Published on: 07/15/2023
We all know climbers wear harnesses and helmets and climbing shoes, but what about everything else? Pants. Shirts. Socks. Underwear. Hats. Gloves.
What should you wear rock climbing?
If you’re a new climber, you probably have lots of questions. Can you wear jeans rock climbing? Are short sleeves better than long sleeves? What do you wear rock climbing indoors?
Don’t sweat. These are all questions we’ll dive into in this article.
First, we’ll cover some important criteria, then talk about shorts and pants, tops, sports bras and underwear, and finally, accessories. Let’s get started!
Safety is one of the biggest concerns when choosing what to wear rock climbing. Two of the biggest safety factors are abrasion resistance and sun protection.
You’ll rub up against rough rock all day long, so you want clothes that are fairly hardy and can stand up to some wear and tear, (especially if you’re crack climbing). You’ll also (hopefully) be under the sun all day, so you need clothes that offer sun protection and don’t show too much bare skin.
Another safety consideration is hanging fabric. Loose clothes and accessories can snag in your belay device, wrap around the rope, or get in the way while you’re trying to clip protection and build anchors. Avoid baggy clothes. The best climbing apparel is form-fitting and streamlined.
Comfort is key on the wall, and breathability and weight are the main factors to consider here. For your rock climbing tops and climbing pants choose lightweight, breathable, and moisture-wicking fabrics.
Performance isn’t as important when you’re a new climber, but it’s still worth taking into account. Freedom of movement is king for climbing apparel. Remember, climbing is a dynamic, gymnastic sport. You have to be able to move your limbs in all directions and contort your body in all manner of shapes.
So stretchy, pliable clothing is good. Baggy, loose clothing is not.
You don’tneed to spend a ton of money to buy a rock climbing outfit. Most athletic clothes will work well for climbing, at least until you have enough pitches under your belt to know what you’re looking for.
Whether or not style is a piece of “important criteria” really depends on who you are. Unless you’re going on a rock climbing date… who cares? But a climbing wardrobe can certainly be stylish. My advice here, however, would be to focus on the other four criteria first.
Safe, comfortable, high-performing, and affordable apparel is surely the most stylish climbing gear money can buy.
Outdoor vs. Indoor Rock Climbing
Climbing outdoors is very different from climbing indoors, and the same is true of outdoor and indoor climbing apparel.
Temperature and Weather Conditions
The best outdoor climbing apparel will depend on the weather conditions. In warm climates, focus on breathability and moisture-wicking properties, as well as sun protection.
You likely won’t be rock climbing in brutally cold conditions as a beginner, but in early spring and late fall, you may be tempted to add a few extra layers to stay warm.
However, try to bring a single jacket instead of multiple outer layers, because you’ll only have so much space in your pack, particularly if there’s a long approach or you’re multi-pitch climbing and can’t leave stuff behind.
In most cases, a lightweight, packable “shell” jacket (like the Rab Kinetic 2.0) is the best addition to your kit, in case of unexpected winds or rain. For colder temps, puffer jackets with a high warmth-to-weight ratio, like the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer 2, are a common choice.
Approaching a Climb
Sometimes just getting to the climb is almost as hard as the climb itself. So suitable clothes for an approach are really whatever you’re comfortable hiking and climbing in. You could wear hiking shorts, stretchy jeans, yoga pants, climbing-specific pants… whatever you want.
Just make sure your clothes are light and packable. They should be items that you can either a) continue to wear on the wall or b) stuff into your pack once you reach the crag, but the former is best.
One specific item to consider is a pair of approach shoes. These are sturdy, lightweight hiking shoes with good trail traction and sticky rubber that can grip well easy rock (think 4th to easy 5th Class).
A good pair of approach shoes will save your energy for climbing, and can even be worn on long scrambles or full-on climbs. This author has climbed many 14,000-foot peaks and rock routes up to 5.10 in approach shoes.
But some climbers opt to wear sneakers, or even flip-flops if the approach is mellow. It all depends on the length and difficulty of your approach.
What to Wear Indoor Rock Climbing
The best indoor rock climbing outfit is much more of a personal preference. You won’t have to worry about sunburn, cold winds, rain, or rubbing up against harsh rock.
However, many indoor climbing and bouldering gyms are cold, so a hoodie is never a bad idea. Beyond this, when climbing indoors, just wear comfortable gym clothes. Stuff that can stretch and doesn’t inhibit your movement at all.
