What Is Bouldering When Rock Climbing?

What Is Bouldering When Rock Climbing? 

You’ve gone rocking climbing several times and you love it. You’re ready to take on your next challenge, and a buddy recommends bouldering. You haven’t heard of bouldering, but you must admit, your interest is certainly piqued. What is bouldering when rock climbing?

Bouldering is a form of rock climbing that foregoes all harnesses and ropes. You’d climb a rock formation outdoors or indoors. Many climbers use bouldering mats to catch them if they fall. 

This complete guide to bouldering will be jam-packed full of useful information. You’ll learn how bouldering and rock climbing are different, the types of bouldering, and what in the world the bouldering rating systems are.  

Let’s get started! 

What Is Bouldering? How Is It Different Than Traditional Rock Climbing?

Bouldering and rock climbing share a lot in common. In the two activities, you climb a rock face, either a real one or a wall that’s manmade. Both forms of climbing can be done indoors or outdoors depending on your preferences.

So what’s the difference between bouldering and rock climbing? That’s easy. The former foregoes harnesses and ropes. As we touched on during the intro and as we’ll discuss more shortly, this does not mean that bouldering climbers don’t use any form of equipment, as they usually do.

However, they will not be attached to anything as they climb. If that unnerves you, that’s fair. 

If you’re looking for dynamism in climbing, bouldering has it, even more so than traditional rock climbing. Since you can’t rely on a harness or rope, you must have the power to push yourself up over a rock cliff.

Many boulderers–the name for climbers who enjoy bouldering–will spend considerable time training their forearms and fingers so they can get a better grip on the rocks and ward off injuries. 

Outside of upper-body strength, boulderers have very powerful legs. Their legs are what they use to pull themselves up to the summit. 

The Types of Bouldering

Now that you understand bouldering a bit better, especially in relation to traditional rock climbing, let’s delve into the different types of bouldering. 

Indoor Bouldering

When it rains or the temperatures turn too cold for outdoor expeditions, there’s always indoor bouldering. 

Real cliff walls have what are referred to as problems. No, not problems as in an issue with something, but rather, characteristics of the rock wall. For instance, sandstone’s trademark is a deep overhang.

Indoor bouldering walls will replicate realistic cliff wall problems. You’re likely to find indoor bouldering walls at climbing gyms as well as other facilities. The walls are made of a combination of concrete (usually for the shell), polymer cement, and wood for the base. Some indoor climbing walls even take molds of real cliffs and rock walls!

Throughout the wall are holds, and these are where the climbing problems come from. The holds are usually plastic but might be made of another durable material. If the holds are color-coded, that’s to denote difficulty level. 

As boulderers navigate an indoor climbing wall, they can usually select from several problems in the vicinity. Colored holds can make this easier to do. 

Outdoor Bouldering

When bouldering on real rock walls, the problems are randomly scattered throughout the cliffside according to the rules of nature. 

As we touched on earlier, if it’s a sandstone wall you’re bouldering, then the overhangs are quite steep. You might also notice breaks throughout, usually horizontal. A granite rock wall has long slabs and cracks that boulderers can grab onto as they ascend. 

Outside of sandstone and granite, boulderers frequently favor volcanic rock and limestone. 

In many parts of the country and well outside of it, you’ll find a variety of famed rock walls that are perfect for bouldering. Some dedicated boulderers travel the world to climb such sites as Zimbabwe’s Chimanimani or Spain’s Albarracin. 

Highball Bouldering 

The third and final type of bouldering is known as highball bouldering. Boulderers will select the tallest, longest, steepest, and overall the most difficult outdoor cliffs and walls to climb. The size of these rocks is usually massive, with some of them the equivalent of a house and others larger still.

The average height of a highball boulder is 15 feet, but some boulderers believe you’re only highball bouldering once you reach heights of 35 to 40 feet. 

Bouldering Equipment – Here’s What You Need

John Sherman, one of the most renowned boulderers, once famously uttered that “the only gear really needed to go bouldering is boulders.” Some old-school boulderers agree with Sherman’s stance while others will bring at least some equipment with them.

Let’s discuss what you might deem necessary to use when bouldering.

Bouldering Mat

Just because boulderers don’t wear a harness or rope when climbing doesn’t mean they want to fall. Many will use a bouldering mat they place on the ground. Then they’ll begin climbing. Bouldering mats are frequently seen when outdoor bouldering but can be used indoors as well. 

The mat is usually made of foam or another thick, soft, durable material. The size of a bouldering mat is about the equivalent of a mattress; the most popular type of bouldering mat is referred to as a bi-fold mattress likely for that reason. A bi-fold mattress is three feet by four feet with about four inches of foam.

Some boulderers use thinner mats for sitting on before they start. If your bi-fold mattress has any gaps, a smaller, thinner mattress can certainly come in handy for plugging those gaps. 

The foam used in a bouldering mat is not the same throughout. Some of the foam is higher-density, usually at the top for standing on or laying down on the mat. There may be as many as two to three other types of foam in a bouldering mat as well. 

Hand Chalk

Many boulderers swear by gymnastics hand chalk. They’d tote the chalk around in a chalk bag, usually carrying it on their gear at their waist. By coating their hands with chalk, a boulderer can ensure a good grip. 

In keeping the chalk bag close, a boulderer is free to refresh the chalk on their hands whenever they begin sweating or otherwise lose their grip on the rock walls. Gymnastics hand chalk has awesome sweat resistance. 

Climbing Shoes

Arguably the most important piece of equipment in a boulderer’s arsenal is their shoes. 

Climbing shoes allow the boulderer to grip their feet into a foothold, whether that’s a manmade hold or a natural one in a cliffside. The shoes come in plenty of styles, from high-tops to athletic-style shoes and everything in between. 

