Indoor Climbing Walls 101

Indoor rock climbing has undoubtedly increased in popularity over the last few years. And as much as the indoor climbing population has increased, indoor wall space, unfortunately, has not. Thus, do-it-yourself walls may be just the ticket.

Contrary to popular belief, building your own indoor gym can be as easy as one makes it. Simply installing a sheet of plywood with pre-drilled holes mounted with t-nuts at any given angle creates a small bouldering wall just about anywhere. In my opinion, however, it’s much more fun to play around with more intricate designs and ideas, and they won’t necessarily be more difficult to build.

Obviously, with a large build comes a large price tag. So when you are in the research and design phase, try to keep the checkbook in mind. I can say from experience that nothing is more disappointing than getting all of the structures built but not having enough cash for the climbing holds.

First and foremost, safety has to be your number one concern when doing any kind of construction. Power tools are extremely dangerous and must be treated as such. Also, if you plan to change any part of the structure in your home, garage or basement, be sure to refer to the local building codes to see if you need a permit before building. Only qualified builders should alter the structure.

As far as design goes, you can find wonderfully custom ideas online. Some of the best features on my wall came from watching online videos of indoor gyms. You can also find plans online, which might be a great place to start for people with little to no building experience. But, personally, I prefer to make my own walls a bit more custom to match my specific needs. Customized features and geometry are beneficial because they allow you to constantly create new routes, and hence maximize your training.

Once you have created or found a design you like, it's time to think about the construction phase. If you designed your own wall, hopefully you laid out a somewhat accurate scaled version on a piece of graph paper, which will help you determine how much lumber you are going to need. The key to building is getting roughly 10 to 15 percent more material than what is expected. During construction you will always run into glitches, and having extra lumber is key. Plus you can always keep building with the leftovers until you run out of material. Some of my favorite features were made from scraps.

Once you know how much material you’ll need, it's time to head to the lumber store for plywood. You want to purchase 3/4-inch-thick, 4-foot-by-8-foot plywood – not particle board (OSB). This is extremely important. I have had the unfortunate experience of actually ripping particle board (OSB) apart, while hanging 10 feet over a concrete slab. Meanwhile, the builder standing next to me said, “Bummer, dude, I thought OSB worked.” This was not a pleasurable climbing experience.

Now I over-engineer everything from start to finish, and I recommend sticking to the old adage, “When in doubt, build it out.”

When it comes to lumber for framing features, I generally use two-by-four studs, which can be purchased at your local hardware store.

When it comes to buying t-nuts, however, the best deals seem to be online, in bulk. Because I use 70 to 80 t-nuts per sheet of plywood, and some local hardware stores charge 35 cents per t-nut, you can imagine how expensive this can become, especially if you use many sheets of plywood.

Most climbing hold kits come with the bolts and t-nuts included, and all will fit securely into a 9/16” hole (1/16” bigger + 3/8” t-nut = 9/16”).

You should also make sure to get zinc-plated t-nuts, which are rust-free. There is absolutely nothing worse than having bolts get welded because your t-nuts are rusty, which in turn will cause your grips to become permanent features.

When it comes to building the frame, I join the plywood to the two-by-fours with 2” to 2-1/2” screws. I have seen people use nails, which can work, but will make disassembly a major pain if it's ever necessary, plus nails have a much weaker tensile strength.

When joining the lumber together, I have used both 3” screws and 16-penny nails, and have found them both to work adequately. When adhering the framework of your wall to your existing structure, or for major joints on a free-standing wall, I recommend pre-drilling a 3/8” hole and using bolts with washers on both sides. The last thing you want is for a few studs and a sheet of plywood to fall on your precious dome.

When framing in an entire sheet, make sure to run studs every two feet (minimum) and screw every eight inches around the perimeter and in the field (along the studs).

Buying grips can be like reliving Christmas; it’s a ton of fun. Most of the grips on my wall have come from online sources. The Metelious “Mega Pack” was the first set I purchased and can be found at a variety of outdoor sports websites. Craigslist is an excellent choice for those with lots of patience. I have snagged amazing sets for super cheap prices by watching the postings (this works for plywood as well).

For those of us who like instant gratification, Backcountry Essentials and REI are awesome places to check out. Don’t expect huge discounts, but sometimes deals can be found.

Make sure to grab a large variety of holds, and if your wall includes a roof or serious overhang, big grips are a must. You can actually do more harm than good by not having the proper grips associated with the proper angles. Keep your micros on the vertical and your jugs on the roof until you feel super comfortable. And make sure to stock plenty of foot chips, which are relatively inexpensive.

Changing your foothold arrangements can easily add or remove a whole grade of difficulty with the problem. I always experiment, and I find half the fun is trying new ideas and problems. Eventually you’ll gain a serious knack for knowing what works and what doesn’t.

Maintaining a healthy training regimen is key to enjoying maximized benefits from indoor training. So start slow and resist the temptation to “go nuts.” Work into a solid schedule (very hard with new walls, I know). Make sure to stretch after your session. I find that doing a few easy warm-up problems and then stretching is a very efficient way to begin.

Always adhere to the indoor mantra: “Don’t climb sore!” If you blow a tendon, your upcoming season could easily find itself in the trash can, and no one wants that.

Last but not least, enjoy your wall and have fun. After all, that’s why we climb in the first place. If the moves aren’t right, you can always change them. Aggravation will always be part of the sport, but why go through all of this to not have a good time?