Articles ยป Bouldering Breakdown: The Ultimate Climbers Guide

Bouldering Breakdown: The Ultimate Climbers Guide

Bouldering is one of the most recently created disciplines of climbing (competition speed climbing is the most recent.). Bouldering is an incredibly social sport. And it has the lowest barrier to entry of the climbing disciplines. With indoor climbing gyms popping up all over the country, you can expect any city to have facilities dedicated to bouldering on indoor climbing walls.

If you’re just starting out with the sport, we made a list of the best crash pads that are on the market today. I have spent a lot of time at the gym and boulder fields training and talking to other climbers to figure out what the best pads on the market are.

The equipment needed for bouldering is minimal. A pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag is really all you need. You won’t need to memorize knots, drop a couple of hundred dollars on a trad rack, or find a partner to belay for you.

Bouldering is easy to get into, but there are a few things you should know to get a head start. Here’s what you need to know.

What is bouldering?

Bouldering is physical problem solving. Bouldering does not require any ropes, climbing gear, or technical knowledge to participate in like sport climbing does. However, a fall means hitting the ground while bouldering. It is crucial to have bouldering mats on the ground to protect you.

How tall are bouldering walls?

Bouldering is a discipline within rock climbing where climbers climb smaller walls, usually less than 6 meters or 20 feet. Highball bouldering refers to boulders that are over 20 feet in height.

Highballing treads the fine line between bouldering and free solo climbing. A fall while highballing could result in serious injury and possibly death.

Bouldering outdoors can be tricky. Protect the ground with plenty of pads in case you fall!

What is the difference between bouldering and rock climbing?

In bouldering, climbing routes are referred to as boulder problems because the route is short and powerful. I like to think of bouldering as a sprint and roped climbs like a long-distance run. In sport climbing, it’s not uncommon to find a boulder problem in the middle of a route.

Bouldering is technically rock climbing. However, due to the vast number of disciplines within rock climbing, saying you are “going bouldering” is a more descriptive phrase.

What is the difference between lead climbing and bouldering?

Rock climbing is a very general term. Lead climbing and bouldering refer to two distinct disciplines within the sport of rock climbing.

Let’s start with the similarities between lead climbing and bouldering.

  • Both disciplines use the same climbing techniques. Gastons, crimps, and dynos are used when lead climbing and bouldering. Body positioning is critical to success whether you’re on solving boulder problems or on a climbing route.
  • Rock climbing can be done indoors and outdoors! At most gyms, you can boulder indoors as well as lead climb. Both of these sports have huge communities participating both indoors and out.
  • Both bouldering and lead climbing are an Olympic sport!

Some differences with bouldering are:

  • Bouldering grades use different grading scales than traditional rock climbing routes. It’s hard to perfectly compare the difficulty of a boulder problem and a sport climbing route.
  • In bouldering, routes are called problems.
  • Bouldering takes place on small rock formations. The problems are normally not taller than 20 feet.

Differences in rock climbing are:

  • You need more equipment and technical knowledge. Knowing a clove hitch, having a belay device, and building anchors are required in traditional rock climbing.
  • Routes will be taller, usually 60-100 feet. And then there are multipitch routes that can be multiple climbs stacked on top of each other.
  • You will need a partner to climb with. A belayer is required to handle the rope and catch you if you fall.
Seneca Rocks, West Virginia is a multipitch rock climbing destination.

Many climbers participate in both of these sports. I love bouldering to train for harder sport climbing routes. And the endurance I build from longer climbing routes helps me train with a longer bouldering session.

Why are boulders called problems?

A boulder problem is a shorter climbing route that can be either exceptionally technically or physically challenging. Precise movement and sequencing can be required to send the route. Grabbing a gaston with your left hand instead of your right hand can be the difference between a send and a fall. Problems are both a mental and physical challenge.

The delicate sequence that these problems require is why bouldering is often referred to as physical problem solving. You must manipulate your body to the rock correctly to get to the top and solve the problem.

When was bouldering created?

John Gil is credited as being the creator of modern bouldering. He started out as a traditional rock climber, but his early upbringing in gymnastics inspired him to seek out gymnastic-style movements on the rock. Gil is credited with legitimizing bouldering as its own individual sport instead of just being thought of as a way to train for lead climbing.

Gil also brought other innovations from gymnastics. He introduced climbers to a moisture-wicking substance called magnesium carbonate. Better known as gym chalk! He also introduced one of the first grading systems for bouldering. The “B” Grading System could be used for any bouldering problem in any location. The system only had three grades, B1, B2, and B3.

