Bouldering is one of the most accessible forms of rock climbing. It requires minimal gear, is more affordable than traditional rock climbing, and allows climbers to socialize with their friends. That’s why the climbing experts at TBA Gym put together a brief guide to teach you how to boulder and the differences between it and traditional rock climbing.
TBA Gym’s staff consists of some of the best rock climbing and bouldering experts in the greater Chattanooga area. We help both novice and advanced climbers perfect the art while motivating them to achieve their climbing goals. Continue reading to learn how to boulder, the proper climbing techniques, and more.
What Is Bouldering?
Bouldering is one of the simplest forms of free climbing. Most routes (known as problems in the bouldering community) are only 12 to 15 feet tall and don’t require ropes or harnesses. Instead, climbers place crash pads down to catch the climber and soften their fall.
However, not all bouldering walls and problems fit the definition. Many extend farther than 15 feet but still fall under the bouldering label since they are close to the ground and require crash pads instead of ropes and harnesses. Some even have bolts built into them and teeter between bouldering and sport climbing.
As you can tell, bouldering has a relatively loose definition and encompasses several routes and problem styles. Bouldering stands out from other climbing forms because of the lack of ropes, concise routes, and socialization. It focuses on technique and power rather than long-term endurance.
Bouldering strips rock climbing down to its raw essentials and requires significantly less equipment than traditional climbing. If you boulder indoors, you only need a pair of climbing shoes to start. Most rock climbing and bouldering gyms allow patrons to rent climbing shoes, so you don’t need to rush out and purchase a pair for yourself.
Learning how to boulder outdoors requires a bit more equipment. You must purchase at least a few crash pads to cushion your falls and a pair of climbing shoes to start. However, many boulderers use additional gear to aid their climb.
Below are some of the most common outdoor bouldering accessories:
- Climbing helmet (optional but recommend for beginners who are starting outdoors)
- Climbing chalk to increase your grip
- Athletic tape for added support and finger protection
- A small brush to clean dirty or greasy holds
- Climbing salve to heal damaged skin
- Climbing shorts or pants
Although most of the accessories listed above aren’t necessary for all boulder problems, they can slightly increase your performance while giving you an extra layer of protection if you fall.
Bouldering grades indicate how difficult a problem is. However, grades are somewhat loose and often become divisive within the climbing community. Many climbers have different views on grading, and it often varies from region to region. However, grades give you an idea of a problem’s difficulty and are often helpful to new climbers.
There are two main boulder grade scales: the Hueco system (better known as the V Scale) and the Fontainebleau system (also called the Font Scale).
The V Scale is the most popular boulder grading system in North America and Oceania. It rates problems from V0 to V17. The lower the number, the easier the boulder problem. Although rare, there are also VB grades that indicate a problem easier than V0.
Most beginners start with V0 to V2 problems and work their way up to more complex bouldering walls. Problems become more challenging rather quickly, so it’s best to stick to lower grades until you get a decent amount of experience under your belt. If possible, begin with a VB until you understand the basic climbing techniques.
The later grades are a bit more open-ended. As of right now, Nalle Hukkataival’s opus (better known as Burden of Dreams) is the only boulder problem globally that’s received a V17 grade.
Font Scale is mainly used in Asia and Europe and consists of numbers and the letters A, B, and C. It starts with 1 and works its way up to higher numbers. Much like the V Scale, the higher the number, the harder the problem.
Most boulder problems receive a 3 to 6 grade on the Font Scale. There are a few 1 to 2 boulder problems, but they are usually rare and harder to find.
Once the boulder problem reaches a 6, letters are added to it to subdivide the difficulty levels. The letter A is the easiest, and the letter C is the most strenuous. For example, a 6A problem is easier than a 6C boulder wall.
Sometimes plus signs are added to grades to increase the difficulty even further. This addition means a 7A+ is harder than a 7A but easier than a 7B. It may take some time to get used to, but it’s crucial to understand the Font Scale if you plan on climbing overseas.
