As a beginner climber, you are likely noticing your skill level improving quickly and proof of that is in the bouldering grades that you keep leveling up through. Bouldering grades are the level of difficulty that a route is. The harder the route, the higher the grade.
You may be visiting different gyms in your area or have tried outdoor climbs and noticed that the grades aren’t as black and white as they seem on paper. In this beginners guide, we go over everything that goes into bouldering grades and what you need to know.
Table of Contents
- What Are Bouldering Grades?
- V-Grade Vs Font Scale
- Bouldering Grade Conversion Chart and Difficulty Scale
- Other Bouldering Grades
- Bouldering (V-Scale) Vs Climbing (YDS)
- Bouldering Grades Indoor Vs. Outdoor
- How Are Grades Decided?
- Route Classifications
- Related Questions
- What Does the V stand for on the V-Scale?
- What Is The Highest Bouldering Grade?
- What Is A Good Bouldering Grade?
- Is Climbing a V4 Good?
- How Difficult Is Bouldering?
- Link to article about how climbing routes are graded
- How Do You Start A Bouldering Problem?
- Who Are The Best Climbers In The World?
- Is Bouldering Harder Than Climbing?
What Are Bouldering Grades?
Bouldering grades are the scales of difficulty that a route is. There are many types of bouldering grades around the world. The most popular are the V grading scale and the Font Scale.
The V-Scale was published in 1991 and was originally created to be an “Ego Yard-Stick,” according to Climbing.com. It is most popular in the U.S. but is commonly used in China, Australia, Brazil and Argentina.
The Font Scale is the world standard for bouldering and it’s most popular in Europe, Russia, Iran, Turkey, South Africa and Peru. Most boulderers in the advanced and professional difficulty level of climbing know the Font scale just as well if they live where the V-Scale is most popular.
The B-Scale was the original universal climbing grading scale, though you rarely see it anymore and it is mostly just part of the climbing history books.
Other Scales/Grading Systems
Many countries have a specific grading system and even local gyms have their own grading systems.
I once went to a gym in Denver CO and they used an A,B,C scale with + or – symbols to indicate an additional breakdown of the level of difficulty from easy, intermediate and advanced.
Here are the most popular “other” systems:
- Japanese Dankyu (Common in Japan)
- United Kingdom Technical
V-Grade Vs. Font Scale
The two most popular grading scales are the V-Grade system, which is popular in the U.S. and the Font Scale which is popular in Europe.
For the most part, understanding the two different scales and comparing them doesn’t matter, however, here are three common reasons you may want to compare the two grading scales:
- Traveling/climbing around the world
- Watching climbers on YouTube and want to compare climbing levels
- Trying to use the Moon Board in the U.S. and need to convert grading scales
The grading scales don’t line up perfectly with each other, but below is a conversion and difficulty scale to help
Bouldering Grade Conversion Chart and Difficulty Scale
Bouldering Vs. Rock Climbing Grading System
When it comes to bouldering and rock climbing, there are different grading systems. The most popular grading system in the US for rock climbing is Yosemite Decimal System (YDS).
V-Scale to YDS Conversion and Difficulty Scale
I hesitated in including this conversion because the skill-set, strength and endurance needed to rock climb is so different from bouldering and isn’t easily comparable.
For example, bouldering is usually a more power-driven route and rock climbing is a more endurance-driven route so even if someone can climb a V9, they may not be able to climb a 5.10 because they don’t have the energy/endurance to get to the top. So even though they are capable of doing the moves (how the conversion chart works), they may not be able to finish the route.
Bouldering Grades Indoor Vs. Outdoor
Many climbers explain that it is usually more difficult to climb outdoors than it is to climb indoors, even if they are marked at the same grade. Many climbers argue that “indoor grades are easier than outdoor grades,” however, there is a lot more to it.
Bouldering grades are based on the hardest move and different techniques that you need to use to get to the top. With indoor bouldering, you can place handholds and footholds in the exact angle and measurement of a climb outdoors, which makes the bouldering grade the exact same indoors and outdoors.
However, many climbers that try duplicating climbs from the outside to the inside suggest that it never “feels” as hard as when it is outside.