Today the grading scale has evolved. And the climbing grades used for bouldering problems are dependent on the geographic location of the problem.

In the 1980s, bouldering mats became more prevalent which helped the sport grow even more. New problems could be climbed thanks to the protection these mats gave.

Modern Day Bouldering

Bouldering has seen exponential growth in the past few years. The sport was even added to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Daniel Woods and Jimmy Webb are two well-known American boulderers who have continued to push the limit of the sport.

USA’s First V17

The two have been a team in finding and solving hard problems. In 2019, Jimmy Webb made the first ascent of Sleepwalker after 11 days of attempts. Sleepwalker is a V16 located in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada. Nalle Hukkataival, one of the only boulderers in the world to send a V17, first attempted sleepwalker and nicknamed the problem the “Dry Nightmare Project.” Daniel Woods made the second ascent of Sleepwalker. Sleepwalker is one of the few V16s in the world that has seen a second ascent.

That wasn’t the end of Sleepwalker’s legacy though.

Daniel Woods saw that Sleepwalker could be more. Woods added 6 moves to the problem by incorporating a sit start. And after 52 days he sent Return of the Sleepwalker. The first V17 in the USA and second in the world.

What is the hardest bouldering problem?

The limits of bouldering continued to get pushed to new heights. Bouldering problems rated at V17 have been created. Daniel Woods and Nalle Hukkataival have both made first ascents of V17 problems. Daniel Woods made the first sent of Return of the Sleepwalker V17 in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada. While Nalle made the first ascent of Burden of Dreams V17 in Finland.

Red Rock Canyon, Nevada is home of one of the few V17 bouldering problems in the world.

Is bouldering hard for beginners?

Nope! Bouldering indoors is the perfect introduction for beginners. If you can climb a ladder, you can successfully climb boulder problems! If you want to start bouldering, take a look at indoor bouldering gyms near you and follow these steps.

Head to the gym, get a day pass and rent a pair of shoes and chalk. The great thing about bouldering is that it requires very little equipment to get started! Familiarize yourself with the grading system used by the gym. If you’re in North America, V Scale is the most common grading scale for bouldering grades you’ll see.

Find a V0 or VB problem and climb it just like you were climbing a ladder! Keep your arms straight and keep your weight on your feet!

Congratulations! You have successfully bouldered!

How do you solve a boulder problem?

Solving a bouldering problem is a unique type of problem-solving that combines brain and body. This means that problems are both a mental and physical challenge. Solving these problems is like solving a brain and body teaser in one.

Here are a few tips to help you solve your next boulder problem.

  • Check the bouldering grades and find a route that is at your limit.
  • Before climbing the route, visualize the movements you will make. Mime out your hand movements in the air. You want to be looking at each hold and visualizing how you will grab it and if you’ll be using your right or left hand.
  • Visualize where your feet will be. What holds will you need to be using to make the next move.
  • Think about your body position. We can use techniques like drop knees to manipulate our hips. Changing how our hips are positioned with the wall can bring our body closer to the wall and move our center of gravity. Holds that seem just out of reach can are suddenly a possibility with a drop knee.

If you’re totally stuck, ask climbers for beta! Getting insight from other climbers helps you learn new techniques that you may not have thought of before.

How do I boulder outside?

You’ve been training hard at the bouldering gym, but what if you want to test yourself against something new? What you need to do is test yourself against some outdoor boulders! What’s awesome about rock climbing is that you can train indoors for outdoor climbing!

If you’ve been bouldering indoors for a while now, we’ll assume you have climbing shoes, a chalk bag, and climbing techniques you’ve been working on. Thankfully bouldering requires a minimal amount of gear!

To head outside, we’ll just need a few more things.

Crash Pads

You will need a crash pad for bouldering outside. We wrote a novel about crash pads and highly recommend reading through that to learn more. The crash pad is a worthy investment and can serve you for a long time with proper care, treatment, and storage. If you don’t want to buy a crash pad you do have two options.

Many climbing gyms will rent pads! I was once in New York City and wanted to check out the Powerlinez bouldering. I didn’t want to lug a crash pad up there, but I was able to rent one from the Cliffs in Long Island City. Call the gyms or sporting equipment stores near you to find out more.

