How to Make Climbing With Kids Successful and Safe
Just because you’re a parent doesn’t mean you can’t still get out and climb! This Guide to Family Climbing is meant to help climbers with children get out and climb and find other friendly families to climb with and make life much easier.
I started bringing my kids to the crag when they were very young. They would just dangle from a rope sometimes. Eventually they blew me away with how easily they took to the rock, climbing things I didn’t think they were ready for. We often climbed with other families and many times they only climbed one climb and spent the rest of the time playing with the other kids while the adults kept climbing. Sometimes pretending boulders were homes or forts, making pretend potions with leaves and rocks, playing card games, or exploring the crevices around the cliff.
I think the success I had with getting my children to love climbing as a lot to do with having other kids there to play with. It motivated them to come out because the cliffs were a magnificent playground they could explore with their buddies. As they got older, the kids motivated each other to climb, seeing that their friend got up it (or didn’t) made them want to try it. Soon they were belaying each other after the adults set up the top ropes.
Now I have two teenagers who absolutely love climbing and can climb harder grades than their old mommy. The best part? Pursuing my passion for climbing doesn’t have to take away any family time. Our family vacations are climbing vacations. Quality time with my kids is climbing a multipitch with them and relaxing at the top and absorbing the beauty. Here’s some of the things that worked for me, and how to make the experience safe and enjoyable for everyone.
The Problem with Being a Climber AND a Parent
- Parents with very young children cannot climb and give their kids the attention they need while one is climbing and one is belaying.
- Parents with young adolescents want to get them started in climbing, but they are young enough that they need a lot of attention, encouragement and can’t be left alone.
- Parents with teenagers need an incentive to get them to want to climb instead of hanging out with their friends.
- Parents who want to climb in different areas far away from home feel trapped because they have no one to watch the kids when they travel.
- A non-climbing parent married to a climber doesn’t want to have the kids constantly dumped on them when the spouse goes climbing.
How to Make Climbing With Kids Easier
- Climb with another family or kid-friendly climbers to help increase the adult to children ratio.
- Set up top ropes or lead 1 pitch climbs with one adult climbing, one adult belaying and at least 1 extra adult to keep an eye on the kids. Also, you can set up 1 easy top rope for the kids to do if there are 2 extra adults – one to belay kids, one to watch the kids who aren’t climbing. Sometimes it takes 2 adults to help a child on a climb – one to belay and one to help encourage, place feet on footholds or “tushie-push”.
- If the children are very young or still babies, best to have one of the parents free while the other is climbing or belaying with another adult. Some kids only respond to their parents.
- Swap turns doing longer routes – one parent from each couple does a climb, the others watch the kids, then they switch.
- Find another couple with a non-climbing parent. The non-climbers can socialize with each other, attend to the kids and go on field trips to local events or hikes, and as soon as the climbing day is over, the climbing spouses take over kid duties. Perhaps the non-climbing parents can get the night off to play and the climbing parents put the kids to bed.
- Find other families who live near popular climbing areas and take turns hosting each other so travel to climbing areas isn’t as expensive or hard to manage.
- It helps if the children are close enough in age to enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes they have so much fun they don’t want to bother climbing at all. Rocks, sticks, acorns, a puddle and leftover ziploc bags can provide hours of amusement (my daughters spent 2 hours playing with just that). A deck of cards or Uno is great for older kids who like games. Bring something for them to sit on (tarp or opened rope bag), use a tarp or pop-up tent for shade if it’s really hot and sunny, they can bring kid-sized crazy creek chairs (less than $10 at places like Walmart) or sit on a bouldering pad. Other good ideas for fun are bug catching equipment, action figures or dolls that can get dirty, rubber bands for harnesses, toy biners, and some nylon cord to use for mini-belays and zip lines.
- Don’t forget lots snacks and things to drink.
- You can’t push too hard. If they’re uncomfortable or tired, forcing them to keep climbing or waiting for you will only make the experience less enjoyable and discourage them from going the next time. Pick your battles, be sensitive to their needs and try to make it fun. When it stops being fun, you may just have to go home and try again next time.
- Bring a first aid kit. Bandaids do wonders for little boo-boos.
- Bring child-safe bug repellent – inspect for lyme-disease ticks and keep kids from being miserable from black flies & mosquitoes.
- Don’t forget the sunscreen!
- Nothing like the bribe of ice cream after climbing if everyone behaves and has a great day!
