What is Bouldering? Beginner’s Guide & Gear

Bouldering is the most primitive form of rock climbing. There are no ropes, no protective equipment, and no second chances. It is only you, a pair of climbing shoes, a bag of chalk, a bouldering pad, and the problem. 

Now that you know the answer to what is bouldering, we’ll cover what is bouldering and your beginner’s guide and gear to getting started.

Since there are neither ropes nor anchor points, you solely rely on your muscles. But there is much more involved here than just brute force. The technique, agility, and problem-solving skills are all fundamental elements of any successful climb.

Bouldering is a great way to get started in the climbing world. So, bear a little longer, especially if you are new. We will talk about the essentials of this discipline, like, the grading system and bouldering gear. As well as address some common questions that you might have.

Let’s get started.

Before You Start

Let’s take some time to clarify some common words used in the bouldering world:

  • Problem: Refers to the entire climb, from the bottom to the top. 
  • Beta: Advice on how to sort part of a problem.
  • Crux: It is the most complex section of the problem. 
  • Dyno: Movement that requires to leap upward using both hands and, sometimes, both feet. 
  • Traverse: To move to the sides 
  • Top out: Climbing to the top of the formation
  • Send: Successfully climbing a problem without falling
  • Soft: The problem is easier than advertised
  • Stiff: The opposite of soft 

Bouldering and other forms of rock climbing

Rock climbing comprises several activities ranging from assisted climbing to free solo. Here, we will concentrate on bouldering. 

Ok, so, what sets bouldering apart? This is a common question.

Bouldering is a unique discipline because of the height and the fact that you only need climbing shoes to practice it.  It’s a freestyle climbing without any ropes or harnesses, using crash pads to cushion your fall.

Bouldering involves the climb of a 12 to 15 feet tall boulder (gigantic rock). However, height ranges are a little blurry. For instance, climbing anything taller than 15 feet is known as highball bouldering. From roughly 30 feet upwards, we are talking about free soloing.

Bouldering Gear Essentials

One of the best things about bouldering is that you don’t need too much equipment. All you need is:

Mad Rock Mad Pad Crash Pad321 STRONG Refillable Chalk Ball with 65 Gram (2.3 oz) Capacity, Comes Full - for Rock Climbing, Gym...
Survivor Chalk Bag + Refillable Chalk Ball + Liquid Chalk - Draw String & 2 Zippered Pockets - Black...Black Diamond Equipment - Men's Momentum Climbing Shoes
Ucraft 'Xlite Rock Climbing, Bouldering and Yoga Pants. Lightweight, Stretching, Breathable...Survivor Chalk Bag + Refillable Chalk Ball + Liquid Chalk - Draw String & 2 Zippered Pockets - Black...
Beginner’s bouldering gear.

It is crucial to get the best climbing shoes you can get. It will be much harder otherwise. A decent pair of shoes will protect your feet and increase grip, two things that you solely need when bouldering. 

Bouldering Shoes: Important Piece of Equipment

Bouldering shoes are the most important piece of equipment to protect your feet and increase grip

Indeed, bouldering shoes don’t look like any other type of shoe. They are bent inwards to increase toe grip. In addition, many use velcro straps to secure the shoe in place. Needless to say, the shape of your feet matters a lot.

Make sure to try different options to see what works best for you. I personally recommend going for La Sportiva and Black Diamond Momentum bouldering shoes. 

Bouldering Pad: A Must for Outdoor Bouldering

Climber doing bouldering uses several crash pads for safety

The bouldering pad, also known as a crash pad, is a cushioning mat. Its job is to absorb the impact of the fall, reducing damage. Naturally, they can only help so much. It is vital to learn how to fall.

If you’re interested in taking the leap, read more on our guide to the best bouldering crash pads.

You can’t put a price on safety. Be willing to spend a couple of Benjamin’s to secure a decent boulder pad. Black Diamond Impact Crash Pad and Mad Rock Mad Pad Crash Pad are two of the best brands available. 

A chalk bag and refillable chalk ball is another wise investment. See? You only need a few things to get started. If you are unsure about getting a pair just yet, you can always rent them at your local gym. 

Where Can I Go Bouldering?

Indoor Bouldering

Indoor bouldering is the best way to get started in this art. In this case, you climb an artificial wall and boulders inside a rock climbing gym. This doesn’t mean that it will be easier. It is just a little bit safer.

There are a handful of gyms throughout the US like the Minneapolis bouldering project or the Austin bouldering project.  You can find indoor climbing gyms here.

A woman climbing inside an indoor bouldering gym

All bouldering gyms use colors to code each problem. Sometimes, a single movement could have more than one color. Make sure to check the color grading system to avoid mixing problems.

Don’t be like me. The first time I went indoor bouldering. I did not even look at the grading table. It ended the only way I could have, with me on my back.

Once you feel ready, you can take your bouldering pad and venture outside. Outdoor bouldering is more challenging because it often involves long hikes to get to the boulder and it requires more skill. The risk is what makes this a more rewarding experience.

Outdoor Bouldering Locations

Some of the best places for outside bouldering in the world are: 

  • Hueco Tanks (Texas, USA)
  • Fontainebleau (France) 
  • Rocklands (South Africa) 
  • Squamish (British Columbia, Canada) 
  • Bishop (California, USA)

However, any boulder anywhere will do. You just need to use your imagination. To get your creative juices flowing, Mountain Project’s provides a resource guide to Climbing Routes, difficulty, levels and pitches.

Bouldering Grading System

Not all problems are of the same difficulty. Therefore, to sort them out, climbers created the grading systems. Initially, John Hill established the very first one. There were three grades: B1, B2, and B3. Naturally, a B1 problem was easier than a B2 and so on. 

