If you’ve been climbing for any length of time, then you will most likely know how it feels to experience pain with your hands. We have looked at the best ways to prepare your hands for a session of climbing, the best products to use and how to treat injuries should be unfortunate enough to get one!
Picture this, you are on your first few routes of a climbing trip that you’ve had planned for ages. You are feeling nicely stretched and warmed up and you go for that challenging route you’ve been planning on sending since last year. You make your move onto a challenging hold. You don’t make the move and your hand rips off the hold. You instantly feel pain and look down at your hands to see a nicely sheared flap of skin hanging from your finger. Ouch!
Chances are that will ruin your day and may even end your climbing session depending on how bad the injury is. Unfortunately, there isn’t a great deal you can do to avoid the abrasive surface of rock or even the artificial holds in your local gym.
However, as with most areas in rock climbing there are certain precautions you can take to avoid injury to the hands we have listed some of the common injuries below along with treatment and prevention methods:
Flappers are probably the most common injury and are almost a rite of passage for newbie climbers. They occur most often during high intensity, dynamic moves where the climber hasn’t quite hit the hold right. As the name suggests a flapper is a flap of hard skin that has been ripped of by the surface of the rock to reveal the ultra sensitive pink skin below. The main cause is due to the hard callouses that develop on a climbers hands that protrude from the surface of the hand and are prone to catching on sharp or abrasive rock and ripping off in one chunk.
If you are unlucky enough to catch a flapper then the first thing you need to is to tape it up and get it cleaned out as soon as you get in. These injuries can take up to a week to clear up so prevention is definitely important if you keep a strict climbing regime.
As far as prevention goes, you should keep an eye on the skin on your hands and fingers and if you notice any callouses protruding noticeably then you should sand or file them down with some fine sandpaper or a nail file until they are flush with the rest of the hand. This reduces the risk of the skin catching on the rock and ripping off. Don’t overdo it though, just smoothen everything out.
Split finger tips
Plenty of climbing outdoors can take its toll on your fingers in other ways too. Split finger tips are a more gradual injury and are generally caused over longer periods of time. This is more of a ‘wear & tear’ injury but can be excruciatingly painful if you are trying to climb on them.
This injury is generally caused by long extended periods of climbing over a few days or an intensive day session. You will find that the coarse surface of most rock will start to wear down the skin on your fingers, much like the rubber on a car tire. This can eventually result in the skin wearing down to the point of splitting open and drawing blood.
Treatment for these types of injuries are different depending on the extent of the injury. Less severe injuries will require a little rest and healing time. Anything with a wound will require cleaning as soon as possible and will require much more healing time. You may find that taping up is a good preventative method to prevent lesser injuries becoming worse.
The key to prevention of split tips is to know your limits when climbing. Know when the skin on your fingers is reaching the critical point before splitting. You should hold off from climbing all together at this point or securely tape your finger. You shouldn’t resume climbing until a wound is completely healed as you risk the wound reopening. Again, tape can prevent this in some cases.
Preventative methods and general hand care
Preventative methods for hand injuries mostly involve planning your time and knowing if you are going to be pushing your hands by doing a lot of climbing. Obviously for longer trips you don’t want to push yourself too hard and ruin the rest of your trip with an injury.
Another detail to think about before heading out on a big session is the type of the rock that you will be climbing on. For instance if you are a gym climber you should try and condition your fingers to some level of outdoor climbing before heading out. This can sometimes make all the difference. Allow this to affect your climbing too. Don’t push it if you aren’t used to the rock type. Obviously, in some instances the pain is worth it, especially for shorter, intense trips but generally a more sustainable approach will help you to climb longer.
“The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.” – Confucius
It's probably no surprise that a lot of climbers tend to shy away from the more effeminate side of hand care. However, having hands like a beaver’s face isn’t particularly practical for climbing or for day to day life and there are a wide range of products that can help you care for your most important climbing tools.
Climber’s balms are basically moisturizers that pack an extra punch. They work to help the skin on the tips of the fingers regenerate and heal quicker than normal.
Here are a few of the most popular products available:
“You’ll scream if you run out of creme!”
Super concentrated formula for heavy duty healing and protection for sunburn, windburn, chronic dry skin and even for eczema and psoriasis. No synthetic chemicals or fillers. Used by National Geographic explorers and professional rock climbers.
This product seems to be one of the most popular creams or balms that you’ll see with climbers.
“Climb On’s hand cream is a must have for climbers of any level. My skin shreds apart whenever I climb and it peels horribly whenever I swim, but Climb On’s creme works wonders to repair either type of skin damage. Using this product after climbing or swimming, and again before I sleep that night has my skin back to normal by the following day. A truly 5 star product.” – Read Reviews
Bag Balm® works to soften tough cracked skin while protecting it from further damage. Simply massage into the skin allowing ointment to remain on the surface for full softening effect. The petrolatum lanolin base is similar in texture to petroleum jelly and contains 8-hydroxyquinoline – a natural antiseptic and disinfectant. Easy to apply, Bag Balm® stays put to provide relief and a temporary waterproof barrier. For treating dry skin and minor abrasions, there is nothing like the original Bag Balm®. Available in 1 ounce and 10 ounce sizes in the familiar green can. Made in the USA.
Bag balm is a heavy duty balm that is used by a lot of climbers who climb on very rough rock very often and need to protect the skin on their finger tips. This will help you to heal your fingers and will prevent the skin from cracking and peeling.
“It is my personal impression that fingertip cracks and other maladies resulting from dry or chapped fingers and hands actually heal faster when Bag Balm is used on them.” – Read Reviews
Climbing tape is essential for climbers and has a huge range of uses. From taping up cuts and wounds to protecting the wrists.
There are a few different varieties, but they all basically do the same thing, so just shop around and find the best for you.
Some other useful things I think all climbers should have are:
Don’t be scared to take a little extra care to protect the skin on your hands. The better condition and healthier the skin on your hands the longer you will be able to climb on them and the less susceptible you will be to injuries that could shorten a trip or cause annoyance & discomfort.