Over the last couple of decades climbing has moved from being a niche outdoor activity to a hugely popular sport for both adults and children. It's now really common for primary school aged children to be first introduced to climbing at an indoor wall birthday party. So if your kid gets the climbing bug and wants to climb more it's worth doing a bit of research so you know what you're all getting into!
The aim of this blog is to pass on some of the key information I have learnt over they years as a climber, mother of daughters who climb and retailer of kids climbing gear. I'll give you an overview of the different types of climbing, safety considerations, where to learn to climb and what gear you'll need.
To climb on indoor climbing walls your kid will need a climbing harness, helmet (usually) and climbing shoes. These can usually be rented at the wall.
If you don't climb yourself (yet!) its useful to understand the key pieces of climbing gear that your child will need as they start to learn to climb. The video below is aimed at those of you who have little or no climbing experience and will hopefully make you a bit more knowledgable about the climbing gear that is right for your child.
Key things to thing about before your kid starts learning to climb?
Where is the best place for kids to learn to climb in the UK?
The best, safest and easiest place for your child to learn to climb is at an indoor climbing wall. In the UK there are new walls popping up all the time. The Association of British Climbing Walls website lists their approved members. Look up your local wall up ask if they have taster sessions, family sessions and run courses for kids. If you child is aged 7+ years then they can enrol in the National Indoor Climbing Award Scheme (NICAS). If you child is under 7 years then climbing walls often have classes for little ones to get their first taste of climbing.
It's important to note here that ideally you want your child to be taught by a qualified (current) instructor. Climbing is a super fun activity but children do need to be properly supervised and learn the safety aspects of the sport as well as just romping up the climbing wall.
What kit do kids need to learn to rock climb?
If you take you kids climbing at an indoor wall you'll probably be able to hire all the kit you need; climbing harness, climbing shoes and a climbing helmet. Here are a few useful facts if you are looking to buy your kid some climbing gear:
Kids climbing shoes
When a keen adult climber buys a pair of shoes they will most probably buy them so the fit is very tight which helps with precision and friction on the wall but also makes them very uncomfortable to stand around in (that's why you'll see so many climbers at the bottom of the wall either bear foot or in sliders or Crocs). Children won't tolerate such a tight fit, plus you don't want to put that kind of pressure on growing feet. In addition to this kids' feet are always growing, so here are my tips for buying climbing shoes for kids:
Buy a pair of climbing shoes that have 1cm of room for growth and wear them with socks to start with, as their feet grow stop wearing the socks. This way you will have a happy compromise between an effective climbing shoe and a shoe will last more that and few weeks.
Ignore the size given for the climbing shoes. Most climbing shoes come up much smaller than “normal” shoes. We sell kids climbing shoes online and we've found that providing the internal length of the shoes really helps customers to get the correct fit.
- Look for kids climbing shoes which have an adjustable heel so you can tighten the heel cup and push your kids foot forward slightly. As their feet grow just relax the heel strap and you'll get more use out of the shoes.
Kids climbing harnesses
If your kids is going to climb with a rope then they are going to need to wear a climbing harness. The job of a climbing harness is to allow the climber to be tied into the climbing system safely.
There are basically two types of harness. The most common type is a seat harness that will have two leg loops and a waist harness. The vast majority of adults wear this type of harness and most children will also use this type of harness as worn by the girl below.
The other type of harness that can be very useful to give young kids a more secure feeling is a full body harness. This type of harness has leg loops and instead of a waist belt it has shoulder straps. See the image below for an example of a full body harness, this is the very popular Petzl Ouistiti kids harness for kids up to 30kg:
Kids climbing helmets
I would definitely recommend that you hire kids climbing helmet from your indoor wall to start with. Firstly if you child is bouldering (climbing without ropes in the area with crash mats) they won't be allowed to wear helmet (or harness) and helmets can easily be hired or hire will be part of the course fee at a climbing wall.
Note: a cycling helmet is not the same as a bike helmet. Climbing helmets are designed to take multiple impacts and heavier impacts than cycling helmets which are designed to crumple on impact. You can buy kids climbing helmets that can also be used for cycling but there are no specific cycling helmets that can also be used for climbing.
