Last update: May 17, 2022
Like many other sports, rock climbing can be a very personal experience. You are regularly competing against your strength and abilities, but it’s a competitive sport that you typically can’t do alone.
If you decide to take on rock climbing solo, you will face some unique challenges. Mainly, it is extremely dangerous to be without a spotter or belay partner. With a lack of additional safety and accountability, you are at higher risk for serious injury. Unfortunately, climbing alone may not be completely unavoidable because of your schedule or geographic location.
If choosing to rock climb alone, it is valuable to prepare yourself for the situation mentally. Whether bouldering alone, venturing unaccompanied to the gym climbing, or rope soloing, you must be prepared to take on any of the obstacles you may face. So let’s explore some ways to be successful and well equipped for rock climbing alone.
Rock Climbing Alone
Although rock climbing with a partner is ideal, climbing alone isn’t entirely impossible if you have the right precautions in place. Climbing gym community boards, online communities, and Facebook groups can be great places to start. They are good for finding and sharing advice on the safest methods and locations to climb alone. Additionally, you can use them to meet potential climbing partners with similar abilities or goals.
Let’s take a look at some of the options you have to enjoy the sport solo. We will touch on best practices and other forms of climbing available for those who wish to climb alone safely.
At the Climbing Gym
Gyms are an easy choice for any solo climber. There is always a guarantee that other people will be around at a gym, and an indoor rock climbing facility is designed with your safety in mind. Most gyms have protective mats, high-quality ropes, and belay devices. They also provide experienced staff and educational classes that require you to pass an exam before getting onto any routes.
Climbing gyms usually have indoor bouldering areas or a fully dedicated bouldering gym. Bouldering gyms provide only bouldering routes and use thick landing mats for dismounts or in case of a fall. The mats will surely catch you, but there’s a proper way to fall to prevent injury.
The most essential part of falling is learning how to land properly. While landing, be sure to keep your knees bent and relaxed, but your muscles activated as your legs will take most of the impact. Land flat on both feet and tuck your chin to your chest to prevent whiplash.
Allow your body to tuck into a ‘C’ shape with your arms pulled into your chest, rolling onto your side, back, or shoulder. Be sure not to fight against the momentum or try to catch yourself with your arms. Bracing against the momentum of a fall could cause you to strain or even break a limb.
If you are on a low roof, falling directly on your back or stomach, allow your body to break most of the impact. Slap the mat with your hands at your sides during impact to counteract the force of your fall. You should be taught these techniques before being allowed to use the facility, so make sure to check with your local gym on their protocol for bouldering indoors.
Most climbers who are looking to climb alone often use auto belay devices. These devices equip many indoor rock climbing gyms. Self-belay systems are helpful because they allow you to top rope without requiring a belayer.
Auto belay devices have an internal automatic locking mechanism that catches your weight upon a fall. If you’ve successfully made it to the top of a route, auto-belays will slowly lower you to the ground; all you need to do is lean back as if rappelling. When you reach the ground, you’ll remove the locking carabiner and hook it back to the wall for the next climber. Be careful not to let go of the carabiner, or the system will automatically pull it up the wall, rendering it unusable.
Although auto belays are great for solo climbers, safety issues have been a concern. The systems can be hazardous due to user error and have led to deaths in the past. In many of these cases, the climber forgot to clip in before they started climbing. However, it can also happen that the machine itself fails (as recently in Australia). We would advise against using auto-belays without first becoming familiar with the device and getting proper in-person instruction.
Bouldering outdoors is an easy way to do some solo rock climbing outside; however, it’s naturally more dangerous than an indoor gym. You’re likely to go to a more remote location and, as such, be exposed to the elements. Because of these factors, bouldering outdoors requires more preparation and extra safety precautions.
Make sure to bring along at least one large bouldering mat. Keep in mind if the bouldering problem is longer than your crash pad, you may need to bring more than one. If you have a friend willing to come along to climb or spot, that will increase your chances of staying safe. Pack plenty of water and a first aid kit in the case of injury. Check the weather conditions before leaving and call it off if there’s any chance of extreme weather. As an extra precaution, always let someone else know where you’re going and the approximate time you’ll be back so they can check in with you to make sure you’ve made it home safely.
There are a few ways to safely and successfully rope climb without a climbing partner. Rope soloing is the term used for climbing on a fixed rope. It applies to sport and trad climbing.
This type of rock climbing requires rigging a grigri or other locking belay device to the rope attached to a fixed object, like a tree, called a rappel anchor. The most crucial factor is that you must reach the top of the route to set up your rope. It’s also important to tie several knots at intervals behind your belay device if the locking device fails while you are using it.
While rope soloing, the grigri slides up the rope as you go. If you take a fall, the camming mechanism inside the grigri locks, stopping you in place. To descend back down the rope, you pull up on the brake lever and lower yourself down.
There are always risks to keep in mind in any solo climb situation. You should have proper training if you are going to rope solo. Start with practice on smaller routes and short distances until you are extremely comfortable with what you are doing. Always wear a helmet, a harness, and a locking belay device. Tie and clip in properly before getting on a route and use high-quality gear because your life depends on it.
Aid climbing is a form of solo climbing that uses other techniques like pulleys, nuts, cam hooks, and aiders to ascend a rock wall. With aid climbing, equipment is in the cracks and features of rock, and the ladder-like aider is attached for more leverage.
Typically in free climbing, aiders are only used for safety, not to support any bodyweight during the climb. The equipment is essentially there to catch a fall or help lower yourself down the rope.
