How to Start a Climbing Gym

Last Updated on

Quick Reference

There’s something captivating about the challenge of rock climbing – it’s a combination of thrilling adrenaline, the endless creativity and precise thinking that the sport demands, and the thrill of pushing your body to its limits. But heading out to climb a mountain isn’t always feasible, and that’s where indoor rock climbing has become popular. Climbing gyms give athletes the chance to rock climb in a more convenient, supervised setting. If you have a passion for climbing, starting a climbing gym can allow you to share that passion with others while helping them train and learn to become better, stronger climbers. 

Business Overview

Unlike most gyms, which offer a wide variety of exercise equipment, climbing gyms take a much more specific approach. Catering to rock climbers, these facilities use rock walls and climbing equipment to deliver athletes a full-body workout. Some of these gyms may focus entirely on rock walls, offering a variety of walls suitable for climbers of different experience levels. Other gyms take a more comprehensive approach, offering not only rock walls but also exercise equipment that helps climbers to develop their strength and refine their skills. 

Climbing gyms are often more expensive than traditional gyms, but they’re also popular and deliver some benefits that justify their higher prices. These gyms offer valuable supervised instruction and training in a controlled environment, which is essential to helping climbers safely develop their skills. Climbing is also an excellent cross-training activity for athletes, so while athletes may not head to the climbing gym daily as a part of their core exercise routine, they may seek this type of gym out regularly for cross-training. 

Related: How to Start a Gym

Industry summary

According to IBIS World, the climbing gym industry experienced significant growth from 2014 through 2019. During that time, the industry grew by 5.6%, with gyms bringing in $660.2 million in revenue in 2019. As of 2019, 548 climbing gyms were in business, employing 9,865 staff. 

The industry’s growth is due to an increased interest in climbing both as a primary activity and as a cross-training opportunity. That interest has been paired with an increase in per capita disposable income that allows athletes to be able to afford gym memberships. IBIS World predicts that an increased interest in climbing will continue to drive industry growth through 2023. 

Industry trends

Many trends shape the climbing gym industry. According to the Climbing Business Journal, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were expected to drive interest in climbing, potentially resulting in more gyms opening and an increase in revenue. While the Olympics won’t occur during the 2020 summer as planned, it’s possible that the rescheduled Olympic Games will still drive an increased awareness of and interest in climbing. 

It’s also possible that a recession may negatively impact the industry. Some economists have predicted a 2020 recession, and the climbing industry is easily affected by drops in per capita disposable income. 

ISPO notes that indoor climbing setups are increasingly departing from the style of natural climbing opportunities. When indoor climbing began, designers tried to replicate the look and feel of outdoor climbing settings. Today, gyms are creating unique, distinctive climbing opportunities. Artificial climbing walls are installed in malls, shopping centers, and even old factories. These setups may resemble parcours experiences or Ninja Warrior setups. 

The indoor climbing industry is increasingly catering to new climbers and families with children, but this requires a shift in marketing and business structure. With most new climbers being friends, family, or partners of current climbers, gyms need to find ways to make these climbers feel welcome and to also offer easy admittance, like guest passes or day passes. 

Target Market

Most climbing gyms will primarily market to climbers, but general athletes looking for fun cross-training opportunities are a valuable secondary target market. In addition to marketing to experienced climbers, gyms must also market to new climbers looking to try the sport. Most gyms’ target market consists of athletic adults, though some gyms also have setups specifically for kids, too. 

Skills, experience, and education useful in running a climbing gym

Starting a climbing gym doesn’t require a business degree, but certain skills and experiences are valuable in both starting and running this type of business.

Climbing experience and knowledge. Experience as a climber and knowledge of the industry are some of the most important and beneficial skills for a climbing gym owner to have. A gym owner who has not only climbed, but who also loves the sport, brings insight and enthusiasm to the business that you just can’t replace.

Previous experience working in a gym. Experience working in a gym and the knowledge of operations and challenges that comes with it can help a gym owner to be better prepared when starting this type of business. 

Interpersonal skills. A climbing gym owner needs strong interpersonal skills, which can help to make connections with and build relationships with new clients and current gym members. 

Attention to detail. Attention to detail is incredibly important in this business, especially when it comes to monitoring safety. 

Creativity. Climbing gyms can face plenty of competition, but a creative gym owner who can come up with unique programs, classes, and opportunities can help to develop a unique business model and make that gym stand out from others. 

Management experience. Experience in hiring, training, and managing employees is important for gym owners, since employee management will be a standard aspect of daily gym operations.  


Costs to Start a Climbing Gym

Starting a climbing gym does carry significant initial costs, so gym owners may seek out investors or take out business loans to make these upfront payments. Plan to spend anywhere from $200,000 to $300,000 to start a smaller gym. Most of those costs center around the expense of remodeling and constructing the gym’s interior structures. Larger gyms can cost $500,000 and more to start.

