by Mark Anderson
A home climbing wall offers many advantages to the performance-oriented climber. Chief among them are:
- Convenience – with a wall literally in your backyard, commuting time and cost is eliminated along with most other excuses for skipping workouts. Those with families or pets can train with their loved ones without disturbing others, and the gym is open 24-7!
- Control – you are the supreme dictator of your home wall. You call all the shots, including everything from the type of terrain, to grip shapes, to temperature and music selection. You can even decide whether or not shirts are required 🙂
- Solitude – this is also a drawback of a home wall, but solitude can be a huge plus for training enthusiasts. Certain activities, like ARCing and Linked Bouldering Circuits, can be very difficult to do in a crowded public gym.
- Route-setting privileges – For performance oriented climbers, this is the primary advantage of a home wall. First and foremost, if you can set your own routes, you can tailor them to your goals and weaknesses, allowing you to get the most from your training. Furthermore you can decide when to add new routes and when to take them down. You can afford to spend a few months or even years working a problem without worrying about the gym staff stripping it at any random moment….
- “Benchmarking” – Piggy-backing off the last point, home wall users can leave “benchmark” problems or circuits up for many seasons or years, allowing them to gauge their fitness and progress over time. This can be extremely motivating as problems that were initially mega-projects gradually evolve into warmups.
This is not a detailed step-by-step guide to home wall construction, but rather, this post will discuss some top-level design philosophies for home climbing walls. Even if you are a member of a good gym, adding a small, supplemental “woody” can help you get the most out of your training.
The first step in building your home wall is selecting a good space. Generally the taller the wall the better (up to at least 12-feet or so). Most home interiors top out at 8 feet, so a garage, basement, attic, shed, barn or other out-building may be the best option. You want your wall to be protected from the elements, so if you select an exterior building, ensure it is at least somewhat protected from moisture. The ability to control the environmental conditions to some extent is a big plus too. Most walls will be too hot more often than too cold, and it’s usually easier to add heat to a space than it is to remove it, so favor a location that is generally relatively cold (such as a basement or shaded room) as opposed to one that is generally warm (like an upstairs room or building with lots of southern exposure).
Another factor to consider is the wall’s proximity to your living spaces. Some folks are more social and will use the wall more if it’s centrally located. I like to have no distractions and complete control over my man-cave, so my detached barn works well for me. That said, I regularly have to post hole through knee-deep snow to get there in the winter, which can be a deterrent to training. If nature calls mid-session, it can be a major pain to get back to a bathroom. I think the ideal option for me would be a detached building that is adjacent (within 10-feet or so) to my house, so I could be isolated, but with easy access to/from the house.
Once you’ve identified the perfect venue, you’re ready to start designing your wall. Three major factors will drive your design:
- The size and shape of your available space
- Intended uses of the wall
- Long term climbing goals
Space will be a limiting factor for virtually everyone, so it’s important to consider how you plan to use the wall, and prioritize those activities to ensure you create the best terrain for the most important activities. Rock Prodigies might perform any of the following training activities on a home wall:
- Warming Up
- Limit Bouldering
- Linked Bouldering Circuits or Route Intervals
Determining which activities are most deserving of limited real estate is personal, but here are some things to consider.
- Your ability and experience level will likely influence your training priorities (and therefore your terrain priorities). Those relatively new to climbing tend to benefit more from ARCing and other skill-development activities, while advanced climbers will often spend more time on Limit Bouldering, Campusing and PE training.
- Every activity will require some type of warm up, so warmup terrain should be a high priority. Fortunately Warm Up Terrain and ARC Terrain can be very similar.
- ARCing requires the most terrain, so those with limited space will have a hard time building a suitable area for ARC training. However, ARCing can be one of the most difficult things to do in a public gym. If you’ve had trouble ARCing at your gym (due to crowds, unsuitable layout, poor hold selection, infrequent hold spacing, etc), AND ARCing is a priority in your training, consider ARC terrain a high priority. One way to overcome a small space is to build a wall with very high hold density. This allows for long, circuitous routes in a small area while minimizing the need to retrace your steps.
- Hangboarding can be done just about anywhere and does not require high ceilings. If you have the option to set up a hangboard in another space (like a closet or the corner of a rarely used room), then do that, and save your precious home wall space for climbing terrain. If that’s NOT an option, consider building a removable hangboard mount that allows you to remove the board whenever you aren’t in a Strength Phase.
