Climbing Close to the Ground
Bouldering is a great introduction to climbing—it’s social, low to the ground, and presents both mental and physical challenges.
So what exactly is bouldering? It’s literally climbing on boulders or other outcroppings, generally around ten feet in height. It’s climbing at its simplest form, without the fuss of gear or ropes or anchors to deal with. It’s easy to socialize in between “problems” (the term for boulder routes) and the problems themselves can be lots of fun to figure out. Having the right gear will ensure your first bouldering experience is a gateway to a lifelong love of climbing, adventure, and the outdoors. In this article I’ll help you select the gear you need to start bouldering.
Along with your climbing prowess, a crash pad is your main protection from a nasty run-in with the ground. Having the right crash pad makes for a safer experience, so here are a few things to think about:
There are two main sizes of crash pads. Regular pads are generally 3x4ft and large pads are 4x5ft or 4x6ft. Large pads are great because they offer a larger landing area, however they are heavier, more expensive, more cumbersome to transport, and can be a nuisance on long or overgrown approaches. Regular pads are lighter, less expensive, and easier to transport and hike with, although they do offer a smaller landing zone. Starting with a regular pad is great due to its versatility. As you progress in your bouldering, you may want an additional large pad.
There are two main styles of crash pads: taco-style and hinge-style.
Taco-style crash pads are a continuous piece of foam that you can fold in half for storage/transport. (Think of a rectangular softshell taco.) These are great because there is continuous padding and no hinge to fail, but they don’t conform well to uneven terrain and they can be awkward to store.
Hinge-style pads are cut into two separate sections and connected with a fabric hinge. This allows for them to fold easily for storage and transport. The foam in these pads tends to last a bit longer as it’s not constantly being folded in the way a taco-style pad is. On the other hand, there is no padding at the hinge. If a rock sneaks between the two foam sections, a fall on the hinge could be dangerous.
The construction of the pad will determine what it’s best suited for. Most pads are created with open-cell foam, closed-cell foam, or a combination of both. Some pads are made with novel materials such as memory foam or recycled EVA.
Open-cell foam is a very soft foam that is easily compressed; you could squeeze it with your hand. While open-cell foam provides a comfy seat and a soft landing, it’s not substantial enough to cushion larger falls and repeated use.
Closed-cell foam is a denser foam that is completely sealed in its construction. Closed-cell foam is stiffer and has a harder landing, but it’s more durable and will prevent you from “bottoming out” on larger falls.
Most pads are made with combinations of different types of foam. One popular method is to have a layer of closed-cell foam on top of a layer of open-cell foam. This allows the top layer to better dissipate your energy and protect from large falls, while the softer bottom layer better conforms to irregularities in the ground. You can also flip this type of pad over to expose the open-cell foam for softer catches on lower problems.
Another popular method is to sandwich a layer of open-cell foam between two layers of closed-cell foam. This method protects highball falls (falls from increased height or into a dangerous fall zone, making them of greater consequence) really well, but is generally a stiffer pad. While stiffer pads are better at protecting you from the ground, you’re also more likely to roll your ankle on a hard pad. If you have weak or injured ankles, you may want to select a softer pad.
Foam will degrade over time, especially if you use it frequently. The more you fall on your pad, the more you will break down your foam. You usually notice you’ve worn through your pad when you fall and hit your backside on something hard … or if you use your buddy’s brand-new pad. Some manufacturers offer replacement foam that is easy to replace yourself. If you plan on using your pad frequently, having the option to replace your foam is great.
Most pads will offer at least some form of storage. Whether it be a hook-and-loop flap, a zippered pouch, or a sleeve to keep gear in the fold of your mat, it’s convenient to store some small stuff in your pad.
Having the right climbing shoe will make or break your bouldering experience. An uncomfortable shoe will lead to a miserable time climbing, while a properly fitting shoe will be like a first-class ticket on the send train. All aboard!
Sizing is the most important, and most finicky, aspect of a climbing shoe. A tighter shoe will perform better, but a looser shoe will be more comfortable. Finding a balance is key and each person is going to have their own unique personal preference. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. When it comes to climbing shoes, manufacturer sizing mean next to nothing. Each one sizes differently, and even shoes of the same size from the same manufacturer can run large or small relative to one another. For instance, while I wear a size 12 street shoe, the climbing shoes I’ve had ranged in size from 41.5 to 44.5 and everywhere in-between.
Here is how I personally size my shoes, and how I would recommend most beginners size their shoes:
- Aim for a snug fit with slightly curled toes. That’s the best way to describe it. If your foot is uncomfortable, that’s right on the money. They will stretch out and conform to your foot and be much more comfortable, while still having a performance fit.
- A shoe that is painful when tried on is a no-go. If the shoe is painful, you’ll never climb in it and you’ll never break it in. When you do climb in it, you’ll have sloppy footwork because it will hurt every time you use your feet. The quickest way to hate climbing is to have shoes that are too tight and painful.
- On the opposite end of the spectrum, if your shoes are comfortable when you try them on, they are probably too big. Sure, they may feel great now, but once you really get climbing in them, and get better at climbing, you’ll realize there is too much slop in the shoe and it’s hard to climb precisely.
