INDOOR Climbing vs. OUTDOOR Climbing – 21 Differences

Difference Indoor vs Outdoor climbing

Outdoor climbing requires 21 additional skills.

I start with an overview of all the differences. Further down, we explore every single difference in detail.

21 Differences between Indoor & Outdoor Climbing

  1. Gear (extra equipment is necessary)
  2. Length of the climbing routes (pitches are longer – watch your rope length!)
  3. Difficulty and Grading (Outdoor climbing is often more difficult).
  4. Reading the route (Outdoor climbing routes are harder to read)
  5. “Head Strong” (Outdoor climbing is mentally more challenging)
  6. Lead climbing (quickdraws have to be placed by yourself)
  7. Distance between bolts (outdoors often long distances between bolts)
  8. Skin (Holds natural vs. plastic)
  9. Rope management (routes are not always perfectly aligned)
  10. Belay (take advice and know what you do)
  11. Clean Top Rope Anchors (Outdoors you may need to thread anchor points)
  12. Different Terrain (concerning falls –  watch out for ledges and platforms)
  13. Visual contact between climbing partners may be interrupted)
  14. Quality of the belay system (check bolts and anchors)
  15. Topo & Guidebook (getting useful information about the crag)
  16. Approach (sometimes long approaches)
  17. Safety (falling rocks, wind, and weather)
  18. Nature and atmosphere (positive side effect of outdoor climbing)
  19. Conditions (Grip).
  20. Orientation of the wall (South, West, North, East)
  21. Trash talk (Leave no trace)

Differences in Detail – Gym vs. Rock Climbing

1. Gear

You will need more equipment for rock climbing than in the climbing gym. In addition to the regular indoor climbing gear, you need at least 10-15 quickdraws for rock climbing.

Extra Gear for Outdoor Climing

  • 10-15 Quickdraws 

In addition, a decent Ropebag to protect the rope, a First Aid Kit are good investments. Some crags require a Climbing Helmet.  

Quickdraws climbing
Quickdraws – Essential Gear for Outdoor climbing

In some areas, it is necessary to clean the anchor. Therefore you will need an extra carabiner (screw gate) and a 60 cm sling(More about that in #11)

Quickdraws – Gym vs. Rock
In the gym, quickdraws are already placed in the wall. When rock climbing outdoors, you need to attach and remove the quickdraws yourself. 

2. Length –  Rock Climbing Routes are Longer

In contrast to the climbing gym, the routes on the rock are longer. It is essential to carry a rope with sufficient length.

Rock climbing: route height of 15- 30 m or even 40 m.
Climbing gyms: mostly 10 – 18 m.

Rock climbing – outdoors the climbing routes are much longer than they are in the gym.

Rock climbing outdoors routes

How long should a climbing rope be?
Learn all you need to know about LENGTH and DIAMETER of climbing ropes. 

3. Grading – Gym is usually easier

The grading of a climbing route is not an exact science and can vary from crag to crag. I have made the experience that routes in the gym are usually way “easier” than similar graded routes on the rock.

If you are for the first time on the rock – choose routes with a lower grading.

It depends on who established the crag and how the respective climbing community evaluates the difficulty of a certain grade. Every climbing area and every climbing gym interprets the difficulty of the routes a little differently. 

4. Reading a Route

Why is outdoor climbing more difficult”?
When climbing indoor, holds and footholds in the gym are color-coded, and the path is obvious.

This is not the case in outdoor sport climbing – finding the holds requires total concentration and often some imagination and daring. It is not unusual that a seemingly good hold turns out to be completely useless. 

Rock climbing outdoor reading the route
Where is the next hold??

 Especially at the beginning of your climbing career, you will need more time to find the best solution (Beta) – the “figuring out” costs some extra energy and makes the climbing more challenging.

Tip: look out for white chalk traces (magnesium powder). 

5. The Mental aspect of climbing

Falling is a challenging thing to do, no matter where you climb. The longer distances between bolts in rock climbing may result in longer and potentialy more dangerous falls. In general, climbing outdoors is mentally more demanding than indoors.  

fear of falling practice climbing
Climbing outdoors – falling

6. Lead climbing – “Hang the draws”  

When you’re climbing indoors, the quickdraws are already clipped into the lead bolts.
For climbing outdoors, you’ll need to equip the route with your own quickdraws—to “hang the draws” in climber-speak.

In rock climbing, you must hang every single quickdraw itself, which makes it much more difficult for the lead climber to climb the route.

Quickdraw lead climbing

Why does placing the quickdraws make climbing outdoor more difficult?

a.) Some extra seconds – hanging on just one hand
The climber cannot simply clip in the rope but must first reach to the harness – take the quickdraw – and clip it to the bolt. Only now can he clip the rope.

