The Beginner’s Guide to Bouldering

In Good to Know, Pro Advice by Pete

What is Bouldering?

Bouldering is the simplest form of climbing, where harnesses and ropes are unnecessary and the climber’s goal is to scale small but tricky “boulder problems” (established routes or sequences on a boulder) with padded mats protecting the climber should he or she fall. Climbers tend to love bouldering or hate it. It’s a unique climbing discipline because of the fact that boulderers stay so close to the ground. The routes are drastically shorter than what the average person imagines when they think of rock climbing. Routes are usually somewhere between six and twenty feet long. These small boulders pale in comparison to the three thousand foot trad climbs on El Capitan, and many climbers who climb for the adventure don’t find much enjoyment in the sport of bouldering. Nevertheless, bouldering is a hugely popular sport and many climbers prefer bouldering over other styles of climbing because the short boulder problems require so much technique, power, and focus, but not weeks of expedition planning and scheduling. Spontaneity can run freely in a boulderer’s thinking, while mountaineering requires weeks or even months of planning, permit-gathering, hotel-booking, visa-acquiring, passport-updating, telephoning, and a whole lot of cash flowing out quickly.

Is This a Problem?

The term “problem” is a peculiar one. Usually, it means something negative that enters your life and it must be dealt with, much to your dismay. However, in the sport of bouldering, a problem is defined as a route or sequence of moves that need to be accomplished. Problems are actually “good” things! Boulderers often think of boulder problems as a puzzle: with enough thought, experimentation, and practice, climbers can unlock the beta or sequence of a problem, and then a move that once felt impossible becomes doable. Other climbers think of bouldering as practice, and use it as part of their training, both outside and in the gym, to gain strength, power, and technique that they can apply to hard sport and trad climbs.

Bouldering History

Nobody knows exactly when people first started bouldering, but there’s a fair amount of documentation suggesting that Fontainebleau was the first established bouldering area, as climbers recorded scrambling around on those boulders as early as the late 1800s. The first boulderers didn’t give a name to their activity, as most of them were simply practicing for bigger climbs in the Alps, but by the 1930s boulderers were beginning to expand the boundaries of the sport, climbing more difficult problems and pushing back against the idea that bouldering was just a form of training for bigger climbs. John Gill became a pioneer of modern bouldering in the United States in the 1950s. Gill had a gymnastics background, and he introduced chalk to the sport as well as inspiring a more gymnastic style of climbing with powerful, dynamic movements. His essay The Art of Bouldering, published in the American Alpine Journal in 1969, argued that bouldering was a legitimate style of climbing and a sport in its own right, and for many, this essay marks the beginning of modern bouldering.

The V Scale

By the 1990s, bouldering had increased in popularity across the US and the world. John Sherman, a Hueco Tanks local, invented the V Scale around this time as a way to grade the difficulty of boulder problems in his local area. Eventually, his grading system spread to other areas, and the V Scale is now the standard grading system for boulders in the US and much of North America.
The following chart shows how V Grades compare to other popular grading systems.

source: squamishclimbing.com

It’s important to note that the comparisons between climbing grades are not always perfectly straightforward. According to the conversion chart, a V4 is approximately the same difficulty as a 5.11+, but many climbers who can climb V4 boulder problems cannot climb 5.11+ and vice versa. Sport and trad climbs require significantly more endurance than boulder problems, and often the grade of the climb represents the difficulty of the single hardest move, so a trad climber who can climb one 5.11+ move amid 90 feet of 5.10+ climbing might have a hard time climbing V4 because a V4 boulder problem might have three powerful V4 moves right in a row. Similarly, a boulderer who consistently sends V4 boulder problems might have a very hard time climbing 5.11+ because they aren’t accustomed to linking so many moves together, even if they are moves that fall well within their physical limits. Different climbing areas can also vary greatly in terms of how climbs are graded. Some areas are notoriously “soft” (the grades are generous; routes that feel like V2 are graded V3) or “sandbagged” (a route rated V0 feels harder than your V3 project) so it’s a good idea not to get too caught up in the grades.

Equipment

Bouldering is a great sport for new climbers due to the fact that it requires very little equipment. If you’re bouldering in a gym where the floors are padded and the consequences are low, all you’ll need is a chalk bag and a pair of climbing shoes. If you’re bouldering outside you’ll need a pad too, but either way, the list below should help you get started acquiring the basic equipment you need.

