Indoor Climbing // What The Ratings Mean!

So, you want to go climbing. AWESOME. No, seriously, this is awesome. It’s a great sport + comes with an awesome community. Of course, me telling you that doesn’t necessarily make it easier to be the new kid on the block so let me help you out with that. We’ve already talked about the basics of climbing + how to stay safe while climbing here on the TETON Sports Adventure Blog, but what about the route ratings?

If you’re not versed in climbing the ratings for climbing + boulder just seem like, well…a bunch of meaningless decimals. What makes it more complicated is that these silly decimals are used to determine your success + sometimes your ‘worth’ [although that’s not cool + very un-community like, but I’ll save that for another day]. It turns out those decimals mean something + will really help you progress as a climber + overall cool person. Cool person because, you know, climbing + stuff!

First let’s talk about a few of the basic information that will be useful in deciphering climbing ratings in a gym. Yes, a gym. This article is focused on the indoor aspect of climbing. This is for a few reasons. One, you’ll want to have an experienced climber with you for any outdoor climbing so you can lean on them for some extra knowledge. Two, ratings seem to be most subjective inside a climbing gym rather than in the great outdoors. Third, there are special aspects of indoor route ratings that you don’t have outside, like human placement.

Route ratings are subjective.

This is extremely important to remember since you may notice that in one gym you can climb a 5.10 but in another you’re struggling to send a 5.8+. This isn’t you losing skill overnight, this is the variability of climbing gym ratings + the humans that set/rate the routes.

Your gym may also have ‘kid routes’ which are the easiest out there — a great place to learn the intricate details of being on belay + general climbing communication…or a place to get kids comfy on the wall!

So, what does 5.10 or 5.8+ mean? Well, let’s chat about those odd decimals!

On a standard climbing route, meaning a route you need to be roped in for, the ratings can rank from 5.0 to 5.15. This scale starts at the easiest routes + ramps up to routes that are quite literally ‘professional grade’. You’ll probably find all of these route options in a large climbing gym although the vast majority of the routes will fall in the middle to offer more options to the masses.

Curious about exactly what those route ratings mean? Read on!

5.0-5.4 routes: Easy routes that are often on a ramped surface with many solid hand + foot holds. Seek these routes out for your first go at climbing to get a feel for the sport + the harness system that will keep you safe as you progress.

5.5-5.8 routes: Intermediate routes that begin using specific skills as you climb. You’ll notice a wider variety of foot/hand holds, a more vertical wall + the need to ‘trust your gear’ from time to time. For many climbers this is when you begin to really feel the excitement of being on a vertical wall where the rope truly is a necessity while you ascend.

5.9-5.10 routes: Harder routes that have technical moves with hold further apart with possible overhangs or long reaches. These routes do require some skill but are often very attainable for the ‘recreational’ climber with a little patience, practice + persistence.

5.11-5.12 routes: Difficult routes that have very advanced moves with additional strength + finesse required. Overhangs, long stretches and difficult holds are very common on these routes. These routes require some problem solving as the climber attempts to find the most feasible route.

5.13-5.15 routes: Very challenging routes that are about as hard as it gets. The holds are very challenging to hang onto as well as get to due to their placement + potential overhangs. It is truly impressive to watch people climb these routes so if you see someone clipping into something in this range definitely sit back + watch!

A lot can be learned from just watching other climbers — you’ll learn new techniques + see interesting ways to send a route.

The basic routes fall into the 5.0-5.15 category, however there are a few things worth mentioning about the ratings *within* the standard route ratings.

-/+ ratings: You may see a route rated as 5.9+. This means that the route is on the harder end of the 5.9 spectrum but isn’t quite worthy of a 5.10 rating. You may also see a 5.10- rating, which means a section of the route is definitely 5.10 but the entire route may not quite meet the standards of a 5.10 route.

a/b/c ratings: Another option to show the more intricate rating of a route you may see 5.9a, 5.9b + 5.9c routes in your climbing gym. This is another way to distinguish exactly where the route falls on the 5.9 rating scale. A 5.9a is easier than a 5.9b which is easier than a 5.9c which is easier than a 5.10.

When you’re looking to advance in your climbing seek out the -/+ ratings or the a/b/c ratings as they will help you progress up the…wall! It is definitely easier to go from a 5.9a to a 5.9c than from a 5.9 to a 5.10 due to the route placement + the holds waiting for you.

These route ratings are the same for either top rope or lead climbing.

In the grand scheme of climbing all ratings indoors are quite arbitrary. There is no ‘climbing committee’ that inspects routes + determines what the rating should be. Instead each route is set + ranked by a human that is very susceptible to individual interpretation of a route.

At your climbing gym you may see a route set with a chart of tally marks at the base. This means the route was recently created + the setter is asking for climber input on the exact rating. After someone has climbed the entire route they’re encouraged to vote for the rating. Definitely do this if you feel like you’ve been on enough similar routes to offer up a knowledgeable opinion!

That covers the basics of indoor climbing route ratings. At the end of the day it really is all about getting out there + giving it a shot. If your gym doesn’t have a 5.0 route available do not be afraid of taking on a 5.6 route [more common than 5.0]. The most important part of climbing is having fun…well, that + being safe!

Climbing is inherently dangerous + while many things are put in place to make it safer it is a high risk sport so do you part to be a safe, responsible climber. Check your knots, communicate with your belayer/climber + give each other space on the wall. Even if your not at risk of actually falling to the ground there are a lot of ways to bang yourself up on the wall + that takes away from the fun. Be smart, be safe + be able to return tomorrow!

About the Author


Heidi Kumm

Heidi Kumm is a trail runner, world traveler, mountain climber, and all around adventure enthusiast. She is so stoked on adventure that she has made it her career as the owner of Adventure Feet First, a travel company that focuses on getting people outside to explore the world around them. Over the past years Heidi has spent months living abroad, volunteering around the world, living out of a van/car/truck, and finding new ways to explore on foot, by bike, or with a backpack. She has learned the ins and outs of self propelled exploration the hard way, so she's here to help us learn from her mistakes and to help us become more informed on how to make your own mistakes, safely.