- Limit Bouldering is arguably the best use of a home wall for several reasons. First, it demands the least space, so even those with a small area can usually build something that works for Limit Bouldering. Next, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find goal-route-specific Limit Bouldering terrain in public gyms. I’ve ranted about this on many occasions, but in a nutshell, public gyms are looking more and more like American Ninja Warrior obstacle courses than representations of actual rock. To get the most from Limit Bouldering, it must be done on realistic terrain and holds. The best bet may be to create such terrain yourself. Another advantage of LB terrain is that it is relatively steep, allowing more climbing distance within a given vertical height.
- Campusing is important for advanced climbers, but it is trained relatively infrequently (maybe 4-6 times per season). I love having my own campus board, but if space were limited it would be the first thing to go. Campusing at a public gym is a piece of cake, since no one ever uses the campus board, instead opting for whatever flavor-of-the-month Crossfit exercise is trendy at the time 🙂 That said, your local gym’s board may well be a disaster. If that is the case, consider setting up a removable campus board, or building it in a separate space so you can maximize the climbing terrain on your home wall.
- There’s nothing worse than trying to get through a Linked Bouldering Circuit at a crowded gym, constantly dreading some unsuspecting climber will interfere with your workout. Fortunately, LBCs can be done on the same terrain (sometimes even the same problems) as Limit Bouldering, so if you have LB terrain, you have LBC terrain. Only a very lucky few will have suitable terrain for Route Intervals, so those are best done at a public gym. Usually this is fairly easy to do since you only need to monopolize a single route (as opposed to say, ARCing, where you are constantly traveling against the grain, or LBCs that require the use of 6 or more boulder problems).
In summary, I think the highest priorities are Warmup terrain, which can double as ARC terrain in a pinch, and Limit Bouldering terrain, which can also be used for LBCs. That said, it is possible to warm up on a hangboard. It’s not fun, but plenty of Rock Prodigies do it. It is NOT possible to Limit Boulder on a hangboard, so LB terrain will be the top priority for all but complete beginners (who would benefit more from ARCing). If you have extra space, throw in a Campus Board if power is a priority in your training, or add more ARC terrain if Skill-Development is a higher priority. If you have an embarrassment of riches like me, add both!
Now that you’ve figured out your training priorities, what does that terrain look like for you? Ideally we could have a wide variety of wall angles, but most of us will have to make some tough choices. The final consideration is your goals, relative to your ability. Since this is your terrain, it should be specific to your goals. If you live in Bend, Oregon, climb exclusively at Smith Rock (where routes are rarely steeper than 10 degrees overhanging), and your ultimate, lifetime climbing goal is a redpoint of the dead vertical To Bolt Or Not To Be, it will be easy to determine what your goal terrain looks like.
The rest of us will need to do an informal survey of our favorite climbing areas. Fortunately most of us have a relatively narrow range of angles that we really like. Furthermore, if you live in North America, terrain steeper than 20 degrees overhanging is quite scarce. Look through some photos of your favorite crags or goal routes and estimate the cliff angles to come up with a range of steepnesses that are representative of your performance preferences. Also, you’re not building the wall solely for the ensuring training cycle—it should be something you grow into, so dream big when considering potential goal routes.
Once you have a sample of goal-route angles, add a few degrees of steepness and then use those augmented angles to inform your wall design. The reason for this is that artificial holds, especially footholds, will always be bigger than the outdoor holds they emulate. Furthermore, small holds are hell on your skin, to the point that they can create skin injuries that will limit the duration of your training sessions, and may even impact your outdoor climbing. It’s better to go with slightly larger, more comfy holds, and compensate by kicking the angle back a bit further. Plus you can downsize holds much more easily than you can change the wall angle. Erring on the side of “too steep” will give you the potential to grow into your wall as you improve.
You now have a range of angles to train for. It’s tempting to build a wide assortment of angles with tiny increments between them to perfectly match every goal route on your list. However, the best artificial walls have only a few large planes (or even one) of a consistent angle. For some reason, this just feels better. The Lazy H has a variety of angles, but I spend 95% of my Limit Bouldering on one uniform wall, approximately 12-feet wide by 11-feet high. All the aretes, roofs, dihedrals and other features were fun for the first week or two, but the single consistent plane sees all the action. If you have a lot of space, go with two angles—one optimized for warming up/ARCing at your ability level, and one optimized for Limit Bouldering at your ability level. If you have more than a lot of space, like a huge barn, only then consider including some other angles, but mark my words, much of that extra terrain will be neglected.
One final note: invest in quality hand holds! The smaller your wall, the more essential this is, because each hold on your wall represents an opportunity cost. If your holds suck, the wall won’t be fun to use, and that will certainly impact your training. When I’m having fun in the Lazy H, my sessions are longer, more intense, and more productive. You can read some of my hold recommendations here and here.
Later this month I’ll provide a brief virtual tour of the Lazy H, detailing the dimensions and angles of each wall, what I like about it, and what I would do differently.