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There's nothing more badass than telling your friends you spent your Saturday morning scaling a mountain (or three). But between the high-tech gear, the craggy cliffs, and the steep mountain faces, getting started can be a little intimidating. Thankfully, it's much more doable than you think, whether you want to commit a full weekend to the endeavor or just make it a weekly lunch hour workout. Whatever your climbing aspirations, here's what you need to know to get started.
It's a killer workout
For every hour you climb, you'll burn around 550 cals, with that number growing even higher as you ramp up the level of difficulty. Better yet, you'll target cardio and strength work throughout the entire journey. But make sure to keep it slow and steady rather than giving in to the temptation of sprinting to the top: "It may seem easier to thrash your way up a hill, but climbers agree that learning to climb efficiently and smoothly is more rewarding and lets you go longer," says Dustin Portzline, AMGA Certified Rock Guide and head guide at Mountain Skills Climbing Guides in New Paltz, NY. It's also important to focus on form so that you target the right muscles, according to Luke Terstriep, operations manager at Colorado Mountain School in Estes Park, CO. Beginners tend to focus too much on their arms to lift them when in reality it's their legs that really push and propel them up an incline: "The arms and hands are all about balance; it's the legs that bring the strength," he says. (If you want to prep for your first climbing sesh, do these 5 Strength Exercises for Rock Climbing Newbies.)
Start with a pro
Climbing is a highly technical sport so it's important to make sure you master the fundamentals. "Working with someone who has the right type of expertise is necessary for avoiding bad habits that can be costly not just to your workout, but ultimately to your safety," says Terstriep. If you're completely green, try an "intro to rock climbing" class at your local indoor bouldering studio with knowledgeable instructors who can teach you the basics. If you're going outdoors, make sure you pick a certified guide (Terstriep recommends a career mountain guide certified by the American Mountain Guide Association). Review what kind of terrain you'll be tackling. Not only will the guide pick out the best cliffs, he or she will also help guide you through different routes, provide on-spot instruction, and handle all your gear. Expert tip: October is the best time of year for climbing—they even call it "Rocktober"—because of cooler temps and dryer weather. (Celebrate the sport's best month at one of these 12 Places to Go Rock Climbing Before You Die.)
Indoor and outdoor experiences are different
While both indoor and outdoor climbing experience are worth their salt, the two aren't exactly interchangeable. Experts recommend starting indoors, at places like Brooklyn Boulders in New York City, to try your hand at the sport in a controlled setting with predetermined routes to follow up the wall. As you get more comfortable, you can challenge yourself with different walls or more difficult routes, all the while knowing that you're in a safe, contained environment with relatively low risk. You'll reap the physical benefits (and feel the effort during your climb), but it's more accessible to beginners than outdoor workouts thanks to less equipment and fewer technical skills involved, says Portzline. Outdoor climbing takes place off a natural rock cliff so you're toying with an adrenaline rush the entire time in addition to the added element of unpredictability in the environment, like rock slippage or weather changes. In addition, outdoor routes tend to be significantly taller than indoor walls so your body's endurance will be tested, says Portzline. From a time perspective, the two are dramatically different: You can expect to be in and out of a bouldering studio in as little as an hour, says Terstriep. But an outdoor expedition should take at least half a day when you factor in the hike to and from your vantage point.
You'll use lots of equipment
Whether you're at an indoor bouldering studio or roughing it outdoors with an outfitter, everything can be rented. Climbing indoors requires less equipment (just a harness, shoes, chalk bag, and belay system) that you will be fitted for and taught to use at your first visit. When you take your climb outdoors, you up the ante on the equipment requirement. Your guide will take care of most of it, but be sure to wear a helmet to protect you in the event of a fall (and also from any debris that may fall from above). You also want to make sure that your shoes fit snugly, so you're stable as you maneuver through different rock holds and potentially treacherous nooks and crannies.
Prepare to be outside your comfort zone—it's good for you!
According to Terstriep, it's natural to feel nervous and a little fearful at the start of any climbing session, whether indoors or outdoors. "But all of that adrenaline and anxiety will result in a major sense of accomplishment at the end of the day," he adds. Try to focus on releasing some of those nerves as you climb since they tighten your muscles, stiffen your movement, and prevent you from trusting your gut instinct as you plot or follow an ascent route.