Five Tips for the COVID-conscious Climber
Updated: Apr 19, 2021
When the coronavirus pandemic first took the US by storm back in March, climbing seemed impossible—or at least very irresponsible. Gyms all over the country were shuttered, national and state parks closed down, and travel was forbidden in many states. Many climbers turned to the few outdoor crags that were still open, but without established etiquette for climbing in a pandemic, chaos ensued. People flocked to crowded areas, sometimes in violation of regulations, and standards for safety were wildly inconsistent. I decided to stop going to a local bouldering spot after I watched some guy show up without a mask and proceed to brush and blow on all of the holds.
Fortunately, as the community has adapted and gyms and crags have begun to reopen, a slightly more concrete set of norms for climbing safely in a pandemic has emerged. Unfortunately, they are nowhere close to universally observed. In the past month, I’ve witnessed gyms full of maskless climbers in direct defiance of posted signage and gym policy, crowded outdoor crags without a mask in sight, and people sharing ropes and tape without discretion. Last weekend, I watched a pair of climbers tie in and climb the route adjacent where a friend of mine was already belaying, continuously standing within two feet of his belay spot. To help you all navigate climbing etiquette and safety, are a few tips on how you can climb responsibly during a pandemic.
1. Wear a mask!
I cannot emphasize this one enough. Wearing a mask is the easiest and most effective way to make activities that occur in shared spaces safer. It may seem uncomfortable at first, but speaking from experience, you’ll get used to it. After a few weeks of climbing in a mask, I barely realize it’s there.
At the Gym: When you’re in a climbing gym (or any kind of gym, for that matter) you should wear a mask at all times. Many gyms have policies that exempt mask wearing while on the wall; it’s safest not to take it off at all. Make sure to cover your nose (not just your mouth) and wear a cloth or surgical mask—not a bandana or a neck gaiter pulled up over your face. These makeshift masks, as well as masks made out of very thin or sheer materials like mesh, are much less effective. I find surgical masks to be the most comfortable for exercise, because they’re light, breathable and sturdy enough not to get sucked into your mouth when you’re breathing heavily.
At the Crag: Masks are generally not essential at outdoor crags unless it’s a crowded area, but you should always bring one with you. If there are other climbers in the immediate vicinity it’s a good idea to put it on—at least while you’re not on the wall. While hiking, you should always have a mask on your face, in your hand, or in a readily accessible pocket to wear if you encounter any other hikers.
Pro tip: if someone else at the crag is wearing a mask, you should be, too. Even if no one else at the crag is wearing a mask, you probably should be unless they’re all in your quarantine bubble.
2. Come prepared.
Shoes, chalk, harness? Phone, wallet, keys? You’re good to go! Actually, not quite. Climbing safely during a pandemic requires a couple extra gear items that are easy to forget. Pro tip: Leave hand sanitizer and extra masks in your car and/or climbing bag. Better safe than sorry!
At the Gym: At this point, your mask should be right up there with your wallet and keys on your leaving-the-house pocket check. That’s not the only thing you should take care to remember when you go climbing, though. Using your own rope, shoes, brushes, chalk, and tape rather than gym rentals or borrowing a friend’s is a good way to reduce the risk of community spread in climbing gyms, as is bringing your own (reusable) water bottle instead of using water fountains. Using liquid chalk, which is essentially a paste made of chalk mixed with alcohol, instead of or in addition to powdered chalk is also a great precaution. However, most liquid chalks don’t have a high enough alcohol content to act as an effective antimicrobial, so don’t skimp on the hand sanitizer.
At the Crag: Aside from a mask and hand sanitizer, the most important rule of thumb for COVID cragging is to bring all your own gear. This includes tape, chalk, pads, brushes, and knee pads if you’re into that—sharing items like these with climbers outside your bubble is risky. If you need deals on your own gear check out Switchbackr. As always, remember to pack out what you pack in don’t litter your masks!
