Gaining popularity since the 1960’s, bouldering has taken rock climbing to a whole new level.
Follow our guide to one of our favourite extreme sports, bouldering.
What is Bouldering?
Bouldering is a different type, and some would argue a more extreme version of rock climbing. The goal of bouldering is to climb boulders, rather than rock faces and cliffs, in short and difficult sequences which are referred to as ‘problems.’
Bouldering is a vastly different style to rock climbing as it requires much more power rather than strength endurance and different technique.
This form of climbing requires no ropes with only a crash pad for safety. The high-risk nature of bouldering is what classifies it as an extreme sport.
Enjoy this awesome video of pro boulderer Daniel Woods climbing V16 problem “The Process”
History of Bouldering
Throughout the 19th century and the early 1900’s, bouldering was used as a way to practice climbing when getting on the wall wasn’t practical, such as rain days.
During this period, an area that is now known as one of the best bouldering destinations in the world, Fontainebleau, started to gain popularity. Climbers and mountaineers would use the boulders at Fontainebleau to train for climbing adventures in the mountains.
It wasn’t until the 1960’s that bouldering began to become a sport of it’s own, when American bouldering legend, John Gill, pushed for the sport to be pursued worldwide. He was the first climber to solely focus on bouldering as a branch of climbing.
Bouldering really took off in the 1990’s when climber, John Sherman, published the first climbing guidebook to include bouldering problems. He invented the now popular V-scale grading system and people started to travel across the world to pursue bouldering.
Soon after, bouldering areas were being made popular all over the world and dedicated bouldering gyms started popping up.
Today, bouldering is arguably just as popular as rock climbing and you’d be hard pressed to walk into an empty bouldering gym.
Bouldering for Beginners
How to start bouldering for beginners
The best way to start bouldering for beginners is to visit your local bouldering gym. Frequenting the bouldering gym and staying indoors for the first few months has a range of benefits, including:
Getting used to being at a height without ropes for safety
Working on technique on easier grades
Strengthening your body, especially your fingers, to be able to handle those harder problems
Learning how to take falls using thick gym mats – this is extremely important because once you start bouldering outdoors, you’ll need to be able to fall properly on a much thinner and smaller crash pad.
Meeting other boulderers in your area who can guide you, encourage you and even take you bouldering outdoors with them.
Once you start bouldering outdoor, you’ll find it vastly different, a lot harder and scarier which is why we recommend starting at an indoor bouldering gym to get the hang of it.
If you don’t have a local bouldering gym you can start outdoor bouldering straight away as well. Just be mindful that you have trustworthy bouldering partners, good crash pads and start with the easier problems to get used to the technique and strengthen your fingers.
The main goal of bouldering is to send problems (climb boulders) and if you do this, that’s a great start. However, there are a few guidelines that you should follow if you want to take bouldering more seriously, especially if you join competitions, or if you just want to look like you know what you’re doing down at the local crag.
Here are three basic rules of bouldering to get you by:
Start with both hands on the starting hold or holds
Both feet should leave the ground and you should be in a controlled hold before moving past the starting holds
To finish a problem, you should weight the finishing hold with both hands
These guidelines will get you by when you’re bouldering for fun, however when joining competitions, they will each have specific rules that you’ll need to know.
Bouldering, like rock climbing, has its own terminology. It’s not unusual for beginner boulderers to be completely lost in a conversation with other boulderers. Here are a few bouldering terms you should know before hitting your local crag or bouldering gym:
Send – successfully finishing a problem
Flash – successfully finishing a problem on your first attempt
Problem – a bouldering route
Top out – finishing a problem by standing at the top of a boulder, rather than jumping to the ground when you finish
Beta – The intended instruction on how to send a problem
For a full list of bouldering terms click here.
Bouldering techniques have a lot of crossover with rock climbing techniques. There are, however, some differences as bouldering problems are short and difficult, compared to tradition rock climbing which is generally a longer and more endurance-based form of climbing.
Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced climber, technique is vital to helping you improve your climbing and sending harder problems.
Here are a few bouldering techniques to keep in mind:
Use your legs!
So many climbers, especially when first starting out, tend to climb using upper body strength. Focusing on upper body strength to climb is extremely tiring and hinders your performance. Instead, focus on using the strength in your legs to drive your climbing.
