December 9, 2007 by Phil Houtz

Getting Tough: Building Climbing Calluses

How do you treat raw skin and build calluses after a weekend of rock climbing?

My new challenge started a couple of weeks ago after I joined the local climbing gym. A few hours on the artificial walls and I’d peeled the skin off the palms of my hands in seven places. Three of the raw spots were each the size of a dime.

Mind you, I’m not a climber. I start getting week-kneed at heights of, oh about three feet. But I wasn’t making any progress on the goal I set two months ago to do a single chin-up. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

There’s a lot of conflicting advice about skin treatment for climbers. Dave Ayton believes that moisture is key to skin repair for climbers. He also recommends Climb On! salve, or even sunburn treatment.

One the other side of the coin is the notion that lotion is your worst enemy. Moisturizing your skin makes it soft and more likely to tear. This school of thought recommends rubbing alcohol for building hand calluses.

I’ve found New Skin helpful to repair raw skin between climbing sessions. I’m told Super Glue also does the trick. Tape seems to be the best short term skin repair while actively climbing. Tape can also be used to prevent tears while climbing.

Norah suggested that I try pickle juice, something she learned in ballet. Legend has it that Nolan Ryan used pickle juice to treat blisters. I can’t find any evidence to show that pickle juice, or its components (vinegar and brine) are particularly effective. My guess is that the brine would reduce lymphatic serum beneath a blister and the vinegar would reduce skin oils, possibly toughening the skin.

What seems to be working for me is to use rubbing alcohol before and after climbing and lotion at night. I’m thinking of packing a bottle of waterless hand sanitizer (essentially gel alcohol) in my climbing bag.

Now on to my next goal: being able to climb at least as well as a 7 year old girl.


  1. Justin
    August 31, 2011 - 8:25 pm

    Honestly the best way I found to develop calluses was to just climb. I started going to a climbing gym back in February with a buddy and we started by going only once a week; every Saturday. Eventually, our fingers and hands got stronger and the skin on them got tougher, and we stepped it up to twice a week. We kept at this, and developed more and more calluses to the point were we would go every other day and feel little strain on our hands. We’re both off to different universities now, which sadly means we can’t climb together anymore, but the best thing you can do is to keep climbing, keep practicing.

  2. Sue
    June 19, 2011 - 2:44 pm

    Here is the truth as I know is when it comes to climbing and skin, no 2 people have the same skin and many factors must be taken into consideration when deciding on a product.
    If your calluses are think ant tend to be rigid, try filing the so that they are flexible and then condition them with hand jam oil, flexible calluses get the best rock contact and hurt the least.

    If your skin is thin and peels, try changing your chalk to one with less drying agents or use rush’s friction powder for chalk sensitive skin and use liquid hand jam after climbing for cellular support, a few drops of hand jam oil could be good too if your skin has a tendancy to be dry.

    If you have very sweaty hand deffinitly use a chalk with a drying agent Or rush’s friction powder for chalk sensitive skin along with temporary skin dehydrator like liquid friction. After climbing , use liquid hand jam.

  3. Andrew
    June 5, 2011 - 7:51 am

    Admirable goal, but some of those tiny girls can climb like nobody’s business. Thanks for the tips though, my fingers get torn regularly and I’ve been looking for ways to get those calluses.

  4. Matt
    May 14, 2011 - 4:05 am

    Having had issues with calluses before in other areas aside from climbing (though I do get them in climbing), I would recommend one thing once you develop calluses. There is no getting around tearing skin if you push it too far and your hand isn’t ready, but once you have calluses, you can prevent THOSE from tearing off. A lot of times, people don’t realize that the calluses they are building are actually causing the problem with tearing. When a callus builds and gets deep enough, the “normal” skin connecting to the callus becomes weakest at the edges. So the callus will rip off (both YUCK and OUCH!)

    What I have found that works is the use of a pumice stone on the calluses about 15 min daily. It’s weird, but I was driven to it when I would have my palm rip almost weekly from barbell training. Using a stone rubs down the callus so that the callus spreads wider rather than deeper with use, making all of your skin tough enough for climbing rather than just one area deep enough that will likely come off. Some people find that the stone especially dries out their hands and use lotion. This shouldn’t be a problem if you use it AFTER climbing, and only when your hands are already having problems with being dry.

    Hope this helps!

  5. Phil Houtz
    March 11, 2010 - 12:00 am

    Awesome! Thanks for the tip, definitely worth looking into.

    At the moment I’m wondering how well it would work on Fido? I’ve got a dog with a nasty case of “Happy Tail” and I’m wondering if a little “liquid tail” would do the trick. Is this stuff alcohol-based? Probably hurts like a mother on an open sore I imagine.

    Happy Tail:

  6. Mike O
    March 10, 2010 - 11:49 pm

    I might suggest using a product called Rock-Tips liquid callus builder. It’s sold to musicians for building calluses up on the fingers, and it’s super tough.

  7. Climber Kid
    February 10, 2010 - 7:44 pm

    Nice climbing goals…
    I love to climb, and what i find helpful is to do chin-ups everyday, throughout the day. Buy a chin up bar and everytime your walk by it do a few. If you cannot get one then go as high as you can. This really helps me. I find myself being able to do more and more.
    Hope you succeed your goals

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