During the entire process, he must hold on to the rock with only one hand
(Speed, a flawless technique, and finding the optimal clipping positions will help you become a better climber).

rock climbing outdoor clipping the rope
Clipping the next Bolt

b.) Distance to the bolt
The distance to the bolt is about 20 cm further than the distance to an already hanging quickdraw. (length of the quickdraw)
If the quickdraws are already hanging in the bolt (climbing gym), the climber can clip his rope into the quickdraws 20 cm earlier.

Clipping quickdraw climbing

In lead climbing on rock, the climber may have to make one more move to reach a distant bolt. This might seem insignificant, but it can make a big difference on certain routes and is another reason why lead climbing on rock is more difficult than lead climbing in the gym.

Pink Point vs. Redpoint
Successful ascent without falling or resting in the rope. (Number of attempts does not matter)
Redpoint: Like Pinkpoint + additionally, the quickdraws have to be put in position by yourself. Accordingly, all ascents in the gym are to be rated as Pinkpoint. 

7. Distance between bolts

In the climbing gym, the distance between bolts is relatively short and always the same. In the gym, this is possible because a bolt can be placed just about anywhere.

When it comes to outdoor rock climbing, things look a little different. Why?

1. The shape of the rock lead the way.

The natural form and shape of the rock dictate where drilling can and cannot be done. Due to the rock structure, not every passage is suitable for a bolt. Often, the route-setter has no other option than to accept longer distances between two bolts.   

climbing outdoor vs indoor
Outdoors – Often longer distances between bolts

2. Money – route setting is expensive

Many areas have been and are being developed and bolted by volunteers.
A single bolt costs around $ 6.
A quality anchor point will cost around $ 20-25.

For a route with 10 bolts, you come to about $ 80 !!! If you have to pay this out of your own pocket, longer distances between bolts will save you some real money.

A question of style
Longer distances between bolts result in higher psychological demand. Many climbers appreciate this extra kick and drill their routes accordingly. Each climbing area has its own “bolting philosophy”

Sometimes the clip distances are dangerously long.
From extremely long falls to ground falls, everything is possible. To not risk a dangerous fall, I recommend the use of a clipstik or a panic sling.

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8. Skin – Plastic vs. Rock

Indoor Climbing
Especially new plastic holds have an insane grip.  For beginners, it is common to build a few calluses climbing on plastic. If you’re not careful, you might even get a flapper. 

Outdoor Climbing
Calluses are not the big problem here – Outdoors it might be a sharp rock that causes problems; it can tear your skin to pieces. Be prepared to ease onto real stone to learn the subtleties of it.

Get some Tape – and if you can get the good stuff, even if it costs a few bucks more. It is worth it. It will help you protect your skin.  

9. Rope Management – Rope drag

In the gym, most routes are aligned, so there is almost no rope drag, and you don’t have to worry about it.

On rock walls the path of the rope goes hand in hand with the alignment of the bolts and quickdraws. If the anchor points are offset (due to the rock structure), the rope will follow this path and produce rope drag.

If the rope follows a zigzag pattern or moves over several corners, it will result in unpleasant rope drag. The effort required to pull up the rope under these conditions increases considerably. 

Rope management climbing
The rope path must be “straightened.”

How to keep the rope path straight
Quickdraws are used to straighten the path of the rope. The climber has to anticipate the rope path and extend offset anchor points using quickdraws. 

Tip: 2-3 longer quickdraws come in handy (25 cm). They simplify the “straightening” of the rope path and help to avoid rope drag.

10. Belaying

Indoor Climbing
Some instructors or gym employees might be around to correct you if they spot any mistake in your belaying. That is actually a good thing, and you should be thankful for any helpful advice.

Outdoor climbing
No one but you is responsible for a safe climbing session. There might be nobody around to advise you if anything you do is incorrect and potentially dangerous. So

belay falling practice climbing
Belaying outdoors can be wild

11. Cleaning Anchors 

Indoor Climbing
Not necessary in the gym because the end of each climbing route (Anchor point) is equipped with carabiners. 

Outdoor Climbing
On the rock, this is not always the case. Often you will not find a screwing carabiner but a closed ring – through which you must thread the rope before lowering. This is called “cleaning the anchor”. 

Making a mistake at this point can lead to dangerous accidents. So it is essential to practice this skill until you have completely mastered it.  

The following video shows the best and safest way on how to clean an anchor.  

12. different terrains

In rock climbing, you will often encounter terrain that is not ideal (especially when it comes to falling) and require extra attention from the climber and belayer.  

Dangerous “ground falls”
The first few meters of lead climbing are especially “dangerous” because (in case of a fall) there is a risk of hitting the ground – a so-called grounder. 
Further up the route (usually from the third-fourth quickdraw), the risk of hitting the ground decreases. 