Keep your hips close to the wall.
If you’re on a vertical boulder this will improve your balance. On inclines and overhangs use your core to drive your hips closer to the wall which will improve your precision and power.
Silent and sticky feet.
Footwork is so important with bouldering and part of that is the way you place your foot on a hold. Practice placing your foot as quietly and precisely as you can so that you’re not wasting energy moving your feet around trying to get the best position. To practice this, look at your feet while placing them on the hold. If you have to move it around or if you hear your foot touch the hold, do it again.
Think before you take your next move.
You should be thinking about the beta before you even get on the wall, but once you’re on the wall take a look and decide on the move you’re going to make before moving. This will save you a lot of energy and increase your chance of sending.
Balance is an integral part of bouldering. The way your body is positioned will make or break your chance of sending. Practice moving your body in a way that will keep you centred on the wall by using techniques such as drop knees and flagging. Watch the way more advanced climbers move and ask them for tips. The more you practice your body positioning the quicker you will improve your climbing.
The best way to improve your bouldering technique is to get on the wall and give it a go. Talk to other climbers, see what they do well and ask for advice. And bouldering outdoors will improve your climbing far quicker than staying in the gym all the time.
Aside from technique, there are points that need to be considered when bouldering. Just because you don’t use a rope when bouldering that doesn’t mean it’s not a team sport. You’ll want a spot when climbing outdoors, people you can bounce beta off and generally if climbing at a gym there will be other people around.
Here are a few bouldering tips to keep in mind:
Bouldering alone is fine in the gym but dangerous outdoors. Try and meet people in the gym so you can have friends to spot you when you’re bouldering outdoors. Plus, it’s always more fun to climb with other people cheering you on.
When bouldering outdoors make sure you keep the crag clean! Take any rubbish with you; that includes food, used tape, cigarette butts (better not to smoke at the crag) and toilet paper.
If you turn up at the local crag and there are other people already climbing, talk to them and find out where they’re climbing. Don’t jump on their problems without a conversation first. And don’t play loud music without first consulting other climbers.
Stay clear of the wall when others are climbing. Definitely don’t walk under them and try to climb away from them. Accidents can happen and we want to try our best to avoid unnecessary ones.
Always warm up before you start climbing. Doing the right warmups will help prevent injury; this warm up is a great one to do every time before you start climbing:
Click here to read more in-depth bouldering tips, including warmups, off-wall strengthening exercises, finger strengthening, climbing etiquette and more.
Bouldering grades used to communicate the difficulty level of a problem. There are two different bouldering grade scales: the V-scale and the Font-scale.
The V-scale is more widely used, starting in the 1980’s in Texas. The scale is simple to follow, with V0 being the easiest grade and V17 as the current hardest grade sent.
The Font-scale was started much earlier at Fontainebleau and mainly used in Europe. It uses a series of numbers and letters to grade problems. The scale starts at 1 and gets progressively more difficult as the numbers rise. Then within each number will be a scale of a, b or c so that a grade will look like 6a, 6b or 6c.
It does get more complex than this in both scales with + and – being used as well.
The below infographic displays a bouldering grade conversion between both scales. For more detailed information you can read this article on bouldering grades and grade conversions where we explain how to grade a problem and what to expect in each grade.
Bouldering outdoors is quite different to bouldering in the gym. It is more complex and harder with smaller foot hold. Holds can get wet, slippery and can be sharp and landing on a crash pad is vastly different to landing on the thick gym mats.
Never-the-less, bouldering outdoors is challenging both mentally and physically, slightly dangerous and a whole lot of fun!
There are a lot of popular bouldering spots, such as Fontainebleau, that people travel to from all over the world, you can read more about them here.
Equipment you need to start bouldering
If you want to give bouldering a try to see if you like it, you can head to your local bouldering gym and rent some shoes for the day. When you decide that bouldering is something you want to take more seriously, there are a few bits of gear you’ll need:
Beginner Bouldering Shoes
Bouldering shoes come in many different styles and the one that you choose will depend on the style of climbing that you prefer and your climbing experience.
To start with, you’ll need to choose between neutral, moderate and aggressive bouldering shoes.
Then other considerations such as laces, Velcro straps, rubber, materials and fit come into play.
