Rock Climbing with Kids
By Jason Martin. Photo by Jeremy Wilson.
“Daddy,” my five-year-old son said. “Can we go to the rock gym today?”
“I don’t wanna go to the rock gym,” my six-year-old 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!
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
Many 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 these days, there’s nothing better than getting children outdoors and involved in physical activity.
But climbing is dangerous. I advise 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.
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!). You should also watch where they play while you’re 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. But 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. In Bellingham, we have two venues that provide indoor rock climbing and rental climbing equipment: Vital Climbing Gym and the YMCA.
Vital is a bouldering gym, which means that the walls are short, the ground is padded, and climbers climb without the use of a rope. The entire focus of a bouldering gym is climbing movement.
A bouldering gym is an excellent place for parents without a climbing background to take their kids. A parent 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.
The YMCA provides roped climbing during scheduled periods. Volunteers are often on hand to help kids put on harnesses and to belay them. This is a great place to get the kids 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 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.
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.
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. You never know if someone’s going to accidentally 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. Like everything else in climbing, they can be 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 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 the right 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 without anything 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.
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 top rope 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 top rope 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 her climb up no more than 8 feet off the ground and then practice lowering. On her second climb, try to have her go a little higher and then lower her to the ground. Continue this until she’s at the top. The reason to do this is twofold. First, the child will get used to the system, understand what she has to do when she’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.
Sometimes a small child is too light to be lowered in a top rope 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.
Some kids might want to hang on the rope and swing. 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. But I’ve never had as much fun or been more inspired than I have with my children in the mountains. There’s something essential and beautiful in sharing your passions with your kids. x