Indoor vs. Outdoor Rock Climbing: 20 Essential Differences


There are twenty essential differences between indoor rock climbing and outdoor rock climbing. These differences make outdoor rock climbing more challenging than outdoor climbing. If you learn the essential differences between outdoor rock climbing and indoor rock climbing, you will be better prepared.

What are the essential differences between indoor and outdoor rock climbing? There are 20 essential differences between indoor and outdoor rock climbing, including:

  1. Getting There
  2. Control Over Weather
  3. Safety
  4. Cost
  5. Noise
  6. Gear
  7. Effect on Skin
  8. Group Activity
  9. Experience Level Requirements
  10. Belaying
  11. Rope Friction
  12. Crag
  13.  The Grades
  14. Human Impact On Environment
  15. Fixed Gear
  16.  Mantling or “Hugging The Rock”
  17. Grip
  18. Cell Phone Signal
  19. Time To Complete
  20.  Uniqueness

Fortunately, if you are able to identify these differences, you can become an expert in rock climbing.  You do not have to worry about become bored with indoor gyms as they can be quite unique themselves. At least one of the indoor climbing walls described later has been constructed inside an abandoned power plant.

20 Essential Differences Between Indoor and Outdoor Climbing

1. Getting There

I think it goes without saying that it is much more difficult to get to your climbing spot in outdoor climbing than in indoor climbing. What are you getting yourself into when you decide to venture out to a climbing location?

Distances from parking to climbing locations certainly can vary, but it can end up being quite the trek.

One of the most popular climbs in the world is Mount Whitney within the Sierra Nevada in California. It is the highest peak in the lower 48 states of America. 

An online guide cautions that getting to the summit of Mt. Whitney is tough, and it’s easy to get off route. Climbers have to travel 1 mile on a trail and then another ½ mile off the main trail to get to the famous East Face of Mt. Whitney. 

It may not sound like much of a distance, but it could feel a lot farther when you have to carry all your gear. Certainly, getting to the spot where you can begin climbing is half the adventure. Challenges are fun for those who are prepared but keep in mind that it is a type of challenge that indoor climbers do not face.

2. Control Over Weather

Outdoor rock climbing puts to test the climber’s ability to deal with unexpected challenges. One of those unexpected challenges can be the weather. 

Rock climbers will need to consistently check weather forecasts in the days leading up to the climb in order to be prepared as best they can. The anticipation of the challenge is part of what makes the sport exciting. However, they will also need to have a plan of action in mind for a case in which the weather takes a turn for the worst. 

One climber tells a story of how he and his partner decided to climb on a day when the forecast called for only a 20% chance of thunderstorms. When they noticed the weather taking a turn for the worse, they began to plan for a quick descent.

During the descent, one of the climbers was struck by lightning, though he was not quite sure of it at first. Both climbers were able to return to their cars safely that day. However, events like this show the challenge the outdoor climber faces in not being able to control all the elements.

A benefit of indoor climbing is the ability to sharpen one’s skills without having to worry about rapidly changing weather. 

3. Safety

Indoor climbing presents the climber with an opportunity to enjoy the sport within the confines of a controlled environment. One benefit of this controlled environment is the presence of safety equipment, such as adequate padding on the ground level.

Indoor rock climbing locations have mats such as those seen in this video

Climbers can still endure injuries while climbing indoors, but they are less likely to be significant injuries than those sustained while climbing outdoors. 

4. Cost

While indoor rock climbing facilities will charge an entry fee or a fitness club membership fee, outdoor climbing may require the use of special permits.

A single-day pass at a climbing gym, if you choose to rent equipment, will cost you in the territory  of $20 to $30 USD. If you choose to bring your own equipment you can expect to pay $15-$20.

The Mt. Whitney climb mentioned earlier requires climbers to pay $15.00 each to enter a lottery system where they will reserve a climb.  In other areas such as Colorado Springs, there may not be a fee associated with obtaining a rock climbing permit, but a permit still has to be obtained.

If the climbing location is far away, you will also need to pay for fuel for your vehicle. You may also have to pay lodging fees and for food and drink as well. For example, the campground at the Mt. Whitney trailhead costs $15 USD per night to stay.  