Watch out for ledges and plattforms
This applies mainly to low-angle and somewhat easier routes. The rock face has platforms and ledges in it – each platform bears the danger of a potential ground fall as you could hit the ledge in the event of a fall. In such cases, the belayer must belay the climber “tightly” – meaning: no slack in the rope!

A good climbing harness is:

  • Lightweight
  • Comfortable
  • Durable

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Best Rock Climbing Harness
Climbing Harness – Top 6

13. Visual Contact between Climber and Belayer

If a climber passes a roof behind which the route continues at a slightly inclined angle, the visual contact between climber and belayer is lost.   

Belaying without visual contact
The belayer can rely solely on the feedback of the rope to guess the climbers movements and progress on the route. Safe and fluid handling of rope and belay device is particularly helpful here.  

climbing indoor vs outdoor differance
Soon visual contact is lost

14. Quality Check – Check Bolts and Anchors

In climbing gyms, quality is usually not an issue because the entire facility is constantly checked and maintained. 

For many (not all) climbing areas, there is often no one who is really responsible for maintenance. It varies from country to country. 

Outdoors the bolt (and the rock) are exposed to all kinds of weather and considerable temperature fluctuations. In principle, this is not a big problem, as long as you inspect the bolts and anchor points at the crag. 

anchor point outdoor climbing
Check bolts and anchors

If you find a damaged anchor or bolt, it is best to inform the appropriate municipality or agency about the broken clips. 

When in doubt, use your personal carabiner for lowering down. Or the cheaper option, a rappelling screw link.

15. Topo and Guidebook

Rock climbing requires a bit more preparation than gym climbing. 

Topo and Guidebook
In the gym, every single route is labeled – showing the respective name and grade. Out in the wild, it’s different. By far, not all routes are labeled; on the contrary, it is rather the exception.

What is a Topo?
A “Topo” is the graphical representation (sketch drawing or a photograph with routes depicted) of a climbing area. 

outdoor climbing topo
Example – Topo

A good guidebook or topo of the crag is a useful investment.
Guidebooks provide information about difficulty, length, number of quickdraws needed, and sometimes even the general character of the climbing routes.

16. Approach – orientation and parking

A good sense of direction and some basic navigational skills will come in handy. Unlike the climbing gym, not every crag is easy to find. In addition, it is rarely possible to park directly in front of the rock wall, so you should plan for an average approach time of 10 to 30 minutes. 

Save yourself some time, and figure out in advance all the details for approach and parking.
Sometimes the landowners around a climbing wall are sensitive to illegal parkers. Many climbing areas have their own parking spaces; try to use them even if they are a little further from the wall. 

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17. Safety

In addition to the usual safety measures such as partner check, correct use of the belay device, and fall training, there are additional measures to be taken when rock climbing.

  • Helmet (falling rocks)
  • Watch out for loose rocks and holds. (holds might break out)
  • Protection from weather (cold and hot) sunscreen, sunhat, jacket…
  • First aid kit
  • Routinely checking bolts and anchors

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18. Nature and Atmosphere

Climbing outdoors on natural rock is an entirely different experience than climbing in the gym. It starts with the approach to the respective climbing area.

The way to the often gigantic rock faces usually leads through beautiful landscapes and untouched nature.

Rock climbing outdoor
Outdoor climbing – Surrounded by nature

Each climbing area has its charm and character. Sometimes the walls are hidden and embedded in a forest; sometimes, the climbing wall rises imposingly and visible from afar.

Surrounded by trees, animals, and plants, you do not climb to the typical indoor sound of a Spotify playlist but the sounds of the forest and the wind. This environment decelerates and calms the mind; the recreational value is many times greater in contrast to indoor climbing. 

19. Conditions and Grip

Every day is the same in the gym, and neither sunlight nor damp holds are a problem.
Outside it’s different; depending on the weather and time of day, there might be good or less ideal conditions.

After a prolonged period of rain, some rock faces dry very quickly, while others often take days to return to climbing conditions.

Humidity and Temperature
Some rock walls start to “smear” and loos grip when the temperature is too high. Humidity settles on the rock, and it almost feels as if the rock is slippery. Under these conditions, you may not be able to climb the same grade as usual.  

Certain routes can only be climbed under the “right” usually cold conditions. 

Cold means less humidity and, therefore, more grip. 

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20. Orientation of the wall

Climbing in the summer – on a wall facing south – not a good idea!
If the sun shines directly onto the climbing wall, you will not enjoy your climb. 

Of course, this depends on the time of day. Remember, the sun rises in the east 😉 In the hot season, it makes sense to study the guidebook carefully to avoid the sun. 

In contrast: during colder seasons, you want the wall facing south. To keep at least the belayer warm and in a good mood. 

21. Trash and Cleanliness.

Usually, climbers are very aware of their environment. If you are a newbie – Please Please help keep climbing areas clean. Leave no trash.