Rock On | Discover The Thrills of Outdoor Rock Climbing

by | Jun 14, 2023 | Rock Climbing, Intro to Rock Climbing, Skills and Training, Where to Climb

Starting a new sport, especially an unfamiliar one, can feel quite intimidating, so we’ve taken the liberty of breaking down the barriers to entry in a six-part series on rock climbing. 

By now, you’re probably a regular at your local gym, or you’re actually more stoked about climbing real rocks than rocks at the gym. Outdoor climbing is different from indoor climbing in more ways than one. Pulling on and gripping real rock can feel very different from indoor “rock,” as can the concepts of height and length of climbs. The climbing routes may not be as straightforward or obvious, offering many ways in which to climb them. Basically, rock climbing outdoors can be even more exhilarating and adventurous! 

Cover Image Credit: Paul de Villiers

There Is Something Raw And Unique About Outdoor Rock Climbing That Can'T Be Replicated Indoors!
There is something raw and unique about outdoor rock climbing that can’t be replicated indoors! (c) Bianca Asher

In this article, we’re going to share some tips on how to venture into the great outdoors to become an outdoor climber, as well as how to plan your outdoor session.

Location, Location, Location!

We’re incredibly blessed to have South Africa hold some of the best outdoor rock climbing areas (also known as “crags” in climbing jargon) that the world has to offer. So it is no surprise to see the world’s best rock climbers hanging around the local spots during climbing season. Some common destinations for bouldering, sport climbing (top-roping and lead climbing), and trad climbing include:

  • Western Cape: Rocklands (Cederberg), Truitjieskraal (Cederberg), Cape Town CBD, Silvermine, Echo Valley, Montagu, Oudtshoorn, Paarl
  • Gauteng: Bronkies, Kings Kloof
  • Eastern Cape: Alicedale, Cape St Francis, Waterkloof
  • Mpumalanga: Waterval Boven, Buffalo Gorge
  • KwaZulu-Natal: Drakensberg, Howick Falls, Monteseel
  • Free State: Wow Prow, Thaba Nchu

Pro tip: If you’re looking for some of the best climbs, it is often said, “Rocklands is a boulderer’s heaven, and Waterval Boven is a sport climber’s dream”.

Different Outdoor Rock Climbing Locations Will Have Different Characteristics Of Rock, Weather, And General Environment.
Different outdoor rock climbing locations will have different characteristics of rock, weather, and general environment!

A more in-depth guide to areas in South Africa and the climbs and routes can be found online at:

You may hear people speak about the “topos”, which refers to the local climbing handbooks; these are absolute treasure troves of information for climbers and are usually available from the local gyms. You can also regularly find videos of popular climbs on YouTube or social media. Our tip would be to save them for offline viewing when you’re out in the field.

Each climbing area will have varying levels of approaches (the route to the crag). Some may be as short as a 10-minute walk, and others may require longer walks and may be upwards of an hour while hauling gear. 

Sport Climbing Outdoors Really Bring A Sense Of Adventure!
Sport climbing outdoors really bring a sense of adventure! (c) Andrea Geldenhuys

Planning your first outdoor session

Planning can sometimes feel like a logistical headache, but fear not, because we’ve got you covered in this short but comprehensive guide and checklist for your first outdoor session.

Step 1: Rally a group together

Outdoor rock climbing is generally better in a group, and there are multiple reasons for this, including: safety, more gees, more people to carry pads and gear and a bigger chance of one person being more experienced and knowledgeable. If you happen to stumble across another group, ask if you could join forces with them. Climbing in a group also helps lessen the need for buying hard-to-rent gear like quickdraws, slings, belay devices, etc. as it is likely that a few people in the group will have their own gear. If possible, have a first-aid-trained person as part of the group.

Step 2: Decide on a location and time

Find a crag or area that best suits you and your group’s type and level of climbing. It is important to choose an area that has grades that suit everyone’s climbing ability. Every area also has its “must-do boulders and routes” in different grade brackets that will be considered “classics”. These are often found online or in the topos. The topos will also indicate when the area is in sunlight or shade, which will help narrow down your choices for the time of day to climb. Choosing a location based on the length of time you would like to be climbing is also important. You may also want to walk between multiple different climbing sectors in an area, so make sure you know how to navigate between them.

Outdoor Rock Climbing With Friends Is So Much Better!
Outdoor rock climbing with friends will often enhance the experience!

Step 3: Day trip or weekend?

Decide if you’re going to spend a casual afternoon or day climbing or if sleeping over is necessary. If sleeping over is required,  there’s generally accommodation nearby that can be booked. If you plan on staying for more than a weekend, make sure you know how long is long enough. Plan for a good ratio of climbing days to rest days. The rest days are mostly for your fingers. 

Step 4: Check the weather or “connies”

Climbers are always going on about “connies” or weather conditions. Connies can make or break the success of your rock climbing trip, as you really don’t want to be climbing when the rocks are wet or when it is very windy. This prevents rock breakage, therefore keeping you safe. Check the weather conditions for your specific climbing area of choice in the days leading up to and including the day; you want to be checking for rain and wind.

