Put simply, the local crag is not the same as the local gym. Certain rules of etiquette exist for outside climbing that don’t typically apply in gym environments. The ethics of responsible outdoor rock climbing are nuanced and mostly unwritten––for this reason, we’ve compiled a list of guidelines for you to follow as you enter the spring climbing season. Take a look!
The seven Leave No Trace principles should always be the overarching ethic you aspire to while enjoying the outdoors. These principles were developed by the Forest Service in the 1960’s, “as public land use expanded and land managers witnessed the biophysical effects of this use.” In 1994, the 501(c)(3) non-profit Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics was founded to expand the reach of the original principles.
Whether you’re rock climbing or just out for an hour-long hike in the woods, follow the Leave No Trace guidelines below (our comments in italics):
Bring the essentials: food, water, climbing gear, chalk, etc.
Walk on established trails and camp in established sites; avoid social trails if possible.
If you have to poop, dig a cathole at least 200 feet away from water, campsites, and trails. Thoroughly bury toilet paper or, better yet, pack it out in a plastic bag. PACK OUT all your trash, including biodegradable items like banana peels and apple cores.
Yes, that is a cool looking rock. Leave it where it is and take a photo.
Collect firewood only where permitted. DO NOT burn any hazardous materials! Also...trashed beer cans don’t belong in the fire pit.
You’re on their land.
Other people climb here too!
Please review the official, expanded details of each principle on the LNT website.
When you’re accustomed to the blaring music of the climbing gym, it’s easy to get the wrong impression of what constitutes “reasonable” in this case. This guideline builds off the seventh Leave No Trace principle listed above––being considerate of others. Remember, you’re rarely alone.
Avoid playing loud music (plug in the headphones if you need to get psyched), and try to keep yelling to a minimum. We’re not saying you should tiptoe around the climbing area and speak to your friends in whispers, but we should always be considerate of the experience of others.
As climbers, we tend to haul in a ton of stuff. Then, as we spread out and lay siege to our projects, all that stuff tends to end up on the ground. No one knows how this happens, but it does.
While it’s reasonable to assume that you’ll need to unpack and prepare your climbing gear, or make lunch at some point, try to keep all of your belongings organized and contained. This will prevent the spread of trash and clutter. Think of the crag like the living room in your house: it’s a shared space that everyone uses, so keep it clean.
This is one of the most easily overlooked problems we face. Nothing says “I don’t care about future visitors to this area!” better than unbrushed tick marks. Although tick marks can be massively helpful while actually climbing the boulder problem or route, they’re also a bit of an eyesore. They also might be totally unusable for the next guys, who will then have to brush your ticks off for you. Do the work yourself!
In highly visible areas that are heavily regulated (i.e. Hueco Tanks), tick marks also present a problem to officials. The sight of chalk on rock is already an issue of aesthetics for many non-climbers (and even climbers themselves), so do your best to minimize the visual impact lest we lose our climbing privileges.
As universal as rock climbing appears to be, you’ll quickly find that many established areas have differing sets of ethics. What is acceptable behavior in one area may be considered completely absurd in another. For example: in Fontainebleau, the birthplace of bouldering, climbers have been labeling the problems with colored paint for decades. If you thought this was the norm anywhere, and started spray-painting the alpine gneiss in Rocky Mountain National Park...well, you would be shunned from the climbing community, and the Park Service would probably shut down rock climbing for good.
Unfortunately for visiting climbers, virtually zero climbing areas have written rules of ethics. But all it takes is a few pointed questions for a local and you should be set. Respect the local rules and everybody wins.
More often than not, we end up climbing on federal or state land. These areas always have rules and regulations, usually posted at trailheads, visitor centers, or online. Try to follow these regulations as thoroughly as possible so as to maintain our reputation as stewards of the land.
Again, as we mentioned above, rock climbing on these public lands is a privilege that we absolutely must not take for granted. Losing climbing access to these areas because of carelessness (or foolishness) would be a devastating consequence. Take the time to read and understand the regulations of any public land you visit!
The following are links to the regulation policies of the federal agencies that manage our public lands. For more specific information regarding state parks and agencies in your area, try a good ol’ Google search.
The years pass by and climbing grows and grows. While lamentable to some, the current explosion in popularity of our sport is, in fact, hugely exciting. We have an opportunity to expand the reach of climbing like never before. We have a chance to share our ethics and history, to teach our future generations to respect and conserve the environments we hold so dear. This is not a burden, but it is a moral responsibility.
As climbing gyms produce more new climbers, and those climbers begin to explore the vast outside world, it is critical they be armed with a solid ethical knowledge base. If you’re an experienced outdoor climber, share this article with a newbie. Or, better yet, use your own knowledge to teach that newbie something valuable.
If you'd like to learn more about and contribute to the protection of America's climbing areas, join The Access Fund today.