Climbing with Older Kids and Teenagers
- Find other families with kids of similar ages. Hopefully the kids will enjoy each other’s company and family climbing is as much about hanging out with their friends as climbing with their parents.
- Avoid letting them bring electronic gadgets. It’s just too easy to tune out and avoid participation if there is something easy to distract them. Without gadgets, there’s more of a chance the kids will socialize with the other climbing kids. We left the gadgets in the car. They could enjoy them on the drive home.
- If you have a good climbing gym near home, sign the kids up for their climbing club or climbing team. They will train and get strong, learn skills and find other kids they want to climb with. Then you can bring along one of their friends when you go climbing and they’ll be happy to climb outdoors with their buddies. And if they’re on the climbing team and are good enough compete, well, then they can be your rope gun!
- Involve your kids with land stewardship and volunteer activities. Make them feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for the environment. Many schools have community service requirements. Discuss projects that they can do to help. My daughters would sometimes go to the parking lot at the Gunks and pick up trash for their community service requirement. They helped build trails and pull invasive plant species. I think this helped them be more aware of the amount of maintenance required at the crag, and the impacts that people, over grazing deer populations and invasive plants have on the environment.
Climbing Multi-pitch with Kids
- Having double ropes makes it easier. The leader uses double ropes and clips into pieces as normal on the way up. When at the belay station, set up an anchor so that you can see the climbers if possible. Put the child on one rope, and another adult on the other so they can help the child if necessary. Use an auto locking belay device like an ATC guide or reverso that can accommodate 2 ropes to belay both ropes at the same time. Have the child climb first about 10 feet ahead of the other climber so if there is any problem getting gear out the other climber can climb up and help. Try to have two clip in points ready at the belay station so there is not too much shifting when you’re ready to start leading again. Make sure the climb is something they can manage to get up – by themselves or with help from the adult climbing next to them.
- Not as ideal but if you don’t have double ropes, smaller/lighter kids can be tied into the rope a few feet in front of the adult, assuming the adult is not likely to fall themselves and yank the kid off the rock. Give the kid enough space to move freely, but close enough that the adult can easily climb up to them and assist if necessary.
- Lightweight kids have a hard time rappelling. They don’t have enough body weight to slide down the rope. I’ve seen my 60 pound daughter using all her energy trying to pull up the weight of two 60m ropes to shove through her rappel device during a long free rap off of a 2 pitch climb. It took forever and she was exhausted afterwards. You don’t even need to bother with a friction knot for backup because they can barely move down the rope. A fireman’s belay at the bottom is better and an adult should be at the top to send them off and another on the bottom to belay and help them clip in to any intermediate rap anchors.
Instill an understanding of climbing safety, etiquette and ethics from the start
so they can grow up to be responsible climbers.
Etiquette Tips – Not Everyone Thinks Your Child is Amazing
- If you have a kid who can’t behave themselves, get a babysitter. You will have more fun, and so will everyone around you.
- It’s important to be reliable because if a family is depending on you to provide that third adult to help watch kids and you don’t show up, they are out of a climbing day.
- Remember that not everyone wants to see children at the cliffs. So everyone can enjoy their day, monitor the childrens’ behavior, noise level, and courtesy.
- If they are very young, keep them out of other people’s stuff.
Safety Tips – You are Responsible for Their Safety & Teaching Them How to be Safe Climbers
- Make sure the other adults are in sync with your comfort level of safety with the children. If you’re up on a climb and the adult watching your kid is letting them boulder 20 feet up without a spotter, you may not be too happy. Communicate your expectations to the other parents who are helping to monitor our children.
- Obviously, watch out for steep drop offs, slippery leaves and eroded trails.
- Babies and toddlers should not be hanging out close to the base of the cliff because they may not be able to get away from falling debris. Any children at the cliff should be wearing helmets. For adults, we can weigh the risks, but children do not necessarily comprehend the danger – protect them.
- I know it’s a personal preference thing, but I always wear a helmet when I’m climbing with my kids. Set a good example so they protect themselves and don’t question or reject wearing a helmet.
- Do not leave a child alone at the base of a climb when you want to climb multi-pitch. They may try to find you, get hit with falling debris, wander off, or even worse. Would you leave your child sitting outside a store by themselves when you go into shop? I think not. Plus it’s difficult to climb when your kid is alone at the bottom either crying, calling you, or doing something dangerous.
- Warn them that not all dogs are friendly. Check first before you let them approach strange dogs.
