What is Crack Climbing? The Ultimate Guide to Crack Climbing for Beginners

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man crack climbing

Crack climbing is an exhilarating type of rock climbing that involves ascending a crack or fissure in the rock using specialized equipment and skills. Mastering these narrow crevices can provide an incredibly rewarding experience for skilled crack climbers.

This guide will give you the basic knowledge necessary to begin crack climbing, including an explanation of the basic principles, equipment needed, and special skills and techniques.

Key Takeaways

  • Crack climbing is a specialized type of rock climbing that focuses on ascending cracks or fissures in the rock using specific techniques and equipment.
  • Essential crack climbing equipment includes tape or crack gloves, hand crack devices, quickdraws, climbing shoes, chalk, harness, rope, and a helmet.
  • Choose shoes designed specifically for crack climbing, with features such as flat soles, medium stiffness, high ankle cuffs, padding, toe rubber, and laces.
  • Dress appropriately with snug-fitting, durable, and breathable clothes that offer full coverage, such as long-sleeve shirts and pants.
  • Safety is paramount in crack climbing, so ensure you have the right equipment, knowledge of protection devices, and an experienced belayer.
  • Learn and practice various crack climbing techniques, such as finger jams, fist jams, hand jams, off-width jams, stemming, foot jams, and toe jams.
  • Understand crack widths and types, and be familiar with the grading systems to choose the right crack for your skill level.
  • Prepare for your first crack climb by practicing techniques, ensuring you know how to use your gear properly, and understanding how to set up knots and anchors.
  • Be aware of the differences between indoor and outdoor crack climbing and adjust your approach accordingly.
  • Strengthen your body with specific exercises targeting core strength, finger and hand strength, balance, and flexibility to improve your crack climbing abilities.

What Is Crack Climbing?

Crack climbing is a type of rock climbing that focuses on using cracks in the rocks for protection and movement.

It uses special techniques to ascend steep, vertical walls or chimneys.  It may be used to scale a single crevice or complete a larger climb section. The crack climber uses hands, feet, and other body parts to navigate thin cracks in the stone.

For more general information on rock climbing, check out our collection of in-depth rock climbing articles.

The Evolution Of Crack Climbing

the evolution of crack climbing

Crack climbing has come a long way since its inception in the early 1900s when climbers began using finger jams and other basic techniques to ascend cracks.

 Crack climbing technique is continually evolving with the introduction of new gear and equipment. Advances in technology, such as better crack climbing shoes, specialized gloves, and new types of climbing jams have revolutionized how people climb cracks. Experienced climbers can now reach higher levels with greater stability and confidence than ever before. 

With this innovative gear, climbers are able to push the limits of this sport and explore previously inaccessible terrain. This is what makes crack climbing so exciting: there are so many cracks to climb, that no two trips will ever be exactly alike.

Essential Crack Climbing Equipment

Essential Crack Climbing Equipment- crack gloves

Obviously, getting the right equipment is essential for successful crack climbing. So let’s start with a list of  the gear you will need:

  • Crack Gloves – These are an alternative to tape for protecting your hands from rope burn and friction while jamming them into cracks. Wearing a pair of gloves will prevent the rock from tearing your hands to shreds and provide you with better friction when you are sweaty. They also reduce the amount of tape needed on a climb. Gloves for crack climbing need extra padding and a surface that will provide a firm grip on the rock.
  • Tape – Taping is the traditional method of protecting your hands and obtaining a better grip in crack climbing. Tape for crack climbing must be extremely sticky and very durable. The tape acts as a buffer between your hands and the rough rock, providing more friction and a firmer grip. (The method used for hand taping is discussed below).  
  • Hand Crack – A specialized device that helps you get better handholds by widening the walls just enough to fit your hands inside.
  • Quickdraws – A quickdraw consists of two carabiners connected by a textile sling. Climbers use quickdraws to attach their rope to pieces of protection. Quickdraws for all types of climbing are the same.
  • Shoes – The right shoes will provide extra grip when needed most. Look for ones specifically designed for crack climbing. (Discussed in more detail in the next section)
  • Chalk Bag –A bag of chalk powder or liquid chalk will keep your hands dry and secure. For crack climbing the bag should hang close to you and be able to be opened and closed easily with only one hand.
  • Harness -The harness is a critical piece of safety equipment. However,  more expensive harnesses are not “safer” than cheaper ones. All harnesses must pass the necessary safety regulations to be sold. The features of the harness such as comfortability, functionality, and weight will fluctuate with the price. Crack climbing doesn’t require an extremely lightweight or specialized harness. You need a comfortable, lightweight harness for crack climbing and enough space for quick draws. 
  • Climbing Rope – A good climbing rope is essential, but a general all-purpose outdoor climbing rope is all you need for crack climbing.
  • Helmet– the helmet must fit properly and securely around your head to protect you from falling rocks and debris.