- Many manufactures also make women-specific shoes. These shoes generally have smaller volumes and a smaller heelcup. These shoes are made specifically to provide a better fit to female feet, but that doesn’t mean they are only for the ladies. If you have a small heel or a low-volume foot, you may find that a women’s shoe fits your foot best.
The shape of the shoe will greatly affect the comfort and performance of the shoe. In general, flat shoes will be more comfortable and better at smearing (using friction on the sole of the shoe rather than a foothold), while downturned shoes will provide the most power for edging and steep climbing. I recommend that beginning climbers look for flat or slightly downturned shoes to start with. Starting with a fully downturned shoe will make for an unpleasant time and prevent you from developing good footwork.
Shoes can have three types of closures; laces, hook-and-loop, or slipper style.
- Lace shoes are the most versatile and are found on many beginner shoes. They allow a loose fit for comfort, but you can crank them down when the climbing gets steep.
- Hook-and-loop closures are found on many bouldering and gym shoes. They allow for tight fitting performance and easy on/off between problems.
- Slippers are very comfortable and usually have a soft sole. They are very sensitive and allow you to climb delicately, but also require a strong foot to use well (due to reduced material and support from the laces). This style of shoe has a low profile and is also great for thin-crack climbing.
Shoes are generally made of three different materials; unlined leather, lined leather, and synthetic.
- Unlined leather is the most comfortable material, but they are notorious for stretching (a full size or more). If you are purchasing a shoe made of unlined leather, consider downsizing a teeny bit more to compensate for this stretch.
- In order to combat the stretch of unlined leather but still retain the comfort, some shoes are lined with leather. These shoes can be fully lined or only lined in strategic spots, such as the toe box. The lining reduces the amount the leather will stretch. Expect about a half size to full size of stretch.
- Synthetic materials will offer the best performance but can be the most uncomfortable. These shoes will generally stretch up to a half size. They also tend to provide the best breathability; say goodbye to sweaty feet.
Chalk Bag and Chalk
Chalk is an important tool to have in your climbing arsenal. It keeps your hands dry and keeps you from sweating off of holds. Is a climb right at your level? Unsure if you can finish it? Dip your hands in the white bag of courage.
Chalk is available in three forms and each climber will find what they prefer. I personally use fine-grain chalk; I like how it will completely coat my fingers and palms. Other forms are chalk balls (fine-grain chalk in a fabric sack) and blocks. Chalk balls are a bit neater than loose chalk and they provide a finer coating of chalk for your hands. Blocked chock is great because you can keep it in your chalk bag as blocks (which are less likely to spill like loose chalk), or you can crush it into a fine powder. Some fancy chalks use chemical drying agents to keep your hands super dry and prevent sweating off the chalk. While more expensive, some people love this chalk and won’t use traditional chalk. Note that those with sensitive skin may find this type of chalk uncomfortable. Experiment with different types and see what works for you.
Now that you have all this chalk, what do you store it in? A chalk bag. Chalk bags come it all sorts of shapes and sizes, from plain black to fuzzy gorillas and space aliens. Take the opportunity to personalize your climbing identity!
I personally have big sweaty paws so I look for two features in my chalk bag; a deep pouch and a wide opening with a stiff brim. These features ensure that I can get my hands into my chalk bag without any fuss.
Some other features to look for on a chalk bag are a waist belt (to wear on longer problems), a closure system (to prevent your chalk from spilling onto everything), a storage pocket (I keep lip balm and ibuprofen in mine) and toothbrush holder.
A toothbrush holder? Yep, that’s right. But instead of oral hygiene, think crag hygiene. Sometimes the holds get too chalked up and it’s difficult to stay latched on. Brushing the hold will allow you to stick better. Also remember crag etiquette when it comes to chalk. Brush off the holds when you’re done, clear away all those beta-spewing tick marks, and if you spill your partner’s chalk all over the ground, do your best to clean it up. And buy him some more chalk.
While bouldering is climbing at its simplest form, it doesn’t mean we have to climb simply! Here’s some other gear that will enhance your climbing experience:
- Brush: Brushes are great for cleaning dirt, oil, and chalk off that last hold on your V-Project. Make sure that they are soft bristled, such as nylon. Stiff bristles, like wire, will damage the rock.
- Snacks & water: Bouldering is hard work and you have to stay fueled up to climb at peak performance. My favorite snack when bouldering, embarrassingly enough, are peanut M&Ms.
- Headlamp: Those who climb with me know that I like to adventure and stay out as long as I can to climb. Headlamps are great for night climbing … or finding your way back to the car.
- Skin care kit: While not essential at first, a skin care kit is a great thing to have. Tape, emery boards, nail clippers, and climbing salve will help keep your hands in tip-top climbing condition.
- Insulation layer: An insulation layer is a great thing to have, and I never go climbing without one. Even on warm days, throwing on a puffy jacket or fleece is a great way to stay warm between burns and keep your muscles loose.
Bouldering is full of powerful moves, but at the same time it’s actually a great way to get into climbing. It allows you to focus on climbing without all the fuss of ropes and belays. Once you start bouldering with friends, you’ll realize it’s a great way to get outdoors after work, explore new areas, and connect with the nature around you. I encourage you to reach out to me; I’m always stoked to talk about climbing. I’d love to hear your questions, stories, and enthusiasm for climbing. In the meantime, buy yourself some stamps because you’re gonna be sending it.