Crack Climbing for Everyone

At a recent gym climbing session I did a few laps on a hand crack and then belayed my friend up the same crack. He managed to climb the entire route, using the plastic holds for his feet, with his thumbs down in the crack. Unless I’m traversing a crack or the crack thins down to finger size I try my best to climb with my thumbs aiming upward. With my thumbs aiming upward, my body can stay in line with the crack, puts more weight on my feet to lighten the load on my hands, and it allows me to reach higher.

I tried to offer some advice (“Try climbing with your thumbs up! What? It’s insecure!? Try again!”) but I did not do such a great job at explaining crack climbing techniques to my friend. We both ended up pretty frustrated.

As someone who went from thinking that crack climbing was impossible and incredibly painful to intentionally seeking out crack climbs, I know that with some good info, patiences and determination every climber can learn to efficiently climb hand cracks. To me, there’s no better joy in climbing than climbing a clean crack.

Getting to the joyful part of crack climbing is a bit of journey so I’ve rounded up some help from a few crack climbing experts along with some things I’ve learned along the way.

1. Wear the right shoes
Wearing the right shoes is critical, especially as a beginner, to lessen the discomfort. Typically, gym climbers are told that climbing shoes need to fit very snuggly and that when your toes are curled you can climb on tiny holds like a pro. Many climbers can’t wear their shoes for more than 15 minutes at a time because their shoes are so uncomfortably tight. However, wearing super tight shoes while crack climbing will probably just make you hate crack climbing because of the foot pain. I recommend that you wear soft, flat climbing shoes for crack climbing and they should be fitted so your toes can lie flat. Slipper shoes like the Five Ten Moccasym or the new Evolv Addict that are low profile and flat would be a good choice. The La Sportiva Nago is a good choice too since it’s a comfy flat shoe. The best crack climbing shoes for me is without a doubt the high topped La Sportiva TC Pro because of the ankle coverage and tongue padding which makes crack climbing a much less painful experience. I’m on my 4th pair of those bad boys! As for sizing, I wear my crack climbing shoes big! I wear a 7 in women’s street shoes and a 38 and a 38.5 in the TC Pros. I would say for most people wearing their street shoe size in the TC Pro will be perfect for cracks.

2. Tape your hands
Taping your hands will protect your skin, reduce pain, and even keep your hands a little warmer. When you are starting out, I would highly recommend taping your hands for every crack climb. I tend to not like to tape my hands unless the rock is sharp or if I’m planning on crack climbing many days in a row. I don’t want to tear up my hands if I need to keep climbing!

Steph Davis, professional crack climber and crack climbing instructor, has a great video explaining how to tape your hands for crack climbing. She also has an article with photos if you need some supplemental visuals to help you to learn to tape. There are many ways to tape your hands so find what works for you! Most climbers use 1.5″ wide tape. When you tear that width of tape in half it’s perfect for wrapping your fingers. As long as the athletic tape is sticky and thin it’ll work for me.

Another option to protect your hands is to use crack gloves. Crack gloves are great to have because you can carry them on your harness and quickly pop them on and off as needed. Crack gloves won’t protect your thumb knuckles from skin ravaging fist cracks so make sure you still add a loop of tape, as described by Steph in the video, when you climb fist cracks. I’ve tried Handjammies and Ocun crack gloves. They both work but the pricier and more difficult to find Ocun gloves are much more durable. Planet Granite gyms sell the gloves for around $40. I also found them online on Ebay (by the seller outdoor-works) but I’ve never seen them sold at REI or Backcountry.

3. Try a handjam
Now you’re properly outfitted it’s time to get down and dirty into that crack. (Mmm, hmmm…)

Several years back Steph Davis (I’m telling you, she’s our crack climbing guru!) wrote an article on crack climbing called “Thin to Win” for Climbing magazine that became the primer for cracks climbers. I managed to dig it up from lackhead.org using the Wayback Machine and saved it as a PDF to share her tips. Since the article came out climbers have asked Steph to share more of her tips which she has rounded up on her blog in a post called Handjams Are Your Friends.

Remember those Wide Boyz guys? Well, they put together some crack climbing techniques videos with their sponsor, Wild Country.

I hope this helps you out! Let me know if you have other tips or questions!

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