With these key pieces of equipment, climbers can have an enjoyable time tackling even the toughest routes without compromising their safety or comfort.

What Makes A Shoe Good For Crack Climbing

What Makes A Shoe Good For Crack Climbing

The proper shoes are essential for your crack climbing success.  Here are some pointers for finding the proper shoes for your climb.  Choose shoes that are:

  • Flat Soles: Choose a flat-soled shoe that fits snugly around your foot so that you can maintain maximum contact and sensitivity on small holds. This will help ensure solid jams in thin hand cracks.
  • Size and Fit: Ensure the shoe provides enough space at the toes to accommodate any swelling during a long rock climbing day. If possible, try them out before buying by wearing them indoors and lightly jogging on a treadmill, as this can indicate how they feel when used for extended periods of time outdoors.
  • Medium stiff to stiff. If the shoe is too soft, you can start to twist your feet or ankles, causing the shoe to roll, resulting in foot pain and potential loss of balance.  Stiffer shoes allow you to really torque your feet into the crack and get a solid hold without them rolling. However, if the shoe is too stiff, you won’t be able to mold it and get your foot into the crack. The key is finding the right balance.
  • High ankle cuff. A higher ankle cuff protects your ankles from getting scraped up when shoving your feet into larger cracks. This also helps support your ankle when you are twisting your feet.
  • Padded. Padding around the toes and ankles will provide more protection when shoving your feet into the cracks.
  • Toe rubber. The rubber on the toe box’s top and bottom will provide more grip in cracks. The rubber will contact both sides of the crack, providing more friction. This is especially beneficial for hand cracks. Always remember, friction is everything in climbing.
  • Neutral to moderate downturn (camber). More aggressive shoes that have a greater downturn will not slot into the crack as well as neutral shoes because of the high toe box profile of aggressive shoes. Consequently, shoes with an aggressive downturn can be painful for crack climbing.
  • Low toe box profile. A low-profile shoe allows you to shove your feet into smaller cracks and use them more effectively.
  • Laces instead of velcro. Velcro can get in the way when shoving your feet into the cracks. Laces will hold up better and be more durable than velcro straps.

The best shoes for thin cracks differ from those for larger cracks. Smaller cracks are harder to jam your feet into than larger ones and require softer shoes with a smaller toe box.

Crack Climbing Clothing: Dress For Success

The first thing every crack climber needs to consider when dressing is how tight their clothes should be.

Loose-fitting clothing can lead to snags on sharp rocks or wedging in wide cracks, while ill-fitting items may not provide enough mobility.  Wear something that fits snugly but allows you to move freely. For wider cracks, there are even specialized garments designed specifically for this purpose which have barely any surface area exposed between you and the rock.

When selecting apparel for crack climbing, it’s essential to find pieces that will protect your skin from scrapes and abrasions caused by sharp edges or thin flakes of sedimentary limestone. Look for full-coverage pants and shirts with long sleeves.

Clothing should be made from durable fibers or leather for maximum protection without hindering movement. Choose materials with good breathability, such as cotton or wool blend fabrics, so they don’t get too hot while jamming.  Additionally, look for features like reinforced knees or elbows if you plan on doing harder routes where falls are likely. 

Crack Climbing Safety And Best Practices

Crack Climbing Safety And Best Practices

Crack climbing is an exciting and rewarding sport, but safety should always come first. Knowing the risks involved and proper safety protocols is crucial for keeping yourself safe and completing successful climbs.

