“Daddy,” my elementary-school son said. “Can we go to the rock gym today…?
“I don’t wanna go to the rock gym,” my elementary-school daughter replied. “ I wanna climb outside!”
As a mountain guide and a parent, I couldn’t have been happier. My kids were arguing about where to go climbing!
My children don’t remember a time when climbing wasn’t a part of their experience. By the time our first-born was three-months-old, she’d visited Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Joshua Tree National Park and Yosemite National Park. They’ve both been brought up to see climbing as a normal and expected part of life.
My daughter toproping a chimney.
Children take to climbing like a fish takes to swimming. They love it. They can’t wait to do it again. They dream about it. And in this day and age, there’s nothing better than getting children outdoors and involved in physical activity.
But climbing is dangerous. All forms of climbing—from bouldering to toproping—pose a risk of injury or death. Many climbers attempt to facilitate an outdoor climbing day for their friends or family before they’re ready, which can result in an accident. It is advised that those who wish to take children climbing seek out professional instruction first in order to ensure that they are managing a climbing site in a manner that reflects the best practices available.
Climbing with kids is different than climbing with adults. Small children and even some teenagers are not capable of managing their own safety. When you take kids climbing you have to constantly monitor them. Obviously, you want to keep them away from steep or exposed places, but you should also pay attention to what’s above them (climbers that might drop something on them are bad!) And you should watch where they play while your climbing (chasing rattlesnakes is also bad!). It’s important to be strict about where they can and can’t go and what they can and can’t do when they get to the crag.
At first glance, rock climbing with kids isn’t that different from rock climbing with adults. You find a climbing site, set-up and climb. And while the systems are essentially the same, there are a number of additional considerations.
Perhaps the best way to introduce a child to climbing is through a rock gym. There are often two types of climbing at gyms, bouldering and roped climbing.
My daughter at the bouldering gym wearing "water shoes."
Note that she is very excited about using one of the gym brushes
to clean a hold. This additional activity helped her feel more
comfortable up off the ground.
The entire focus of the bouldering area of a gym is climbing movement. You don’t have to worry about harnesses or ropes or anything else. All that you have to worry about is climbing.
In addition to providing a great place for a kid to experience climbing, a bouldering area is also an excellent place for parents without a climbing background to take their kids. A parent at a bouldering gym can manage the risks that their children take in much the same way that they might manage their child on a playground. There is no mystery about how high you feel your child should go in such an environment.
Roped climbing is also good. If you can get your kid on a rope in a gym setting, it will be much easier to take them outside. It's good for them to get used to climbing up, hanging on a rope and lowering down before taking them to an outdoor venue.
There are three must-haves in outdoor roped climbing: a harness, a helmet and rock climbing shoes.
A standard rock climbing seat-harness is designed for teenagers and adults with a well-defined waist. Most small children don’t really have hips; the result is that they could fall out of a standard harness. Small children require a full-body harness with a tie-in point at the chest. Some standard harnesses will work on kids as young as six, while others will not. It depends on the specific body of each child.
My son wearing a full body-harness.
As you can see, he's very serious about climbing...
Many climbing equipment manufacturers have helmets on the market that were designed to fit kids. Climbing helmets are different from bike helmets in that they were designed for a different type of impact. However, it is not uncommon to see kids climbing in bike helmets, and certainly bike helmets are better than nothing. But it is preferred that children wear helmets that were designed for the activity that they are participating in.
When I take my children climbing outdoors, they put on their helmets when we get to the crag and they don’t take them off until it’s time to leave. Even if the cliff is relatively clean of potential rock-fall, you never know if someone’s going to accidently drop something from above.
Rock climbing shoes were designed with sticky rubber on the bottom. The rubber helps a climber’s foot stick to small holds. And while there is no requirement that anyone wear rock shoes while climbing, you will find that your child will perform better with them than without them.
Like everything else in climbing, rock shoes are expensive. It’s also frustrating as a parent to buy a costly pair of shoes only to see your child grow out of them a few months later. For very small children (ages 3-6) you might consider picking up a pair of cheap mesh “water shoes.” Many of these shoes have a supple rubber sole that, while not as sticky as real rock shoes, performs adequately on easy rock climbs.
Choosing an Appropriate Crag
The best way to manage risk in an outdoor setting is to choose an appropriate crag. There are two things that you’re looking for in a good crag: a reasonable staging area and routes that are appropriate for children.
The staging area at the base of the crag should be flat and there shouldn’t be anything there that a kid could fall off. If you can approach the crag from below as opposed to from above, that’s generally better. If you have to approach from above, be sure to avoid exposure on your descent to the base. If the only way to get there is exposed, then consider a different crag.
Toproping with Children
Even if your kid is a rock-star in the climbing gym, you should start her out on easy climbs outside before amping up the grade. Look for a crag with routes rated between 5.0 and 5.6 that aren’t too tall. Ideally you should find something that’s less than 50-feet tall and low-angled.
If the perfect crag doesn’t exist at your climbing area, don’t fret. You can often set-up a toprope on a big boulder with appropriate “routes” for kids. And even if it is just a boulder, they won’t care, they’ll think they’re on the biggest wall in the world.
Managing Your Kid Climber
A toprope set-up is the best way to introduce a child to climbing.
When a small child is ready to climb for the first time, it’s best to have him climb up no more than eight-feet off the ground and then practice lowering. On his second climb, try to have him go a little higher, and then lower him to the ground. Continue this until he’s at the top. The reason to do this is twofold. First, the child will get used to the system, understand what he has to do when he’s done, and then lower down without a problem. And second, the child will get to know the holds on the route, and will be able to climb it more confidently on every run.
In this photo my son is tied into both ends of the rope
and the climber on the ground is pulling down to increase the
weight so that he can lower effectively.
Sometimes a small child is too light to be lowered in a toprope system. The best way to manage this is to anticipate the problem ahead of time. Tie the other end of the rope to the child’s harness and gently pull down as the child is lowered. This will provide the additional weight needed to get the child to the ground.
Most kids won’t climb all day. In fact most small children will only climb for a little bit and then will want to hang on the rope and swing. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as it doesn’t get in anyone else’s way or tie up a route for a long time. Let the kids swing and enjoy it. This allows them to get used to the security of the rope and will give them confidence in the system.
As a general rule, small children shouldn’t belay or rappel. There are ways to mitigate the dangers implicit in these activities, but they are beyond the scope of this article.
I’ve been climbing since 1992 and I’ve had some great experiences in the mountains. I’ve had the opportunity to summit beautiful peaks and climb inspiring lines. I’ve been blessed with a job that’s allowed me to introduce climbing to hundreds of people. And my closest friendships have been forged from mountain partnerships… But I’ve never had as much fun or been more inspired than I have with my children in the mountains. There is something essential and beautiful in sharing your passions with your kids…
--Jason D. Martin