How serious are you about rock climbing? There are many different levels of commitment:

  • Doing it just to impress a boyfriend/girlfriend/pet goat
  • A one-day experience to say that you did it
  • A "just a few times a year" experience
  • Exploring new potential weekend hobby because you like nature
  • You plan to climb the Himalayans to search for a Yeti
  • A blossoming full-time career as a rock climber

Figure our your short-term goals before you spend hard-earned money on piles of equipment that will sit unused in a closet next to the kayak paddles and the fencing sheath. You may want to rent equipment for your first time if you're not sure, because you'll need a lot of stuff and prices will quickly accumulate.

Here's the basic equipment you'll need for a climb. As you become more skilled, your collection of equipment will increase. The type and amount needed will vary depending on the difficulty level, but this list is a good place to start:

  • Clothing. Wear clothing, or you might get arrested. But even more importantly, wear comfortable clothing. Many people prefer to climb in shorts and a T-shirt, though some wear tight Lycra pants. Some climb as dressed as RuPaul, but they're usually paid to do it. Find the most comfortable outfit for you. Just make sure that your clothing allows you to spread your legs wide enough so that you can reach different footholds.

  • Harness. The harness provides a comfortable means of attaching yourself to the rope that will prevent you from plummeting. Also, in the event of a fall (which may happen), it will help you to remain in an upright position (read: your trail mix won't fall out of your pocket as you dangle 40 feet above the ground). It'll cost $40 - $45.

  • Rubber-soled climbing shoes. The rubber of these shoes molds to the surface of the rock. In situations where footholds are hard to come by, you may need to "smear" the shoe against the rock to gain a hold. Make sure the shoes fit and are comfortable. You can probably get by without special shoes, but clinging to a rock is hard enough why make things more difficult? Go to a sporting goods store and ask the salesperson to hook you up with shoes made specifically for climbing. They usually cost $100 - $150.

  • Chalk and chalk bag. If just watching a precarious situation on TV is enough to make your palms sweat, then you will undoubtedly need chalk. Hanging from a rock -- and situations with high levels of anxiety -- tend to make palms get a tad damp. The chalk takes care of this potentially slippery situation. A bag (with chalk) will cost you around $10.

  • Helmet. Helmets protect against loose, falling rocks, and they also come in handy if you're the one doing the falling. Because helmets don't fit the popular "tough guy" mountaineer image, many climbers do not wear them. Those people are fools. Decide for yourself, but remember it's difficult to un-dent a skull. And you're too old for peer pressure anyway.

  • Rope. No matter what kind of climbing you do, you will need special rock climbing rope. Here's what to look for: strength, elasticity, flexibility, impact load, thickness, and the number of falls (by you) it can withstand before becoming unusable. Your rope is your best friend on the rock, so don't take any chances. The most common rope is called a "kernmantel," which has tightly woven nylon fibers over a loosely plaited core or a collection of straight fibers. Be sure to consult with a salesperson who has plenty of climbing know-how. Good rope is expensive; at the beginning, you might shell out $150 on rope alone. All the better reason for you to rent at the beginning and make sure you want to keep climbing those rocks.

  • Carabiner. Carabiners are metal links used to hold the rope in place quickly and securely. The standard snapping variety is the lightest, and climbers may carry thirty or more. By the way, it's pronounced "care-a-bean-er," so you sound like you know what you're talking about when you walk into the sporting goods store. And if you want to sound ber-cool, just say "beaner." A carabiner will cost you about $10.

  • Nuts or "pro". All nuts are called "protection," or "pro," because they protect the climber from a possible fall. Nuts are inserted into cracks in the rock in order to help hold the rope in place. Coming in a variety of shapes and sizes, you link them to your rope with a carabiner.

  • Tape slings. These strong strips of nylon can run anywhere from a couple of inches to four feet long, and are useful for wrapping around trees and other objects. Short ones with a carabiner on each end are used to connect nuts to the rope.

  • Descenders and belay plates. The rope is run through these to provide friction while rappelling.

You might not quite exactly understand what all of this equipment does. That's because it's tough to get a clear picture until you're actually in the situation and you see how it works. Nonetheless, you at least have an understanding of the fundamental equipment you'll use and their basic functions. That puts you a step ahead of where you were 5 minutes ago.