The Height of Adventure

Climbing Walls for Exercise & Recreation

By Richard Zowie


hether they live in the neighborhood of the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon or the Himalayas, or just in the midst of cornfields or city skylines, people who love to climb can be found in every part of the country. And with the explosion of climbing walls—in fitness centers, recreation facilities, schools and more—it's become easier for these fans of the sport to find a spot to climb. If your facility hasn't yet considered adding climbing to its lineup, read on to learn how you can easily make this change and reap the benefits.

Climb With a Purpose

People have many reasons for using climbing walls. Some enjoy the exercise, while others like the recreation aspect: What more enjoyable way to burn calories than to pretend you're climbing up a mountain? Some might even see climbing walls as a positive tool to help keep kids out of trouble.

Dave Raue, general manager of The Rock Club, a climbing facility in New Rochelle, N.Y., finds all of these are valid reasons for people to use climbing walls. There are even competitive wall climbers.

While the reasons for climbing vary, Raue believes it can be especially beneficial to kids due to its accessibility, its ability to build confidence and its emphasis on teamwork.

"It's certainly a positive activity," he said. "It's wholesome, fun and social. It's something that I won't say any kid can do, due to some limitations, but for the vast majority of average kids it'll be accessible. I see it as a sport for people who hate sports, meaning kids who participate all get to do it. There are no benchwarmers. Everyone can succeed at one level or another."

When wall climbing, you compete against yourself, Raue explained, while others encourage you. He recalled a mother whose daughter tried climbing for the first time at a Christmas vacation camp.

"The mother said her daughter literally transformed," Raue recalled. "[It] gave her something to succeed at. She'd never seen her happier or more fulfilled. The mom was almost in tears describing it."

The Rock Club finds itself busy all year round. Summers bring day camps while winters bring outside climbers who wish to keep up their skills and train for the outdoor season.

"Over the holidays there's a lot more families and little kids," Raue added.

Facilities with climbing walls often offer programs targeted at adolescents and teenagers. (If you have a wall, it's an excellent way to fill the pipeline with patrons who have an ongoing interest in the sport.) The climbing wall at the Paul Derda Recreation Center in Broomfield, Colo. is no exception.

Melissa Kennington, the climbing wall manager there, said her facility offers after-school programs for youth and teens. "We teach them climbing and safety," she said. They also educate people about climbing and how it can even be done as a sport.

When kids get into wall climbing, they often introduce it to their parents.

"They go climbing together," said Jennifer Hazelrigs, the assistant director of the University of Arkansas' intramural recreational sports department and co-editor of Rock Climbing, a book available through Human Kinetics. "It can become very common for wall climbing to be a family event. Some kids are surprised and never thought their parents would go climbing."

And for those who want to challenge themselves and be challenged by a little competition, there are climbing and bouldering competitions.

"You can be part of a whole series," Hazelrigs said. "That's really neat since you travel to locations and have goals in mind. You work out for it and build up."

Scott Powell, chairman of Midlothian, Va.-based Peak Experiences, said that first and foremost, people enjoy climbing walls because they're fun. And to keep them fun, variety is indeed the necessary spice. "As long as the climbing center is setting high-quality routes regularly and creates the proper culture, it stays fun indefinitely," he said.

Setting new routes regularly is another way to keep patrons coming back for more. At Peak Experiences, they set about 10 to 12 new routes weekly, which Powell estimates translates into about 500 to 600 new routes each year. Each week brings a new experience—whether a person maintains their existing ability or strives to improve their skills.

"In addition to being fun, climbing gives folks a great sense of accomplishment because it's also challenging," Powell said. "You push yourself and break those self-imposed limitations we all create for ourselves. The great thing about this challenge is that it's not you versus your buddy in a sport. It's you against the rock, and your buddy is there to support and encourage you. There aren't many sports that provide that kind of positive challenge."

An added bonus, Powell said, besides the immense fun, is the "incredible" workout that allows climbers to burn lots of calories. "You burn more calories per hour than in most other fitness routines and sports, but instead of mindlessly running on a treadmill, you're fully engaged both mentally and physically," Powell said, adding that climbing "…requires full-body, functional movement rather than single muscle groups engaging in repetitive non-functional movement like you'll see as you look around the weight room of health clubs."