You can read more about climbing and bouldering shoes here where we go into detail about different types of shoes and features to look out for.
Generally, your bouldering shoes should be 1 to 3 sizes smaller than regular shoes. You want them to be snug with your toes slightly curled, but not too tight. As beginner boulderers get used to wearing climbing shoes, which is uncomfortable at first, they will usually find they go down another size for the next pair of shoes.
Neutral, moderate or aggressive bouldering shoes?
The best beginner bouldering shoes are neutral climbing shoes. They have a relaxed fit that will ease you into the sometimes-uncomfortable feeling of wearing climbing shoes. Neutral shoes are flat, great for wearing for long periods of time and have good support.
Another great feature of neutral climbing shoes for beginner boulderers is the rubber on the shoe is generally thicker which allows them to last longer as you improve your technique. When you become more confident with your bouldering and your technique improves, you’ll find that the rubber on your shoes will last longer due to less drag on the wall.
As you progress with bouldering, moderate and aggressive climbing shoes help put your feet in a stronger position, assisting with higher grade boulder problems.
Refer to this article for a more detailed explanation of how to pick bouldering shoes.
Best Climbing Chalk
Having the best climbing chalk with help with your bouldering performance by keep your hands moist-free, allowing you to hold onto the boulder better.
Click here for a full review of the best climbing chalk and different types chalk, including loose, block, liquid and eco chalk.
Climbing chalk comes in different textures, from fine and powdery to coarse. Generally, the higher the quality of chalk the longer it will last on your hands, so you’ll use less of it over time. It does, however, come at a higher price tag, so although you’ll go through more of a lesser quality chalk it doesn’t cost as much to replace.
Experiment with different types of chalk and at the end of the day you should chose based on your preference rather than quality. If you’re not sure where to start, or if you’re looking for a different chalk than what you normally use, here are some of the best climbing chalks to try:
- FrictionLabs Loose – silica free and non-toxic, this chalk comes in different varieties from fine powder to very blocky chalk. It is considered one of the best climbing chalks on the market as it is long lasting and has a very even application, however it is expensive compared to others.
- Black Diamond White Gold – This chalk is super drying and is best suited for those with extra sweaty hands! It can be too drying for some, leading to skin that is more easily ripped, but if you do sweat a lot this chalk is for you.
- Metolius Super Chalk – the performance of this chalk isn’t as good as others, however it is much cheaper making it great for climbers on a budget.
Best Chalk Bag for Bouldering
Chalk bags come in various shapes and sizes and the best chalk bag for bouldering will depend on your personal preference.
Small chalk bags that clip around your waist can be used for both bouldering and rock climbing. Climbers that only boulder may be more interested in a larger chalk bag, or a chalk bucket, which is easier to fit your hands in, holds more chalk and doesn’t need to be refilled as often.
Here are a couple of chalk bags to consider:
Black Diamond Mondo Chalk Pot – with a magnetic closure, 2 zip pockets and 2 brush slots the Black Diamond Mondo Chalk Pot has it all. You can carry your tap, phone, keys and brushes in one convenient bag and the magnetic closure reduces chalk spillage.
Organic Lunch Bag Chalk Bag – The Organic chalk bag is simple in design and highly effective. It has a large area for chalk and hands to fit and a single, long zip pock which will fit your tape and brushes. Plus, the Organic range has colorful designs and is made of high quality, lasting and recycled materials.
Click here to learn more about different types of chalk bags, chalk buckets, chalk balls, types of bag closures and a full review of our top bouldering chalk bag picks.
Tape is, for most climber, an integral part of their climbing supplies. As rewarding as bouldering is, it does come with the high possibility of injured fingers and ripped skin. It is so important to warm up your fingers before climbing and strengthen them when you’re not climbing. Even so, injuries happen, and tape is your best friend when you want to climb while injured.
A necessary disclaimer here: if you do injure your finger/s while climbing (or any other body part like elbows, shoulder, wrists, ankles which is common) seek the advice of a trained professional such as a physiotherapist as soon as you can. They will give the right exercises to get you to full strength again and advise on how to approach your climbing while injured.
You can get tape in different widths. Climbers will generally go for a wider tape which is more commonly found in sport stores. Then if a smaller narrower tape is needed the wider one can simply be ripped down the center.