Step 5: Gather the necessary gear

Topos and guides can be sourced online for offline saving (some places don’t have signal) or rented from your local gym. If you don’t own your own gear like crash pads (mats used in bouldering for falling), they can often be rented from some accommodations in the climbing areas (e.g., Rocklands) or from local climbing gear stores (e.g., VertigoGear) or indoor gyms (e.g., CityRock). Phone for inquiries beforehand, as these may get booked out in advance during peak climbing seasons. Alternatively, borrow some gear from friends in your local gym while ensuring that the ratio of gear to climber is correct. The general rule is one crashpad per climber, as this ensures that there are enough mats for use by the number of people climbing. For sport climbing, make sure you have the correct equipment with you, including the correct number of quickdraws, length of rope, and cleaning equipment.

Step 6: What to pack?

Every climber should prepare a backpack with the following mandatory items:

  • Appropriate climbing gear
  • Appropriate apparel for the weather. A warm jacket is ALWAYS mandatory even if the weather says it’s going to be blisteringly hot.
  • A charged headlamp.
  • Sufficient food and snacks for the time and at least 1L of water, more is ideal.
  • Basic first aid kit that also includes a space blanket, rehydrate and sunblock.
  • A charged cell phone that has the emergency numbers for the local search and rescue 

Come wearing what you generally feel comfortable climbing in, but also be mindful of the approach as some walk-ins may cross through some thorny bushes. Make sure to wear sturdy and protective shoes for the approach, as well as a cap, hat, or beanie.

At the crag, how to get started?

Once you’ve arrived and taken time to cool down, spend some time looking through the topo to acquaint yourself and get oriented with the crag. Take a walk to find your climbs for the day.

Rock climbing grades

Generally speaking, indoor routes tend to be easier than outdoor routes of the same grade. This is because of the controlled environment, artificial holds, and different grading systems that are often used for indoor and outdoor climbing, which can lead to discrepancies in difficulty ratings. Outdoor routes often need more technical skills and may involve more unpredictable terrain. 

The grading system used in South Africa for bouldering is the “Font” system. It is a numerical grading system that starts at 1 and goes up to 9, with each grade divided into further subdivisions with letters (a, b, c, and d). The higher the number, the more difficult the boulder problem. The subdivisions with letters further indicate the difficulty level within each grade. For example, a boulder problem graded 5a is considered easier than a 5b, while a 5b+ is more difficult than a 5b but not quite as difficult as a 5c.

South Africa uses a numerical system adapted from the Ewbank Australian system for sport climbing. The grading system starts at 6 and ends at 35 (locally). The numbers signify the difficulty of the route based on the hardest move, exposure, length of the route, etc. Easier grades are between 11-14, intermediate grades are 15-23 and the more difficult grades are from 24-35

Sports And Bouldering Have Different Rock Climbing Difficulty Grades
Sport rock climbing has a different difficulty grading system to bouldering. (c) Daniel Becker

Pro tip: Climbing grades are subjective and can vary based on individual experience and interpretation. We recommend using climbing grades as a general guideline.

Outdoor bouldering

  1. Start in an area that has a few easier grades to warm up on before you get stuck into the boulders you came for
  2. Once you’ve found the boulder and the route, try understanding how it climbs by reading the climb and looking for the start holds. Be sure to identify the easiest and safest way down the boulder too.
  3. Set up the pads beneath the boulder in the most appropriate way for the style of the boulder and for the potential fall zones. Be mindful not to crush any protected flora.
  4. Warm-up by following our basic warm-up routine in our “Indoor bouldering | How to navigate your first session?article.
  5. Make sure spotters are in place and are ready to move pads around as well as be vigilant of your movement.
  6. Pull on the holds and CRUSH!

Pro tip: remember to brush the holds in between attempts and rest between attempts! 

Outdoor Bouldering Requires Crash Pads
Outdoor bouldering requires crash pads to protect you in the event of a fall.

Sport and traditional climbing require more knowledge than this article is capable of detailing. We recommend taking courses through your local gym and/or adventure store. We recommend the following:

The Full Experience Of Rock Climbing Outdoors Is Hard To Beat!
The full experience of rock climbing outdoors is hard to beat! (c) Catarina Monteiro

Look out for these weekend events

These events are held yearly and make for rad weekends away with friends and the climbing community. Be sure to look out for the following:

  • Highline festival
  • Rocklands Rally (hosted by CityRock)
  • Yoga and climbing retreat in Rocklands (hosted by @breathe_in_experiences, CityRock and Bloc11)
  • Rocktober: hosted by CityRock with climbs all over the country

Next up

Climbing outdoors is a slower process and is to be savored. Take the time to chat with your friends, figure out and share beta, and mostly just absorb the beautiful landscapes and rocks. It is honestly a magical experience! You’ll most likely feel motivated to train after your first outdoor session or weekend away. We have got your next steps covered in our article, Rock climbing | I’ve stagnated, now what?”.

See you on the wall!

Disclaimer: Rock climbing or similar activities have inherent risks. This article serves as a guideline for the sport, and while it is intended for your benefit, it is not guaranteed that following these steps will prevent injury or harm. WILD AIR Sports accepts no liability for injuries sustained while using these guidelines. The hands-on support of a professional instructor is recommended for beginners.

See you on the wall!

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