Back to Basics
  • Climbers are attracted to indoor gyms because they offer a comfortable place to climb, practice, train and compete.
  • Among the types of climbing most gyms offer are lead-climbing routes, top-ropes and bouldering.
  • Because lead climbs in gyms are "almost always" protected by bolts, it's not necessary for climbers to carry their own protection.
  • Climbing gym floors are usually covered with thick mats or other specialized padding or surfacing.
  • Rigorous risk-management and safety procedures are observed at indoor climbing gyms while standardized industry practices are frequently updated.
  • Those who want to practice roped climbing unsupervised should pass a belaying and climbing test to "demonstrate competence with the basic safety systems and climbing commands."

Source: The CWA's Guide to Climbing by Dougald MacDonald

All Ages & Abilities Welcome

Recreational activities often have a wide target audience, and climbing walls are no exception. Typical climbers range from young kids to adults well past retirement age. But that doesn't mean that all patrons are climbing the same wall.

Raue said The Rock Club's walls serve many functions depending on how the holds and routes are set up. "These provide a much greater effect on appropriateness," he said. "We can set walls for the highest levels of competition or for teeny kids."

Kennington said that at the Paul Derda Recreation Center, they try to set up their climbing walls to target everybody, not just one particular age group. "We try to get a wide variety of people," she added.

Raue and Kennington's wide customer base isn't surprising. Indoor climbing, Powell explained, is a sport that can be targeted at everybody. While Peak Experiences has climbers as young as 4 and as "mature" as 80, he noted the core of his market ranges from 8 to 45.

"Each climbing gym will have its own somewhat unique approach to their target market(s)," Powell said. "I've been to some gyms that are clearly targeted from the college student to the young professional. The music is geared toward that demographic, the staff are clearly in that demographic, and you just get a vibe that it's not really a place you would bring your kids. You'll typically see this type of climbing center in some markets in Colorado or California where there are significant concentrations of established climbers."

Powell also noted that some of the older gyms around America are also like this since the sport began with the "hard-core committed climber" in the age groups of 16 to 30.

Other gyms focus primarily on the younger crowd. "Again," Powell said, "the music, staff and general atmosphere are targeted at kids, and sometimes it can make you feel like you're at a Chuck E. Cheese."

Peak Experiences tries to focus on programs and cultures that appeal to both kids and adults. Many of their programs focus on kids in the afternoon and weekends, while weeknights and weekends focus on college students through professionals in their 40s and 50s. Daytime hours go to corporate groups during the week.

"The sport lends itself very well to virtually any age group and physical ability, so the real determinant is the culture the management of the climbing center seeks to create," Powell said. "Our philosophy at Peak Experiences is to develop relationships through an engaging atmosphere with fun and challenging experiences. We play cool but clean music so folks in college can have a great time next to a kid in middle school. We also train our staff extensively in ways to promote our culture so everyone feels welcome."

Facilities with climbing walls often offer varying styles of climbing wall so everybody can get in on the action, regardless of their experience level.

Raue said The Rock Club offers walls for both the experienced and inexperienced, along with those who are still developing their strength to those who are physically fit. Some of the walls are what Raue described as "very aggressive," meaning you have to be strong to have fun on them since they're steep.

"We have enough variety where anybody will find lots to do and not get bored," he said. "Our goal is to be everything to everybody."

Climbing is for all ages, sizes and skill levels, said Hazelrigs. "The stereotype is that you have to be a super-lean, 19-year-old male [in order to climb]," she said. "We like to really emphasize that you don't have to be an elite climber. You can do it for exercise and socialization. It's for everybody of all abilities."

While wall climbing is an activity for all ages, Hazelrigs said it's drawing increasing interest from younger generations. They may be exposed to it at school in physical education classes, and also have easy access through youth centers, recreation centers and commercial gyms.

"Elementary school kids love to climb," she said.

And whereas climbing trees can be dangerous and sometimes results in trips to the emergency room, climbing walls incorporated into a P.E. program can be very exciting with relatively low risk. Such walls for kids don't feature the "negative" angles where all the strength is on the hands.

"When they fall, there's not as much risk of injury since it's a flat wall," Hazelrigs said. "You traverse from one part to the wall to the next. On traverse walls, most of walls are not higher than 8 feet. The goal is to climb across space, not up."

