Puzzling your way to freedom: Tips for cracking your first escape room

March 30, 2016                 6m read time
Kirsten Akens

The following tips will ensure you enter your first escape room with the head start you need to crack the codes, solve the riddles and break free from behind locked doors—all without hating your friends. 

You might start out handcuffed and need to employ some lock-picking skills. Or there might be a zombie stumbling closer and closer, ramping up the pressure to use your brain before the clock runs out (or the zombie eats it…could go either way). Nope—it’s not a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster or “The Walking Dead.” It’s an escape room challenge, and it’s sweeping the nation like wildfire. With some stats reporting close to 3,000 venues worldwide, this relatively new concept that started in Japan is exploding all over the U.S. If you’re curious as to why people are voluntarily incarcerating themselves on a Friday night instead of bar hopping—but want to give it a try yourself—prepare for your time on the inside with our list of know-before-you-go tips for escape room newbies.

Do your homework

Magnifying glass laying on a dictionary page Wessel du Plooy

Magnifying glass laying on a dictionary page

Wessel du Plooy


Most escape rooms are based on a theme or specific narrative. You may find yourself transported to ancient Egypt or outer space, or you may be part of a tactical response team or sleuthing alongside Sherlock Holmes. A little research ahead of time might come in handy, but more importantly: Throw back to grade school and brush up on some basic puzzle, number, pattern and riddle-solving skills. Clock a half-hour on Luminosity, Kahn Academy, or one of those apps designed to give your noggin some exercise (suggestions: “Can You Escape,” “Sapphire Room Escape,” or “The Room Pocket”). If you’re already having flashbacks of high school algebra, stay calm. It’s not about being the next Steve Jobs or Houdini, so much as it is challenging yourself, working as a team and having fun.

Dress for the occasion  

A group shot from the legs down, dressed in jeans and sneakers PrettyKateMachine

A group shot from the legs down, dressed in jeans and sneakers



Crawling on the floor. Getting on your friend’s shoulders to reach a clue hidden high up. Bending and twisting to get a closer look. Standing around, arguing over the next move. All of these movements, postures and more are potentially involved in an escape room scenario, so leave the skirts, constrictive skinny jeans and uncomfortable heels at home. Consider this a “comfy jeans and sneakers” kind of night. Better yet? Anything with elastic. Wear all the elastic things.

Rally the right number of troops

People working together Rido

People working together



Getting strategic with your #squadgoals could prove vital. When assembling your posse, just take the Goldilocks approach: Too few could result in insufficient brainpower/perspective to crack the challenge within the allotted timeframe. Too many, and you might have a “Lord of the Flies” scenario…and anarchy in a tiny room is no bueno. Plus, everyone should get to have a voice in the process. Wondering how many members is just right? Once you’ve booked a room, take note of the “ideal” number of players per team—escape room companies frequently suggest this on their FAQ page. Hit that sweet spot and victory could be yours.

…Then divide and conquer

Hand putting in a puzzle piece Liza

Hand putting in a puzzle piece



Troops rallied, designate a leader to help manage the process and divvy up tasks according to each individual’s strengths. Mystery and novelty are a big part of escape room allure, sure, but the real reward comes in the form of camaraderie…and arguing doesn’t exactly inspire team bonding. In the words of our favorite claymation character, get yourselves organized and unlock the group’s full potential.

Leave no stone unturned

Chain and lock on door



Once the lock clicks, channel your inner 5-year-old (or Pez-addled parent) and turn that place inside out like it’s an Easter egg hunt. Search every nook and cranny. Open anything you can. Move stuff around. Turn objects over and investigate all of their sides (etiquette note: Don’t break items, but if it’s obvious something is meant to be taken apart, do so). Look closely at anything unusual...or seemingly mundane. If you sit down on something, check for clues beforehand. Go for low-hanging fruit first by exploring the easy and basic—overthinking has cost many a player precious seconds.

With your powers combined…

Lightbulbs with one on and one off Todd Huffman

Lightbulbs with one on and one off

Todd Huffman


Each player brings different strengths to the table, and taking advantage of them effectively will help you achieve escape room domination. Read each clue out loud and carefully, making sure each person understands it. Brainstorm options together. Talk out the process. Share your findings aloud as you go (and in a respectful manner). If you want that sweet Shawshank moment, group dynamics are key.

Leave your expectations in the free world

Woman at the end of the dark hall Michael Cory

Woman at the end of the dark hall

Michael Cory


The beauty of escape rooms is variety. From spooky schools, to secret societies, to the totally radical '80s, to basements with real actors lurking in the corners, an open mind and “prepared for anything” mentality will serve you well, young padawan. The evil geniuses behind these operations keep getting craftier, taking strides to keep their challenges under wraps. You could be assembling strange objects, crawling through odd spaces, using mirrors or black lights to uncover hidden messages, cracking riddles and any other number of unforeseen tasks. The game puts you in a box of sorts, but be prepared to think outside it: curveballs are coming.  

Ask for help—and take more time

Clock on table Masson

Clock on table



Anyone who’s done an escape room will tell you: If you’re stuck, take advantage of available lifelines. Sure, you might get docked for time in exchange for a hint, but if you’re just wasting minutes staring at the walls, it’s worth it. We’ve also heard that 60-minute games give you more bang for your buck. For many who’ve been through the gauntlet, a time limit of 45 minutes just wasn't enough. Lastly, remember to ask your fellow players for help—sometimes a fresh pair of eyes makes all the difference when solving a puzzle.

Don’t lose your grip on reality


Get competitive. Push yourself. Tease your fellow players about bad decisions they make. But in the end, heated arguments suck all the fun out of that very, very small room (we’ve heard stories). Check your ego at the door, keep a positive attitude and channel any frustration into enthusiasm. You’re there to have fun, so…have fun!

Choose your challenge

Door with light Aleksey Stemmer

Door with light

Aleksey Stemmer


Ready to play? Peruse one of our top 14 spots or take a look at ZOZI for an escape room close to you. Whether or not you successfully solve your way out (it’s OK, only 30 to 45 percent of players do) score some quality, phone-free time with your friends—and perhaps learn a few things about yourself in the process. Hopefully we’ll see you on the other side.

Kirsten Akens

Kirsten is an award-winning journalist, editor, photographer and practicing yogi based in Colorado. A lover of books, balasana, baked goods, blogging, and Boston terriers, she also has an unnatural affection for alliteration.

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