● Chalk

When it comes to choosing a chalk bag you pretty much can’t go wrong. Pick one that closes tightly with a drawstring so you don’t spill chalk all over your climbing pack or your car, and make sure you can fit your whole hand in the bag comfortably. Everyone has different chalk preferences, so you’ll have to try a few in order to decide what you like. Most people use loose chalk when climbing outside, but many gyms require climbers to use chalk balls to maintain better air quality in the facility, and although I’ve never met anyone who uses it, I know that somewhere out there somebody prefers liquid chalk, which comes in a tube and coats your hands, keeping them dryer longer so you don’t have to chalk up as much. When choosing your loose chalk, check the ingredients. Some chalk, like the Metolius Super Chalk, contains drying agents in addition to plain old gym chalk. This works great for some people but it might dry out your skin or cuticles if you have sensitive skin so make sure you know what you’re putting on your hands.

● Shoes

Most boulderers wear tight-fitting, aggressive climbing shoes. Boulderers only have to wear their shoes for a few minutes at a time, so many choose to sacrifice comfort for performance, wearing shoes that are significantly smaller than their street shoes. Tight shoes tend to be more precise and allow boulderers to stand on the tiniest crystals, but if you’re just starting out there’s no need to wear uncomfortable shoes. Especially if you’re climbing in the gym, it’s a good idea to buy a pair of comfortable, inexpensive shoes for your first pair. As you become stronger, develop better footwork, and start climbing problems with smaller footholds, you can think about upgrading to a more aggressive pair of shoes. If bouldering is your primary climbing style, then tight, aggressive shoes might work well for you. If you want shoes that you can sport climb, trad climb, and boulder in, then your best bet is to opt for a pair of shoes that are comfortable enough to wear for a couple hours at a time but still tight and precise enough that you can feel confident standing on small holds.

● Crash Pad

The crash pad is the boulderer’s most important piece of equipment because it is what protects the climber from hitting the ground. There are tons of different brands, sizes, and styles of crash pads out there and any one of them will be better than falling on the ground. When buying a crash pad, you should think about a number of things when deciding which one to buy: First, consider the size of the pad. If you’re going to be bouldering alone or none of your friends have crash pads, then you probably want to buy a large pad so you can cover most of your landing zone with one pad, but you also want to make sure that the pad will fit in your car (or on the bus or on your back while you’re riding your bike) so you can get it to the boulders. If your buddies all have pads and you go out as a group, then you’ll probably be ok with a standard-size pad. Next you’ll want to think about how much you’ll be using your pad. If you’re only going to use it once or twice a month, you can probably opt for a cheap pad. These pads will protect you equally well from a fall, but the lower quality foam will get soft faster, which means that eventually you’ll start to “bottom out” or feel the ground through the foam, at which point you’ll probably have to replace your pad. If you plan to boulder a lot, you’ll probably want to go ahead and buy a more expensive pad with higher quality foam that will stay firmer longer. Outdoor Gear Lab published an awesome, in-depth review of ten of the most popular pads, which is a great starting point if you’re trying to figure out which pad is best for you. Their review only covers Mad Rock, Black Diamond, and Metolius pads but you can also find plenty of threads on Mountain Project claiming that Organic, Asana, Flashed, Voodoo, and Misty Mountain make the best pads out there, so look around and see which pad calls to you (or is in stock near you, since shipping a huge chunk of foam can cost a pretty penny!)

● Beanie

The beanie is the stylistic staple of every boulderer’s wardrobe: versatile enough to wear in cold temps with a hoodie or on a summer afternoon without a shirt.

Safety Precautions

Although boulderers stay relatively close to the ground, boulderers seem to get injured more than climbers who climb on ropes. This is because when you’re bouldering, every fall is a ground fall. The best way to protect yourself from injury while bouldering is to prepare as much as possible for each fall; this list below should help you prepare before you even leave the ground.

1. Assess the landing zone

Be sure to study the area underneath the boulder problem you want to climb. Is it possible to pad the entire landing zone, or are there obstacles (other boulders, trees, a steep hill, etc.) that prevent you from padding that area? Do the pads lie flat, or are there gaps or inconsistencies where you might roll an ankle?