High, But Not Dry

If you don't have room in your regular facility to add climbing, maybe you'd like to think about combining climbing and swimming! Think it can't be done?

One manufacturer creates 1-by-1-meter fiberglass panels and handholds that are chlorine- and UV-resistant and are meant to combine climbing and aquatics. The panels can be rearranged to change the degree of difficulty and keep things entertaining.

What happens when you fall off? You have access to one of nature's greatest cushions—water. The product attaches to any pool deck at a 10-degree angle over the water that ensures climbers will fall into the water.

Among the benefits: fun, fitness and safety. (The product is approved by the Aquatic Safety Research Group.) It's also modular and durable, making it a good choice for facilities that see a lot of use.


What kinds of exercise do patrons get from climbing? The list is longer than you might think, according to Hazelrigs: strength training, anaerobic exercise, muscle toning and definition, flexibility and even exercising your mind using problem-solving skills—all in a safe, controlled environment.

When it comes to problem-solving on climbing walls, everyone can take a different approach—even to the exact same route.

"My thought process might climb a certain way, and you might do it differently," Hazelrigs explained. "That's the problem-solving behind it. And it's an adrenaline rush as you go for a hold a certain way or extend yourself out of your comfort zone. That also challenges the mind and strengthens it." Then patrons can take this confidence boost and transfer it to other areas.

You should tell patrons to be careful, though, when first starting out, said Climbing Wall Association Executive Assistant Andrea Sutherland. "When someone climbs for the first time, they tend to get a very physical workout because they are relying too heavily on their arms and tend to over-grip the holds," she explained. "As they learn the sport, however, they realize it's not about getting to the top the fastest. They learn to listen to their body and read the route and put the pieces of the puzzle together. Once they understand the mental part of climbing, they climb more gracefully and efficiently."

Sometimes climbing walls can even be used to help kids do math problems. For example, some holds might have odd numbers and others even with kids being challenged to only use the even or odd holds. Other times, multiplication comes into play.

"This is non-traditional and non-competitive, and that's what kids like about it," Hazelrigs explained. "It's not like kickball where you're the last kid picked."

Things are different at the high school level, she noted, where climbing can be a social activity encouraging peers to cheer on other climbers. Climbers receive encouragement as they are taken out of their comfort zone.

Variety Is the Spice of Life

The types of climbing walls vary depending on where you go. The differences don't just come from the walls for kids and those for the seasoned climbers. Sometimes recreation centers have their own unique interpretation of what a climbing wall is.

The Rock Club, for example, has what Raue described as a "hugely more complicated structure" than what one might see in smaller facilities with a single wall. Among their structures is a completely freestanding giant indoor mountain with a 30-foot tall arch with undulations. "The term 'wall' doesn't really capture it," Raue said. "What we do is on a vastly larger scale than a lot of gyms. The way the holds are attached is the same. Bolts are fixed onto the wall surfaces that hold the screws in. You can change it in front with a socket wrench. We change holds all the time."

Another climbing wall at The Rock Club is a 20-foot-high, converted racquetball court designed for beginners. Raue described it as "totally unintimidating," adding that it's fit for 4-year-olds.

Kennington said the Paul Derda Recreation Center has one large 3,300-square-foot climbing wall at the facility. It's about 35 feet tall and has a combination of rock surface texture along with high-performance texture. There's also a section where people can "boulder," which has the texture of a real rock surface. Here patrons climb lower to the ground without the need for the protection of rope and harness.

"Size-wise, it's a good fit for our facility," she explained.

Peak Experiences has walls featuring homemade plywood walls with textured paint, walls with concrete and resin blends and ones with high-tech fiberglass. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, Powell said, mainly in terms of cost.

The small walls, he added, are targeted toward beginners, while the 20,000-square-foot textured walls cater to everyone from the beginner to the professional. They also have bouldering-only gyms (which means no ropes, with everything being about 12 to 16 feet off the ground).

"Peak Experiences climbing center has 14,000 square feet of textured surface, which allows us to fully satisfy all ages and levels of ability," Powell said. "People climbing our walls can get 40 feet up in the air hanging from a rope—what's not to love? Kidding aside, it comes back to those two things that everybody seeks—fun and challenge. Whether you're 8 or 80, you want to have fun and be challenged. There is something very primitive about that need, and climbing uniquely fills it in a way that, when the climbing center is run properly, risk is minimized. As for kids, how many places can you climb 40 feet up in the air and have mom and dad pay for it? Seeing mom and dad freak out a little while you're doing it is the icing on the cake!"

