Rock climbing with kids is a regular thing around my house. My kids have all grown up climbing outdoors and have all overcome their own fears along the way to become more confident and capable people. This guide is to help you learn how to rock climb with kids and have it be a successful and positive experience for everyone.
Gear you’ll need to climb with kids
Rock Climbing Harness
A climbing harness is mandatory for the safety of your kids. You’ll need to be sure you get one that fits properly. This is the one I used for my kids when they were younger. Now they’re all a bit too big for this one so I use a regular climbing harness, but on difficult routes with overhangs or free-hanging sections, I set them up with a chest harness to prevent them from inverting.
You can make a quick chest harness using a double sling around the shoulders clipped at the chest with a carabiner and then running the rope through the carabiner.
A helmet is a must if you want to protect your kids’ heads. They often don’t have the spatial awareness of an adult and can do crazy things on the wall when they get scared. Read more about why I always wear a helmet when climbing outdoors here: Why I wear a rock climbing helmet
I don’t recommend using bike helmets or helmets for other sports because climbing helmets are certified to handle the impacts likely in a climbing fall as well as rockfall from above. Some bike helmets don’t protect the back of the head and may have big vent holes that would allow rocks to still hit the head.
Below is a good cheap helmet to start with if you don’t have one for kids yet.
Rock Climbing Shoes
When you go rock climbing with kids, you may be tempted to skip the shoes but don’t do it. Climbing shoes make a huge difference. Not only will they help your kids grip the rock better but they will give them confidence in their abilities. The mental boost kids get from having real rock climbing shoes will make them feel like they’re unstoppable.
I usually pick up a few used pairs in various sizes and then sell them or give them away when the kids outgrow them.
I like to have a few spares of all the gear so friends can join us. My kids always seem more confident and capable when they’re with friends.
How to manage fear and anxiety
Rock climbing is such a head game, that you need to help your kids recognize that they’re totally safe when they’re tied into the rope and on belay. They can let go of the rock completely and they’ll just hang. You can teach them this at the crag when they’re just a few feet off the deck, but my preferred training ground is at the neighborhood playground.
We have a park with a little play climbing wall with a nice platform on top. You may not have this exact option, but you can likely find something similar to it. I like to take beginners here to teach them how the harness works and teach them how to get up and then get back down again. When rock climbing with kids, always start where they feel comfortable and work up.
On a short wall like this at the playground, kids will feel safer and you can be right next to them to coach them the entire way.
I also have a small climbing wall in my basement that friends and neighbors can practice on and I often use to make sure any kids we take to the outdoor crag are ready to go.
You may also want to go rock climbing with kids at an indoor climbing gym before going outdoors. The bouldering areas are often great places for them to get comfortable moving vertically on the rock and you can coach them to use proper body movements and inspire them with confidence.
Taking them to the bigger walls of an indoor gym may also help. The controlled environment and clearly visible holds often help them to know they can do the same thing outdoors.
Be sure to have them practice not only climbing but also lowering. They need to know what to do when they get to the top of the wall. This is the place I see most people, kids, and adults, freak out. I’ve had several adults get paralyzed with fear when they got to the top of a wall because they didn’t know what to do. Be sure to practice this with kids before you send them up a 40′ route.
Motivate them with micro-goals
Wherever you go rock climbing with kids, a huge factor is to motivate them with small, achievable goals. Break the climbing process down into small steps.
The first part is for them to get off the ground. Sometimes with first-timers, I’ll get them all tied in and then have them just climb up to where they feel safe jumping down from then have them lower down.
After they do that, if they’re still feeling good, I’ll have them do that same thing again and then have them go a bit higher. Repeat this until you can see their confidence grow enough to send them all the way up.
This may take several outings, but be patient and don’t push them beyond what they can do or they’ll get traumatized and not want to go try again.
Place treasures or treats along the route
One magic tool I’ve found to help kids with these micro goals is to put candy, coins, or small toys all along the route. Be sure to get something they love and place pieces about 5-10 feet apart all along the route. Naturally, I place treasures on holds that I think the kids can use to progress.
This does several things. First, it helps keep them focused on progressing up the wall and keeps them from looking down and getting scared. Second, it breaks the wall up into small segments that give kids an achievable and visible goal. Third, the treasures or candy are their own reward for their accomplishments.
Climb with a buddy
When possible, I also like to set up two ropes and have two kids climb together. This can be great when you take friends. Having two kids on the wall at the same time allows them to see that someone else can do it so they can too. They also tend to compete with each other and won’t quit until they reach the top. Climbing together also provides an opportunity for one kid to help the other if they get stuck and to show them what to do if they freak out at the top.
Celebrate their wins
No matter how small their victories are, celebrate them. Tell them how proud you are of them for being brave, and confident, facing their fears, and working hard. Be sure to not celebrate one child more than another or they’ll recognize that you’re happier with the kid who topped out but not the kid who quit halfway up the wall.
Both of these efforts deserve celebration. Sometimes I tell them I’ll take them to get ice cream or something if everyone climbs and does their best. The main goal here is to make climbing fun. If they don’t enjoy it and feel successful afterward, they won’t want to go again, so make it fun and help them feel victorious in the end.
How to manage tears and fears
Climbing often triggers strong feelings in people. That’s one of the reasons we love to do it. Kids are no different. When you go rock climbing with kids be sure to tune into their feelings. Pay attention to what each child is feeling even before you put them up on the wall.
Managing feelings is key to making it a successful outing for everyone. I like to get them excited to climb the whole way to the crag by showing them the candy or treasures I brought, telling them about ice cream afterward, and telling them all how brave, confident and awesome they are.
When we’re all set to climb, I’ll ask for volunteers to see who’s ready to go and who has some fear. I put the most excited kids up first and encourage them with the motivation strategies I listed above.
If someone has a meltdown on the wall and gets scared, starts crying, or perhaps even has a panic attack, I’ll typically give them space to rest and then give them options. “Do you want to keep going, or take a break, or do you feel ready to come back down now?”
Respect whatever choice they make without pushing them too hard. If they’re unsure of what they want to do it’s typically because they really want to keep going but they feel scared. You can encourage them and tell them you know they can do it and that they can take as much time as they need. If they still seem stuck, I often tell them they can come back down and try again in a minute if they want.
These options let them still feel confident and able to overcome the challenge but at their pace and level.
If they aren’t able to overcome their fears, your job is to tell them how awesome and brave they are for going as far as they did. Just tying in and getting off the ground is a huge feat for some kids. Build them up and help them feel motivated to try again. And be sure to promise them another opportunity to get to the top when they’re ready.
Life lessons from climbing
I’ve found more life lessons from rock climbing with kids than probably any other activity I’ve engaged in. Be sure to use the trip home from the crag as an opportunity to teach your kids all the valuable lessons you feel they’re ready to learn. Here are a few I like to teach my kids:
- You can do hard things
- It’s okay to not reach your goals if you tried your best and continue trying in the future
- We need each other’s help to accomplish our goals
- Don’t let fear hold you back
There are so many more, but adapt whatever lessons you see to the situation your kids are in.
I love rock climbing with kids and I’m so thrilled to see how it’s helped them in many other areas of their lives. I often draw on experiences we’ve had at the crag for other situations in their lives like encouraging them when they feel scared to do hard things by saying “I know you can do this because I’ve seen you climb to the top of a huge wall all by yourself.”
What additional tips, lessons, or ideas do you have for rock climbing with kids? I’d love to hear from you.