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How to Choose and Use Chalk and Chalk Bags

by Joe Kinder, professional climber, proud New Englander, and Eastern Mountain Sports sponsored athlete

Many new or beginner climbers may find themselves perplexed by the colorful bags strapped to the waists of seasoned climbers as they glide across holds at the gym or up cliffs outside. Climbers use chalk on their hands as a drying agent in order to create a better grip on the rock. The same reason gymnasts, weight lifters, and even pool players use chalk applies to a climber’s need for the white stuff on the rock. The sweat on your hands creates a bond for the climbing chalk, and this in turn provides a better grip between your skin and a handhold. Many times, chalking up before a move can mean the difference between success and failure.

What’s Climbing Chalk Made Of?

The chemical makeup of chalk is calcium carbonate or magnesium carbonate, which comes from rocks and is ground up into a fine powder. There are nearly 15 brands of chalk for climbing use, and they come in several forms: fine grain, granular, or even blocks.

What Type of Climbing Chalk Do I Need?

Telling you what kind of chalk to buy is like telling you what kind of coffee you should drink. Personal preference is a huge factor. Like coffee, you have a choice between “fresh ground” chalk, loosely packed and ready to be poured into a bag, and “whole bean” chalk, in the form of a block that you break apart to the texture you like.

Some chalks have a chemical drying agent for extra sweat absorption. Some climbers love the drying agent; other climbers find it dries out their skin too much. How much chalk and what style of chalk you need depends on what type of climbing you’re doing and how much you sweat. The more you sweat, the more often you’ll need to chalk up. This is why climbers keep their chalk bags on their waists for easy access. That said, when you’re climbing in a gym, consider going with a chalk sock to keep the dust down while keeping your hands dry. With a chalk sock, the chalk is wrapped in fabric so that the chalk moves through in a more controlled fashion with no big spills or dust clouds.

What Kind of Chalk Bag Do I Need?

Chalk bags come in different shapes, sizes, colors, and styles. They represent one way a climber can express their personality and style through their climbing gear. But style shouldn’t be the only factor. If you sweat a lot and need to chalk up often, you may prefer a bag with a wider opening that will make it quicker and easier for you to access.

Likewise, if you don’t sweat a lot, you can go with a smaller chalk bag altogether to cut down on bulk. Some sizes and shapes of chalk bags are intended to suit the needs of a specific style of climbing. For example, larger chalk bags are best for bouldering.

What Else Is Chalk Good For?

Chalk can also be used to mark where a hold is located. In climbing, this is referred to as a “tick mark.” Tick marks are very helpful for a climber trying to remember a certain sequence of moves or beta. Just remember to practice good climbing etiquette and brush away your tick marks when you’re done. That’s what the small loop near the bag’s opening is for: holding a toothbrush or specific climbing brush to brush chalk off holds, erase tick marks, and remove dirt from holds for a better grip.

The simple ritual of prepping up before sections on a route has psychological benefits as well as physical. Dipping into a chalk bag has a way of focusing your energy in a meaningful way. When my fingers are freshly chalked, it’s like a green light when I’m driving—it’s go-time, son!

Chalk Bag

Don’t Be a Chalk Head!

Chalk is part of rock climbing and is utterly essential for free-climbing. But again, climbing etiquette dictates that chalk MUST be used with care. Too many tick marks and chalk debris at the boulders or cliff create an eyesore, and holds caked with chalk are disrespectful to the next climber. Always take care with your chalk use, and clean up after yourself. Brush off all tick marks, and clean all holds for the next climber. In the climbing community, this is ethical, polite, and just plain the right thing to do.

Have fun out there, and keep your hands dry so you can send that boulder or route.


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