Cragmama "Not all who wander are lost…" JRR Tolkien

Indoor Climbing vs. Outdoor Climbing

“I finally sent that green route in the lead cave!” I announce to the fam gleefully over dinner.  After a few rounds of high-fives and “cheers” (C’s favorite dinner pastime of late), I proceed to re-enact my crux beta over my plate of  chicken, while Steve nods in understanding and C spills his water accidentally on purpose.  This conversation is actually not unlike the ones we have after a day outside cranking on real rock, either on the hike out or with our climbing partners over an outrageous amount of food.  Both contain elements of  challenge, perseverance, and hopefully success every now and then.  But the funny thing is that the difficulty grades we are talking about are VASTLY different, depending on whether we are having an INDOOR conversation or an OUTDOOR one. 

I think most of the time people assume that gym climbing is a lot easier than climbing outdoors on real rock.  The routes are shorter, your path is obviously laid out with brightly colored tape, handholds aren’t as sharp, and footholds aren’t as small.  It’s also a lot less scary – plush padding below every boulder problem, bolts 4 feet apart, not to mention scores of pre-rigged topropes.  But oddly enough, I have always been able to climb significantly harder outdoors than in, and so has my hubby.  When I first started climbing, it used to frustrate me – it didn’t make any sense to me how one grade could be a warm-up in one circumstance and a project in another.  But after a few years of experience and (hopefully) maturity, I now find it rather hilarious.  I’m sure the Inner Peaks staff probably think we’re full of malarkey when they ask us what routes we’re working on at the local crag….and then proceed to watch us flail on their lines that are listed as NUMBER GRADES easier!  The reverse can also be quite entertaining – sending something outdoors without too much trouble while the young guns from the gym struggle…


This might be fun…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those elitists that snub their noses at all who enjoy pulling on plastic.  If I have to workout indoors, I can’t think of a better place I’d want to be!  Not to mention that logging a few focused hours in a climbing gym every week is a great way to get strong.  But long ago I made peace with the fact that my climbing heart belonged outside rather than in, and it showed…

Part of it comes down to logistics.  Indoors, cruxes are often planned in such a way as to force certain sequences, which may or may not be conducive to my body type.  As a small female, I rely heavily on intermediate hand holds, footholds, and smears, which often don’t exist on a colorfully taped gym route.  Outdoors, the movement is far more organic – very rarely is there only ONE way to do a particular series of moves. 

Some of it comes down to style.  When I’m in the gym, my focus is generally on strengthening my weaknesses, therefore I spend most of my time on stuff I usually suck at – namely steep routes with big moves.  Contrast that with real rock, where I’m generally climbing a wider range of terrain in a day – often packed into one climb.   

Recently however, I’ve realized that there’s another piece to the puzzle that I’ve discounted for a long time – desire.  I think sometimes I don’t succeed at the gym simply because I don’t want it bad enough.  When I’m making progress on a project outdoors, I catch myself daydreaming about it throughout the week, trying to commit every minute detail of the movement into my memory vault.  The personal connection with my climbing partners and my surroundings provides a holistic experience that the confines of a gym can’t ever hope to offer.  The nervous but confident excitement of a redpoint run, or the exhilarating plunge into the unknown on a hard onsight attempt – those feelings could never be duplicated over plastic.  When I’m on real rock, I’m willing to fight for it (and sometimes NEED to if I want my gear back!)  In the gym…not so much.  Not much lost by just lowering to the ground and leaving your rope at the front counter.   


…but THIS is way better!

But hey, nothing is better for ego management in the long-term than getting served a big fat slice of humble pie on a weekly basis!  Whether I’m sending or flailing, whether I’m indoors or outdoors, I’m still having fun, which is the most important thing, both for me personally as well as the example I’m hoping to set for my son.  And if I was afforded the chance to choose which one I was better at, I would undoubtedly leave things the way they are.  I like training in a gym, but I love climbing outside with my family.  For me the sole purpose of indoor climbing is to get better at outdoor climbing.  And so long as I’ve got plenty of routes/problems that I can use for that purpose, you won’t catch me complaining about sandbagged grades or any other petty things that so often fill up the feedback box at indoor gyms.  (But as much as I love the Inner Peaks staff…if you’re reading this – the white 5.10 with the full dyno is NOT 5.10…just sayin’ 😉  ) 

All jokes aside, where do YOU fall on the gym/real rock continuum?  On a Cragmama facebook poll a few weeks ago I asked a similar question, and was pleased to see that Steve and I weren’t the only weirdos that climbed better outdoors than in.  There were also several more factors brought up in discussion, most of which I didn’t have time to address in this post – such as leading vs toproping grades, sport vs trad grades, etc.  It may not be rocket science or bringing about world peace, but it is fun to discuss, so please feel free to  chime in below with your take!