Here are some important safety precautions you should take:

  1. The first rule for a safe climb is acquiring the right safety equipment and double-checking all equipment before starting. Don’t take any chances if anything looks worn or damaged – replace it immediately! 
  2. Know what types of protection devices are necessary for different routes and how to place the gear properly.
  3. Make sure that whoever belays your top rope—or holds you in place as you climb—is capable and experienced.
  4. Finally, use a spotter whenever possible to reduce the risk of injury from a fall.

No matter how experienced you are at crack climbing, following these few simple tips can ensure a safe and enjoyable climb every time! 

Crack Climbing Techniques: A Comprehensive Overview

Crack Climbing Techniques: A Comprehensive Overview

To be successful, crack climbers must learn special techniques for navigating cracks. The most commonly used special techniques are various types of jams.

Crack Climbing Jams

Jams are the various holds and grips essential to crack climbing.

The key to successful crack-climbing is being able to identify the correct placement for your hands and feet based on the size of the opening so you have maximum stability while ascending up the wall. You must also learn how to apply pressure with your fingers, palms, thumbs, and feet while maintaining balance at all times.

With practice comes mastery – once you understand what works best for each unique situation, it will become second nature!

 Here are eight of the most common types of jams::

  • Finger jams: To finger jam, assess the size of a finger crack (a crack wide enough to accommodate just your fingers as opposed to your entire hands) in comparison to your own finger size. You may be able to fit an index finger, a pinky, or multiple appendages. Wedge whatever you can into the crack to create a finger lock for leverage.
  • Fist jams: If you notice a more circular crack in the rock’s surface, try out a fist jam. To affix yourself in one of these fist cracks, force your clenched fist into the hole deep and tightly enough that you can lift yourself up by your legs and elbows without fear of slipping out.
  • Hand jams: The difference between a finger jam and a hand jam can sometimes be the difference between whether you have thin hands or wide hands. If you find a crack wide enough to accommodate most of your left hand, right hand, or both (a hand crack), slide your hands in with your thumbs up against your palms to press against the crack’s edge on both sides. This is the perfect hand placement for staying steady and locked into the crack.
  • Off-width jams: Wider cracks capable of accommodating more of your limbs than just your extremities can accommodate a host of off-width jams. Ascertain how wide the cracks are and what would be best to continue your ascent. Place your arms, legs, or other body parts into these cracks and move upward accordingly.
  • Stemming- This technique is used to climb Squeeze Chimney Jams – cracks wide enough to accommodate your entire body. When stemming, place opposite limbs on either side of a crack to brace you while climbing. Wide splitter cracks – almost perfectly parallel cracks – are perfect opportunities to use stemming.
  • Foot jams: Foot techniques involve utilizing your toes and heels in order to gain extra balance and control when ascending a crack. This includes toe scums that involve pressing toes against one side of a fissure, toe cams that allow climbers to wedge their foot deep within a tight corner, and heel hooks that are combined with body weight shifts to move upward along the vertical plane effectively.
  • Toe jams: To initiate a toe jam, decide whether you can fit just one toe (preferably your big toe for the most power) or multiple toes into a crack. Jamb your toe or toes into the crack and use this leverage to continue climbing.
  • Strawberry Jam Sandwich: This is one of the most common techniques for climbing wide cracks. Simply place both hands on one side of the crack and press your feet against the other side. This creates friction that helps with movement.

These body jamming techniques are among the most common methods in crack climbing. By using various jams, you can do without using any gear. However, experienced climbers should only attempt body jams as they require precise balance and coordination.

Remember, even if you have strong muscles, these jams won’t be effective unless you know how to use them properly. Crack climbing involves more than just jamming hands and feet into rock crevices. You must use balance and leverage to pull yourself up the wall without straining any muscle group too hard.

For more information on the basics of crack climbing, check out this video from REI:

Basics of Using Knots And Anchors in Crack Climbing

Crack climbing requires knowledge and practice of essential knots, anchors, and rigging. Becoming familiar with these basic skills needed for anchoring and belaying is important before you start crack climbing.

When setting up your anchor system, keep one foot straight ahead of you at all times – this will help maintain balance and prevent accidents.

