Have you ever wondered what climbing chalk is for? You may have watched Climbing in the Olympics or caught an International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) event on TV. Or perhaps you just started rock climbing and are confused about why everybody was dipping their hands in bags of white powder.

Below is your guide to understanding climbing chalk and how to use it

man climbing in an indoor climbing gym

What is Climbing Chalk and Why Should You Use It?

Climbing chalk, made from magnesium carbonate (MgCO3), is used to dry out your hands when climbing. Climbing requires friction between your skin and the holds, so drying them out helps increase this friction.

While some climbing chalk is pure magnesium carbonate, other kinds have drying agents added to it. Some of these drying agents cause excessive drying of the hands, so choosing what to use is based on personal preference. If you have incredibly sweaty hands, you likely want some chalk with a drying agent added.

What Does Climbing Chalk Do?

Climbing chalk’s primary purpose is to dry your skin, which creates friction between your skin and the climbing holds. Whether you use it is entirely up to you. If your hands aren’t prone to sweating, chalk is unnecessary! But if you tend to get sweaty hands when climbing, chalk will help dry your skin and improve friction.

How to Choose Chalk and a Chalk Bag

Many aspects of climbing, like harnesses, shoes, ropes, belay devices, etc., can be universally measured. However, climbing chalk is different. Personal preference is the name of the game when it comes to using chalk or buying a chalk bag/bucket.

(There is no “bouldering chalk” or “rope-climbing chalk.” It’s all just “climbing chalk!”)

Sure, some chalk scientifically dries your skin out more than others. Still, your choice of chalk is entirely a personal preference. Using chalk that doesn’t excessively dry out your hands is a good option for those who may sweat just a little, and using chalk designed to dry your skin excessively is a good option for people with overly sweaty hands.

Like chalk, choosing a chalk bag or bucket is purely a personal preference. Organic Climbing sells multi-colored bags, 8BPlus sells little monster friends, and many companies like prAna sell super lightweight bags. There are even chalk bags made for children and their tiny hands!

When deciding on a chalk bag, consider how many features you want. Do you want it to have a small zipper pocket for nail clippers or tape? A small loop for a brush? You can also have a bag just to hold chalk!

How to Use Climbing Chalk

Using climbing chalk is simple: dip your hands in! The amount of chalk you need depends on how sweaty your hands get, but you should have enough to cover your fingers and palms.

Apply Chalk: Put your hands in your chalk bag or bucket and squeeze until your palms and fingers are covered. (If you’re on a crimpy route, you may only need to dip your fingers in.)

Distribute Evenly: Spread the chalk on your fingers and palms, then slap/blow off the excess. Too much chalk can act counterintuitively, creating a slippery barrier between your skin and the holds.

Reapply as Needed: Depending on the intensity of your climb, reapply chalk when you feel like you’re slipping due to lack of friction.

How NOT to Use Chalk

Now that you’re deciding on which type of chalk and chalk bag you want, there are a few things to know about properly using chalk. Misusing chalk doesn’t mean injury or death like the misuse of a belay device or harness could, so don’t worry there!

When applying, try not to create large chalk clouds. Imagine being in a gym where everybody is tossing chalk in the air; the place would become nearly inhabitable. Also, try to minimize the chalk flying out of your bag.

Do not dump your chalk out of the bag onto your hands. Reach in your hands one at a time (unless you’re using a chalk bucket that can fit both) and move your hand around to coat it with chalk.

Brush your tick marks! A tick mark is a line of chalk indicating where the next hand or foothold is. Climbers use them when a hold is slightly out of view, guiding them where to go. Whether you’re a user of tick marks or not, you should brush them off after climbing. They are unsightly and give away the beta that the next climber must figure out. Climbing is about problem-solving, and tick marks reduce the need to solve a problem!