gower Peninsular

Climbing Harness:

Look for 4+ gear loops, and a single belay loop. Depending on what you’re going to be doing, now or in the future, I’d probably go for adjustable leg loops (not essential, but if you go scrambling in bad weather/winter and need to put the harness on over several layers/wearing crampons, or go climbing in the sun in shorts; they might be useful/more comfortable). Try and find a harness in the middle of your size range (again, so if you add extra layers, or gain/lose weight, it still fits!) Auto-locking buckles are a benefit, but not essential. Good shops will have a rope attached to the roof from which you should be able to dangle in the harness and test how comfortable it is – there will be a difference between models. Waist belt construction can make a big difference here. The overall trade-off is generally weight vs comfort vs price. I prefer rectangular shaped, plastic gear loops (to curved/fabric ones). They tend to be much easier to clip – less frustrating when you’re stressed/pumped!

For most climbers, climbing shoes should be comfortable enough to wear all day long

Climbing Shoes:

Don’t feel guilty about trying on multiple pairs/models (5 or more) to see what works for your foot shape. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking they need to be cripplingly tight..! Professional climbers might bleed an extra 2% performance from a super tight shoe, but you want something that you’re going to be able to wear all day while you get lots of mileage in. By all means look for something that fits snugly, and anticipate a small amount of stretch in some models depending on the lining; but don’t think that they need to make you cry! Generally unlined shoes will stretch a little more than lined ones. Laces offer slightly more adjustment, while Velcro shoes are a bit quicker to take off/put on. Either will be ok so long as they fit.

Ideally, a good shop should have a few climbing holds bolted onto the wall so you can test what they feel like when stood on small edges. Also, look for a beginner/intermediate type model: advanced shoes tend to be radically ‘downturned’, and aren’t really suitable for the type of climbing you’ll be doing. I often climb outdoors in a very basic shoe, and don’t tend to find it’s the thing limiting my performance!

Do also bear in mind that sizing may vary significantly from your street shoe size, and may also be very different between different manufacturers. Climbing shoes need to be fitted and not bought blind online! 

Climbing Helmets:

A bit less particular than the above two, but I’d still look to try something on and see what works for you. Check the helmet doesn’t rock forwards/backwards too much when you move your head around (and go over your eyes). Plastic shell helmets are okay and while they are cheaper, more durable and probably travel better in luggage that might take some knocks through an airport’s baggage handlers, they are heavy, and not always the  best for side impacts. However I really like the more modern hybrid construction types – mixed foam/shell types tend to be super comfy, light and nice and airy/well vented. They are a bit less durable, but you just need to look after them and not throw them around. Try one on with a liner hat too maybe (you might want one on, on a colder day).

Finally, look for a bargain

Lastly, when buying any climbing equipment, you ought to be able to find a reasonable deal on most items – I would always hope to be able to get at least 10 – 15% or so off the RRP of outdoor kit (the base price in the likes of Cotswold Outdoor is very expensive). I wouldn’t encourage trying kit on in a specialist store, and then buying the item at a cheap price online (or we’ll lose the few remaining good outdoor shops) – but equally you don’t want to be ripped off.

Various stores and outlets will offer discount schemes: it’s always worth asking what’s available. Also being a member of a mountaineering club such as the BMC or Austrian Alpine Club for example will allow you to use a discount code. (The BMC also do a fantastic job generally looking after climbers and hillwalkers in the UK – it’s good to support them!) Ask around – but never begrudge paying a store the premium price for key items such as footwear if their service and advice has been worth it!

This article was written by Adam Clarke, ML, RCI and aspirant MCI. Join Will4Adventure for one of our rock climbing courses and there’s a good chance you’ll meet him!

Further Reading