A Guide to Rock Climbing

Actor and adventurer Jason Burkey has a soft spot for the great outdoors. While working on Hulu’s buzzy Dopesick, NBC’s Ordinary Joe, and Netflix’s upcoming film They Cloned Tyrone, the Illinois native spent his free time rock climbing.

Rock climbing as a form of fitness, recreation, and even socialization has skyrocketed over the last few years, but for the uninitiated, it can be understandably intimidating and unapproachable. It’s a mental, physical, and financial investment. To help make a molehill out of this mountain for you, Burkey breaks down the different types of rock climbing, best gear, tips, apps, and favorite docs to get you in the right headspace.


“The first word I ever spoke was ‘down’. My parents told me this was my attempt to get down off their lap and immediately go climb up something precarious. I believe it’s in my blood to climb things—sometimes it’s to challenge myself to get as high as I can, but a lot of the time it’s simply just to gain a better view or new perspective.

My first rock climbing excursion happened as a result of my signing up for the Adventure Club in my high school. The club took a trip to New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia. When you take your shoes off and walk barefoot in the grass, it’s referred to as ‘grounding.’ Which is essentially what I felt when I first put my hands and feet on a rock face; my body pressed firmly against it. The exhilarating feeling I had after completing my first route on top rope, combined with the encouraging shouts of the Adventure Club 60 feet below, told me that I had found my sport. I’ve always been a risk-taker—to an extent—and I think rock climbing provides just the right amount of risk to get your heart pumping. Climbing also offers such a mental and physical challenge where you constantly compete against yourself amongst an adventurous, collaborative, and supportive community of other climbers. That, ultimately, is why I rock climb.”


“If you’re just starting in the climbing world, it’s good to know the different types of rock climbing you can do. This is yet another thing I love about the sport—unlike a lot of other sports—it offers a lot of different approaches. For instance, let’s say you try bouldering and you’re really not vibing it, you don’t have to quit climbing altogether. Instead, you can then try your hand at top rope or sport climbing. You also may prefer strictly outdoor climbing vs gym climbing; although, your best bet is to start getting a lot of practice in a gym first before tackling the bigger challenge of outdoor climbing. Here’s a brief rundown of the types of climbing you can do. See what piques your interest.”


“All you need is a crash pad, shoes, and a chalk bag (chalk improves the grip on your hands). Typically, you’re not climbing any higher than you can safely jump or fall from. You’re literally climbing a large boulder either vertically or horizontally (AKA traversing). If you’re outdoors, make sure you lay down at least two crash pads to break your fall (more if you’re traversing or if it’s a higher boulder), and have a buddy who can spot you as well. If you’re in a gym, you don’t need a spotter and can easily jump onto a large pad or downclimb when you finish your route.”


“This requires a bit more equipment. You’ll need shoes, a chalk bag, harness, rope, and belay device (a piece of climbing equipment that limits the distance a climber could fall off a rock face. It works by locking the rope to ‘catch’ a falling climber). It is designed to improve belay safety for the climber by allowing the belayer (a climbing partner who controls the safety rope fastened to the climber in case they fall) to manage their duties with minimal physical effort. You’ll also need someone to belay you (a technique to provide friction to the rope system so the device locks and supports the climber) while you climb. You and your belayer are attached to the same rope and your goal is simply to reach the top of the route where your rope is anchored into the rock. In a gym, ropes are already preset and anchored for you—some even have belay devices attached. If you’re outdoors, you’ll have to set your rope through the preset anchors drilled into the top of the rock face. Unlike bouldering, you’ll be climbing pretty high, but don’t fret because your belayer is on the ground making sure the rope is tight. When you ‘fall’, you won’t go anywhere; you’ll just come off the rock and hang there until you get back on the rock or your belayer lets you down.”


“Top rope on steroids. You’ll need the same equipment you’d use for top-roping, only this time the rope isn’t anchored into the top of the wall. You start with your belayer on the ground, attached to the same rope, but you’re pulling the rope up with you and clipping it into preset anchors in the wall or rock face as you climb. Unlike top rope, if you come off the wall, you’ll fall to just below where you clipped the rope in last. Depending on where that is, this could be a long fall (make sure you have a belayer who knows how to catch you!) Belaying in sport climbing looks a bit different than top rope.”


“Sport climbing on even stronger steroids. Only done outdoors, trad is the same as sport climbing, only there aren’t any preset anchors in the rock face. You have to bring anchors (or cams) with you on your harness and place the anchors in the rock wall yourself before clipping the rope into them. Beast mode. Just to be clear, I’m not Superman—I’ve never done this and don’t see myself doing this… ever. But there are plenty of supermen and women who do this all the time, and I’m in awe of them.”


“Let’s talk gear. Where to begin? Well as you probably know, the equipment you use won’t automatically make you a good climber—putting in hours and hours at the gym working on technique? That will. That said, before you go spending your hard-earned dollars on gear, I  suggest renting shoes, a harness, and a chalk bag from the gym until you get the hang of everything and see if this climbing thing is worth it to you.”


“When you are ready to gear up, here’s a list of some great and affordable entry-level options for shoes.

There are A LOT of options when it comes to climbing shoes—lace or velcro, neutral or aggressive. REI does a wonderful job of pointing you in the right direction when it comes to shoes. Check out what they have to say here.

