It’s basically a bag or sack that holds climbing chalk, which you dip your hands and fingers into while rock climbing. Chalk bags, for a lot of climbers, are a way to personalize their climbing gear by picking a bag with a colorful pattern and a unique fabric.
Cylindrical bags are popular because they hold lots of climbing chalk, are easy to slip a hand inside and are best for long routes. Tapered chalk bags, usually ergonomically designed to allow a quick finger dip, are smaller than cylindrical ones, hold only a small amount of chalk, and are usually used on hard sports routes when the climber wants to cut excess weight and bulk.
Chalk bags also come in a variety of sizes and colors. Most bags have a stiff rim, which allows the bag to stay open, making it easy to dip your hand into; a fleece lining which holds chalk powder and allows more even distribution of chalk on your hands; and a small loop for a toothbrush, which is used to clean chalk off holds when you’re bouldering. Chalk bags have a drawstring around the rim and a toggle closure so that you can easily close the bag tight and not spill chalk in your pack or if you’re resting before your next route.
Most climbers attach their chalk bag to a nylon belt so they can wear the bag around their waist, although some climbers like to clip the chalk bag onto their harness with a small carabiner. Chalk bags have a couple of small loops that the belt slides through or that a carabiner can be clipped onto. The advantage of having the chalk bag on a belt is that the bag can slide from one side of your waist to the other, depending on which hand you want to dip into the chalk.
Before buying a chalk bag, decide which size you need. Most climbers use the basic medium-sized cylindrical chalk bag since it holds plenty of chalk, although climbers with big hands need a big chalk bag.
The smallest chalk bags are almost too small to be of much use on most climbing routes, but instead are ideal for competition and extreme routes. Climbers can only fit three or four fingers in these small bags. Before buying a chalk bag, slide your hand in and out of the bag a few times in the store. Make sure that the drawstring opens completely and that your hand easily comes out of the bag. You don’t want your hand getting stuck in your chalk bag on the crux move of a climb!
It is best to wear a chalk bag on a nylon belt, a half-inch wide belt with a buckle for fastening is best. The belt should hang loosely on your waist above your harness so that the bag can slide easily from side to side as needed. The chalk bag should hang in the middle of your back just above the end of your tailbone. If the bag hangs too low it can be difficult for your hand to find it. If the bag is too high, you will have problems bending your wrist to get your hand in it. Experiment while climbing to find the best place and height for your chalk bag to hang.
Boulders often use a large community-sized chalk bag, called a chalk pot, which sits on the ground during bouldering sessions. Since most boulder problems are short and often very difficult, climbers don’t need to stop and chalk up during an ascent. Instead, they can dip their hands in the chalk pot before attempting the problem. Chalk pots hold lots of chalk and have a drawstring on top so that they can be tightly closed for transport.
Climbers use chalk or magnesium carbonate (MgCO3) as a drying agent, like gymnasts and weightlifters, to keep their hands dry and secure on small handholds. Chalk often improves your grip on rock surfaces, especially when air temperatures are hot and your hands are sweating.
Blocks of Chalk
If you took gymnastics or weightlifting in high school gym class then you probably remember using blocks of chalk or magnesium carbonate to keep your hands dry. Since John Gill, a former gymnast and the father of modern bouldering first introduced gymnastic chalk to climbing back in the 1950s, climbers have used rectangular blocks of chalk to keep their hands dry.
The blocks, composed simply of pure magnesium carbonate without additives. Buy a block of chalk, crumble and crush it in your chalk bag. Instead of putting the whole block in your bag, put half in the chalk bag and the other uncrushed half in a plastic baggie, which you can keep in your pack to replenish the bag as you use the chalk up.
Climbers can buy powdered chalk that is already crushed into fine dust, which is then easily poured into chalk bags.
Powdered chalk is often specifically formulated for rock climbing by manufacturers with drying agents to increase hand dryness and perhaps create a better grip on holds.
Powdered chalk, however, is more expensive than blocks of chalk. It can be messy and easily spills out of your chalk bag, so don’t overfill it. Many indoor climbing gyms do not allow climbers to use powdered chalk since fine chalk dust lingers in the air, clogging both climbers’ lungs as well as the gym’s ventilation system.
Chalk balls are small sacks made of a porous mesh material that is filled with powdered chalk and then sewn shut.
Chalk balls are definitely the best type of chalk to use for indoor training at climbing gyms.
Many indoor climbing gyms require chalk balls rather than loose chalk since the chalk is easily applied to a climber’s hands, chalk dust is minimized in the air, and chalk is less easily spilled on the floor.
It is sometimes difficult to completely coat your hands with chalk from a ball but it’s usually not a problem in gyms since most routes are short. Some climbers use a chalk ball when climbing outside but also add loose chalk to their bag so that they can dip their hands and get a complete chalk coating. Chalk balls also last longer than loose chalk since the chalk is contained and you tend to use less.
Liquid chalk is a chalk product specially designed for climbers in gyms or indoor facilities.
Liquid chalk is simply squirted onto your palms, spread all over your hands and fingers, and then allowed to dry.
After the alcohol in the chalk dries, a dry white base layer of chalk covers your hands.
Liquid chalk is best applied before a climbing or bouldering session. Most climbers also use a minimal amount of regular gymnastic chalk along with the liquid chalk while climbing.
Liquid chalk is easy to apply, lasts longer than regular chalk, avoids clouds of white dust, and actually works well since it minimizes the number of times you dip your fingers into your chalk bag. Liquid chalk also leaves less residue on the rock or indoor wall than regular chalk and, since it lasts longer on the hands than regular gymnastic chalk, a climber dips his fingers into his chalk bag less often, which could make a difference in climbing competitions or redpoint attempts on a hard route.