However, Hill’s grading system wasn’t open-ended. In other words, there wasn’t a B4 or B5 grade. Nowadays, there are two common grading systems used to date: The V Scale and the Font Scale. Let’s take some time to talk about each one.

V Scale: North America and Oceania

Stabilized by the bouldering legend John “Verm” Sharman, it is an open-ended grading scale. This means that, theoretically, the scale doesn’t have an upper limit. 

As of today, the scales go all the way up to V17. The higher the number, the more challenging the problem is. 

Beginners should start with V0-V2 problems. Some problems have a VB rating. It means that it is even easier than a V0.

Outdoor climbing starting with small bouldering problem

Font Scale: Europe and Asia

The Font Scale is also open-ended. This time, however, each grade uses an alphanumeric code. The letters A, B, and C accompanied each number. Some grades have a plus sign (+) at the end to indicate a minor increase in difficulty.

For example, a 6A+ problem is more complicated than a 6A but less than a 6B. You can translate Font scale grades to V Scale. For example, a 6B roughly translates to a V4. Check here to find a grading conversion table. 

The Problem of Bouldering Grades

Many climbers, myself included, argue about the arbitrary or the grading systems. There is no standard to dictate how grades should be applied. Thus, it is open to the interpretation of the climber. 

To further explain this, let’s first understand that you use your whole body for bouldering, even your fingers. Hence, strength, flexibility, weight, and height all play a vital role.

Take me, for example. I’m 5’7″ feet tall, 187 pounds and thick thighs. But I’m quite strong. I’m good at sorting problems with short movements. Conversely, it will be much harder for me to climb problems where flexibility prevails above all else. 

Don’t be surprised, then, when a V7 problem is trickier than another problem with the same grade. Still, the grading system serves as a difficult reference. The same applies to grade conversions. 

How to Fall While Bouldering

Climbing and falling will always be together. Hence, it is vital to learn how to fall to minimize damage, especially when bouldering outside. Let me tell you. It is an art in its own right. 

You will try to hold or grab an edge while falling. But this is not a wise decision. A sprain shoulder and wrists, as well as smacking your head, are common results of successfully grabbing an edge while falling. 

how to fall while bouldering
Practice falling when bouldering by starting lower to the ground

Try to push yourself away instead, if possible. This way, you will decrease the chances of hitting an edge. 

Now, the most important thing is to keep the body relaxed. Don’t brace for impact. If possible, try to land with your feet flat and knees bent. They will absorb most of the shock. Don’t use your hands to land unless you want to break them. But who on earth would do that? 

It is a good practice to use the momentum of the fall and roll to one side. This will distribute your weight, thereby, the intensity of the impact between your legs and back. However, only try this if you are acquainted with the technique. 

One last thing. Try your best to tuck your chin on your chest. You can minimize the risk of whiplashes this way. 

Learning how to fall is not that important if you are bouldering indoors. However, gyms are a safe place to learn and add new tricks to your skill tree.

Is Bouldering Safe?

I’ll be lying if I told you that bouldering is without risks. Cuts, sprained ankles, shoulders, and wrists are common. Besides, every fall is a potential source of danger.

Boulderer looking for a dyno

However, fractures only take place before making a mistake. Lading on a single foot or with your toes rather than the whole feet are some examples. 

Placing bouldering pads on strategic points and taking a spotter are two ways of minimizing risks.

Still, bouldering is safer than other forms of rock climbing, like free soloing, where most falls translate into an injury

Bouldering Spotter

You can always go bouldering by yourself. But it is half the fun. Thus, taking a friend, especially for outside bouldering, is a good decision. You can share betas about the problem. But the most important thing is that your fellow boulderer can help you to direct your fall. Hence, reducing the risk of getting injured.

Directing a fall is the spotter’s job. This way, you will always land safely on the bouldering pad. However, directing a fall doesn’t involve catching the climber. Instead, a spotter only has to push the climber to change his/her direction towards the mat. 

It sounds easy, right? Sadly, it is not. There is a lot a spotter has to consider. First, body position is key. The feet should be a shoulder’s width, the strong foot slightly in front of the other. Both knees somewhat bent, and arms up and relaxed. 

Predicting where the climber will land is another crucial ability. The spotter should move the bouldering pads if necessary. 

In conclusion, having a spotter is always a wise decision. It is an ideal way to share information and have a set of extra eyes looking after you. 

Why Bouldering is Good For You

We’ve already talked about the risks. Now is time to talk about what you get. Some bouldering benefits are: 

  • Full body workout: From toes to fingers, you use every muscle in you to push forward 
  • Increases your core strength
  • Improves overall flexibility: It is like yoga, but better 
  • Increases coordination 
  • Sharpens your problem-solving skills 
  • It gives you inner peace: It is just you and the problem; nothing else matters
  • Less expensive than other forms of climbing

Even though you climb by yourself, there are a lot of people that practice bouldering. Thus, you will be making friends along the way, and this is maybe, the best benefit of this discipline. 

Friend lending a hand for the next dyno

Closing Thoughts

Bouldering is an ideal way to get fit, know people, and blow off some steam. Plus, you only need climbing shoes and a bouldering pad (for outside bouldering). 

It has its own risks, of course. But let’s face it, anything is without risks. Besides, the more experienced you get, the fewer the chances are of getting injured. 

If I’ve picked your interest, don’t hesitate to try bouldering. Just remember to start with the easiest problems and learn how to fall. It is a crucial skill.

Happy Climbing!  

Last update on 2021-10-27 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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