Nine tips for climbing with children from a semi-expert climbing parent

Words and photos by Bruce Willey

Climbing Kids

IF YOU SPEND A FEW HOURS OUTSIDE WITH A CHILD, you quickly realize children are wild animals. They roll in the mud, dig holes, climb boulders and trees, rip their clothes off and pee in the open without shame, tapping effortlessly into our hunter/gatherer past with gleeful abandon.

Of these aforementioned skill sets, climbing seems to be the one thing that saved our proverbial hides many an ancient time, whether it was to gather fruit and honey or escape a lion on a human hunt. Perhaps this is why climbing is so embedded in our DNA and why children are such naturals at it. And to take it a step further, why adults, when they are learning to climb, are simply relearning forgotten moves from their childhood.

Still, there has yet to be a toddler ascent of El Cap in a day or even a month-long siege. It goes without saying: If you’re a climber, raising a child decelerates your climbing aspirations down a notch or three. No more all-day multi-pitch ascents without procuring a babysitter. No more climbing without worrying about the crux AND a diaper change, or the sudden hunger call, or even the child mistaking a rattlesnake for a jump rope as you pull a hold loose and yell “rock” at your un-helmeted youngster below.

My wife and I climbed until we only had about five to ten minutes before we would both be infertile. Then, through the miracle of science and the science of miracles, we had Matilda. My wife climbed (on top rope and a full-body harness) up until two days before our daughter was born. And she was climbing within a week or so afterwards.  That was all four years ago and we have the family climbing trip down to almost a science until all the best-laid plans are shot to hell—which still happens though with slightly less frequency than the past. Now, Matilda practically begs to get on the rock and it’s hard to peel her away when we want to have a a ride on the rope. The other day we forgot to pack her full-body harness: she had a meltdown for the ages.

Climbing kids

So with this I can dispel a bit of advice for expectant and current climbing parents.

1 – When you climb, lower your expectations. Succumb to mediocrity. And remember: the very notion that you have taken a baby/toddler/child climbing makes you a better parent than 99.6 percent of all other parents on the planet. You have chosen to expose them to the wilds of nature instead of the Internet boondocks of screen time. Gloat on this fact for a few seconds and move on. Don’t let this go to your head because as a parent you have dispensed with 98 percent of your ego already.

2 – When you are frustrated and lacking patience with your climbing prodigy, think to the future when she/he will be your rope gun, floating up routes you will, from now on, only dream about. If you’re unable to summon your patience, your kid will probably hate climbing and become a millionaire professional video gamer instead of a dirtbag living out of an all-electric Sprinter van. Oh well. Such is life.

3 – Embrace improvisation. Since you’re probably only cragging or bouldering with the tyke, seek places you both can climb. Children learn best by modeling behavior. When they see you having fun they’ll eventually want to join in the up and down antics.

4 – Diversionary tactics. Be sure to bring plenty of non-climbing activities. The base of the crag—away from any possible rock fall or anything else coming down—has everything to keep kids busy for hours. Sticks, rocks, dirt, lizards, plus a favorite toy will keep boredom at bay. For really young ones we found a small tent is handy for blessed naps.

5 – Community action. Climbing with other parents is a lot easier than going as a solo family unit. Not only do you get to commiserate and share ideas, but also there are more adults to keep an eye on everything.

6 – Children are the original fun-hogs. They can also distinguish between someone just trying to have fun and those that are having fun. In this vein, if the kids aren’t having fun don’t push them. If they don’t feel like climbing that day let it rest. And when they want to go home, start packing. Nothing worse than a cranky child at the crag—which can quickly escalate to carrying that cranky child on a long walk back to the car with a loaded pack. Then everyone’s cranky.

7 – Mitigating risks: Always saying “Be Careful” or “Don’t Do That” will begin to lose meaning. When you see your youngster on a sketchy highball boulder problem or about to climb out on a limb that won’t hold their weight, explain the dangers, ask them questions, describe why they need to be careful, and enlighten how they might get out of the dangerous situation.

8 – Tailor the risks to their development. Unlike a playground or a theme park that has the age limits printed on a sign, the outdoors (thankfully) doesn’t have any guidelines. And the climbing ratings are useless. An easy 5.6 can be a hard 5.11 for someone half as tall as an adult. Climbing is risky. Over 200,000 children are admitted to emergency rooms each year from falls at playgrounds. A crag or bouldering area wasn’t designed by nature to be safe. Starting off in a gym can be a great place to get kids climbing but the same paradigm shift from indoor to outdoor climbing applies to kids’ climbing too.

9 – Not climbing is risky too. There’s a ton of research that points to growing sedentary time, “helicopter parenting,” excessive video gaming, and the like that have led to moribund play skills in kids that result in more injuries. Climbing not only teaches kids and adults alike how to embrace and moderate risk, but also instills “grit,” one of the most important factors in a person’s success in life. Learning to fail (and fall) and getting back on the rock is as important as reaching the top—if not more so.   

Climbing kids

Bruce Willey is a full-time father, photographer, writer (in that order) living in Bishop.

Climbing Gear for Kids

After trying a bunch of different gear for children climbers, here are my personal recommendations.

Harness: For age 2-6 the Edelrid Fraggle II Full-body harness is the bomb. Unlike a lot of other full-body harnesses it stays snug and doesn’t chafe their legs. For older kids the Black Diamond Whiz Kid harness is really nice and has the same features as adult harnesses including gear loops.

Shoes: For really young climbers (age 2-5) the Butora Brava climbing shoe has a soft sole great for smearing and a comfortable and adjustable fit. When they start edging as they get older the Black Diamond Momentum or Evolv’s Ashima are good choices.

Chalk Bag: Most kids probably won’t need chalk but they still have a lot of fun mimicking adults. Most of the climbing companies make kid-sized bags.

Packs: It’s important for kids to become responsible for carrying their own gear. Best pack we’ve found so far is Patagonia’s Bonsai Pack. It’s built like an old-school alpine pack with tie-offs for gear on the side if needed. The only quibble; it needs sternum straps to keep the shoulder straps on which we sewed ourselves.

Helmet: Goes without saying; the most important gear to protect young brains is a helmet. We found the Petzl Picchu helmet to be multi-purpose: It doubles as a bike helmet.