Climbers use chalk on their hands to improve their performance. Both indoors and outdoors, the powder is common for bouldering and rope climbing. It comes in a few different types and form factors. In this article I explain how to use chalk most efficitively, and talk about its origin. I also go trough the different types of bags that are commonly used for storing the powder.
Why climbers use it
Chalk is used for keeping your hands dry, which is especially useful when your hands become sweaty when climbing. Chalk, commonly made from magnesium carbonate, increases friction which makes it easier to hold onto rocks and boulder grips. It can keep your hands dry while keeping your finger tops flexible and soft.
History of chalk in climbing
A gymnist called John Gill introduced using magnesium around 1954. He is considered to have introduced modern climbing in America as stated in an issue of the Alpinist magazine.
As a freshman he took gymnastics classes as Georgia Tech. Gill went climbing near his college, and felt that using chalk was a necessity for dynamic moves like lunges and jumping. Initially he bought it from a local pharmacy as it was not used commonly in sports. As he introduced chalk to the rock climbing community, it became more widely available and can now be bought at most climbing stores and online.
A few purists still consider applying the powder to your hands to be cheating, but generally it is accepted and used by most climbers. Even for non-dynamic routes, it is now commonly used in bouldering halls, with rope climbing and rock climbing.
How to use chalk
Chalk is most often stored in a bag, or in a bottle if you’re using liquid chalk (more on that below). Grab some powder out of the bag with both hands, and put both hands together to spread out and cover your palms. Only the parts that will touch the holds have to be covered. Loose particles should be blown off as they will decrease friction. A smooth layer without any excess is preferred.
While climbing longer routes, it may be helpful to add some magnesium during the climb. Some bags can be attached to your body using a small belt so you can bring them up the wall.
Currently there are two main categories of chalk. We have the most commonly form is powder, which comes in bags or balls. Filled with powder, the balls are made of some type of cloth, allowing the powder to be applied to your hands consistently while rubbing against it.
An alternative to the powder is block chalk, a brick that can be broken into pieces. This allows you to decide on the consistency yourself, as you might prefer having some chunks over fine dust.
We have a few types of drying agent that is more eco friendly, and does not leave a white stain on the grips and rocks. This alternative to magnesium is similar to it because it also increases friction and reduces the moist on your hands. Eco friendly chalk does not leave any marks, preventing pollution on the rock walls. The popular bouldering area Fontanbleau for instance really values their nature and strictly states that you should keep the walls clean and leave no traces after you leave.
One of those eco friendly types is liquid chalk. It does not leave residue on the wall and performs similar or even better than regular powder. Many rock climbers prefer the liquid form because of its portability and volume. When you’re planning on climbing longer routes outside, a small bottle is much more convenient than bringing a huge brick of magnesium with you. A small bottle lasts about 100 uses, like this one from FrictionLabs.
Chalk bags for bouldering versus rope climbing
Because boulderers have shorter routes, they can leave the chalk down on the ground, while rope climbers bring it with them up the wall so they can apply some of it troughout the climb.
There are two different sizes of bags available. We have the bigger bags designed for boulderers, that can store a lot of chalk as well as some brushes for cleaning the grips. They often have one or more smaller pouches with velcro or a zipper to keep your stuff from falling out.
The bags come in many shapes, forms types and colors. The brand 8Bplus makes some really funny designed chalk bags.
Rope climbers use smaller bags. They don’t want to bring huge amounts of chalk with them while climbing on the wall. They also generally do not have extra space for other items, such as brushes. A cord is attached to it, so it can be tied around the waist so its easier to carry with you. Especially when you want to bring it with you up on the wall. It’s recommended to keep the bag on the center of your back so you can reach it easily with both hands.
When rope climbers get in a somewhat comfortable spot on the route, they can then take a rest and put their hands in their bag. This is much more convenient than using the liquid chalk. You can just hold onto the wall with one hand, and apply powder to your other hand at the same time.
So there you go! Most chalk performs similarly, but its always good to compare a few and see which one you like best. I hope you’ve found some useful information in this article.
If you’ve never climbed before, be sure to check out my article for first-time climbers going to a bouldering hall!