What is Bouldering?

In general, bouldering is a lot like rock climbing, but without all the ropes, harnesses and hardware. Also, instead of scaling a high craggy rock face, you are climbing large rocks. Bouldering has also grown in popularity due to its relatively affordable equipment (or lack thereof).

But other than these fundamental underlying differences, what is bouldering? In this quick guide, we break down bouldering basics, from essential gear, V-Scale ratings and common obstacles you might face as you climb.

Essential Bouldering Gear

Ready to try your soon-to-be callused hand at bouldering? Here is the essential bouldering gear you need.

  • Climbing shoes – Choose between neutral, moderate or aggressive shoe types, depending on your experience level. When you are starting out and bouldering in a gym, you can also rent these.
  • Crash pad – For cushioning falls, of course.
  • Climbing helmet – A bit of extra protection against loose rocks or hardware or hitting your head on an overhang.
  • Chalk – Adds extra grip to your hands.
  • Brush – To clean off dirty, greasy holds.
  • White athletic tape – To wrap and keep fingers protected.
  • Flashlight – Choose a hands-free LED flashlight for both practical and emergency purposes.
  • Water bottle – Make sure to bring plenty of water to stay hydrated. Invest in a stainless steel water bottle that can take a beating as you climb.

Where to Go Bouldering

As eager as you might be to try bouldering, first-timers should stick to a climbing gym. Climbing gyms can offer many route options that help you gain the experience you need before trying the real thing. Once you’re ready, then you can find local bouldering routes. Seek advice from climbing shops, clubs and fellow climbers to get the good beta (insider info) and research guide books for more in-depth planning. It also helps to learn how to read a topographic map.

Unlike rope climbing, bouldering doesn’t require a belay partner. But that’s not to say you can go it alone. At the very least, bring along a friend to spot you and be there in case you fall. If they’re a climber, even better! They can offer you tips and advice as you learn the ropes (figuratively, of course, since bouldering is sans rope). If you don’t have climbing friends, sign up for a bouldering class to learn more techniques and make more bouldering buddies.

Bouldering Ratings and Routes

bouldering basics

When researching bouldering routes, you need to pay attention to the ratings. Ratings will tell you the experience level required. Bouldering ratings, also called the V-Scale, go as follows:

  • V0 - V17 is the main scale from easiest to hardest. While V17 is the hardest (only a few boulder problems with V17 exist), it’s not capped and is open-ended. V18 could be added.
  • VB is outside the numerical scale, which represents beginner bouldering problems.

The V-scale is a bit subjective and based on each location. When starting out, stick with VB routes or somewhere on the lower scale. Even experienced hard-grade rope climbers find they need to use VB, so there’s no shame in taking it one boulder step at a time.

Common Bouldering Problems

As you begin bouldering, you’ll run into several problems, which coincide with a V-Scale rating. Here are the most common bouldering problems you’ll face:

  • Faces and slabs – Faces are flat vertical surfaces, while slabs are flat angled surfaces. Both, however, require technical skills and agility.
  • Overhangs – Dubbed “roofs,” overhangs are almost horizontal rock surfaces that tend to jut out over your head. It takes lots of strength to climb over.
  • Traverses – Traverses are an endurance test that requires moving sideways along a feature (like a face or overhang) before topping out.
  • Compression problems – This is when climbers essentially have to hug a boulder to traverse or ascend.
  • Highballs – For experienced boulderers only, a highball is a bouldering problem that tops out high off the ground, potentially at 20 feet or more.
  • Topping out – The final problem and series of moves climbers perform to reach the top, where they can finally stand.

Bouldering Safety

Rock climbers have a rope to protect them from falls. But bouldering is a bit riskier, which is why safety should be of utmost importance. Here are some must-know bouldering safety tips:

  • Have a spotter – Spotters are not intended to catch you, but instead to save your head and shoulders from hitting the ground. The more, the merrier, of course!
  • Lay down crash pads – Cushion your fall with crash pads placed around the fall zone. Several pads should provide ample ground coverage.
  • Warm up muscles – Prevent muscle spasms and get limber by warming up beforehand.
  • Chalk and tape up – Apply lots of chalk and wrap fingers in tape, especially around previous cuts. Learn how to tape fingers correctly for extra support and use lotion after a bouldering session.

Ready to Climb Some Giant Boulders?

Bouldering is an exhilarating yet peaceful Zen-like activity. Before long, you’ll be dedicating hours and eventually years on a single “project” so you can proudly say you completed the V-Scale route.

On your first bouldering adventure, remember the seven Leave No Trace Principles and, in general, be considerate of other climbers. If you’re a beginner, take your time, but not too long that other climbers can’t enjoy.

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