What is the Difference Between Indoor and Outdoor Climbing?


Climbing as a sport has gained incredible popularity over the years. Yet those who love the adventure of a vertical challenge often find themselves faced with a choice. Namely, climb indoors or head outside?

Both indoor and outdoor climbing are full of different experiences. They also come with their own requirements and challenges. Let's explore the key differences.

Where can you climb?

Indoor climbing

Indoor climbing typically takes place at a specialised climbing centre, on a climbing wall. Not all climbing walls are simply sheer vertical faces. In fact, many offer life-like overhangs and other features. 

A climbing wall is usually made of plywood and is covered with holds or artificial grips. Because you’re inside, and surrounded by professionals it’s considered a controlled setting. Additionally, factors like weather, lighting, and temperature are all kept constant. For this reason, indoor climbing is great for a casual climb, or if you’re just learning the ropes.

Outdoor climbing

Outdoor rock climbing is done on natural rock formations. These can be cliffs, boulders, mountains, and much more. Pretty much anything goes when it comes to an outdoor climb. Here, you're at the mercy of changing weather conditions, as well as your own skill and that of your team. For this reason, outdoor climbing can be a more challenging experience, where the unexpected can happen.


Types of climbing

Indoor varieties

Indoor climbing typically consists of top-rope climbing, lead climbing, and bouldering. Here’s what the different styles involve:

  • Top-rope climbing: A style of climbing where the rope is already anchored to the top of the route. This provides safety for the climber from above.

  • Lead climbing: The climber ascends while attaching the rope to fixed or temporary protection points. They then lead the rope up with them as they ascend.

  • Bouldering: A form of climbing done on lower rock walls, typically with multiple overhangs. This is done without the use of ropes or harnesses, so climbers are protected by a crash pad below.

Outdoor varieties

Outdoor rock climbing consists of traditional climbing, sport climbing, and outdoor bouldering among others. Each of these requires a different set of skills and equipment. 

  • Traditional climbing: A climbing method where climbers place anchoring gear such as nuts and cams as they ascend. They then remove the gear when the climb is completed.

  • Sport climbing: This type of climbing involves routes with permanent anchors and bolts fixed to the rock.

  • Outdoor bouldering: Climbing on lower natural rock formations without the use of ropes or harnesses. This is done usually at a lower height, with crash pads below for safety.

Gearing up

What to wear for indoor rock climbing

Indoor rock climbing typically doesn't require a lot of specialised clothing. Most often, you can comfortably wear athletic clothes like stretchy shorts and a breathable T-shirt and have a great climb.


However, good climbing shoes and a climbing helmet are essential. Some people also wear chalk bags to improve their grip. The harnesses, ropes, and other gear you’ll need should be available for rent from the climbing centre, or you can bring your own. 

What to wear for outdoor rock climbing

Outdoor rock climbing generally demands more specific clothes than indoor climbing. Opt for durable, stretchy pants and moisture-wicking tops. Climbing shoes with good grip are crucial, as is a good quality climbing helmet. Chalk bags are usually recommended. 

When it comes to what to bring for outdoor bouldering specifically, you'll likely need a crash pad to fall onto, a chalk bag, specialised shoes, and a climbing helmet. For longer climbs, you'll need ropes, harnesses, and other safety equipment. Having a high-quality climbing bag can help keep all your gear easy to carry and access, no matter what kind of outdoor climb you’re on.

Climbing Skill level

Indoor climbing

Indoor climbing is generally more accessible for beginners. Firstly, the routes on the climbing wall are colour-coded by difficulty. That means you can start with simpler climbs and work your way up. Secondly, support staff are easily available. All the equipment is also already set up and ready to use.

Outdoor climbing

Outdoor rock climbing often demands fairly considerable experience. The routes are not marked, and you need to rely on your skill and judgement when choosing a path. The natural rock also has a variety of holds, which can be more challenging. Weather can also change rapidly.


Indoor climbing

In an indoor climbing gym, safety measures are rigorous. Staff check equipment regularly, and you're in a highly controlled environment when it comes to temperature and wind. Access to assistance and guidance from professionals is also on hand, whenever needed.

Outdoor climbing

When outdoor rock climbing, you are responsible for your own safety. That means carefully checking your equipment yourself and ensuring you're prepared for emergencies. For this reason, a good degree of experience is needed.

Community and social aspects

Indoor climbing

Indoor climbing gyms often have a fun, social atmosphere. They’re a great place to get a workout while meeting like-minded people. You can learn from others, chat with the pros, and even participate in events or competitions.

Outdoor climbing

Outdoor rock climbing can be a great social experience too, but it's often done in a smaller group. Depending on the difficulty, the focus may be more on the climb and the natural environment.



Indoor climbing

Indoor climbing usually involves membership or entry fees. However, you can rent equipment like ropes and harnesses, so initial costs can be lower.

Outdoor climbing

Outdoor rock climbing can require a higher initial investment for all the necessary gear. However, once you have the equipment, climbing itself is usually free.

Physical and mental benefits

Indoor climbing

Indoor climbing offers a full-body workout. It targets various muscle groups and enhances your flexibility. It's also a great stress reliever, offering a great break from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

Outdoor climbing

The physical benefits of outdoor rock climbing are similar to those of indoor climbing but with added elements. Balancing on natural rock formations can require more intricate footwork and greater core stability. The unpredictable outdoor setting can also sharpen your problem-solving skills. Additionally, being in nature is a well-known mood booster. The great outdoors provides a level of mental peace that indoor settings may not offer.

Seasonal considerations

Indoor climbing

One of the advantages of indoor climbing is that it's a year-round activity. Whether it's raining, snowing, or hot outside, the climate-controlled environment of a climbing gym remains the same. This consistency makes it easier to practise and improve your climbing skills regularly.

Outdoor climbing

For safety reasons, outdoor rock climbing is generally only done in favourable weather. Storms, periods of intense heat, mounting wind, and more can all affect your plans. However, many climbers find the changing conditions to be part of the appeal, adding challenge and adventure to the experience.

The gear for your best climb yet

Indoor climbing is a controlled experience. That makes it a great starting point for beginners and those who want a convenient way to climb regularly. Outdoor climbing on the other hand offers a more authentic, rugged feel for those looking to take their skills to the next level. When it comes to the question of indoor climbing vs outdoor, the choice is up to you.

At the North Face, we offer a vast range of tops, bottoms, jackets, and other accessories perfect for both indoor and outdoor climbs. So no matter whether you’re new to climbing or a seasoned pro, you’ll find just about all you need for your best climb yet.