If your child starts climbing at a crag outdoors they should always be wearing a helmet both for climbing and belaying.
How old should my child be before they start climbing?
The general opinion is that kids from around the age of 3 can start to use a climbing wall if fully supervised.
Climbing is a very natural activity. Most babies will be pulling themselves up onto sofas and chairs pretty soon after they can balance on their feet. I know that when I first held my baby daughter up to a climbing wall she instinctively reached out for the holds and tried to pull herself onto the wall. So how long should you wait before taking you child to a climbing wall?
The first answer to this is check if the climbing wall you've chosen has a lower age limit. If there are no restrictions then general opinion seems to be that kids from around the age of 3 can start to use a climbing wall - bearing in mind they may spend a lot of time just hanging around on the rope a foot of the ground and giggling a lot but not actually climbing all that much. But this is still great as they'll start to get use to the feel of the rope and what this whole climbing lark is about!
In the UK there are some indoor walls like The Climbing Works in Sheffield that have purpose built areas specifically designed for toddlers to climb in. If you can find a facility like this then it's an ideal place to introduce your kids to climbing.
What are the different types of climbing for kids?
Broadiy speaking there are four different types of climbing: indoor wall climbing, Bouldering (indoors or outdoors) Sport climbing (outdoors) and trad climbing (outdoors).
Bouldering is the simplest form of climbing. You don't need a rope or harness to boulder as you are never very far off the ground. Indoor bouldering centres will always have loads of crash mats to jump/fall onto. This is currently a major area of growth in UK indoor climbing. It's fun and challenging problem solving with short technical climbing. The routes on a bouldering wall are called problems and each problem will be graded for difficulty. Bouldering can be a great introduction to climbing for kids as it can be much less intimidating than being high off the ground and it's feels more natural to climb down a boulder problem than relying on a rope to lower you off.
Indoor climbing walls
These are the classic indoor climbing walls which are several metres high. When I last looked the highest wall in the UK was just under 30m high! On these walls you must climb with a rope and harness and have someone to control the amount of rope between the climber and the ground (belay). There are bolts in the wall that the climber uses to clip “quickdraws” into and then clip the rope into the carabiner on the quickdraw.
Sport climbing happens at an outdoor crag where the bolts are in natural rock. There are climbing guidebooks which list the bolted routes in a certain area and give them difficulty grades. Sport climbing is a natural progression from indoor climbing. It's less controlled, you need to consider the surroundings, weather and wearing a helmet is recommended. There isn't much sport climbing in the UK but there is masses in France, Greece and the rest of Europe.
This is the Traditional Climbing method where there are no bolts. You place gear as you climb which acts like a climbing wall bolt. To climb trad you need to spend time learning how to place gear, set up belays and navigate routes from guidebooks. These days you a likely to be a relatively experience indoor climber before you attempt Trad Climbing. The BMC runs courses to introduce kids to trad climbing.
Route of iron or Via Ferratta is a mountain route with fixed ladders, cables and bridges. It can be a really great holiday activity if you and your kids are into climbing. It gets you high up into the mountains without the equipment and experience required for Trad climbing. If you are considering doing a Via Ferratta with children you want to make sure that they are tall enough to reach the steps. France Italy and Switzerland have some excellent Via Ferratta routes.
Why is getting your kids climbing such a good thing to do?
Climbing is a really interesting sport, is it even a sport? It's a pastime, lifestyle and for some an obsession. It's very rarely competitive and above all it should be fun. Climbing will teach your kids to believe in themselves, make decisions for themselves (I'm high enough now I want to come down), to persevere, I could go on. It's also a really physical sport; great for muscle conditioning, strength and flexibility and general body awareness.
Also, importantly it your kid is not feeling the love for competitive ball based sports like football, hockey, netball etc which are so dominant at school, then climbing is a whole different skill set where they might find a new level of connect and fun in this other genre of “sport”.
Finally climbing is such a great activity to do as a family so once your kids have caught the climbing bug be sure you sign yourself up for a beginner course so you don't miss out on all the fun!