Lead climbing can be done solo using a rope, harness, and locking device. For this type of climbing, one end of the rope is anchored to an object on the ground, and the other end is coiled in a bag on your harness while you are attached. As you make your way up the route, you attach yourself to quickdraws and then to the anchor bolts once you reach the top of the route. You can then use the locking belay device to lower yourself to the ground. As you work your way back down the route, you then ‘clean’ the route or remove the quickdraws and then pull the rope all the way through the anchor bolts once you have safely reached the ground.
Free Soloing & Free Climbing
Free soloing is a method of rock climbing that requires no gear or climbing partner and no assistance from safety equipment or aiders. Anyone can free solo, but free soloing is a perilous climbing approach. Climbing at any height while unattached to gear or equipment can result in severe injury and death. Free soloing is not something I would suggest or urge you to do at any time, no matter your climbing level, ability, or expertise.
Free climbing is similar to free soloing but uses fall protection gear as a means of safety. When free climbing, you’re not using equipment or gear to help you ascend the wall but allowing the gear to catch you in the case of a fall or to descend. Free climbing is much different from top-roping, where the belayer takes in most of the slack to assist the climber when they need a break. In free climbing, the rope only acts as an aid when falling or descending after a climb. Free climbing is safer than free soloing but still very dangerous overall.
Deep Water Soloing
Deep water soloing is similar to free soloing, except you’re protected by a deep body of water below you. This type of climbing is also called DWS and has become increasingly popular over the last few years. With this type of climbing, you are without ropes or gear. Although it is safer than free soloing, there are still risks.
Many DWS routes are short climbs since falling into water from heights of 25-30 feet can be painful. When taking a fall, landing feet first is essential. Make sure to point your toes for a seamless entry into the water. Having a spotter nearby also increases safety in case of an emergency. Keep in mind that if you’re hurt or knocked out mid-climb, you’ll likely need extra help and someone to pull you out of the water.
Most climbing shoes can endure getting wet. If your shoes have a leather upper, they may stretch a bit when they’re wet. Most shoes are good shoes for DWS and will hold their shape well. Make sure you let your shoes completely dry out after your climbs to prevent mold and mildew.
Other safety tips include finding familiar routes in popular areas. Speak with other deep water solo climbers for any tips and tricks they may have.
Always Be Prepared
Climbing can be very dangerous. When you start climbing solo, always be well prepared. Bring along climbing shoes, a chalk bag, a first aid kit, plenty of water, and look for other climbers nearby in the case of an emergency. If you’re completely alone, have your phone on or near you to call for help. Always let others know where you’re going and when you plan to be back. It is better to be overly prepared in case you become stranded or hurt. Become familiar with the terrain, elevation, and the weather you may expect in that location at that time of year.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Both new and experienced climbers pick up bouldering because it is an easy individual sport to get into. Bouldering at the gym is your safest option since there is already equipment and others nearby. While it is OK to go alone outdoors to boulder, it’s best to bring someone else with you to have as a spotter.
You do not need to have a partner for bouldering. It’s wise to have either a large, thick mat or a spotter nearby. Keep in mind the risks before any bouldering.
Rock climbing alone is a unique experience. Many rock climbers pick up the sport for the new friends it brings and the personal competitive nature. Climbing alone doesn’t have to be weird if you don’t want it to be. Climbing alone can be super fun and rewarding with the proper equipment, research, and safety precautions.
Yes! When going to your local gym, you’ll almost always find others looking for a climbing partner. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to other people. When going to a climbing wall outdoors, you may want to research a hotspot that is more likely to have people around. Top rope climbing alone can be dangerous, so aim to find climbing partners and make sure they know what they’re doing. When needed, ask for advice and start by climbing a short distance to get comfortable before taking on more challenging routes.
There are many ways to rock climb by yourself. Bouldering is your safest and best option. Auto belays are another option, but be mindful that they can be very dangerous due to user error. Ask the gym staff for instructions and to be shown how to use the device properly. Rope soloing and DWS are other terrific options for climbing alone.
Any rock climber interested can get into rock climbing without a partner. Try to find ways to connect with other climbers when you can. You may be surprised how many others are looking for a partner too. No matter the type of climb you’re willing to try, keep in mind climbing alone is risky and requires extra safety precautions and preparation.
You can definitely lead climb alone. Like rope soloing, lead soloing is lead climbing with a locking device. Essentially, you do all the work of both the climber and the belayer. One end of the rope is anchored to a grounded object, and the other end is coiled in a bag attached to your harness while you’re attached to the rope. It takes a bit of technique to learn, but it can be accomplished.
The best partners will be those that are always up for a belay, can give you beta on that boulder problem you can’t quite figure out, or someone to share a beer with and talk about the next route you’ve got your eye on. Above all, it’s important to be sure you are working with a climber or group you can trust.
Scout the local gym for climbers with similar skills, sign up for an instructed course, participate in a local rock climbing event, ask the front desk staff, or join a local Facebook group. Checking out new climbs, bouldering areas, and gyms is a great way to make new friends.
Check out the article How to Find Climbing Partners: Best Places and Tips for more great information on finding the best rock climbing partner.
Rock climbing alone can be quite dangerous if you don’t take the necessary precautions. Most climbers are physically and mentally prepared to climb at their own risk when going alone. If you’re truly ready, you’ll never rock climb alone.
A native of Indiana, Carolyn has been traveling and climbing around the US since 2012. She has worked at high ropes courses, climbing gyms and spent several seasons in Southeast Alaska working as a Tour Manager for a remote zipline. While traveling, she likes to climb at both indoor gyms and outdoor crags. She now runs her own business, Avanelle Co., and writes about her experiences.