2. Place your Crash Pads

Cover as much of the landing zone as possible with pads, ensuring that there are minimal gaps between pads, and all pads are about the same height. Assess the problem. If there is an obvious crux, make sure that the area below the crux is well-padded and gap-free. Consider stacking pads under the top-out on tall boulder problems.

3. Have Good Spotters

Spotting is the job of friends and onlookers. While the climber is climbing, spotters standby at the ready to make sure that the climber falls smoothly onto the pads. This usually means ensuring that the climber’s doesn’t hit their head, but it might also mean redirecting the climber if they are taking a weird fall (i.e. a sideways fall or a fall where they might land head, arm, or side first instead of onto their feet, butt, or back). Spotters are also responsible for rearranging the pads as the climber progresses to ensure that the landing zone is adequately protected. The spotters’ goal is never to catch the climber, as this would be dangerous for everyone involved, and sometimes on short boulders, a spotter won’t even be necessary. It’s the climber’s job to communicate to their spotters what they expect of them. Check out this article on good spotting technique to learn the basics.

4. Know how to Fall

The more you fall, the better you’ll get at knowing how to fall in positions that don’t hurt. In the gym, when there are uniform pads everywhere, it’s easy to commit to tall problems and fall off since most landings won’t hurt too much, but outside the consequences are generally more intense and severe.
That means it’s important to think about how to fall correctly to protect yourself from injury. Check out this article for technique tips, and try to apply them even when you’re climbing inside to turn the tips into habit.

No Fall Zones

If there are any parts of the landing zone that can’t be protected by pads, you’d call that area a No Fall Zone. Some really tall boulder problems, or “highballs” have No Fall Zones at the top because even if the pads cover the landing zone, the fall is so big that injury is likely. Other climbs have a No-Fall Zone because of a boulder on the ground or a tree branch or something. It’s okay to climb a problem with a No-Fall Zone, but you’ll need to assess the route ahead of time and determine whether you think you can climb it safely. If you are a V6 climber and the No-Fall Zone is a short section of V0 moves then you might still feel like you can climb the route safely, but if the No-Fall Zone is the crux of a V4 and you’ve only climbed V4 once before, then you’re probably better off choosing another route altogether.

Non-Falling Injuries:

Bouldering can be hard on your body even if you don’t fall. In order to protect yourself from overuse injuries or muscle or tendon injuries, you should start slow! Climbers tend to get overuse injuries because they climb too much too quickly. Climbing is really fun and a lot of people even describe it as addictive, which sometimes makes it hard to take days off. When you first start climbing though, it’s really important to take rest days and let your body heal between bouldering sessions. It can be tempting to climb every day but you’ll actually improve faster and climb better if you take two or three days off each week. If you’re really obsessed with climbing, you can get away with climbing most days by varying the types of climbing you do. Intersperse your hard bouldering days with long, easy trad climbing days or a short climb with a long approach, but make sure you still take at least one full rest day every week.

It’s also very important to warm up before getting on hard boulder problems. You can do this by climbing easy, juggy (lots of big hand holds) boulder problems or doing some laps on the auto-belay at the gym, or even just by doing some dynamic arm and finger exercises before you start climbing. Warming up is especially important if your fingers are going to be working hard, like if you’re climbing a route where you have to crimp on small holds. Injuries to the finger pulleys are really common among boulderers because those finger tendons take a long time to get strong. When you first start bouldering you’ll probably notice that your upper body strength increases really quickly. Your back muscles, forearms, and shoulders will get strong fast, but tendons take longer to strengthen and therefore are prone to injury if you push too hard too fast. Take your time when moving up through the grades. Master your technique on easier routes before attempting the next grade up and give your body ample time to heal and strengthen as you progress. Most importantly, listen to your body! You can’t rush your tendons. If they hurt, you need to give them a break and let them heal. Pulley injuries can bench climbers for months, so conservative is best when it comes to approaching finger pain.

