Bouldering is climbing in its simplest form, sans ropes, harnesses and hardware on rock faces that are shorter than the walls at cragging areas. It’s easy to see why so many people are drawn to this type of climbing:
- It’s affordable: Gear outlay is minimal. Grab your guidebook, rock shoes, crash pad, chalk, brush and finger tape and you're good to go.
- It's accessible: No misty mountain range is required; many classic bouldering areas are accessible by car or require only a short approach hike. Bouldering is also available at any climbing gym.
- It’s social: Large groups can enjoy camaraderie and friendly competitions where everyone attempts the same problem (bouldering route). Contrast that with roped climbing where each belayer-climber duo is more isolated.
At a bouldering area you see complete newcomers to the climbing world, as well as experienced sport and trad climbers working on their craft. You also see climbers who focus exclusively on bouldering.
Common Bouldering Problems
Bouldering involves many of the same challenges as other forms of climbing, though some are encountered more often in bouldering:
Faces and slabs: A face is a flat vertical surface and a slab is a flat angled surface. Both problems test technical skill and require delicate footwork.
Overhangs: Also called “roofs,” these are rock surfaces that are relatively horizontal to the ground and directly over your head. Overhangs demand strength and power.
Traverses: Often an endurance test for boulderers, these problems involve moving sideways along a feature in the rock before topping out.
Compression problems: Requiring good endurance and solid technique, these problems frequently require the climber to “hug” a feature on the rock in order to ascend the boulder.
Highballs: A term unique to bouldering, a highball is any problem that tops out high off the ground. It might put a climber 20 feet or more off the ground, though it's really about the degree of exposure and risk presented. This is the realm of experienced boulderers.
Topping out: The final part of most bouldering problems, this refers to the final series of moves required to get you standing on the top.
Bouldering Safety and Injury Prevention
In bouldering, peeling off the rock is a constant. Rather than using a rope for protection, you use partners and padding:
Spotters: Rather than catching you, their job is to ensure your head and shoulders don't hit the ground. Having more spotters is always better.
Crash pads: These thick mats are used to cushion your fall. They must be brought to the boulders and strategically placed in your fall zone. Often more than one pad is needed to ensure ample coverage. Many gyms have permanent wall-to-wall matted flooring in their bouldering areas.
Tips for Preventing Bouldering Injuries
Even with adequate padding and proper spotting, injuries happen. Experienced boulderers hurt ankles and strain arms, shoulders, and finger tendons. Bouldering is particularly hard on skin.
You can mitigate physical problems several ways:
- Use ample padding and attentive spotters.
- Warm up beforehand.
- Chalk up, tape cuts immediately and use lotion after sessions.
- Learn how to tape fingers for added support.
Bouldering Routes and Ratings
Where to go bouldering: Friends, climbing shops and clubs can all offer local intel on good places to boulder, while guidebooks allow you to do more in-depth planning and research. You can also visit the Mountain Project to use its online Route Finder.
Bouldering ratings: The system used to rate bouldering routes in the U.S. is the V-Scale:
- VB (beginner)
- V0 (easiest) through V16 (hardest—only a few boulders with this grade exist)
Use the V-Scale to help you choose challenging, not overwhelmingly difficult, problems. If you’re already climbing hard grades on rope, be aware that the V-Scale can be discouraging. There’s no shame in trying VB routes at first. From there, you’ll progress faster than a true beginner.
Most boulderers work on a single move over and over again, dedicating hours, months or even years to a single problem. This is called working on your “project.”
- Respect other users.
- Dispose of human waste properly.
- Park and camp in designated areas.
- Stay on established trails.
- Place gear and pads on durable surfaces.
- Clean up chalk and tick marks.
- Keep a low profile, minimizing group size and noise.
- Pack out all trash, crash pads and gear.
- Respect closures.
- Be an upstander, not a bystander.
Also consider joining the Access Fund to support its work financially and to find out about local bouldering cleanup events in your area.
Safety is your responsibility. No article or video can replace proper instruction and experience. Make sure you practice proper techniques and safety guidelines before you climb.
Learn more about Getting Started Rock Climbing