Other campgrounds in the area may cost more depending on what amenities they have to offer. You may also want to keep in mind the fact that some outdoor rock climbing locations might be more remote, requiring you to stock up on food prior to leaving for the trip.

In all likelihood, an indoor rock climb will probably just be a short day trip while an outdoor climb will be a trek that will include multiple additional costs.  You will probably be able to do many indoor climbs per year while the outdoor climb is likely a trip that you save up for and prepare for over a duration of several months.

5. Noise

The difference between the background noise when climbing indoors versus climbing outdoors will be noticeable. Indoor climbing centers will often have music playing in the background, as can be heard in the background of this video.

Any noise produced by the climbers will be trapped within the confines of the climbing gym.

When you are climbing outdoors, you will be able to hear the sounds of nature, such as birds calling. You will hear the sound of wind in your ear. When you are climbing outdoors you shouldn’t have to shout to speak with other climbers.

6. Gear

There will be a difference in both the type and quantity of gear that you will find necessary for indoor climbing versus outdoor climbing. 

You do not necessarily need a helmet if you are climbing indoors, but if you are climbing outdoors then a helmet will be your best friend. You never know when a small rock above you may loosen and fall.

For indoor climbing you will need, according to this site

  • Rock Shoes
  • A chalk bag large enough to fit your hand in
  • Chalk balls- these will produce less dust than loose pieces of chalk
  • A harness
  • A belay device- one with grooves will produce more friction
  • A screw gate carabiner 
  • Clothing that is loose but not so loose that it becomes stuck in the belay device
  • Most indoor climbing walls will have ropes for you

When you are climbing outdoors, you will need to ensure you are packing appropriately for whatever nature sends your way. You will need to bring enough water to avoid dehydration, and you will need to wear clothing that will help you maintain a healthy body temperature.

Additional supplies that you will  need for outdoor climbing that you won’t need for indoor climbing includes:

  • A well-fitting climbing helmet
  • Extra clothing and shoes- you never know when clothes might become wet, or temperatures may rapidly change
  • Hiking boots- the terrain on the way to the crag may be treacherous
  • A nut tool- useful for removing protective gear set in place by the lead climber
  • A guidebook- a real crag won’t have those helpful colored holds that show you the route on indoor climbing walls

7. Effect on Skin

Outdoor rock climbing can be tough on the skin. Take it from Alex Johnson, a two-time world cup of climbing gold medalist and the first woman to ever summit a v12 in Colorado:

“Any moisture detracts from the friction against the rock, and soft skin has a tendency to rip or tear easily,” Alex Johnson, source

 Developing calluses on your fingertips is important for outdoor climbers, as is noted here.

You will be able to develop calluses by hitting the indoor wall at the local gym. The only way to develop calluses is by climbing on a consistent basis.

8. Group Activity

Indoor climbing presents an opportunity for you to bring more of your friends with you during the climb. Depending upon location, outdoor climbing may not be an activity fit for a large group of people.

This will be something to consider if you are planning an outdoor climb. Many of the popular outdoor sites are considered pristine wilderness worthy of safeguarding from the effects of large crowds.

For example, the National Park Service limits the size of climbers at the Bridge Buttress climbing area in West Virginia to a maximum of 15 individuals per trip for the stated purpose of limiting impacts to the Bridge Buttress climbing area. 

Indoor climbing centers openly welcome large groups. In fact, many indoor climbing gyms, such as this one, offer special group discounts.

9. Experience Level Requirements

As is the case with all sports, there is a learning curve for rock climbing. Indoor climbing sites can be catered to climbers of all experience levels; however, if you are planning to scale a crag outdoors you will need to do so with at least one experienced climber.

If you are new to climbing and don’t know anybody who is experienced at climbing, you will want to look at hiring a certified instructor.  The American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) offers an online directory of certified instructors.

This is something else to consider when it comes to the cost of indoor climbing vs. the cost of outdoor climbing. An indoor climbing session will cost considerably less, particularly for those new to the sport, because you will not have to hire a new instructor and you will have the option to rent the equipment needed before you have to invest in climbing equipment of your own.