- Watch out for dangerous natural hazards – poisonous snakes, spiders… teach them to recognize poison ivy, keep an eye out for cactus. My daughter was looking for shade in the rock nooks and crannies of Joshua Tree. Apparently so were the snakes. She almost stepped on a rattle snake! She’s been terrified of snakes ever since.
- Give the children a safety reminder talk every time you take them climbing. These are the items I always told my kids about before climbing, every time, until I knew they got it.
- Remind them that climbers and belayers need to hear each other. Keep the noise level down. No screaming, loud voices, annoying repetitive noises… If your child is crying or having a tantrum, remove them from the area where people are climbing. It’s very distracting to hear a kid screaming when you’re trying to lead.
- Remind them not to step on the ropes or other gear.
- Teach them to look after their buddies – prevent them from doing unsafe things, remind them of the safety rules, and get a grown-up if there is a dangerous situation that we’re not aware of. Not every parent teaches their kids about safety, so your kids can help teach them too.
- Teach them not to throw rocks down when there could be people below that they can’t see.
- When it comes to listening, anything related to safety is non-negotiable. I told my children that they must follow safety rules. If they can’t, then they won’t get to come climb anymore until they can behave safely.
Teach Leave No Trace
- Teach them how to care for their environment. No littering – or give them a bag to help clean up litter that they see.
- Don’t spread their toys and gear all over the place so people have to trample off-trail to get around the group.
- Discourage damage to plants and trees, or little “landscaping” projects that encourage erosion.
- No graffitti whether it’s sidewalk chalk or scraping their initials into the rock.
- Take them to the potty and don’t leave toilet paper litter. If you’re going somewhere without facilities, bring ziploc bags to put dirty toilet paper in.
- I sometimes would give my kids a contest. They’d each get a small ziploc bag. We’d see who had the most garbage in it after we walked down the trail. If they have the habit of picking up trash often, they’ll be less likely to leave trash themselves.
Kids’ Climbing Gear
- Young children definitely need a full body harness so they don’t tip upside down. I’ve seen it happen to my friend’s daughter who had a seat harness made of webbing and it can scare a child out of climbing again for a long time. If you don’t have one, then include a chest harness.
- Bring a helmet for the kid that fits. Often they can’t keep themselves facing the right way when being lowered (they cling to the rope) and end up twisting sideways and whacking themselves into the rock. When my kids started hanging on the ropes at 3 the only kind of helmet we could find that fit was a bike helmet.
- If they’re only climbing easy stuff or not really climbing much at all, don’t waste money on climbing shoes. Cheap slipper-style swim shoes work just fine and rarely cost more than $15 a pair. I only felt compelled to buy my children real climbing shoes when they were able to climb 5.7. Save money and look for used pairs, especially from other climbing families. They might even give you their old shoes. Kids outgrow their climbing shoes very fast! Make sure they try them on before you leave for any climbing trips. Don’t give up a climbing day having to go shopping for new shoes!
When are the kids old enough to climb?
- I started letting my children play on a rope at the age of 3. At this age, most don’t have the strength to really climb much, but they enjoy swinging from the rope.
- Around the age of 5 (depending on size) they can get up very easy climbs on their own power, or with an occasional lift on the rope. We started them in the gym, it’s more obvious to them where the holds are.
- The biggest problem with any young child is how to lower them. Many are too intimidated to let go of the rock, especially if they’re on a comfortable ledge – they don’t want to back off. You may need a second adult to go up to where they are and help them down – either by getting the lowering process started or by having to clip into the rope with them and hold onto them while you get lowered. If they don’t lower well, don’t let them climb up higher than you can retrieve them safely. Most children I’ve known were afraid of being lowered until they were about 6 years old – especially if they have to back off of a ledge and weigh the rope.
- Children being lowered must be taught to keep their hands and feet in front of them to prevent them from spinning sideways and hitting themselves. They instinctively clutch the rope instead.
- Children bouldering around should be spotted, downclimbing is not usually intuitive to them and they may not be able to judge the distance they can safely jump down from. Watch out if they get too high!
- If you’re read this far, someday I’ll have to tell you about lactating on ledges…
Create Your Own Family Climbing Group
I started a family climbing group at the Gunks to help families find other families to climb with. What started as a mailing list for a small group of families to communicate with each other is now a Googlegroup with over 80 families. It’s been a great way for climbers with kids to connect with other climbing families and get group outings together with kids of similar ages. I’ll have to find time to write about how I formed the group and how I administer it in another blog post…