Training for Bouldering:

When you first start bouldering the best way to get better is to just keep bouldering. Whether you’re bouldering outside or at the gym, you’ll probably notice yourself improving fairly quickly at the beginning without any additional training. At a certain point, usually around the V3 or V4 grade, a lot of people hit a plateau where they feel like they were moving through the grades really quickly and all of a sudden they’re stuck. This is perfectly normal, and many people continue to just boulder without any additional training and eventually break through this plateau and continue to improve. Others opt to start some type of training regimen. There are tons of sources out there that all offer different advice on how to train for rock climbing, and this is because everybody is different so different things work for different people. I’ll offer a list of different things you train outside of your regular climbing routine to improve your bouldering:

1. Core strength

Your “core” refers in a general sense, to the midsection of your body including your abdominal muscles along with muscles in your lower back, sides, and chest. Core strength is extremely important in bouldering. You might hear people out at the boulders encouraging their friends by saying things like “stay tight” or “stay on!” What they’re talking about is keeping your core tight and keeping your feet on the wall. When you’re climbing a steep or overhanging boulder problem, your core muscles are what help you keep your feet on the wall. If your core isn’t strong enough you might notice that your feet slip off holds or you have trouble staying in a horizontal or near-horizontal position. Sometimes it’s enough to simply acknowledge this fact and practice actively engaging your core while climbing. Some people make exaggerated noises (think the Adam Ondra Scream or Chris Sharma’s “Passat” noise) because the act forcing out air causes your core to engage, but you might also want to do specific core-strengthening exercises to get stronger. There are tons of ab specific workout videos and programs to choose from, so do some research and see if there’s one you like. Try to find a routine that hits your upper abs, lower abs, and obliques, and then do it two or three times each week.

2. Flexibility

Flexibility is really important in bouldering, and perhaps even more so than any other climbing discipline. The reason is that short boulder problems can require you to put your body in some weird positions. Most climbers tend to focus their training on the upper body, but when it comes to flexibility you really want to focus on your lower half, especially your hips, hamstrings, and glutes. Flexibility in these three areas will not only allow you to use higher footholds and wider stances, but it will also help protect you from injuries that boulderers often sustain from heel hooking. You can train flexibility through yoga, whether at a class or on your own, or simply by following a stretching routine a few times each week.

3. Technique

Many people don’t think about training technique, but training technique will probably help your climbing more than any other type of training. You can go about training technique in a variety of ways: You can climb with stronger, more experienced climbers and take note of what techniques and movements they use to get through hard sections; You can read books and learn new techniques; You can take a class at a local climbing gym if it’s offered; You can watch videos of professional climbers. Many climbers allow technique to progress naturally, but if you set aside some extra time each week to actually focus on technique and try to learn new strategies, you might notice that your climbing improves more quickly.

4. Finger strength

Most climbers will tell you not to worry about finger strength for the first two years as a climber. For this beginning period it’s important to let your finger strength progress naturally, but eventually, you’ll reach a point where you want to specifically target your finger and grip strength in your training. At that point, you can start doing hangboard workouts. Just like all the other types of training I’ve talked about, there are a million and a half different ways you can train on a hangboard, so you can start with this article from Climbing Magazine and then ask around or do some internet searching to see what you like.

Example of Outdoor Bouldering in Colorado

Where to Boulder

Your local gym is a great place to start bouldering and it’s also a great place to meet people who frequent the local outdoor climbing areas. If you don’t have a gym nearby or you prefer to only climb outside, you can check out Mountain Project for in-depth information on climbing areas as well as forums where you can ask questions or look for partners. I’ll also include a short list of some of the best bouldering areas in the US:

Tuolumne Meadows, CA
Bishop, CA
Joshua Tree, CA
Leavenworth, WA
Red Rock, NV
Joe’s Valley, UT
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Hueco Tanks, TX
Devil’s Lake, WI
Horse Pens 40, AL
Rocktown, GA
Stone Fort, TN
The Gunks, NY
Squamish, BC, Canada (a world-class bouldering destination, located just 1.5 hours from the US-Canada border in Washington)

For more information about bouldering, check out the following books and sources:
Bouldering: Movement, Tactics, and Problem Solving by Peter Beal
Better Bouldering (How to Climb Series) by John Sherman
Bouldering Essentials: The Complete Guide to Bouldering by David Flanagan and Johnny Dawes

The Beginner’s Guide to Bouldering was last modified: April 27th, 2019 by Pete