10. Belaying

When it comes to belaying indoors, you will have the advantage of climbing technique trainers watching your every move to ensure that you are doing it correctly. In this way, indoor climbing teaches you to avoid making common mistakes that could become more consequential outdoors. 

Indoor rock climbing commonly involves a type of climbing set-up at gyms called top-roping.  The rope is anchored at the top of the climbing structure before the climber begins the approach. The belayer is on the ground taking up any slack in the rope as the climber continues upwards. 

Top-climbing is a safe way of climbing that prevents the climber from falling very far if they happen to lose their grip with the wall.

A type of indoor rock climbing that is closer to the traditional technique employed on outdoor crags is sport climbing. The climber, belayer, and the rope they will be using all start on the ground. As the climbers continue up the wall, the leader will clip the rope to bolts on the climbing wall via quickdraws.

In traditional climbing, there are no bolts. This technique requires lots of training on how to properly belay. The different climbing techniques and their difficulty are described in more detail here.

11. Rope Friction

The equipment used to set up the rope in outdoor climbing is not quite the same as it is indoors. In the gym, a belay bar is used. Ropes are double-wrapped around the belay bar to cause friction.

Indoor climbing also involves the use of a static rope, which stretches to about 3%.  Most outdoor climbers use dynamic rope, which stretches to about 30-35% Instead of a belay bar there will usually be two carabiners anchored into the rock.

This results in much less friction in the rope in outdoor climbing than indoors. This provides the climber with a greater sense of freedom while also being a reason to potentially become comfortable with indoor climbing before you hit the crag.

12. Crag

An indoor climbing wall differs from the crag out in the wild in many ways. One of these differences is the material the wall is made of.  Indoor climbing gyms are often constructed of plywood or plastic over a metal frame.  Plastic handholds and footholds are bolted on.

The indoor climbing wall may be spray-coated in a fashion that makes it look like a real crag.

You will have more freedom to choose your route on the crag in outdoor climbing. Routes on indoor climbing walls have been largely predetermined by the placement of the mounted handholds and footholds. 

The lack of mounted guided structures such as handholds provides an outdoor climber with a lot of freedom. You will also want to make sure that you are with an experienced climber who will be able to determine which route works best for you.

You will also be able to find indoor walls that are specifically designed for the type of rock climbing you want to do. 

Indoor walls designed for those who want to try their hand at bouldering are shorter in stature and less intimidating than crags found outdoors. (source: thecrag) The floor will be lined with protective mattresses. 

This means that you will not have to worry as much about injuries coming from indoor climbing walls. This will allow you the opportunity to focus on technique without having to worry too much about safety.

13. The Grades

The author of this helpful site has made a chart to show the conversion between grades on an indoor climbing wall and grades on an outdoor crag. It is based on the V0-V16 grading system for climbing, with V0 being the easiest to climb and V16 being the hardest.

If you look at the chart you will notice a stark contrast between the difficulty of indoor climbing versus the difficulty of outdoor climbing:

  • It is difficult to find a climb in the wild that will be as easy as the easiest of gym walls.
  • However, as you move up the scale towards V6, you will notice less of a difference in the interpreted difficulty between indoor and outdoor walls
    • This is because there are V6 walls outdoors where the climber will have a similar experience friction-wise to what they have on a similarly-graded indoor wall
  • You will notice that few gyms are likely to have walls rated as V11 or higher
    • Indoor gyms are designed to cater to large crowds; no gym wants to lose a bunch of money by designing a wall that frustrates most climbers to the point where they quit

A helpful description of all the different climbing rating systems can be found here.

14. Human Impact on Environment

If you are climbing outdoors, you will need to consider the impact you are having on the environment. Outdoor climbing comes with a set of regulations designed by park or forest services to protect natural resources.

Outdoor climbing sites tend to limit the number of people that can visit a site at any given time. They will also have regulations regarding where you can hike. 

Other regulations that exist may even include being required to protect your food from bears, as is the requirement at Mt. Whitney, where food must be stored  in bear-proof containers. 

15. Fixed Gear

Some of the more popular climbing sites, such as Yosemite, will have lots of fixed gear such as anchors on the crag from previous climbers. If you are climbing outdoors, you will need to be forewarned about some of the potential dangers that fixed gear presents.