There are many possible reasons for this but the most likely reasons are the mental aspects of climbing. Your mind goes through a pain-avoidance process so if you are likely to get hurt doing something, your mind will enact some sort of fear that makes it harder for you to bring yourself to do it.
In the case of climbing, the pain you may get from falling makes it so that your brain tries to make you afraid of making a big move or changing your balance by enacting the fear of falling.
Your chances of getting hurt while bouldering indoors is usually minimal so that fear of falling is minimal. However, the chance of getting hurt while bouldering outdoors is much higher and the fear of falling becomes more paralyzing.
Even if you aren’t aware of the fear, your mind will have a harder time allowing you to reach as far and/or allowing you to move your body in dynamic ways, making the same movement that you would do indoors more difficult than if you were to do it outdoors.
In my blog post “Is Bouldering Outdoors Harder Than Indoors,” I go through a comparison of many things that make a climb difficult and how that relates to indoor vs outdoor bouldering
How Are Grades Decided?
As scientific as climbers try to make grading a route, it is far from being internationally or even regionally established.
Grades/the difficulty of a climb is decided by a community of climbers and then printed in a guide book and published it online. There are basic guidelines for what the community of climbers look at when deciding the grade, but it is still heavily subjective.
Common Considerations When Grading A Climb
- What techniques are needed to complete the climb
- How long is the route
- How the route compares to other climbs in the area
- How the route compares to other climbs that the deciding community has climbed
How Are Bouldering Routes Graded?
Below is a quick summary of the steps involved with grading a bouldering route:
- A climber sends the route
- The climber decides what grade it is
- The climber reports what they think the grade should be on a boulder route database
- Other climbers complete the route, decide what they think the grade should be and then reports it on a route database
- Someone authoring a guidebook reviews the grades reported and comes to their own conclusion
- The author records their conclusion in a guidebook that gets published
- Climbers use the guidebook and communicate with other climbers about the guidebook
- Steps 1-7 continues till the end of time when the rock no longer exists
In my blog post “How Are Climbing Routes Graded,” I review the process for how a grade is established/printed/published for a route (including what the climbing “community” is) and the most common techniques considered for each grade
Since grading routes isn’t a perfect system, there are many criticisms of the grading system. Since listing all of them would be a novel’s worth of content, here are the three most common criticisms:
- Routes in one region that are of a similar difficulty are graded completely differently in another region. This is heavily related to gym grading systems but it is also common with outdoor routes because the community of climbers using those routes have different experiences than climbing communities of another region and thus think the difficulty of the climb is different.
- Outdoor route difficulty changes environmental conditions and climbers use. For example, a heavy rain storm or earthquake can change the face of a rock or even a climber accidentally breaking off a handhold, thus changing the route. However, the route grade doesn’t usually change for at least a year after the incident.
In addition to the basic grading systems, there are also route classifications. These classifications usually indicate if you need to use your hands and feet vs just hiking so it is only useful when planning a day of climbing or a climbing trip and you need to be aware of how strenuous it is to get to the crag and not just the crag.
- Class 1: Hiking. This is any trail that doesn’t require any use of your hands and you can maintain balance easily on your feet.
- Class 2: Simple scrambling. This is mostly hiking but have some spots that may require the use of your hands on occasion.
- Class 3: Scrambling. This is a trail that will require the use of your hands and it may be a good idea to carry a rope.
- Class 4: Simple climbing. A rope is commonly used for safety and falling could be fatal.
- Class 5: Rock Climbing. This is where the rock climbing YDS system begins, hence the “5.” before the rest of the YDS grade. Though this is technically also where bouldering grades begin as well.
What Does the V stand for on the V-Scale?
V stands for Vermin, which was a nick-name for the person who created the V-Scale, Hueco Tanks. Hueco Tanks was a famous climber from Texas that created the V-Scale as a joke and considered the scale an “ego yardstick.”
What Is The Highest Bouldering Grade?
The V-Scale grading system doesn’t have a cap, meaning that there isn’t a “this is the hardest bouldering grade.”
The hardest route recorded is V16 to date. Though there haven’t been many climbers to collaborate that grade so the grade of that climb has been questioned in the climbing community.
Most professional climbers (including olympians) don’t climb over a V14.