 The two most commonly used knots are the figure-eight knot and the overhand knot. Both can be tied using either your left or right hand. Remember to pull tight when tying them so they will hold securely when you climb up. The middle fingers of both hands should form an arch around the rope as you tie off each knot to ensure that your index finger remains upright while you’re securing the rope.

Now you’re ready for the next step, preparing for your first climb.

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Preparing For Your First Crack Climb

Ah, crack climbing. It’s the ultimate test of skill and determination – a way to push your body and mind beyond what you thought possible. But before you can begin tackling those intimidating vertical cracks in the rock, you should review and practice the techniques and safety methods covered previously in this guide.  Here’s a review of what you need to know for your first climb:

  • Know how to use all of your equipment safely. You must understand how to properly place gear inside the crack. Make sure you get plenty of practice placing nuts and cams so that you won’t get any painful surprises when you start climbing cracks.
  • Know how to make and use tape gloves. Start by cutting two pieces of tape around one inch wide and four inches long. Then, place each piece on your palm with the sticky side facing outwards. Next, pour some strawberry jam onto both palms and spread it over the entire area within the taped outlines. Finally, press down firmly on the tape so that it sticks to itself and creates a glove-like shape all around your hands. 
  • Practice precision positioning of your hands and feet with jamming, toe-hooking, and heel-hooking techniques.

Finally, don’t forget to use the other resources available to you on the internet to prepare for your first climb. Plenty of online videos and courses give detailed instructions on crack climbing techniques. Joining local communities where experienced climbers share their knowledge about this sport can also prove invaluable for helping to improve your abilities quickly.

How to Choose the Right Crack to Climb

How to Choose the Right Crack to Climb

Understanding Crack Widths And Types

One of the most basic skills for crack climbing is assessing the width and type of crack you are facing. The size of a crack can range from thin enough for your fingers to fit inside, known as finger cracks, up to an off-width where two fists or even a full body may be necessary! Finger cracks are usually found in granite formations, whereas hand and fist-sized cracks can be found in limestone formations.

Finger cracks require precise technique and lots of jamming using hands and feet in order to progress.

Off widths often require different techniques such as chimneying (pressing your back onto one side and pushing down on the opposite wall) and stemming, which involves placing opposing pressure between two sides at onceFist cracks require jamming both fists into the same section of crack simultaneously.

 Knowing how wide a crack is before attempting it will give you an idea of what technique you will need to use to climb successfully. I discuss these techniques in more detail below. 

Understanding how to climb cracks of various types and sizes opens up opportunities for you to climb more challenging routes and provides greater variety in your practice. To decide which cracks are suitable for your skill level, you need to understand the Grading System used.

Grading Systems In Crack Climbing

To make planning crack climbs within your skill level, climbing areas grade the difficulty of each climb.

Although these grading systems vary from area to area, learning the local system is essential for choosing your climb. The most common grading system experienced crack climbers use is Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). In YDS, cracks are given ratings between 5.0-5.15 a/b, with each step up representing increased difficulty.

RatingDifficulty
5.0Easy
5.1Moderate
5.2Hard
5.3Very Hard
5.4-5.9Severe
5+Extremely Difficult

In addition to YDS, some areas will use their own local rating system, which may take into account factors such as how sustained or “pumpy” the climb feels, technical complexity, and other regional considerations. Find out as much information as you can about the difficulty of any crack you are considering climbing and when in doubt, always err on the side of caution!  

Overcoming Common Crack Climbing Challenges

Overcoming Common Crack Climbing Challenges

Crack climbing is an incredibly rewarding activity. Each crack presents its own unique challenges. It takes a lot of practice and advanced techniques to be able to properly climb cracks efficiently.

To overcome common crack-climbing challenges, you must understand the basic principles that apply to all styles of rock climbing. 

The goal for any successful climb is upward progress. This means using both hands and feet and often finding holds with only two fingers or even just one finger to make small incremental gains up the wall. In some cases, you may need to use two or more points of contact at once while making your way up the wall.

By practicing proper technique and getting comfortable with the style, you’ll gradually become better at understanding how different types of cracks work and which techniques will help you ascend them effectively. You’ll also learn when a certain type of hold isn’t necessary, such as attempting undercling moves on shallow handholds instead of simply pulling straight up through them.

