What Is Bouldering?

So… What is bouldering?

Bouldering is a form of rock climbing done without the use of weight-bearing equipment on large boulders instead of cliff faces.

It is rock climbing that has been vertically condensed and stripped down to the bare essentials.

Though that may sound like a cakewalk when compared with rock climbing, it isn’t. Bouldering makes up for its lack of vertical distance with technical difficulty.

A boulder problem (you climb “routes” in sport climbing, you climb “problems” in bouldering) is like a puzzle that you must solve with your body. Utilizing climbing techniques, upper and lower body strength, and insanely strong core and fingers, you try to reach the top of the boulder (an achievement referred to as “topping out”).

You don’t use any weight-bearing equipment, but you do use some equipment. I mean, I guess you could boulder without any equipment — heck, you could even boulder naked if you wanted to (warning: NSFW gallery) — and doing so would probably feel incredibly liberating. However, that is not advised. Boulderers use chalk bags to carry chalk around, climbing shoes for getting traction on the rock, and crash pads (portable mattresses) to cushion their landings when they fall or jump off the boulder.

Bouldering is not the same as free soloing.

Free soloing involves climbing the same cliff faces as sport climbers — faces that are hundreds of yards/meters high — without any ropes or harnesses. Free soloing is very dangerous, and is the pursuit of a few elite climbers. Bouldering, on the other hand, is much safer since you hardly climb above 20 feet (6 m), have crash pads underneath you to break your fall, and have your friends “spotting” you to make sure you fall onto the pads.

Bouldering vs. Sport Climbing: A Brief Comparison

Bouldering vs. sport climbing

Bouldering is distinctly different from regular sport climbing in many ways. I created this infographic to illustrate some of the main ones.

History

Bouldering originated in the mid-19th century as a training activity of the elite alpinists and rock climbers of the day. French climbers were known to be climbing the boulders at Fontainebleau (a bouldering mecca) in 1874. However, bouldering was not seen as its own sport for a long time. For decades it was seen as light recreational activity or warm-up for larger ascents.

Although people had been doing it since the mid-19th century, Pierre Allain and his friends (referred to as the “Bleausards”) popularized climbing the boulders at Fontainebleau around the time of World War II and started changing the way people thought of bouldering. The paradigm began shifting from that of bouldering as a warm-up activity to its own legitimate sport.

Then, in the 1950s in the United States, John Gill perceived bouldering as an application of gymnastics techniques as opposed to hiking (the traditional view). He started using chalk while climbing and practiced dynamic moves such as dynos. He became an advocate for the sport and, in his own words, changed the way many climbers perceived bouldering by writing an article called The Art of Bouldering in a 1969 edition of the American Alpine Club Journal. In the article, Gill called for recognition of bouldering as a genuine form of rock climbing.

Bouldering began picking up some traction in the later part of the 20th century, and then came John “Verm” Sherman. Verm was a prolific boulderer who established a way of grading boulder problems called the V-Scale (the “V” is short for “Verm”). The V-Scale, along with the Font Scale, are the two main ways of grading boulder problems. Soon after, crash pads were adopted as a way of limiting injuries from falling or jumping.

With a legitimate way of grading problems, the introduction of guidebooks to record problem locations, and the advent of new equipment such as crash pads, bouldering, by the end of the 20th century, had established itself as a legitimate sport. It is still perceived to be an offshoot under the umbrella term of “rock climbing”, but it is also acknowledged to be distinctively different.

What Do You Mean When You Say “Boulder”?

I’ve gotten this question a couple times when explaining bouldering to friends. People think of boulders as large rocks, and when they envision a boulder in their mind’s eye it’s usually a rock of a size that would be incredibly easy to climb.

That’s true… to an extent. “Boulder” is a vague term when it comes to size. It’s subjective how big a rock needs to be for it to be called a “boulder”, and it also is hard to say how big it can be before it should be called something else, if anything. However, just know that the boulders people climb can be HUGE.

… Or they can be medium-sized and not any taller than about 10 feet.

Really, boulders can be any size. There is no standard, you just need to be able to climb the thing in a fun way.

How to Get Started Bouldering

The simple steps you need to take:

  • Grab a friend. Seriously, bouldering is an incredibly social sport so don’t go at it alone! Ask a friend to join you and give it a try.
  • Find a local gym or bouldering area near you. I recommend trying an indoor gym first since that way you don’t have to worry about falling or injuring yourself and you’ll have a chance to rent the necessary equipment. It’s also easier indoors which helps for noobies. To find a gym, search online for climbing gyms in your area. You might not have an exclusively bouldering gym nearby, but if you find a climbing gym you can check its website or give the gym a call to learn about how much of their walls are dedicated to bouldering. Some gyms allow first timers to climb for free, and others will charge. The fee for one time entrance can range from $10-$20 and renting shoes and chalk will cost another $5-$8. That might sound pricey, but if you enjoy it then you can sign up for a gym membership which will be around $40-$60 per month. If you decide to join after your first session, ask the person at the desk if you can get your entrance fee refunded in exchange for becoming a member. They’ll probably be happy to do so. If you’re nervous about making a fool of yourself, don’t be. Seriously. The bouldering community is THE most uplifting sports community I have ever been apart of. The people in it will go out of their way to make you feel welcome and show you the basics. Besides, everyone at the gym was once unable to climb anything but the easiest climbs — as the saying goes, every master was once a disaster. And anyways, no one cares that you’re climbing. If you’re still nervous, be glad you are — it means you’re trying something outside your comfort zone and that you’ll grow from the experience.
  • Get psyched! And that’s it! Bouldering is one of the most accessible outdoor sports there is. If you start at a gym, they’ll have all the equipment you need available for renting. If you start outside, you’ll only need chalk, a chalk bag, a pair of climbing shoes, and a crash pad. However, if it’s your first time climbing outside, I’d recommend using a friend’s crash pad. Wait until you boulder outside consistently before purchasing one since they can be rather expensive.

Bouldering Today

Now, bouldering-exclusive gyms have popped up around the world and bouldering competitions are becoming more popular. Although bouldering is far from a mainstream sport, it is captivating more people with each passing day. Bouldering has been likened to an “urban” form of rock climbing, since it is so accessible and gyms can be erected in smaller buildings since you don’t have to have 60-foot high walls like a sport climbing gym needs. Bouldering was even on the short list of sports to be added to the 2020 Olympics, but didn’t make the cut in the end. Regardless, popularity is growing and more people are finding bouldering a fun, easy way to get exercise and build muscle.

So… what are you waiting for?

About the Author:

Alex is the owner of 99Boulders and has been testing and reviewing outdoor gear since 2015. He was once an avid boulderer but has been sidelined indefinitely by a chronic wrist injury. To fill the gaping hole in his heart he's recently gotten into ultralight backpacking.