Converting the Font Scale to V Scale isn’t always easy for beginners. Below is a chart to help you figure out how to convert the Font Scale to V Scale:
How to Boulder for Beginners
When you learn how to start bouldering, it’s best to practice at one of your local rock climbing gyms. Most gyms have beginner courses and provide all the equipment you need to get started. It helps you figure out if you are interested in bouldering before you go out and buy all the necessary gear.
Instead of using the V Scale or Font Scale, most indoor rock climbing gyms use a color-coding system to indicate each boulder problem’s route and difficulty scale. Each hold will have a specific color that correlates with your route. Climbers must follow the correct color to complete their selected boulder problem.
Gyms usually mark starting holds with a colored box, grade card, or an extra piece of tape. If you select a purple climbing route, you must only use purple-colored holds until you reach the top of the boulder problem.
After you learn to boulder indoors, you can start exploring outdoor boulder problems once you purchase the necessary gear. It’s best to go with another experienced boulderer the first few times so that you have a spotter. They will also help you find the best outdoor boulder problems that mesh with your skill level.
Outdoor bouldering demands a bit more thinking since most routes aren’t color-coded. They require you to find the holds yourself during your climb. However, many popular problems have chalk around the holds, making it easier for beginners to find the correct route.
Finding the starting hold for outdoor boulders isn’t always easy. If you go with an experienced climber, they will help you find the correct starting hold.
How to Fall Correctly When Bouldering
Just because bouldering isn’t far from the ground doesn’t mean injuries don’t happen. Broken wrists and ankles are more common in bouldering than traditional rock climbing since you don’t have ropes to catch you if you fall. That’s why it’s crucial to learn how to fall correctly before you start tackling more difficult boulder problems.
The most crucial aspect of bouldering is staying aware of your surroundings. You always want to have a few crash pads below the problem to soften your fall if you slip. You also want to keep the bouldering padding clear to prevent twisting an ankle on an object or falling on another climber.
Falling properly takes some practice. You must accept it and learn how to brace yourself correctly before conquering more advanced problems. Bouldering sometimes puts you in several unusual positions, so knowing how to fall upside down, sideways, and backward can make all the difference.
When falling, try to absorb most of the shock with your knees. Try to land on your feet while bending your knees slightly. During impact, collapse your knees and roll onto your side or back to prevent injuries.
You never want to land stiff when bouldering. Stiff landings often lead to broken bones and other severe injuries that are easily avoidable. Try to remain relaxed while falling to keep yourself safe and sound.
Many novice boulderers try to catch themselves by extending their arms just before impact. However, you must keep your arms in and close to your body while falling so they don’t absorb most of the force. Since your arms and wrist play an essential role in bouldering, you must do everything possible to protect them.
You also don’t want to grab holds to slow yourself down when falling. You must learn how to go with the flow and brace yourself correctly. Trying to grasp another hold while falling increases your chances of dislocations and other severe injuries.
Learning to roll after a fall is also critical when bouldering elongated problems. It takes some stress off your limbs, and it’s one of the best ways to prevent injuries upon impact. You also want to tuck your chin when possible to avoid whiplash.
In short, there are three important things to remember when falling:
- go with the flow
- remain relaxed yet aware
- avoid absorbing force with your arms
Now that you know how to boulder, you can start learning the unique lingo associated with the sport. Climbers use several abstract terms that might confuse newer boulderers. Below are some of the most common bouldering terms every climber should know:
- Beta: Insight or advice about a climbing technique or sequence
- Crux: Toughest move set in a problem
- Campus: Climbing without your feet
- Deadpoint: An elongated and dynamic one-handed technique—it can also describe completing such a technique
- Dyno: A jumping technique requiring both hands to leave the boulder problem or wall to reach the next hold—it can also describe the move
- Flash: Successfully climbing a problem on your first attempt after receiving information or seeing another climber complete it
- Highball: Tall boulder problems that can potentially cause severe injuries if you fall from the top
- Onsight: Climbing a boulder problem on your first attempt without prior information
- Problem: A hold sequence with a starting and ending point
- Project: A problem that someone attempts numerous times to improve their abilities
- Send: Successfully climbing a problem without falling
- Soft: A problem that’s easier than its grade portrays
- Spot (or Spotter): Someone who helps guide or brace a falling climber
- Spray: The act of offering climbing advice to someone
- Stiff: A problem that’s harder than its given grade
- Tick Mark: A line drawn on a gym wall or rock showing hard-to-see holds—it’s also shortened to tick on occasion
- Top Out: Climbing to the top of a formation
- Traverse: Lateral movement across a climbing wall or problem—it can also describe a problem requiring mostly lateral movement
It usually takes new climbers some time to understand all the terms, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t comprehend everything immediately. Most experienced boulderers are happy to help you with the terms if you get confused.