Personally, I’m partial to the La Sportiva brand, so here’s what I recommend below.”


“These beginner shoes won’t make your wallet cry, and they’re a solid option for getting started  in the gym.”


“When you’re ready to sacrifice a bit of comfort for stronger performance, here are some good options below.”


“And when you’re really ready to step up your technique on complicated routes, especially  outdoors, try out one of these below.”


“If bouldering is your cup of tea, you’re going to need to invest in at least one, if not two crash pads if you’re wanting to boulder outdoors. I love my crash pads. They’ve saved me from many rolled and/or broken ankles. There are varying thicknesses of pads, depending on how high you’re climbing and what your preference is, but ultimately you just want something that is that perfect blend of softness and firmness to break your fall and is versatile enough to cover those parts of the ground that could really hurt if you landed on them. Here’s what I work with below.”


“Some may argue with this, but to me, a harness is a harness. Therefore, if you’re looking for an  affordable and straightforward option, here’s one.”


“You’ll use carabiners to clip your belay device and rope onto, as well as any extra items on your harness like your chalk bag or cams if you’re doing trad climbing. Here’s a good carabiner, but honestly, they’re all pretty much the same. Just make sure it has a screwgate.”


“Same idea goes for chalk bags. You can’t go wrong. Just depends on what you like—you can get one with a waist clip, one that just clips onto a carabiner, or more of a bucket bag used for bouldering. Here’s a simple and affordable option.”

“Now when it comes to chalk, you have more options—loose, chunky, or liquid. I like Metolius Super Chalk because it’s smooth and covers my hands well. You may need to re-apply this chalk more often than other chalks on the market, but it’s one of the most affordable and better performing chalks out there.”


“Your local gym will most likely use ATC’s as belay devices, but some gyms have Gri-Gri’s already hooked up to their top ropes. You can belay and rappel on both, but the main difference, I believe, is that the Gri-Gri is easier and safer to use. A Gri-Gri has this nice lever that makes it simple to control when a climber starts rappelling after completing a route. Here’s what they look like below.

If it’s your first time at a gym, they will make you get ‘belay certified’ before you start climbing, so don’t fret—you’ll learn how to use these devices in the safest way.”


“If you find yourself doing a lot of outdoor climbing, it’s smart to invest in a rope. Just make sure you get one that’s the right thickness, length, stiffness and/or flexibility. Just like with shoes, you have a plethora of options when it comes to choosing the right rope. Again, REI has some helpful tips when it comes to rope here.”


“There are plenty of videos you can watch online that will teach you technique, and I’ve found those to be extremely helpful, but ultimately you’ll learn the most by consistently hitting that climbing gym. Here are some of the most simple and best tips that were shared with me when I first started:

  • When climbing, always try to move your legs up the wall first and then your hands. This way you’re standing taller on the wall, and you won’t burn out your upper body and arms.  
  • Climbing is all about balance and body positioning. Think of each route like a well choreographed dance on the wall. Just make sure you hug your body close to the wall as you climb.  
  • When you’re in a sturdy and balanced position on the wall, take a break and shake out  those arms! You’ll need it to maintain endurance on those bigger routes. 
  • Mind over matter. You’re as good of a climber as you are in your mind, so that means no negative talk! Confidence is key (even if you have to fake it). Challenge yourself with new routes but also go easy on yourself if you have had multiple failed attempts. Don’t  throw in the towel after a bad day or even multiple bad days of climbing. There’s always a new challenge or route to work on, always room to improve.  
  • When it comes to apparel, just avoid clothing that is too baggy or too stiff. So, no skinny jeans. You want what you wear to be breathable and flexible. I like wearing slim-fitting jogger pants and a t-shirt.”


“Just like with any sport, it’s important to train and strengthen your body even when you’re not on a rock wall. There are a few rock climbing apps out there that provide specific workouts for climbers as well as popular outdoor climbing spots based on your location. Here are my  favorites in order.”


“Discover outdoor climbing areas near you with a list of specific routes, ratings, and photos of each location.”


“Log your climbs, set goals, discover specific workouts, and join the climbing community.”


“Automatically logs and tracks the routes you climb. Pairs with Apple.”


“Here are a few climbing documentaries I always recommend people watch to wet their whistle.”


“A story about the daredevil ‘outlaw’ pioneers of rock climbing and how, through the decades, it became a cultural revolution in the world of adventure sports—told from what is arguably the birthplace of rock climbing in the U.S.: Yosemite Valley in California.”

Photo Courtesy of Sender Films


“An unbelievably true story that showcases the power and determination of  the human spirit, The Dawn Wall follows legendary rock climber Tommy Caldwell, along with Kevin Jorgeson, as they overcome multiple obstacles to free-climb the Dawn Wall in Yosemite;  which was basically like trying to climb up a 3,000 ft wall of glass with hardly anything to hold on to.”

Photo Courtesy of Sender Films


“2019 Oscar winner. Even if you don’t consider yourself a climber, you’ve probably seen this movie or heard of Alex Honnold. Considered to be the greatest/riskiest climber of our time. The film follows Alex as he climbs El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope or a harness. Insane? Wild? Entertaining? Yeah, I think so too.”

Photo Courtesy of National Geographic Documentary Films

“Now get out there and have fun exploring!”



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