There are more narrow tapes available as well, such as the Armadillo Finger Tape.
When purchasing climbing tape you want to look for the following features:
Easy to tear
Doesn’t leave residue behind
Thin tape that doesn’t compromise bending fingers
Whether you’re using tape for skin protection or for structural support, choosing a good quality tape that is made for climber is always better than general sports tape.
Best Bouldering Crash Pads
Crash pads are vital for bouldering safety when you're outdoors. Crash pads come in a few different varieties and sizes depending on your preference, bouldering style and the type of terrain that you're bouldering. Choosing the correct crash pad for you is so important to your safety while bouldering.
It's also important to note that getting a high-quality crash pad is always safer than a cheap or secondhand crash pad. You want the padding to be in good shape to protect you from hard landings.
Some considerations to keep in mind when choosing your crash pad are the type of foam used, the layers of foam that are used, the thickness of the foam and the type of fold in the crash pad. This will determine not only the quality of the crash pad but also the intended use of the crash pad. That is, you need to determine whether the crash pad that you're purchasing is intended for highballing lower heights, clear terrain or rocky terrain.
For a full review of the best bouldering crash pads click here. Or for a general overview and to get started here are a few suggestions for the best bouldering crash pads.
Mad Rock R3 - This crash pad has a baffle design, and a good size and thickness making it ideal for falls from short or mid height. Unlike other bouldering pads that fold the baffles in this design make it safer for taking falls and reduces the chance of rolled ankles. You can roll the crash pad and then use the included flap to hold it closed. Not only is this crash pad great for bouldering and taking falls, it's also relatively affordable. The only downside to this crash pad is that it is slightly on the heavy side compared to others which could be annoying when you have a long walk to your bouldering site.
Black Diamond Impact - The Black Diamond Impact is a great crash pad for beginner boulderers. This crash pad is slightly on the larger side and has a good 4 inch thick frame which makes it great for beginner's and climbers of all levels as it's comfortable to fall on repeatedly from low heights but also thick and strong enough to protect you from higher falls
Organic Big Pad - The Organic Big Pad crash pad larger than other crash pads meaning it covers more ground and reduces the chance of your missing the pad on landing. It has a standard thickness great for small too mid height falls. The main feature aside from size of the Organic crash pads is that they are long lasting, made from fully recycled materials and you can pick the colours that you want.
In general, boulder problems can be anywhere up to 5 meters/16 feet tall. Once you get past this height there is a blurred line between bouldering and free solo climbing. To bridge this gap there is another form of climbing called highballing.
Highballing is bouldering at a height that is much riskier than your regular bouldering, making is riskier and more extreme. Highballing usually goes from 5 meters up to 12 meters/39 feet, though there are some higher exceptions.
With the high-risk nature of highballing comes great reward. But it’s important to be prepared and be in the right mental state for highballing. One wrong fall can end your climbing or even your life, so it’s especially important to take precautions with highballing, as well as regular height bouldering.
This video of Lonnie Kauk on ‘Too Big To Flail,” a 55ft boulder problem in the Buttermilks is a great introduction to what it takes to start highball bouldering:
Here are a few guidelines for anyone thinking of getting into highballing:
You must be mentally prepared perhaps more so than physically prepared. If you get scared, extra sweaty and start doubting yourself when you’re past the point of no return you can risk your life.
If possible, consider climbing the problem with a rope first.
Do not commit to the highball unless you are absolutely confident in your ability to send.
Ensure you have crash pads strategically placed.
Make sure your bouldering friends are on board and can assist with ropes if you get stuck. Ideally you don’t want it to come to this and you shouldn’t put your friends in this position, but it’s always good to have a backup plan.
Highballing is the riskiest form of bouldering you can do. Make sure you’re technique and level of bouldering is high before attempting this. It is not recommended for beginner or even intermediate climbers and even for advanced climbers come with a very high risk of injury.
Bouldering as an Extreme Sport
There’s no doubt that bouldering has earnt its place as an extreme sport. In saying that, it is possibly one of the easiest extreme sports for beginners to start. With the wide range of bouldering gyms available, athletes can start bouldering in a safe and controlled environment. But the real fun starts when bouldering outdoors, pushing your limits physically and mentally amongst nature and friends, making bouldering one of our favourite extreme sports.