Rock climbing is a fantastic workout, excellent for building full-body strength and for developing problem-solving skills. Whether you suspect your kids will be climbing naturals or you’d like to introduce a new activity to the family, don’t just sprint to the nearest crag! Take time to plan your family’s introduction to rock climbing for a better – and far safer – experience. (Most of the tips in this post focus on outdoor climbing. If you are not familiar with any of the climbing terms used, check out the mini glossary below.)
LEARN TO CLIMB YOURSELF
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Because there is vast room for error when climbing, curious parents should get comfortable with the ropes before bringing along the kids. Tanya Koob of Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies recommends taking indoor or outdoor rock climbing classes to learn basic skills like setting up top ropes, building anchors, cleaning routes, setting up harnesses and belaying. Climbing centers and gyms are a good first point of call. Here, you’ll be able to take introductory classes, practice your skills, and even find a transition course to teach you how to take your indoor climbing skills outdoors. Children over a certain age can also take indoor lessons, says Tanya, where they’ll learn about knot tying, belaying, and outdoor safety. If there isn’t a climbing gym near you, join in on a day at the crag with rock climbing clubs or experienced friends.
KNOW YOUR EQUIPMENT
Once you have taken indoor lessons or joined an outdoor climbing expedition with a local club, you might want to consider piecing together your own climbing rack. However, unless you’ve been well and truly bitten by the bug and want to climb regularly, sourcing a complete climbing rack is expensive and unnecessary. That said, weekend climbers will need some equipment. If climbing with friends or joining a course, be sure ask what is provided.
At the very least, an outdoor climbing group will need:
* One harness per climber/belayer
When fitting kids, find one that “truly fits and absolutely cannot come off over their hips. Kids are top heavy and prone to flipping upside down if they fall,” says Tanya. A well-fitting full body harness is essential.
* One helmet for each person
Children should wear their helmet all day at the crag, recommends Tanya. When investing in a helmet, ensure it does not slip around when your child moves their head. A bike helmet can be used for the first couple of expeditions, but Tanya doesn’t advise them as they aren’t designed for the impact of rock fall (which is far more common than hitting your head while climbing).
* One rope per 2-3 climbers
* One belay device with a locking carabiner
The following equipment is helpful to have, but not essential:
* Bike gloves and climbing shoes
“My son was fine in his hiking shoes or sandals when he was younger,” says Tanya, “But now that he’s able to climb a 5.6 or 5.7, he needs real shoes with grip.” To take the sting out of investing in shoes for growing feet, Tanya recommends buying a size or two too large and bulking out with socks.
OUTDOOR CLIMBING SAFETY AND LOGISTICS
Safe climbing is the only sort allowed when children are involved. Use these 10 tried and tested expert tips when climbing with your family.
Establish a safe base camp
This is for resting, playing and eating and should be far from potential rock fall. Erica Lineberry of Crag Mama signals that this is especially important if there is a baby, as you’ll need a safe place to diaper and nurse. Do a thorough check for thorns, ant hills, steep slopes and other hazards, she recommends, as well as considering if the area will be protected from potential rain.
Teach your kids to wear their helmet all day
Teach your children that their helmet should be kept on even when they are not climbing.
Remember that the belayer is not a babysitter
The job of the belayer is to be 100% focused on the climber. Make sure you have plenty of people so someone can focus solely on the kids who are not climbing.
Always complete a pre-climb safety check
“Teach your children to double check their system too,” suggests Tanya. Include the kids with questions like:
- “We’re checking your harness now. Is it on correctly?”
- “Dad’s put his carabiner on. Let’s check that it’s locked.”
- “Now I’m checking that the belay device is correctly set up.”
Three adults are best when climbing with kids
“One to lead the climb, one to belay and one for kid management,” explains Tanya. Extra adults are always welcome on the ground, to prepare snacks, take photos and generally deal with the logistics of children in the outdoors!
Set up a route for every 2-3 children in your group
If your equipment allows for additional routes it’s a good idea to set them up. This gives them plenty of climbing opportunities, explains Tanya. Less routes and the kids will be sitting around for most of the day.
Arrive early to have your choice of routes
This gives you time to select the routes that best suit your group’s experience level.
Remember that your family’s focus today is climbing, not hiking
To keep kids fresh and energetic (or yourself, if you are backpacking with a toddler), choose a location with a short hike in. Erica stresses that terrain is as important as distance: avoid hikes with ascents, water crossings, or scrambling.
Similarly, ensure you prepare to hike back to your car well before nightfall
Getting “stuck” outside might have been an interesting story pre-kids, but not with youngsters in tow!
Bring plenty of food, water, and sunblock, as well as toys and books, to entertain kids not currently climbing
ON KINDNESS AND CHILDREN’S FEARS
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One kid will be a rock-climbing natural and another will struggle with the concept. Tanya tells us how to encourage children yet not push.
“Teach children that climbing is about time with families, not about getting to the top,” she says. “Does your child want to come down? Let them come down.” When introducing climbing to your family, ensure that kids know their value is not based on how high they climbed. “Climbing is a challenge by choice activity,” reminds Tanya. “Forced fun is no fun! If the kids don’t want to climb, they should not have to.” (If your child just needs a little extra motivation, the folks at Kid Project have report great success from attaching a cowbell to the top of a climb, for kids to ring when they arrive!)
If, after a few expeditions, your family splits into fans and non-fans, consider your non-climbers. Don’t force them to go on whole day or weekend trips and ensure there are other outdoor components for them to enjoy when they do come (think biking, creek swimming, hiking, scrambling, etc.).
Tanya also advises that a child must be comfortable with the feeling of being lowered before they are allowed to ascend too high, and suggests having the “bug talk” early in the day to avoid a frenzy while they’re climbing . “Tell them, ‘Yes, there will be spiders on the wall. Yes, you will see bugs. Just leave them alone and ignore them.’” Providing bike gloves will help kids be okay with accidentally touching a creepy crawly.
With preparation and a kind attitude towards the challenges kids will experience, rock climbing may end up among your family’s favorite outdoor activities. So, it’s time to strap on that harness and explore those routes!
Crag – A rock face with different climbing routes, an outdoor climbing location
Climbing rack – The equipment necessary to rock climb
Belay – To hold the rope with tension, to arrest a falling climber. The belayer is the person tasked with this job.
Lead a route – Ascending and attaching the rope to the route’s permanent bolts
Set up a top rope – To attach the rope to the top of the route
Clean a route – To remove the equipment used to set the top rope
Build an anchor – An anchor are the bolts at the top of a climb (where a climber aims to reach)
Climbing Class system – Class 5 climbs and above require ropes and belayers. (Beginner climbers will usually start on 5.0 – 5.7 climbs, whereas a dedicated hobby climber will enjoy 5.8 – 5.10 challenges. Leave 5.11 and above to the real experts!)