A pair of climbing shoes are supposed to fit more tightly than most sports shoes. The fit keeps your footwork steady and sure. Asymmetric toe boxes lend you space to move your toes so you can flex and grip. A downward angle of the toes keeps you sharp when climbing.   

Bouldering Grades 101

Bouldering problems are assigned a grade, the criteria and rating of which varies depending on the bouldering grading system used. Here is an overview of the types of bouldering grading systems you might encounter.

Japanese Dankyu Grading System

Unless you’re bouldering in Japan, then you don’t need to concern yourself with the Dankyu grading system, but we thought we’d discuss it anyway. The name combines the Japanese words “dan” and “kyu,” akin to martial arts.

The higher the kyu number, the more difficult the climbing wall is. As an example, a 10-kyu wall would be far easier to climb than a 1-kyu wall. Beyond 1-kyu is the dan rating system, where 1-dan is harder than 1-kyu but 10-dan is much more difficult than 1-dan. 

In other words, the kyu system gets harder in descending order and the dan system in ascending order. 

United Kingdom Technical Grading System

The UK’s technical grading system includes a series of numbers, then letters. For example, a 1a wall is simpler to climb than a 7b wall by a huge margin.  

Hueco Scale Grading System

John Sherman created the Hueco scale, which is also referred to as the V scale. Throughout North America, the V system has become the most common. The numbers go from zero to 17, so V0 through V17. After 17, letters are used to denote harder climbing grades, like VA. 

Some numbered V-scale grades have a plus or minus to express varying levels of difficulty within that grade, like V2+ or V2-. 

Fontainebleau Grading System

The Fontainebleau grading system is Europe’s main grading system for climbing. The lowest-ranked climbing walls are a 1A and the hardest is a 9A. 

Outside of being ranked by number and letter, the Fontainebleau grading system also uses colors, but the meaning of those colors has changed over the decades. 

Gill “B” Grading System

The last bouldering grading system was created by John Gill during the 1950s and is known as the Gill “B” grading system. Using B and then a number such as B1, B2, B3, etc., this is among the least popular categorizations of climbing difficulty. 

Is Bouldering Safe?

You’re into the idea of bouldering, but you worry about the potential for injury. While that potential is always there, that’s true also of traditional rock climbing. 

You might not have a harness or a rope when bouldering, but there are plenty of safety measures instituted. For example, your bouldering mat is there to support you if you fall. Most rock walls boulderers climb don’t exceed heights of 20 feet, and while you can go higher, that’s a safe distance.

Injuries can occur among boulderers, especially those who don’t train their bodies adequately. The most common injuries are in the forearms and hands such as ruptured ligaments and tendonitis. 

There are some elements of bouldering that can contribute to the fear around it. For one, the various grading systems can be confusing. None of them consider anxiety or fear around climbing, only difficulty, despite that the former two factors absolutely influence how hard it is to scale a cliffside.

Further, since you’re not rappelling down a cliffside when bouldering (since you have no rope), that means you must either climb all the way back down (which can be tough) or jump. 

If you’re interested in trying bouldering, we’d suggest an indoor course first. These are always safer than climbing in nature since the walls are height-restricted and you’re usually supervised. 

Bouldering Tips to Get You Climbing

Want some more bouldering tips? We thought so! Here are some that will surely come in handy.

Train Your Weak Spots

A boulderer should have a strong frame throughout. That doesn’t necessarily mean bulging muscles, but the power to grip and support one’s own body weight as they hoist themselves up and onto the top of the cliff.

If you have weak spots, it’s a great idea to strengthen them through time at the gym or exercising at home. Do this for several weeks to months to truly build up the area. 

Invest in a Good Pair of Climbing Shoes

In bouldering, your climbing shoes are everything. Climbing shoes protect your feet, enhance your grip, and give your toes the space to splay. 

Since you don’t need a lot of equipment to begin bouldering, everything you do buy should be of excellent quality. You’ll be glad you splurged on your climbing shoes when you can nimbly climb for hours without sore feet or blisters. 

Get Comfortable with Falling

Here’s probably the hardest part of bouldering: allowing yourself to fall. It goes against all your natural instincts, so don’t be surprised if your body doesn’t want to let you do it at first. We recommend practice-falling at an indoor climbing gym, but not from a great height. 

How do you fall properly? Loosen your muscles and relax. Release the breath you probably didn’t realize you were holding. Try to angle your body so your feet or legs are the first to hit the mat, then tuck in your limbs so you don’t sprain yourself. 

The more you practice, the easier that letting yourself fall becomes. With time, it will no longer be a big deal! 

Buy Quality Hand Chalk

We again want to suggest gymnastics hand chalk for boulderers since it’s great at absorbing sweat. If you buy any other type of hand chalk, it might not be as absorbent. You’ll have to reapply often, and you won’t get nearly as good of a grip. 

Maintain Straight Arms

The key to bouldering is to maintain straight arms as often as you can. You want to engage more with your shoulders than with the rest of your arms. This shifts the weight support to your bones instead of your muscles so you can stave off muscle aches that send you home early. 

Have Fun! 

Above all, remember that bouldering is supposed to be fun. Whether you’re a complete beginner or a more seasoned veteran, enjoying yourself is the most important part. 

Final Thoughts

Bouldering is a form of rock climbing that eschews the harness and ropes. Instead, the boulderer uses a foam mattress, hand chalk, climbing shoes, and their own strength to get themselves to the top of usually much shorter cliffsides (compared to traditional rock climbing, that is).

Although bouldering can be a lot scarier than rock climbing, we implore you to at least give it a try once! You’ll probably have a blast.

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

Recent Posts

outdoortroop-21 outdoortroop-20