Common startup costs for a climbing gym include:

  • Building renovation costs
  • Climbing equipment and gym equipment
  • Supplies like harnesses and cleaning supplies
  • Furniture
  • Signage

Steps to Starting a Climbing Gym

Step 1. Write your Business plan

After coming up with the idea, the next step in starting your business should be to write a clothing line business plan.  Not only will a bank require you to have a business plan, but multiple studies have shown that a business plan helps increase the odds of starting a successful business.

How to write a business plan
Free sample business plans

Step 2. Form a Business Entity

A business entity refers to how a business is legally organized to operate. There are four primary business entities to choose from which include the sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation and LLC.  Each type of entity has its own pros and cons such as liability exposure, costs and administrative requirements. 

Related: Comparison of Business Entities

Step 3. Select your Location

Some gyms operate out of rented properties, while other gyms run out of properties that are purchased. Each option has its advantages. Buying or building an entire facility allows for more customization, though it’s possible to renovate existing rental properties with some patience, too. Rent or mortgage costs will vary depending on the property’s size and value and location. Properties in high-traffic retail areas will have higher costs, but they can also bring increased awareness of the gym and their convenience may help to drive memberships. 

Related: Choosing a business location

Step 4. Apply for Business Licenses and Permits

The types of business licenses, permits and registrations that will be required to start a business vary on the activities of the business in addition to where it is located. Some of the common local, state and federal registrations most businesses need include a sales tax permit, Employer Identification Number, Occupancy Permit among others. 

Indoor climbing wall operators will need to be aware of OSHA Compliance for Indoor Climbing Gyms (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). In addition, the Climbing Wall Association (CWA) has guidelines and best practices for the building the operation of indoor climbing gyms.

Related: Common business licenses, permits and registrations by state

Step 5. Find Financing

Coming up with a good business idea and having the skills to run it are one thing, but getting the funding to start a climbing gym is another.  Funding to start a climbing gym business can be difficult due to the costs involved.  In order to get a loan, the borrower(s) will need to have good credit and be able invest 15-25% of their money towards the total start-up costs. 

Related: Finding the money to start a business  

Step 6. Get your Marketing Plan in Place

Most climbing gyms rely on ongoing marketing to continuously bring in new climbers. Common marketing activities include hosting special events, social media outreach, online advertising, print advertising, radio advertising, and even direct mail offers. Marketing costs will vary depending on the type of activity performed. Gym owners who can do some of their own marketing can save money over the costs of outsourcing their marketing to a professional. 

Related: Low-cost ideas to market a new business

 Step 7. Get Insurance

A climbing gym will need several types of insurance for full coverage: 

  • General liability insurance protects the gym if a climber is ever injured while on the business’ property. This type of insurance can help to cover resulting expenses like medical bills and legal fees. 
  • Commercial property insurance protects the gym if its equipment or building are ever damaged or destroyed in an event like a fire.
  • Worker’s comp insurance helps to protect the business if an employee is ever injured while on the job. This type of policy can cover expenses like lost wages and medical bills. 

Insurance policy cost depends on many factors, like the gym’s location, the value of its equipment and building, and the number of employees that are on staff. To get an accurate idea of insurance costs, request quotes from multiple companies. When comparing the quotes, look beyond how the premiums compare and consider other factors like coverage limits, exclusions, and deductibles. 

Step 8. Hiring Employees

Even a small climbing gym will need multiple employees. According to Zip Recruiter, gym staff earn an average salary of $32,657 per year. Salaries can range from as little as $16,500 all the way up to $66,000 per year. 

In addition to covering employee salary costs, a gym also needs to budget for other expenses like paid time off, health insurance contributions, and worker’s comp insurance. 

Related: Hiring your first employee

How much can you potentially make owning a climbing gym?

Climbing gym profits are affected by many factors, including the gym’s size, profit margins, target market, number of memberships, and more. Current data about the profitability of climbing gyms isn’t available, but gym owners can increase their chances of high profits by identifying unmet needs in the market and by delivering unique experiences that climbers can’t find elsewhere.

Things to consider before starting a climbing gym

Because climbing is a high-risk activity, be sure to enlist the help of a lawyer when developing your gym. Your lawyer can advise you about how to choose appropriate insurance coverage, and can help you to create a liability waiver that all climbers must sign before using the gym. Your lawyer will also be a valuable resource when ensuring that the gym holds appropriate business permits, and may advise you about what legal signage you need to install in the facility. 

While gyms dedicated entirely to climbing are successful, you might also consider branching out by offering a variety of facilities. In addition to climbing opportunities, consider adding weight training or yoga to appeal to more potential members and to give gym members a broader range of options. Keep in mind that while you can add additional exercise facilities, traditional gyms can add climbing walls which adds to the competition.. 

Association of Fitness Studios
International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation
International Federation of Sport Climbing
International Rock Climbing Research Association
National Association for Health and Fitness
National Gym Association
USA Climbing