Have you considered taking your climbing skills outside? Here are the things you can do in the gym to train for successful outdoor climbs.


By Abi Cotler


So, you want to make the leap from the gym to outdoor climbing but aren’t sure of the best way to go about it? You’re not alone. Climbing outside is a super-fun and, for some, a life-changing endeavor. But it’s not to be undertaken lightly and without a healthy respect for safety and education. While much of what you do on the indoor walls can translate, the great outdoors really are a whole different ballgame.

That said, there are many things you can do in the land of plastic to get into outdoor climbing:


Find the Right Partner

Mentoring is an integral part of climbing culture, old as the sport itself; Royal Robbins and Warren Harding would have had few partners without their protégés. One of the first steps a climber can take in the gym when prepping to climb outdoors is to find a partner who has outdoor experience and is willing to help you get outside.

Mesa Rim Supervisor of Adult Programs, Quinn Miller, suggests that if you do this, “Be up front about your experience level and demonstrate a willingness to learn, but don’t take [your partner’s] word as law. Ask them how long they’ve climbed outdoors, why they set up their anchor that way, why they belay with that particular device—make sure they can talk you through the systems they use.”

Miller says you can learn a lot about how well someone would be able to mentor you, versus someone who would just be winging it, just by how they talk about their anchor.

“If you are lucky enough to make that connection, take full advantage of it and show gratitude along the way.”

He adds, “Some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had stem from opportunities to help my friends go from top-roping their first route outdoors, to leading their first route and building their first anchor outdoors.”

If you have trouble finding an experienced mentor at the gym, finding a partner who is equally psyched to climb outdoors is another great option. Having someone to go through the learning process with you can make it a much more supported experience. If you’re both learning together you can bounce questions and ideas off of each other. Plus, you’ll both be willing to practice together and remind one another when there are gaps in what each of you may remember.

Also, as Miller says, “Having a partner to go through the learning process with you can help keep the ego in check, and keep your wallet happy; you can share knowledge and the investment that comes with that venture (e.g. one person buys the rope, while the other buys the quickdraws).”

Much of what Miller told me was in reference to rope-climbing outdoors, but he says the same tips apply to bouldering.

“Find either experienced climbers or psyched climbers to go bouldering with outside. Bouldering is a lot more accessible, but the risks are equivalent, so educate yourself on proper falling and spotting technique. An experienced partner can show you how to best set up the crash pads at the base of a boulder, but in the absence of an experienced partner you can collectively discuss where a fall may occur and what direction the person might fall.”


Take Classes

Many gyms—Mesa Rim included—offer classes that teach you how to lead climb, build anchors, and gain baseline knowledge of the systems used in outdoor climbing.  Mesa Rim instructor, Mateo Navarro, recommends people start with lead climbing with Lead 101 and 102, then move onto knots and gear, then into anchor building, then into rappelling.

He says, “Once people get dialed into those aspects then multi-pitch is next. Because we want people getting the attention they deserve we keep instructor-to-student ratio low.”

Personally, I can say from my own experience that both MR’s Lead 101 and 102 classes were incredibly helpful in learning to lead climb. 101 gives you a lot of knowledge and some practice, too, but 102 is almost all about taking falls. The more you fall, the easier it becomes, until it’s actually quite fun (trust me, falling on lead was the very last thing I thought I’d ever want to do on purpose). This familiarity with taking falls frees you up to get your “lead head on” and is a big step forward in being willing and able to lead outside.

It can also be a good idea to get this instruction as private partner lessons rather than a group class. When you take private lessons with a partner at Mesa Rim, the cost is almost half of the normal hourly rate. Plus, learning side-by-side with someone allows you both to discuss—and thereby better understand—the systems you are learning.


Leave No Trace

Getting outside can often mean trafficking environmentally sensitive areas where lots of other people are also trying to enjoy the same limited space. If you are gearing up to climb outside for the first time, look into Leave No Trace outdoor ethics because we all have an impact on the areas we recreate.

Remembering to pack your banana peels out, stuff the loose pieces of tape in your bag, and knowing what the area’s rules are on pooping before nature calls go a long way toward enjoying “Our natural world in a sustainable way that avoids human-created impacts,” as Leave No Trace’s mission statement asserts.  

Another wonderful and local educational tool is the Allied Climbers of San Diego website. Check it out to educate yourself on best practices and access issues specific to San Diego. For example, they have information about local cleanups, bolt replacement, and access alerts. For a list of nationwide climbing associations, visit Access Fund’s website.


Outdoor rock-climbing is by no means an easily accessible sport. But the work you do to get out there with safety and knowledge will be well worth it. Moving from Gym-Rat to Rock-Warrior brings with it incredible fun, growth, and a new way to get outside and engage with Mother Nature.

Much of the technique and muscle memory you gain in the gym translates so effortlessly, too, and once you’re out there on the rock you’ll wonder why you didn’t make the transition sooner. So find some partners, take some instruction, practice-practice-practice, and get outside!

See you out there with a giant smile on my face to match yours.