How to Spot
Bouldering consists of more than just climbing a short problem without ropes. You’ll occasionally have to spot one of your fellow climbers while they conquer a new boulder.
Spotters aren’t necessary for most indoor bouldering gyms. Since most gyms pad nearly every surface, it’s best to let the climber practice falling indoors before attempting outdoor problems.
However, if the indoor boulder problem requires awkward positioning like a high heel-hook, you might need a spotter. They will prevent you from falling on your head if you are upside down or in another tricky position.
Spotters are essential to outdoor boulderers since they help the climber land safely if they take a tumble. They guide your fall and help you land securely on the crash pad. Spotters also ensure you don’t land awkwardly.
The best way to learn how to spot is to watch experienced spotters and their techniques. You can also ask them for advice if you don’t feel comfortable right away. After you have enough experience spotting, it becomes second nature.
Boulder problems come in many shapes, styles, and sizes. Some are straightforward, while others require some strategy. Below are some of the most common boulder problems:
- Faces: flat, vertical surfaces that require advanced footwork and technical skill
- Slabs: Similar to faces but have flat, angled surfaces instead of vertical ones
- Overhangs (AKA roofs): relatively horizontal rock surfaces that are usually parallel to the ground; they require tremendous power and strength
- Traverses: Endurance-centric problems that require lateral movement to top out
- Compression: Endurance and technique-heavy problems requiring climbers to hug part of the boulder
- Highballs: A boulder problem with a high or steep top out—mostly for experienced climbers
- Topping Out: The last section of a boulder problem—also refers to the move series required to surpass the segment
Bouldering Tips for Beginners
Knowing the correct bouldering etiquette ensures that you have the best experience possible while tackling indoor and outdoor problems. Below are a few bouldering tips for beginning boulderers.
1. Don’t Hog the Problem
If you aren’t the only one climbing a wall or boulder problem, ensure you give the other party plenty of room, especially in indoor gyms. You don’t want to injure the other climber by cramping their fall space or climbing route. It’s best to wait until the other party completes their climb before ascending the problem.
2. Don’t Offer Beta to Climbers Unless They Want or Ask for It
Providing too much beta (climbing lingo for advice) to a fellow climber when they don’t want it is a surefire way to irritate them. Many boulderers want to figure out the best climbing strategies and techniques themselves and prefer learning through trial and error. Always ask a fellow climber if they need beta before giving them advice.
3. Keep Track of Your Belongings
Leaving your gear around problems and crash pads could cause someone to get hurt. If someone falls and lands on your water bottle or helmet, they could seriously injure themselves. Always hold on to your gear when bouldering indoors.
4. Communicate With Other Boulderers
One of bouldering’s biggest draws is its social aspect. You can learn a lot from other climbers, so always try to talk to them when possible. Regular communication will also keep spotters informed on your next move, keeping you safe during your climb.
Contact TBA for All Your Bouldering Needs
TBA is one of the leading rock climbing and bouldering organizations in Chattanooga, TN. Our team will help you improve your skills so that you can reach your true climbing potential.
Whether you want to learn how to boulder or need to fine-tune your technique, the TBA Gym team is here for you.
Contact TBA and improve your skills today!
Delores C. Crawley
Delores is a climbing instructor who originally hails from the concrete jungle of New York City. After college, she migrated south to Tennessee and has been exploring the great outdoors ever since. Her climbing and bouldering adventures have taken her to Europe and South America, but her favorite boulders are in Colorado – every year she goes there to climb them! Delores loves nothing more than introducing others to climbing.