Among the unusual features at Peak Experiences are a huge arch that, while visually inspiring, allows the staff there to establish crazy routes that push climbers to really put their technical skills to work. And if that's not enough, there are also two cracks built into the walls that run 35 to 50 feet from the floor to ceiling. Climbers can tape up and get a good workout from them. Then there's the bouldering area with an arch that mirrors the entry's big arch.

"That way, people can work on moves while inverted but only 6 feet off the ground," Powell explained.

They also have something else that few other climbing centers provide, according to Powell: a high-ropes course integrated into the climbing structures.

"This allows us to further our reach into corporate teambuilding and various youth groups and sports teams," he said. "The other great thing about this industry is that as it matures, more and more products are coming into the market that allow you to continue to create new climbing experiences for your customers. …Where you have a flat wall extending out like a roof one day, you can have a huge stalactite hanging down the next. Similarly, a flat vertical wall can turn into a major roof feature within 30 minutes. It's really exciting to see how this industry is evolving."


If you would like to expand your options to something outside, consider challenge courses.

Similar to military obstacle or confidence courses, challenge courses are designed as "transient" learning devices where you go farther than you thought you could. Popular for corporate team-building, the courses involve teamwork and problem-solving skills.

"At the end of the day, we build things to create 'wow' experiences for people to transcend from," said Joe Lackey, who works in sales and design for a North Carolina-based designer of challenge courses. "They'll have that memory whether with group or family."

Lackey said in the past eight or nine years, there has been a shift toward high courses that are more team-oriented.

What's the main difference between climbing walls and challenge courses? According to Lackey, climbing walls are geared more toward recreation and exercise, while challenge courses are intended primarily as an educational tool.

Challenge courses are used predominantly by the military, day camps, YMCAs and for environmental education. For the military, Lackey's company serves as a contractor and builds challenges courses for basic training, general infantry training, special forces and even helicopter rappelling.

One of his company's challenge courses was used in the Sandra Bullock movie 28 Days.

As far as similarities go, both climbing walls and challenge courses typically require harnesses and helmets, and while the climbing isn't exactly the same, both require it.

Getting Started

If you're interested in adding a climbing wall at your facility, two pieces of advice are generally offered: Do lots of research, and make sure you use an experienced builder. Check references? That goes without saying.

The world is filled with those who are great with their hands and pride themselves as jacks or jills of all trades. Still, unless you have solid experience, it might be better to leave it to professionals.

Besides finding a reputable builder, Raue suggests figuring out who your clientele will be and who will be long-term customers.

"You have the different styles of walls," Raue explained. "With some, the more realistic the wall looks, the lousier it'll be for climbing and route-setting. The ones that look like rocky structures can be much more limited in holds and placements. This limits the routes you can put up. At the end of the day the wall is only as good as the route setters. You can have a multimillion-dollar facility but with lousy route setters it's not worth a dime. People flock to small gyms that have great routes."

Construction can be an expensive business, and climbing walls are no exception. Powell estimated that for a 15,000-square-foot gym, going at $30 per foot you could easily spend $450,000 just for the walls. Adding proper surfacing, holds, harnesses and locker rooms means the cost can easily rise much higher.

Of course, there are also less expensive options available. Some manufacturers offer panels that can be added to the walls of your gym, and there is a unique product that turns the climbing wall into a treadmill-like amenity. You should talk with as many manufacturers about the various options available as possible. The right help will allow you to determine the best fit for your own facility.

Getting others involved in the building process, especially potential customers, depends on more than just the proverbial "location, location, location."

"In terms of marketing, you have to find out what customers want," Raue said.

Powell described the customer as the "million-dollar question" and said marketing can be tricky. "I have yet to find a magic bullet as far as marketing goes," he said. "At Peak Experiences, we have found that the best way to get people climbing is to create great routes that change regularly, and create a great culture that people want to keep coming back to. If you do that very well, then you get 'raving fans'—people who can't stop talking about you in ways that convince their friends, co-workers and neighbors to come and try. The vast bulk of our new customers are referrals from existing ones."

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