You should feel comfortable moving in all directions, but look for a slim fit because, as we’ve mentioned before, loose pants and other baggy climbing clothes can get caught on rope, belay devices, holds, or anchor systems. They can also get in the way of your hands and feet as you climb.
Shorts & Pants
This author has worn his own pair of sweatpants climbing plenty of times, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but in general, sweatpants aren’t a great choice for rock climbing clothing. They’re OK for indoor climbing walls, but even there they tend to be baggy, loose, and poorly ventilating.
Traditional jeans are not a good choice for climbing pants. But flexible climbing jeans with specially-designed stretchy denim (like Boulder Denim) that are still durable enough to head outdoors? These are a stellar option choice.
Yoga pants or other leggings are a fine choice for climbing pants. The REI Co-op Flash Hybrid Tights and the prAna Becksa 7/8 Leggings are both good options.
Short vs. Long Bottoms
Some prefer long pants, others like to wear shorts. Both are acceptable. The choice of what to wear climbing is yours. Shorts are more breathable and mobile, rock climbing pants offer more protection from abrasion and sunburn.
Short vs. Long Sleeve
Like the short vs. long bottoms debate, the choice between short and long sleeves (and tank tops) is your call. Short sleeves are often more mobile and breathable, long sleeves give better protection from the rock and sun. In warm weather, most climbers wear a simple t-shirt, like the REI Co-op Sahara, or a tank top.
A good jacket for rock climbing indoors is simply one that’s warm and comfortable. Any hoodie or sweater will do, just be prepared for it to get very chalky!
Outdoors, most climbers opt for a softshell like Mammut’s Ultimate VII SO Hooded jacket for men or the Black Diamond Women’s Alpenglow Pro.
Sports Bras & Underwear
A sports bra is a perfectly acceptable top for climbing outdoors in warm weather, particularly if you’re sport climbing. However, on routes where you’ll be brushing up against the rock, like chimneys and cracks, or ones with big mantle top-outs, you may want more skin protection.
The ideal sports bra for climbing is no different than the ideal sports bra for any other outdoor activity. It should be comfortable, breathable, and allow for full freedom of movement.
The same thing goes here. You need underwear that is breathable, lightweight, and allows for full freedom of movement. Remember, you’ll likely be wearing a harness, so find a pair that doesn’t pinch or bunch up under your leg loops.
Depending on the weather, you may want to wear a hat when climbing outside. However, most roped climbers don’t wear hats, because they’re already wearing helmets. Bandanas or neck gaiters are more common.
If you do wear a sun hat, like all climbing apparel, find one that’s light, breathable, and packable. Check that it can fit underneath your helmet before purchasing. In cold weather, some climbers wear beanies underneath their helmets, as well.
Gloves aren’t worn while rock climbing but can be helpful while belaying or rappelling, improving grip on the rope and preventing friction burn. Breathable, durable gloves with a leather palm, like the Petzl Cordex, are a good choice.
A chalk bag is a helpful accessory that allows you to carry a bit of friction chalk while on a climb, improving your grip and drying sweaty hands. One of my favorites is this prAna bag, but you can check out our exhaustive compilation of the Best Rock Climbing Chalk Bags for a closer look at more chalk bags.
Belay glasses aren’t a must-have, but they can improve the neck pain and discomfort that comes with hours of craning your neck to stare upward while belaying. Our reviewers ranked the Y&Y Classic as the “Best Overall” belay glasses, but we have a dedicated article about the Best Belay Glasses if you want to dive in deeper.
Long hair can be a hazard when roped climbing, mostly because it can get caught in belay or rappel devices. Keep long hair pulled back in a bun or ponytail while climbing.
Climbing shoes are a category all to their own, so it’s too big a can of worms to open here. Most indoor climbing gyms will also you to rent shoes for your first time!
However, we have a detailed compilation of 15 of the Best Climbing Shoes already on our site. Check that list out if you’re keen to learn more and purchase your first pair of rock climbing shoes.
Besides that, it’s always nice to have a comfortable pair of shoes for resting when outdoor rock climbing (or going to the bathroom at an indoor climbing gym).
Usually these are the same shoes you’ll wear on approach, but some climbers pack a pair of sandals or flip-flops specifically for resting and belaying.
In general, these shoes should be easy to slip on and off, and shoes that you don’t need to wear socks with (because you won’t be wearing socks with your climbing shoes).