What to Wear for Outdoor Rock Climbing

Max Lurie is an AMGA certified Rock and Alpine Guide, as well as an accomplished alpinist. Max has been climbing since 2004 and traveling to the world's greatest mountain ranges in pursuit of his passion.
Written by
Max Lurie

Every sport has its uniform. Cycling has butt padding in the shorts, fútbol has shin guards and high socks. But what about outdoor rock climbing, specifically in the wild weather of Colorado?

Psychedelic patterns on lycra tights were all the rage in the 80s and 90s. But those outfits were more of a style statement than functional garb to protect from the wild temperature swings during a typical Coloradan day.

Maybe the lycra tights never went out of style, but today you’ll find climbers wearing a range of high tech fabrics that protect from the harsh elements.

It is easy to get overwhelmed with the number of options we have as outdoor companies all tout the latest and greatest designs.

In this article, I will help you sort through the noise and make sense of it all so you can dress in the proper rock climbing outfit for your objective. I’ll help you fill your wardrobe with functional clothing that will help you focus on climbing outdoors.

What Not To Wear for Outdoor Climbing

As you can probably imagine or have experienced in the past, rock climbing requires a wide range of motion or gymnastic movements. So any clothing that is restricting or tight without stretching won't be ideal.

This includes things like jeans. However, jeans with spandex that allow for some stretch have started to become popular. Personally, I think they are still more of a style statement than actual climbing clothing.

Clothing like a cotton tee shirt can be very comfortable to climb in, but only on the nicest of days. Cotton doesn’t do well to keep us warm nor does it perform well if it gets wet. This doesn’t bode well for the classic Colorado afternoon thundershower.

Lastly, avoid wearing any dangly clothing or jewelry because those things can get stuck in a belay device which is dangerous.

Questions To Ask Yourself To Know What To Wear For Your Rock Climb

What’s The Weather Forecast/Seasonal Pattern?

There is no other job besides being a weather forecaster that you can be wrong half the time and still have a job. Of course, we still check the weather and plan accordingly, but they often don’t get it right.

I’ve occasionally been caught in a typical Colorado isolated thunderstorm or hailstorm that wasn’t in the forecast. On an otherwise bluebird day. Without the necessary clothing to endure our situation could have been much worse.

Man dressed properly for rock climbing outdoors

How Long is the Approach?

Where you are going and what style in which you are doing it can affect your clothing choices.

Are you climbing in the sun or the shade? Going into the alpine above 12,000 feet in Colorado can be very different from downtown Boulder.

Having the necessary clothing for the different elevations you’ll be at is important.

A while back a certain unnamed professional rock climber local to the Boulder area was caught in shorts and a tank top on the Diamond of Longs Peak. Luckily they made it down safely, but just a few layers of clothing would have made all the difference.

What Type of Climbing Will I be Doing?

Are you cragging or multi-pitch climbing? Because the amount and types of clothing you are able to bring with you are different for those two activities.

For cragging, you can bring everything to the cliff with you including your avocado toast. When single-pitch sport climbing, I am usually trying routes that are very hard for me, so I like to be as comfortable as possible.

When multi-pitch climbing, you’ll have to be much more selective about what you bring. Because you’ll be carrying everything with you as you go.

What To Wear When Outdoor Rock Climbing in Warm Weather

All summer long I live in a sun hoodie. This is a long sleeved lightweight shirt with a hood. The sun hoodie should be made from synthetic fabrics and not cotton. Best to buy one that has an actual SPF rating as well.

A tee shirt is nice, but the strong Colorado sun and thin atmosphere can fry you before you’ve climbed a single pitch.

Pair the sun hoodie with a hat or visor and some sunglasses and you’ll be ready to go. For the variable weather I’ll bring a lightweight rain/wind shell that stuffs into its own pocket. That way I am ready for any afternoon rains.

When it is really hot during the summer months, I’ll go back and forth between shorts and long pants. I love the freedom of shorts while climbing, but applying sunscreen will make your hands greasy. Which isn’t what you want for rock climbing.

Instead wear lightweight synthetic fabric pants and make sure to get them in a light color. Dark colors like black, which are popular for pants, absorb more energy and get hot faster.

