Knowing just a few basics of route setting principles for climbing will help you to train specific moves, combinations of moves, muscle groups, and specific types of training. Creating problems at the right technical level to meet your own training needs is both physically and mentally demanding, but it will give you a lot of fun and personal satisfaction. Route setting on your own wall offers the unique opportunity to target specific training needs, which will pay off with huge improvements in ability.
Purpose of the Route. The purpose may be for training, such as to improve endurance, or strength or specific muscle groups, balance training, a competition route, or general enjoyment for a large population variety. Decide the purpose at the beginning so you can keep it in mind while laying out and visualizing the route.
Before you Start Route Setting. Lay the climbing holds out on the floor. Make sure you have the right type of bolts for the type of climbing hold. Check the holds for cracks and chips. Look for stress cracks around the bolt hole and on the back where it is smooth. If you find cracks or chips, do not use the hold. A climbing hold can become smooth or slick from oils and grime buildup within the texture. This can easily be remedied by washing the hold. Use a household cleaner and a soft cleaning brush. Do not use a wire brush or steel wool, this could damage the climbing hold's texture. Follow the manufacturer's cleaning instructions. The purpose of cleaning is to remove chalk, shoe rubber and oils out of the texture of the hold. Rinse and dry over night.
General Route Setting. Decide the basic concept and purpose. Is it a strength route? an endurance route? a route? Decide the level of difficulty. Pick out the key holds and lay them out on the floor. Place screws in the bolt holes where you visualize the route will follow. Some route setters use chalk to put a mark on the wall by the bolt hole, others might use colored tape. Foot chips screw in to the panel at any location, so chalk or tape is handy for this purpose. Be creative with variety while at the same time you set sequences that work your training purpose of the route. It's easy to get bogged down working out a specific sequence in this phase but try to avoid that. Just focus on laying out the concept, the general path and feel of the route. Next begin replacing the screws with climbing holds. Initially place the "hand" climbing holds, then come back to the foot chips or foot holds. You will get the opportunity to tweak every hold and foot chip later. At this stage just get the holds on the wall quickly. Climb your route all the way to the top. Does the route meet the overall purpose? Divide the climbing route into sections. You may want to use a ladder to get up to the sections to save energy. Try a sequence, then let the belayer hold you as you make adjustments. Fine tune the positions of the holds, angle, size of the climbing holds. Now, after the route is in place, zero in on sequences and crux moves. Work each section and crux as separate problems while keeping the route as a whole at the same difficulty level.
Qualities of a Good Route
- Safety. Routes should allow the climber to fall safely. At any given point if the climber were to fall, what would happen. Will there be a long pendulum? Will the climber "deck" before the rope comes tight (usually due to an overhang or traverse low on the route).
- Even difficulty. The level of difficulty should be about the same from the start to the finish. Climbers will naturally tire as they climb a long route. Consider this when placing crux near the top. The same sequence of moves that can be done at the start may not be as easy at the end of the climb. It is ok to have a crux but it should be about a half grade more difficult than the overall grade of the climb.
- Creative. Use features. Even on a plywood wall features like the edge or shelf can be used. Crossing any feature at an angel, a short down-climb, a traverse or zigzag pattern can create interest.
- Sequences. Sometimes you want the climber to follow a specific sequence, where using the wrong hand on a hold makes the next move hard or impossible. With that said, don't over analyze a sequence. Everyone is different and climbs differently. Allow your climbers to come up with alternate solutions.
- Variety. This can be achieved by using different hold types, move combinations such as lay back, figure four, route direction, add a short traverse, use separate placement of foot chips. Fun routes are full of variety.
- Artistic flow. The ability to design routes that flow naturally is an art that is developed by trial and time. Pay attention to where your feet would naturally go. If you don't have a hold near that spot, consider placing a small foot chip. Where do your hands want to go naturally after you do a drop knee? - or where do your hands go naturally after you twist and lay back? Put the hold where it should go, where it makes sense. Develop your skill and artistic creativity while avoiding reachy and height dependent moves.
- Partner. It's helpful to work with another route setter to achieve a route with the positive aspects listed above. Two route setters working together complement each other's talents in a way that produces creative ideas and sequences that they would not have come up with if working individually...and it's more fun. Use a spotter on the ground for ideas can also be beneficial. A spotter has an advantage that he/she is far enough away from the wall to see the route as a whole rather than a series of problems.
Qualities of a Bad Route
- Potential for injury. Be careful about how you use one-finger pockets, jumps, dynos, or the height of a bouldering route. Climbing should be fun - and it's not fun when you're out for the whole season because of a needless injury. For example, placing one-finger pockets along a roof, or a downward dyno is not smart route setting… Avoid overstressing a muscle group or tendon with any particular move or sequence. Instead, be creative and clever with your routes.
- Crux difficulty too great. This is a common "bad" feature. The crux should be about a half grade greater than the rest of the climb. It is ok to have more than one crux, but the difficulty of the crux should be near the level of the climb as a whole. Watch people climb your route. If climbers are often falling at the same place this could be an indicator your crux is too difficult for the grade of the route. A crux is not necessary to create a good route.
- Boring. Subjective, but usually a climb is boring because many of the moves are of the same type or too similar. An easy climb can still be fun and interesting. The degree of difficulty does not define a boring climb. Vary the type of moves and vary the relative hand and foot placement.
- Crux at the last move before the finish hold. This is just frustrating to the climber! If you are going to put a crux in your route, put it in the lower two-thirds of the climb.
- Reachy. Novice route setters tend to make climbs more difficult by increasing the reach. There is no need to make a route reachy. Reachy moves are not necessary to create a challenging climbing route. An alternative may be to place two holds at a "reachy" distance, but in between them place small holds - something a smaller climber may be able to effectively use. People come in all shapes and sizes. By contrast, a particular move can favor short people too. By placing foot chips and handholds close together vertically you can favor short climbers. This causes a tall person's weight to hang so far out away from the wall it may be impossible to hang on to small holds, while a short person may be very comfortable.
Additional information on route setting.