A climber standing atop a proud bouldering problem at the Powerlinez climbing area in New York

Your second option is to find some friends that have pads! Whenever I meet up with friends, we all bring our crash pads and then mix and match the pads based on the climb. So it’s totally normal to share crash pads with other people. The Mountain Project forums have dedicated sections for areas of the world. I’ve had great luck finding climbing partners on there. Make a post there and say you’re looking for some pads. The climbing community is helpful, friendly, and supportive. You’ll get some help!

Finding Climbing Routes

You have a few options for climbing routes. Mountain Project is a free website that has thousands of lead climbing and bouldering problems listed. You can download areas to your phone for offline use.

If I wanted to go bouldering in Bishop, California (highly recommend) Mountain Project has a ton of info for route location and route beta.

The bouldering fields of Bishop, California.

Another option is finding a local guidebook for your climbing area. This is my preferred option because purchasing the guidebook supports the local economy for the climbing area. Guidebooks are much more in-depth, have better pictures, and have more routes than Mountain Project. You can find specific guide books for rock climbing, bouldering, and other climbing disciplines (like big wall climbing!) There’s a ton of information written in books by climbers. Books on climbing are a great way to learn more about the technical aspects of the sport and to learn the history of the sport. 

Contact the local climbing shop or check online for guidebooks for the area you’re heading to.

What are the best climbing shoes for bouldering?

That’s a tricky question because “best” is subjective to the climber and the style of climbing.

For a beginner, I would recommend a shoe that has a neutral profile and is durable. Like the La Sportiva Tarantulace or the Scarpa Origin. Both of these are perfect for beginners just getting into indoor bouldering.

Rock climbing shoe quiver

As you progress, try on your friend’s shoes and check out shoe demos at your local gyms. You’ll start to discover your own likes and dislikes. The La Sportiva Solution is an excellent shoe for advanced climbers because of the aggressive downturn profile of the shoe. These shoes turn your feet into climbing talons. You can dig into any foothold for extra strength and staying on the wall.

What is a soft climbing shoe?

As you try new shoes, keep in mind how soft they are. Softness doesn’t refer to how they feel, but the flexibility of the shoe. A shoe with less rubber on the bottom will be flexible or soft. A shoe that is lined with a full rubber bottom will be inflexible, otherwise known as stiff.

Stiffness Test

Here’s a test you can try out.

If you were to fold the shoe like a taco, trying to make the toebox touch the heel, does the shoe easily fold over? Or is there some resistance in the shoe and it feels stiff? If the toebox easily touches the heel then you’re holding a soft shoe! If not, the shoe is going to be stiffer.

What is a dab in rock climbing?

A dab in rock climbing or bouldering is when your foot, head, leg, or any other body part touches something that is considered off route. A lot of bouldering problems will be a sit start, meaning you don’t start the problem standing, but while sitting on the ground.

These low to the ground problems make it easy for your back or another body part to inadvertently brush the bouldering mat below you. This would be a dab.

Dabbing isn’t the end of the world, I can think of hundreds of times my foot has popped off the hold and hit the ground. Depending on my mood, I will restart the route or I’ll just keep going. There’s no right or wrong answer here and you should do whatever you want.

However, in bouldering competitions, you will be required to restart the route due to competition rules.

How to fall in bouldering?

When traditional rock climbing, a fall means you will be caught by the rope. But in bouldering, every fall is going to result in you hitting the ground. This means you want to fall in a controlled manner to prevent injury.

Even though you don’t climb as high when bouldering, I have seen some gruesome injuries. When possible, I downclimb from the top of the climbing walls. It’s extra training and helps me work on my technique. Since that isn’t always possible, let’s review how to fall properly.

First, try and fall in a controlled manner so that you land feet first. When you’re hitting the ground, you want your feet flat to absorb the initial impact.

As your feet hit the ground, engage your biological shock absorbers – your knees!

Between the soft pad and your knees engaging, a lot of the impact has been absorbed. As you bend your knees and absorb impact, begin to roll on your back and keep your arms in front of you or crossed over your chest. You don’t want to roll over an arm or body part and introduce the risk of tweaking, breaking, or dislocating something.

Ask an employee at your climbing gym or one of your fellow climbers for extra tips! They will have their own wealth of experience to share advice from.

I hope you enjoyed this Bouldering Breakdown! It’s an incredibly fun sport and we hope to see you out on the climbing walls! Have any tips on how to improve the bouldering experience? Leave a comment below!

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Rob developed ORB to help himself categorize and find all the outdoor gear he needed at great prices. He loves writing about the outdoors and climbing. Rob is a certified Single Pitch Instructor through the AMGA.

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