I have been climbing for 5 years, pretty consistently too, and I have never gone without chalk. its simply essential to climbing in most people circumstances.
Does climbing chalk really help? Yes, the chalk is essential to climbers to keep there hands dry while there climbing. This is important because dry hands is essential for optimum friction between your hands and the rock. Going without it likely results in slips and since it all feels insecure, everything feels generally harder.
But there are exceptions to this! Firstly if its really cold you simply might not need chalk. your hands are far from sweating so its alright! Another example; on Czech Sandstone, chalk is forbidden, and I personally know peole who just dont need it. so the answer is more complicated simply than yes, and were going to dive into those outlier examples now.
Calcium Carbonate or just chalk is a inorganic compound, its extremely good at absorbing moisture and reseting your hands to a bone dry state perfect for climbing performance. its the exact same stuff as used in gyms and gymnastics where there using there grip. You can find it in many different forms; Blocks, powders and even liquid chalk!
So how does it help?
when climbing there is a lot of reliance of friction between your fingers and the wall, when they get sweaty your friction decreases just as a road would when it rains. Having sweaty Fingers and trying to climb generally results in an insecure feeling as the connection between your hands and the rock decreases until you slip off, quite commonly.
The Calcium Carbonate and often other drying agents absorbs the moisture from your hands and leaves you with the optimum friction levels on your fingers. It doesnt magically add friction to your hands so much as it maximises it by reducing the sweat between you and the rock.
Also in the less Common Climbing discipline of Deep Water Solo, an ingeneous liquid version of chalk can be applied to damp hands after a swim, and return the hands to a bone dry state. This is very convinient for DWS as you can just carry a bottle of liquid chalk through the water!
Who doesnt need chalk?
Some peoples hands simply dont sweat, they can be doing any amount of intense excersise like climbing and there hands will remain bone dry. I know a guy like this and it honestly bewilders me how he can go a whole sweating climbing day and not need chalk, but there you go. If your one of these people, you probably wont need chalk, and dont feel obliged to use it if this is the case!
However there is plenty of examples where people are using chalk is for phychological benefit, for example, I use chalk a little too much when im resting because I feel like if I keep chalking the holds will magically get bigger, however once your hands are dried there is no point to keep chalking, this is even a detrimental effect to climbing performance as your wasting time chalking on bad holds.
Another example is climbers on chezch sandstone have had to go without up until recently as the longstanding ethic was to not use Chalk for respect of the rock. these people certainly managed and while some say chalk is less necessary on sandstone due to the porous texture but my experience with sandstone left me desiring chalk frequently.
Do I need Climbing Chalk to Climb?
You dont need climbing chalk at all. dont feel obligedto use itif you dont want to for whatever reason! If you want to go climbing but you dont have any chalk, dont worry, you can still go climbing! no one is going to tell you off for not using it, just bear in mind if you do get sweaty hands you might wish you had some!
Liquid chalk sounds mad, how can this excellent Extra dry compound be a liquid. Its soluted in alcohol, making it a liquid form with added benefits and negatives.
Firstly liquid chalk has seen a great peak of interest in the Corona virus pandemic, because its been proven to kill it!
Climbing gyms have largely promoted liquid chalk use in there centres because it will be like the climbers hand sanatising before almost every climb!
The Dryness provided by the liquid chalk is pretty extreme because in its liquid state the chalk can get into every inch of your skin.
This comes with its Disadvantages too, as lots of people with dry hands face increased irritation from the alcohol, and there hands being extremely dry.
Deep water solo
Liquid chalk i think was MADE for deep water soloing.
chalk bags are obviously no good in the sea, they take ages to dry out
and your sacrificing a lot of chalk each attempt you fall in.
Out in mallorca on a DWS trip, we often found a bottle of liquid chalk left just before the climbs start.
You can use a little liquid chalk and stay dry for the whole climb.
and its easilly transported, you can swim over with it in your pocket,
and wont have to worry about the chalk drying out the sea.
Negatives of chalk use
Chalk use doesnt come with its cons, and one all climbers have probably wondered;
Is Climbing Chalk bad for your lungs? Yes, climbing chalk had a negative effect on your health. Several studies have shown a range of ways in which dusty climbing centres are bad for our health. Firstly fhe chalk carries Salmonella and E-Coli. Prolonged exposure to chalk carries the risk for other particulates getting carried into your lungs by the chalk.
Climbing chalk is a particulate that makes our indoor climbing centres thick and sometimes even hard to breathe in. On a busy night at the climbing centre you can see the enture centre shrowded with a layer of the stuff, as if there is a smoke machine in the corner or the room.
There have been studies deeming the concentration of dust in the air as ‘hazardous’ to health. However the ‘scientific opinion’ Study on calcium carbonate is that its unlikey to be carcigenic as both calcuim and carbonate are ‘natural constituents of the body’
Climbing is unfortunately too new of a sport to have any solid longety studies on wether Climbing chalk really is bad for you. We can use gymnastic studies but there is a much lower concentration of climbing chalk use in gymnastics.
people with Eczema or especially dry hands can suffer from the chalks Excellent drying properties when there hands blister of become extremely dry after using chalk for prolonged periods. If your one of these people you may suffer from something similar However everyone is unique.
Most liquid chalks are including some Aloe vera or moisturiser in there Chalk to try and combat this however you may or may not still get irritation from chalk if you are genetically inclined.
Climbing Chalk Buying Guide
Every climbing brand has a chalk and there are many brands all claiming the benefits of there own special product. in my opinion chalks benefits are pretty limeted past drying out your hands. There is chalk being sold for £20 for 10oz. I think this is crazy!
perhaps some secret formulas do have benefits over other chalks but i havent seen any performance increase wether i use the old chalk from the bottom of my chalk bag or if I steal some Friction Labs out a boulder bros chalk bucket.
What im trying to say is choose chalk on your preference, chalk ball, loose or a block but dont feel like you need to could spend serious money on chalk and finally send your project! My favourite is the Mettolius Super chalk because it is cheap and does a perfect job of drying my hands while climbing. I dont have an affiliate program its just my honest recommendation.
There are Chalks that are scented with Bergamont, Geranium and Lemongrass if you like, but this is completely up to you. (if you want a Product review of this chalk let me know!)
Why isnt Climbing chalk allowed on some rock?
Some outdoor climbing venues like the sandstone ones, and the ‘Garden of the Gods’ crag in Colarado dont allow chalk altogether because it stains the rock and it an eye sore to the rest of the public we share our venues with.
I cant find any handy resourses on how you can find out if Climbing chalks allowed, iI suggest just googling it before you visit a new area.
Your guide book for that are will probably let you know if your not allowed to use chalk,
However some crags like sandstone is a bit of a grey area where its not explicitly banned, your just supposed to use it sparingly…
For my full post on Sandstone and more chalk explenation, check out this post on it.
Chalk for most people is a definite help, it keeps your hands dry and ensures you always have maximum friction between you and your holds.
But for those with dry hands, climbing chalk can further aggrevate them, and you might not even need it.
Dont feel like you have to use chalk, its just really helpful if you want it.
As allways do some research before visiting a new climbing crag, or double check with a local if chalk is allowed.
Thank you for reading this, i hope it helped!