As a climber who frequently boulders, I forget that bouldering isn’t widely known. Hopefully, bouldering will be a wider-known sport after people around the world watch it in the 2020 Olympics.
For those who don’t know, bouldering is a form of climbing that is harness/rope-free with pads on the ground surrounding the climbing area. Bouldering can be done outside on small rock formations or in a climbing gym with specialized bouldering areas.
Bouldering For Beginners: What You Need to Know
If you are a beginner or haven’t been bouldering before, I recommend going to a bouldering gym before bouldering outside. One of the biggest reasons for this is because falling in a bouldering gym is much less likely to cause injury than falling outside. One nice thing about a bouldering gym is that they have climbing shoes available for rent. Renting shoes is worth the additional cost as it makes climbing much easier.
The goal in a bouldering gym is to use your hands and feet on climbing holds from one color to go from the starting position (paper or tape indicate where the hand moves start) all the way to the finish hold, which is marked, or to the top of the wall, depending on the bouldering gym.
Bouldering vs Top-Rope Rock Climbing
Though bouldering and top-rope are both types of rock climbing, they are very different. For example, bouldering is a short climb with minimum equipment compared to the long climbs of top-rope climbing with a bunch of safety gear. In addition, bouldering for beginners is usually surprisingly difficult, especially if you have been climbing top-rope climbing. A rather large reason for this is because bouldering is usually more technical compared to the muscle endurance focus of top-rope climbing.
Bouldering and Top-rope also have different grading scales. In the United States (where I’m from) bouldering is on a V-grading scale starting at V0 and going as high as V13. Top-rope climbing scales start at 5.5 and go all the way to 5.15. V0-V2 are beginner levels and are most comparable to 5.9-5.11.
Compared to other types of climbing, bouldering requires the least amount of gear. In addition, any gear you need is usually available for rent at climbing gyms or at local climbing outlets. Unlike a rope or harness, bouldering gear is usually ok to use second-hand, though, if you like climbing and plan to do it a lot, investing in new gear can help with the longevity of your gear. Here is the basic gear that you will need for bouldering:
Though you can climb without shoes, climbing shoes make bouldering much easier. One of the biggest benefits of climbing shoes is that they allow you to use small holds for your feet that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to use. In addition, it supports your entire foot and toes so that you can put your entire weight on the edge of your toe.
Another piece of equipment that is for both indoor and outdoor bouldering is climbing chalk. Though this isn’t a required “tool” for climbing, it is helpful and recommended. Climbing chalk has been proven to help climbers stay on holds longer. If you are using climbing chalk outdoors, however, make sure that it is allowed at the location you want to climb. Some places don’t allow climbing chalk because it is viewed as a form of graffiti. Even if chalk is allowed you should brush off the chalk from the boulder before you leave so that the chalk doesn’t interfere with the natural beauty of a boulder.
Climbing brushes are used to clean off holds so that they are easier to grip. Brushes are usually an artificial-horsehair-type brush but I have recently learned that a lot of climbers use toothbrushes. This tool is usually for more advanced climbs and you probably don’t need one for beginner bouldering.
Equipment for Indoor Bouldering
An important piece of equipment for bouldering is a mat for falling. Unlike other types of climbing, there is no rope and harness to catch you so all falls result in a ground impact. Luckily indoor bouldering gyms have mats built into the area around the bouldering walls so you don’t need to bring your own.
Indoor bouldering gyms also usually have rock climbing shoes available for rent so you don’t have to bring your own. If you enjoy bouldering, however, getting your own pair would be helpful since gyms usually have cheaper rubber sole shoes.
Equipment for Outdoor Bouldering
Unlike bouldering gyms, you have to bring your own falling mats. Some outdoor recreation outlets provide mats for rent so you can check your local stores for that. Make sure that you bring enough mats for the coverage area that you need for your intended climb.
In addition to the items you can carry on your back, you should never go bouldering outdoors by yourself. Make sure that you bring a friend to move mats under you if needed it to be moved during a climb and to spot you. Unlike indoor bouldering gyms, the mats that are portable don’t cover a lot of area so a spotter can direct/push you onto the mat instead of falling on the ground.
Bouldering Indoors vs Bouldering Outdoors
Bouldering indoors is very different from bouldering outdoors. For the most part, many climbers believe that bouldering outdoors is more difficult but it may just be that some climbers are better at the different types of challenges you can find in the gym vs. the types of challenges you can find in nature.
Bouldering indoors includes artificial rocks that are bolted into a wall and it is very uncommon for a hold to come loose, move or break. Bouldering outdoors, however, there is a higher likelihood that a handhold brakes or crumbles. Usually, you avoid rock that crumbles, but I recently heard about a climb that used to be a V7 and is now a V6 level because one of the holds at the beginning broke off and created a larger surface making it an easier climb.
In addition, indoor bouldering has a similar texture and grips for each climbing route but outdoor bouldering has different types of texture depending on the rock type. For example, granite has a completely different texture and feeling than sandstone so you have to adjust your climbing style to compensate. This is something that most climbers are able to adjust easily and quickly, but it can affect the level of difficulty you can climb.
Nature vs Artificial Environments
It is more common to see climbers wearing shorts while bouldering indoors compared to bouldering outdoors because the only obstacles for indoor bouldering is the holds and wall. Bouldering outdoors includes weeds or rough rock that causes scratches as well as other critters such as lizards or spiders that can startle or bite you. Outdoor bouldering is usually low enough to the ground that you don’t have to worry about bats flying out in front of your face but I have seen birds startle climbers.
The Mental Game
There are a couple of things regarding the mental game of climbing indoors vs outdoors. One of the more obvious “mind games” is that indoor climbing is in a controlled space so you don’t have to worry about the stability of handholds and there is usually a lot of padding around you if you fall. In comparison, outdoor bouldering forces you to trust that you put a thick enough pad in the right places for where you climb and potentially fall.
A less obvious “mind game” is knowing if you are on the climbing route that is the level you intended to climb and if the intended climb is possible to finish. When you are in the gym, routes are created by professional setters (setters are people that create the climbing route/problem) and are labeled with specific difficulties so you know that they have a certain level of difficulty and have been built to be completed.
There is limited equipment needed to start bouldering (especially compared to top-rope climbing) so it is relatively easy to get started as a beginner compared to other climbing sports and is worth trying out. Bouldering is a fun activity that can be done indoors or outdoors. Bouldering indoors is different from bouldering outdoors so if you are a beginner, I would recommend bouldering indoors at a bouldering gym first to try it out. That way you are in a controlled environment with the most safety mats around you for falls. Once you become more experience, bring an experience climbing friend to go bouldering outdoors.