With enough practice, overcoming common crack-climbing challenges becomes significantly easier until they eventually become second nature – allowing you to focus solely on progressing upwards!

Check out this video to learn even more techniques in crack climbing to overcome common challenges.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do I Know If I’M Ready To Attempt A Crack Climb?

It’s important to understand that there are multiple levels of difficulty when it comes to crack climbs. Beginners should start with easier routes before progressing onto more difficult ones. It pays to assess your physical and mental abilities to determine which level of crack climbing is right for you.

Doing this will help ensure that you don’t push yourself too hard or try something beyond your current capabilities.

You need to be prepared mentally and physically before attempting a crack climb to ensure success and safety on the wall!

It’s also important to keep in mind that certain techniques may work for some people but might not necessarily work for you. Take time to practice the various techniques explained in this guide to find what works best for you. 

Finally, you need to know how to use your gear properly and; understand what type of rope systems are appropriate for each situation.

Are There Any Special Safety Considerations When Crack Climbing With A Partner?

Communication is key when it comes to climbing with any partner, especially when one or both climbers are crack-climbing newbies. Ensure your partner knows their abilities and limitations and can clearly articulate them; likewise, be honest about yours. If either partner feels uncomfortable at any point during the climb, then they should say something immediately – don’t wait until after reaching the summit!

Remember that working together as a team is essential to keep everyone safe. You and your partner should practice setting up anchors correctly. Pay close attention when passing knots through carabiners and managing slack which can make all the difference in avoiding accidents or injuries.

Is There A Difference Between Crack Climbing Indoors And Outdoors?

Crack Climbing at a gym can be a challenging and rewarding experience. Many gyms offer indoor routes that are specifically designed for crack climbers with steep angles and unique handholds that recreate real-world cracks. It’s the perfect place to hone your skills before taking them outdoors!

Crack climbing indoors and outdoors offer completely different experiences.  For example, indoor crack climbing is in a controlled environment, so it requires less protective equipment than outdoor climbing. 

Outdoor crack climbing presents an entirely new set of challenges. The rocks are usually much harder than those found in gyms, so it takes some serious strength and flexibility to navigate them successfully. Outdoors, safety gear such as harnesses and helmets are essential due to potential rock fall risks. Of course, an outdoor climb offers an incredible view when you reach the top, giving you an extra feeling of accomplishment!

Actually, Indoor and outdoor crack climbing offer such very different experiences that they almost seem like two separate sports. If you haven’t tried both yet, then you’re missing out on a thrilling adventure!

What are the Best Exercises to Prepare for Crack Climbing?

Strength is key when attempting difficult routes or climbs.  Good exercises to build the muscles you need are:

  • Plyometric exercises like a box jump improve your overall power output.
  • Focus on exercises that build core strength and finger and hand strength. You need to crack climb with your whole body, not just your arms.
  • Practice finger hangs and pull-ups during training sessions
  • Perform exercises that improve balance–like the tree pose in yoga.
  • A regular stretching routine that targets tendons around joints such as wrists, fingers, and elbows will help prevent climbing injuries.

Final Thoughts

Crack climbing is an exciting, challenging, and rewarding form of rock climbing. It requires both physical strength and mental fortitude to successfully ascend a crack. 

With the right training and preparation, anyone can learn how to crack climb safely with friends or on their own.

As with all dangerous sports, it’s important to recognize your limits and to be conscious of safety considerations to make your experience successful.

With practice, patience, and persistence, you can master the art of crack climbing! By pushing yourself physically and mentally, you’ll realize just how far you can go – all while having fun in nature’s playground!

Looking to learn even about even more types of rock climbing. Check out our in-depth article, Rock Climbing 101: Understanding the Different Types of Rock Climbing and Which One Is Right for You.

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We are a team of passionate climbers devoted to sharing our love of rock climbing with others. Our aim is to promote a supportive community of climbers and provide tips, gear reviews, and training programs to enhance your climbing experiences. Join us as we seek new adventures, share new experiences, and inspire others to reach new heights.

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