13 Responses to “Indoor Climbing vs. Outdoor Climbing”

  1. I actually find outdoor climbing way easier—weird right? It’s that open expanse of rock where I can solve problems how I want to. Love it.


  2. I’m generally a dynamic, reachy climber, so I generally climb much harder indoors than out. The gymnastic style works for me, the holds are easier to find, and there’s very low risk. I love outdoor climbing far more than indoor, but I do climb harder grades indoors. Your points were very interesting though, I didn’t realize it was actually harder for some people indoors!


  3. David

    It all depends on what you climb more! I’ve gone from climbing a number grade higher in the gym to nearly a number grade higher outside.


  4. I struggle on route finding when climbing outdoors so I suck more outside 🙂 But I have a lot more fun climbing outdoors… I like what you said about outdoor climbing being a more hollistic experience. It’s much more than just sending a route, it’s the scenery, the fresh air, and the social component of it that I love more that you can’t get (as much) at the gym.


  5. I do better outdoors than indoors as well. I think it all comes down to the motivation. Its good for a workout, but theres nothing exciting about being there.


  6. I find indoor perfect for training, and outdoor is my actual climbing passion/obsession. For me, outdoor is easier as I can make the routes my own – climbing with my 6ft4 boyfriend, he could stretch past hard moves, but my tiny hands could use the smallest crimps with ease. You can make it suit you (to an extent), and gets you in the most spectacular places.


  7. I think it’s all what you’re used to. I climb indoors all week and only get outside climbing in every once in a while since I split my limited outdoor time with so many other sports. I only boulder, so when I’m outdoors and don’t have the relative safety of the nice thick padded landing I tend to get really nervous on moves that would be straightforward and simple in the gym. My hands are gym calloused, and when I go outside I only last an hour before they are torn up. That said, I do love these additional challenges of the outdoors and enjoy it in entirely different ways.


  8. I agree with most of you! Outdoors is where it is at, the whole experience is totally different. And being short, I really like that I can work with the rock, finding different holds and movements that work. It can be frustrating at the gym when the moves are “reachy” and there is simply no other option available for us shorties.

    I guess what I love about outdoors is the “inspiring line.” For me grade doesn’t matter as much as, “does the line inspire me? Does it look fun?” Going someplace beautiful while pushing myself at the same time, love it. And indoors just doesn’t have that.


  9. Corinna

    I would love to get outdoors more often, but geographically living in Canada (thank goodness our extra long winter just finished, 5 months with snow this season!) just doesn’t allow for much of it. I’m much stronger indoors, simply because that’s the only place I can climb most of the year.


  10. Erica

    Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond guys…I’ve been at the Red all last week!

    Johnie – No that’s weird, I totally agree!

    Abram – Sounds like our strengths are totally the opposite….the good news is that there’s plenty of terrain for flailing AND sending to go around 🙂

    David – Yeah I think comfort and familiarity have a lot to do with it.

    Jill – Yeah the social component can definitely be there in the gym, but definitely not the fresh air!

    Haley – Good point…fun, but nothing to write home about in the gym!

    Tiffany – I completely agree!

    Alyssa – Yeah, i’d much rather do an easier but more aesthetic/classic line than get on some dumpy route with a harder grade.

    Corinna – Wow 5 months of snow?!? I bet you got in more skiing days than we did though… 😉

    Rebecca – I agree, what’s easier is generally what you’re used to!


  11. Thomas

    Yeah I’m definitely a outdoor guy. I find I can climb on hard routes all day outside but sometimes it seems after a few hours I start getting burnt at the gym


  12. Nathan

    Depends where you are climbing. At Ilchester crag in Maryland there is a 20 foot 5.4 outdoors that indoors would be rated solid 5.10. And at Great Falls in DC there are 5.7s that indoors would be v3 crux moves and 5.10 solid….I lead hard 5.10 and easy 5.11 indoors, and struggle on some 5.4s outdoors in this area.


  13. Kathy

    I am in agreement – I tend to get better results outdoors – been pushing myself since I began 2 and a 1/2 months ago…I started at 5.6 and have progressed to 5.10a indoors, yet when outdoors, I have managed to complete a few 5.10b’s and also went half way up a 5.10c…which I cannot do indoors.

    I seem to push myself more when outside and it is a lot more fun and I can go all day…where indoors, after a few hours, I am done…

    I’ll keep giving indoors a chance – especially during our wet and rainy winter that we have here in Vancouver, BC…but until then – a lot more outdoor climbing for this girl…



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“Not all who wander are lost.” —JRR TOLKIEN