What to Wear for Outdoor Rock Climbing

Climber scaling steep cliff face

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What's the ideal rock climbing outfit? The short answer is whatever you feel comfortable wearing. That said, most climbers carefully pick out their climbing clothes before venturing out to the cliffs and boulders. What you wear depends on several variables, including:

  • The weather: What season is it? What's the weather forecast? Is it hot? Is there a chance of rain?
  • The climbing area: What kind of route are you doing? Is it a crack climb? A face climb? Is the rock surface abrasive or smooth?

Rock Surface Tears Clothes

Climbing clothes need to be durable, functional, flexible, and versatile. The rock surface is usually unforgiving. Most rocks are abrasive with crystals and edges that can easily tear lightweight fabrics. If you're climbing at places like Joshua Tree National Park or The Needles, be prepared for the coarse granite to rip your trousers. If you're crack climbing at Indian Creek or any other crack area, it's easy to rip and tear the knees and seat of your trousers when you jam into wide cracks and chimneys.

Baggy and Loose Fitting Clothes Are Best

Mobility is perhaps the most important factor to consider when you're trying to decide what to wear climbing. There is nothing worse than having a tight pair of pants cramp your style when you're high-stepping, stemming, or traversing. Climbing clothes need to allow you to bend and move without restrictions, meaning baggy and loose-fitting clothes are perfect.

Big Routes Work Your Clothes

If you climb long routes like a big wall, your clothes also get a big workout. You do lots of different kinds of climbing moves and use every appendage on your body. The seats of pants often tear on long routes since climbers often sit down on belay ledges or scrape against the rock surface.

Dress Right in Summer to Stay Cool

It gets hot in the summer and you need to dress accordingly. Bring and wear the right clothes to stay cool. Lightweight synthetic clothing is great, as it protects your skin from the sun and should be loose enough to let air cool you. Synthetic fabrics also dry fast after you sweat or if you're caught in a rainstorm, wick moisture away from your skin, and don't chafe around the crotch and underarm areas. Lots of climbers also wear cotton, which feels good but can be slow to dry. Remember too that light-colored clothes reflect both light and heat, making them cooler than if you wear dark clothes like a black t-shirt.

Your Best Summer Climbing Clothes

A good summer climbing outfit for most American climbing areas includes shorts or mid-calf length pants like capris; a loose shirt like a t-shirt, tank top, or sports bra; and a billed cap to shield your face from the sun when hiking to and from the cliffs. Carry extra clothes in your climbing pack including a pair of lightweight long pants (zip-offs are great), a light fleece or long-sleeve top if it gets cold, and a compact rain jacket. It's a trick to balance how many clothing items to bring when you climb. It's better to be prepared by bringing a few extra articles of clothing so you can change if you get wet.

Warm Climbing Clothes for Cool Weather

When you're climbing in cooler weather, you need to both wear and bring warm clothing. During the shoulder seasons in the spring and fall, the weather can quickly change so you have to be prepared for the worst. It's important to bring extra clothes that provide insulation from wind, rain, and snow, and also keep you dry. Most outdoor clothing manufacturers sell many different kinds of pants, base layer shirts, and jackets for climbers.

Dress in Three Layers in Cold Weather

Consider the weather before you go climbing. Check the forecast and see what the weather is going to do and what the temperatures will be and plan accordingly. Bring plenty of clothes and dress in layers so you can shed them as you warm up or add them if you cool down. Wear a lightweight and breathable base layer to wick moisture away from your skin. Look for garments made from nylon, polypropylene, and other synthetics. Wear a middle layer that is warm and insulates from the elements. Use fleece, pile, or wool fabrics to stay warm. Then wear an outer shell layer to protect you from the weather. Make sure they're made of waterproof or water-resistant fabrics that let perspiration out.

Avoid Cotton Clothing

Avoid cotton clothes in cold and wet weather. Cotton absorbs water and then sucks heat from your body when it's wet, which can lead to hypothermia, a chilling of the body's temperature. It is also slow to dry, so you will often have a damp cotton layer resting against your skin. Save your cotton clothes for summer climbing or dry conditions.