3. Maintain 6 Feet of Distance.
It’s common knowledge at this point that COVID-19 spreads much more easily indoors than out. But contrary to popular belief, being outside does not make the risk of transmission negligible! 6 feet is about the height of a large human. That means there should be at least one wingspan (fingertip to fingertip) between you and the closest other person at all times.
In the Gym: It’s especially important to practice distancing in indoor settings. Be aware of your surroundings, and make sure to give others at least 6 feet of space both while climbing and while on the ground. If a particular area of the gym is getting too crowded for comfort, it’s a good idea to choose a different wall until the crowd has dispersed. Pro tip: the Moonboard is only 8 feet wide. I would not advise Moonboarding with climbers outside of your bubble.
At the Crag: Stay at least 6 feet away from climbers not in your party at all times, and farther if you (or they) are not wearing a mask. This might mean waiting 20 minutes for someone to finish climbing before you belay on the adjacent route. Deal with it. Be mindful of sharing narrow trails—pass other hikers quickly, avoid following close behind other groups and keep a mask readily accessible at all times while hiking.
4. Avoid overcrowded areas.
Since the onset of the pandemic, gym and crag closures (and the rise of working from home) have resulted in a mass migration of climbers to outdoor climbing destinations that are still open and in season, such as Bishop and Joe’s Valley. In addition to the obvious risk of spread among climbers, this puts the (often rural, isolated and medically underequipped) communities in these areas at high risk for a potentially deadly outbreak. To make matters worse, the increased traffic in natural areas poses a threat to their often fragile ecosystems and wildlife. As climbers, we’re all about recreating sustainably and preserving natural beauty—plus, keeping crowding down is the best way to ensure that gyms and crags stay open as outbreaks continue, so don’t take this one lightly.
In the Gym: If you can, climb at the gym during off hours, when it’s less likely to be crowded. Google maps has a very useful feature that tells you how busy businesses generally are at various times of day, and sometimes even has live information about how many people are currently using the facility. Some gyms also do this on their websites. As a general rule, weekday nights and weekend afternoons are times to avoid if your gym is popular.
At the Crag: Research before you go. Avoid traveling to rural communities and potentially bringing the virus with you. If you must travel, avoid areas that are already experiencing overcrowding—a quick Google search will often tell you how busy various parks, preserves and recreational areas are. Make sure you are well informed about any local travel restrictions, access issues and quarantine requirements. It’s imperative to exercise extreme caution interacting with the local population: always wear a mask, avoid restaurants and crowded or public spaces, and wash those hands! If you can, get tested before your trip. And if your crew rolls up to a boulder and there are already 15 people there, maybe choose a different spot. Mountain Project is a great resource for finding nearby alternatives in a pinch.
5. Respect boundaries.
This one should go without saying, but everyone’s situation is different. Just because you and your buddies are comfortable trading belays and sharing lunches with each other doesn’t mean everyone at the crag is! The bottom line: ask before you share a fellow climber’s personal space (6 feet minimum), gear, crash pads, and even holds. This may mean going out of your way to find a different belay spot, waiting a few extra minutes for a route to be available, or simply wearing a mask while you’re in the vicinity. This applies to the gym, crag, trail, and really anywhere you might encounter another human. Be aware, be accommodating, and speak up if you see another climber doing something unsafe.
COVID has changed and limited the way we interact as people and as climbers. I’m sure I’m not the only one who misses being able to mingle with other groups at the crag, make new friends and invite them back to the campsite for s’mores without thinking twice about it. It’s sad that encountering other climbers now brings anxiety rather than excitement. It can be tempting to consider climbing exempt from the rules and responsibilities of curbing the virus, because it feels like an isolated activity and is relatively niche in the public eye. But the reality is that climbing is incredibly community-based and travel-intensive, with connections and implications far beyond just the climbing community. In the time of COVID-19, it’s more important than ever to take care of our crags and each other.
These guidelines are climbing-specific, but the general idea applies to many other outdoor (and indoor!) sports. TL;DR: If you’re going to go climbing, be cautious, considerate and make sure you’re creating an environment where everyone can feel safe to recreate without wreaking havoc on local communities and ecosystems. Stay safe out there!