When undertaking a new activity the learning curve can seem steep, but thats rarely a problem because enthusiasm for the new and fun activity provides plenty of motivation. There are however a number of things to remember that will help ease progress up the curve. What follows is meant to be broad general advice, if you want something more specific then you would be best served by paying for some lessons with a real climbing trainer rather than starting another thread on UKB (chances are the questions have already been asked anyway, and some of that information has been collated here to save searching).
When starting out its worth bearing in mind that you can get strong muscles very quickly and relatively easily. However the tendons which connect the muscles to the bones, particularly in the hands and forearms take a long time to catch up and adapt to the new stresses. Thus specific activities such as fingerboarding and campusing should be avoided by beginners.
One thing climbing indoors doesn't (or very rarely) prepares you for is topping out (climbing onto the top of the boulder or small edge you have just climbed). This often involves mantle-type moves (like climbing onto a wall). Practice this wherever you can, it will serve you well.
There is no short cut to acquiring technique, its something that is learnt through doing, so maximise your time climbing. Two things in particular can help maximise the time spent climbing to facilitate learning technique. Firstly climb outside on real rock, there are a lot of subtleties to moving in a third dimension on real, textured rock than first meets the eye or is suggested by climbing on plastic. For starters the holds aren't marked out for you (unless its a very popular venue that sees little rain which results in holds being covered in chalk), so its not always obvious where the best hand/foot-holds are to allow the body to be in an optimal position, if it feels hard for the grade then chances are that you've missed something, so try climbing the problem again with a different sequence. The other thing to do which can help with learning technique is simply to watch other people, where are they placing their hands and feet, how are they taking a hold and moving around it to reach the next one. And don't be shy, if you see someone waltz up a problem you've been trying and you can't work out how they are doing the move just ask them. Most people have gone through the same learning experience and are more than happy to share their sequence with you.
Traversing is a particularly useful method of improving foot work, particularly when combined with the "silent feet" approach where you should aim to place your foot precisely and quietly just once for each movement (i.e. no need to readjust foot on hold).
Grades are important to some, less so to others. They're a simple means of measuring progress, but shouldn't be taken too seriously, particularly in early stages when you're still learning. They provide a source of endless hours of debate. Just get out and enjoy learning how to climb and obsess about them if you want to once you've got over the initial learning curve.
Discussing the pros and cons of shoe design is one of the favourite topics of conversation for climbers (see the various threads in Equipment for evidence where the equivalent of three times the complete works of Shakespeare has been written). Each and every person has their own preference of shoe for different types of climbing (and often this will be for a model which was discontinued five years ago), so advice on what shoes to buy will usually come with some bias. There are however some general points to consider.
- Comfort Squeezing your first pair of shoes on will likely be uncomfortable, thats not unusual. Shoes are meant to be tight fighting so it will feel a bit strange. In years gone by people used to take this to extreme measures akin to Chinese foot binding wearing shoes that were several sizes smaller than normal. People are more sensible these days and shoes come in a wider range of shapes and sizes. Your toes should be snug at the toe without excess space at the front or round the side. Try multiple sizes/models on in the shop even if the first pair seem fine.
- Stiffness Stiff shoes provide support for the foot when you're standing on small edges, softer shoes are better for smearing on slabs. Starting out you'll want something that does a bit of both.
- Symmetric vs Asymmetric
- Testing Any half decent shop will have a small area where you can try out the shoe on foot holds equivalent to those you'd climb on. Try the shoes out here rather than walking around as the feet deform slightly differently when balancing on foot holds compared to walking around and you are after all buying the shoes to climb in rather than to go for a stroll in.
- Advice Despite these sage words your best bet would be to physically go to a reputable retailer with knowledgeable staff and ask them for advice. Avoid buying (bargain) shoes from the internet until you know what shoes you find comfortable and their specific size.
Helps keep your hands dry if they are getting sweaty.
They come in two basic designs. Folding mats have two halves which fold around a hinge and 'taco style' mats which offer a single flat surface without a hinge, but which you fold when carrying. This type should be stored flat, so you'll need more space to keep them when not in use. For example a folding DMM Highball can be kept in a car boot, you shouldn't keep a taco style mat there as it would have to be folded which will weaken the foam around the fold.
They need to be robust, most are. The bit inside is the most important bit of all: foam. This will be a thin sheet of hard foam on top to displace your impact when you land and underneath it thicker softer foam to cushion the fall. Some manufacturers (eg DMM, The Climbing Factory) also have a third, thin sheet of hard foam on the bottom for further protection, especially from rocky surfaces. The quality of the foam is everything. You can unzip the side of the mat to examine this. You need to ask around for views on this, but you generally get what you pay for. Foam softens with use, so a mat which feels nice and soft in the shop is probably not going to offer much long term protection. Hard will become softer so I'd look for a mat with a firm feel.
There are some newer mats with more complicated technology which may feel soft in the shop but work by air resisting displacement in the mat so effectively respond to the force of the fall ie harder fall, tougher response from the mat - I believe. You'll know these by their price: significantly over the £100-150 for a standard mat.
The best advice would be to go and look at/jump on a few in a shop. Its best to get a basic-not-too-big one to start with and with experience later choose something else if you like. You could probably get a quality modest sized pad for around £100+. More budget options exist, but won't last as long before you need to replace them, avoid them if you can afford to. If you've got regular partners you could always consider buying a shared mat.
Shop websites eg V12, Rock and Run, Bananafingers and many others will give you more information and sell well regarded brands include Snap, Moon, DMM, Wild Country, Ocun and many more.
(edited from a post by mrjonathanr)
There are any number of books on how to improve climbing...
- Better Bouldering by US bouldering legend John Sherman.
- Bouldering : Movement, Tactics, and Problem Solving by Peter Beal.
- "How to Boulder" forthcoming book (title subject to change) from Dave Flannagan, of The Short Span aimed at beginners and intermediates.
Some useful web-sites for developing and training climbing...