What To Wear When Outdoor Rock Climbing in Cool Weather

In cooler weather I’ll layer a lightweight fleece over my sun hoodie. This gives me a little more added insulation without restricting my movement too much. The stretchy fleece fabric helps to regulate my temperature throughout the day.

If there is the potential for wind or some precipitation, I’ll bring a lightweight softshell jacket. Personally, I like a pullover that has a ¾ length zipper. This will give me some protection from the elements as well as the temperature.

If you are wearing several layers on top you’ll probably want long pants because adjusting the layers on your legs is much more challenging than on top. I almost always bring belay gloves anyway, to protect my hands from the friction of the rope.

On cooler days they can be nice to keep your hands warm while belaying so you don’t get a finger injury.

If I am cragging I’ll bring a thinly insulated synthetic or down jacket to wear while belaying. This allows me to stay warm while I am inactive, but take it off for the actual climbing. What I like to call my action suit.

What To Wear When Outdoor Rock Climbing in Cold Weather

Cold weather rock climbing can either be seasonal or up high in the mountains where it never properly warms up. I continue to layer on top of the aforementioned articles of clothing, my sun hoodie and fleece.

One of the big mistakes I see people making in colder weather is taking off mid or base layers to put jackets back on. Everything goes on and off in an order. Just stack your clothing on top of what you are already wearing.

Each layer has a job, the sun hoodie acts to wick moisture from your body while during aerobic activity. This keeps you warm and dry. The fleece traps a little bit of air which provides minimal insulation. A softshell jacket protects from the wind and light precipitation. While a large heavily insulated jacket will keep you warm in the coldest of temperatures.

Rock climbing in truly cold temperatures isn’t really possible, but the same layering system is what I use for mountaineering and ice climbing.

For the diehard rock climbers a heated chalk bag can extend your season. At first I thought it was a gimmick, but after just a few uses I knew it was a game changer. 

Common Questions About What To Wear When Outdoor Rock Climbing

One of the most common questions I get as a professional rock climbing guide is “what should I wear?”

It really depends on the day, weather, objective and our goals.

I often find myself wearing the wrong layers and I’ve been doing this for a long time. Hopefully, the answers to the following questions will give you some insights.

Rock climbing apparel for woman

How Should My Clothing Choices Differ Compared to Indoor Rock Climbing?

It doesn’t have to be any different when climbing indoors. I regularly climb outside in the same clothes I wear to the climbing gym.

However, the gym is a nice climate-controlled environment. When climbing outside you need to pay more attention to the weather which can mean rapid changes. This means bringing a few more layers of clothing might be a good idea.

Can I Wear Shorts When Rock Climbing?

Yes, I love wearing shorts in the summer. Just be careful not to get sunburnt calves. Even on cooler days shorts can be okay if you are moving continuously and/or have the proper layers on top.

Can I Wear Jeans While Rock Climbing?

You can wear jeans while climbing and some people swear by them because they are durable and offer protection that other synthetic fabrics do not.

When climbing a particularly physical pitch. However, jeans are heavy, restrictive and they don’t breathe… the choice is yours. 

Should You Wear Gloves Rock Climbing?

No, generally speaking climbers do not wear gloves while actually climbing. We do however have a thing called a crack glove which basically just puts a thin layer of rubber across the back of your hand.

This is to protect it from sharp crystalline rock while hand jamming or crack climbing. We also have belay gloves which are only worn while belaying.

What to Wear for Bouldering?

Shorts and a beanie with no shirt. Next question.

What Are The Best Rock Climbing Shoes?

This question could and likely will be an entire article on its own. There are different types of materials and construction techniques used to create a wide range of climbing shoes used for specific styles of climbing.

Shoes to be worn all day will have a flat sole that makes them slightly more comfortable. For more aggressive activities like sport climbing and bouldering a down turned toe allows for precise foot placements on overhanging terrain. 

Final Thoughts on What To Wear For Rock Climbing

There are so many options out there for what to wear while rock climbing these days that it can be overwhelming. Remember that each layer you wear should provide one of the following properties: wicking, insulating or weather protection. 

Live near the Denver metro area and interested in going on an outdoor rock climb? Get in touch with me to start planning out a day in the mountains here.

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