At one point in history, outdoor climbing was the only option and you had to use Trad Gear like nuts to make your way up the wall. During this point in history, it was thought that 5.10 was the hardest route (pre V-Scale grading) possible for anyone to climb.
Eventually the process of drilling in bolts and the creation of lead climbing and aid climbing made it so that climbers were comfortable trying more difficult routes and humans pushed passed the 5.10 barrier and some climbers are able to climb over 5.14.
What Is A Good Bouldering Grade?
Many people when they start climbing want to know if they are good at bouldering and thus want to know what grade you should be climbing before you can consider yourself “good.”
Though there isn’t a clear guideline for what grade is “good,” most climbers feel like beginner climbers until they reach the V6 Grade.
After reaching V6, you can usually participate in regional bouldering competition and sometimes state comps, though the bigger the competition, the higher the grade you need to be able to climb.
Professional Climbers Grades
- Olympic climber Kyra Condi (one of the best climbers in the US) can climb V12
- Olympic climber Nathaniel Coleman (one of the best boulderers in the world) can climb V14
- Free Solo super star Alex Honnold can climb v14
The fact of the matter is, however, that most people can’t climb a V3 with natural ability (even if they are crossfit champions) so even being able to climb a V4 is “good.”
One nice thing about the climbing community is that we’ve all been a beginner so it is unlikely that someone will tell you that you “aren’t good.” Well, unless you taunt them like an immature monkey.
Is Climbing a V4 Good?
Once you get to the V3 and V4 grades, you have to combine strength with technique and skill, which takes a lot of time and energy to master so it is a good climbing grade. You should be proud of yourself for reaching that far.
Most climbers feel like beginners until they reach V6 but it is more accurate to suggest that V6 is when you are better than the majority of other climbers around the world.
How Difficult Is Bouldering?
Bouldering requires a lot of strength in addition to technique and skills so it is considered very difficult. Even among climbers, bouldering is recognized as one of the most technically oriented and powerful move climbing disciplines there is.
In my article “Is Bouldering Hard,” I explore the different aspects of bouldering and what makes it difficult.
How Do You Start A Bouldering Problem?
One of the first things you learn when bouldering is how to start a bouldering problem. Before getting on the rock, you should review the entire problem (also known as route) and consider what moves and where you need to go (the beta) so that when you are ready to climb, you can implement the moves without needing to take extra energy to figure it out while you are hanging on.
When you are ready to climb you will need to place your hands on the starting holds and your feet on an established part of the wall.
Established routes outdoors and routes indoors usually have a set starting holds. For example, in a bouldering gym, the starting holds have tags on them.
With both hands on the starting holds, you place your feet on the rock (indoor climbs require you to use only footholds that are established in that route whereas with outdoor boulders you can place your feet anywhere).
Once your hands and feet are on the wall and you are in control of your movement, you can move to the next holds.
Who Are The Best Climbers In The World?
There are many famous climbers and many that have documented their giant feets in books and documentaries but it is difficult to decide who is the best. With that being said, these are the 10 best climbers I’m familiar with and confident in saying I don’t know of better climbers.
- Alex Lowe (Died in 1991)
- Conrad Anker
- Adam Ondra
- Ashima Shiraishi
- Daniel Woods
- Jain Kim
- Janja Garnbret
- Shauna Coxsey
- Bassa Mawem
- Sean McColl
RedBull released their list of top 11 climbers in the world today, and though I agree that all 11 are all among the best in the world, they are also all sponsored by RedBull so who is to say that RedBull sponsors the top 11 in the world… So there may be some funny business in their line up.
This is such a cute bouldering kit from So iLL! You can get everything you need for bouldering (besides shoes) all in one kit, which is so cute! Get the pricing details from REI here.
Is Bouldering Harder Than Climbing
Bouldering requires more dynamic strength and technique whereas climbing requires more endurance and overall strength. With that being the case, for climbers that are more technique and dynamic climbing-oriented, bouldering is easier. And for climbers that have more endurance and overall strength, bouldering is harder.
Bouldering and climbing are both climbing disciplines and there are many differences. In my article Bouldering vs Climbing, I outline differences in the gear, the physical demand, cultural/social and mental differences that separate the two and based on these differences, consider which one is more difficult