This online climbing resource notes that first bolts, crux bolts, and out of line bolts are among the types of fixed gear that see the most wear and tear. It is recommended that you check the binders on these bolts often. 

It is also recommended that you stay close to the wall as you are belaying. Never assume  that fixed gear is in good condition.

At indoor climbing sites, any of the fixed-gear will be maintained and will not be exposed to the effects of weathering that gear kept outdoors is. It is the job of employees at indoor climbing gyms to ensure that the gear is safe.

Nobody, other than the climbers themselves, is ensuring the safety of gear used at outdoor crags.

16. Mantling or “Hugging the Rock”

Outdoor bouldering involves the art of “mantling” or hugging the rock. Mantling is similar  to pulling yourself out of a pool.

In order for you to pull yourself out of a pool you must first place your hand in a downward pulling position at the edge of the pool. Then you engage your arms and use your shoulders to push your body up out of the water.

This video sums up what exactly mantling is pretty well.

Mantling is typically not performed in the indoor rock climbing setting due to terrain limitations and possible injury risks. If you want to master the technique of mantling, you will need to climb outdoors.

17. Grip

When you are climbing outdoors, there is always the threat that applied pressure from your hands and feet might lead to pieces of rock falling off. Thus, the need for a helmet.

It takes some time to adjust to the handgrip situation when climbing outdoors. You will need to rely more on your shoes while climbing outside.



18. Cell Phone Signal

Due to the remoteness of many outdoor climbing locations, you may not be able to find a cell phone signal. 

If you are planning on climbing in areas that might not have consistent cell phone coverage, you may look into getting a Satellite Emergency Notification Device (SEND).

This website provides an in-depth look at which kind of device will best fit your needs. You will also be able to find several different types of locator beacons on Amazon once you have made your decision.

19.  Time to Complete

An indoor climbing gym is a day trip. The climbs themselves will be relatively short; particularly when compared to the time it will take to complete an outdoor climb.

Not only will the hike to the crag affect the time it takes to complete the climb, but the difficulty of outdoor rock climbing will also extend the time it takes to be completed.

Before you tackle the crag, you will need to come up with a route plan up the cock since you will not have those helpful, specially colored holds that indoor climbing centers have.

The key takeaway here is that outdoor climbing should take a lot longer because you will need to ensure that you are fully prepared. You are truly at the mercy of whatever nature happens to throw your way.

20.  Uniqueness

A significant part of the appeal of outdoor rock climbing is that rocks in nature are unique structures. They were designed by natural processes, not humans.

However, indoor structures can be unique, as well. There are some indoor climbing centers that draw visitors specifically due to unique designs that offer climbers challenges that they may not find at their local gym or climbing center.

Climbing.com has assembled a list of America’s 10 Best Climbing Gyms that may be found here. One of the sites, Climb So iLL, was built in an abandoned power plant. How cool is that?

It’s good to know that indoor climbing doesn’t have to be boring. You may not get the same experience as climbing outdoors, but you’ll still have opportunities to have unique experiences while learning the ropes.

 

Is Indoor Climbing Harder Than Outdoor Climbing?

Indoor rock climbing is harder than outdoor climbing for many reasons, including ,but not limited to the following:

  • Outdoor rock climbing has many elements you cannot control. Climbing outdoors will always be a wildcard because you never know for sure what the weather will do. You will also have to deal with crumbling rocks on the crag and may run into other causes of adversity such as wild animals
  • Outdoor crags don’t have mounted handholds or footholds. At the indoor climbing gym, you will have an easier time staying on the wall because you have been provided with mounted holds. In nature all you have is a rock.
  • Less Friction in Ropes. The indoor belay device keeps you up against the wall easier by allowing for more friction in the rope. If you happen to become detached from the wall, you will probably only fall a few feet depending upon the type of climbing. In outdoor climbing you will feel a lot more like you are flapping in the wind.
  • No planned routes. Outdoor climbing requires you to be climbing with someone who knows what they are doing. This is because it is not always so easy planning the route you should take up the crag. Indoor gyms often will have color-coded routes.

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