What is Bouldering? And How To Get Started

woman bouldering

Bouldering is rock climbing usually done on smaller, natural or human-made rocks without ropes or harnesses. 

Athletes usually enjoy bouldering on obstacles under 15 feet, though there are notable exceptions. Since it is a smaller climb, it focuses on power and technique. 

If you’re thinking about getting into bouldering, you’ll want to learn a little more about the sport. We have plenty of information and tips to help you get started!  

Why Do People Enjoy Bouldering?

Bouldering is a relatively new hobby, but it has quickly become a favorite event in the climbing community, thanks to its accessibility.

Easy to Try out

Unlike other climbing activities, you don’t have to learn how to tie knots, work pulley systems, or counterbalance. You and your friends can go out there, lay down a pad, and get started. 

There isn’t a lot of upfront cost to bouldering, and the learning curve isn’t steep. Though there is a lot to learn to become a master, you can get started with very little practice.

It allows new climbers to jump right in and climb. 

Exciting and Interesting

Every climb in bouldering is unique, and getting to the end is exhilarating. Even though these climbs are short, they can be very intense.

You get a great workout while having a good time, which is always fun.

Bouldering is you against an obstacle. You can unleash your creative side to solve the climb. If you get stuck, you can get advice from other climbers or try out your ideas for finishing the climb.

It makes every climb fun and exciting.

Understanding Bouldering Grades 

Bouldering uses grades on obstacles so that climbers know how difficult each problem is. There are two widely used grading scales.

These scales are officially known as the Hueco system, referred to by climbers as the V scale, and the Fontainebleau system, known as the Font scale.

Like many rating systems, bouldering grades are often debated. The grades are rough guides, and each climb can be considered stiff, more difficult, or soft, less difficult. 

The lack of consistency in rating makes it hard to believe fully. Talking to people that have climbed the obstacle is a better way to gauge each problem.

However, if you are new to the sport, it is best to trust the grades and start with easy options.

Font Scale 

The Font scale uses numbers between 1-9. 1-4 is listed with just numbers. At 5 and above, you add in plus signs. 6-9 give letters A-C to indicate added difficulty.

So a 6A is easier than a 6B. If you see 6A+, it should be slightly more difficult than a 6A but not as hard as a 6B. 

Though the scale can start at 1, there are almost no obstacles rated that low. For the most part, they start at a 3.

9A is the level where the scale tops out. A 9A is considered the hardest obstacle you will find. 

V Scale 

V Scale is named after the nickname of John Sherman, Vermin. He created the system and helped popularize it.

It starts at VB for beginners and goes up in difficulty between V0-V17. A plus or minus can be added to the V scale to indicate slightly harder or easier, though these tend not to be official. 

VB is used for the easiest climbs, so even at V0, you start seeing harder climbs. When you begin, V0 will add new difficulties for the climber and should not be skipped by hobbyists who equate it to VB.

They are significantly scaled in most cases.  

Where are the Two Scales Used? 

The two scales have their regions. In North America, China, Oceania, and most of South America, the V scale is the most popular. In Europe, the Middle East, and Japan, the Font scale is most often used. 

Like with the scales themselves, these are rough guides, and you can run into specific gyms in these locations that use the opposite scale.

Experts will usually be able to help you understand what the rating is for both scales. 

Comparing V Scale and Font Scale 

If you find yourself seeing a scale that you are not familiar with, there is a way to convert them. VB covers 1-3 on the Font scale. Then you can count up from V0 corresponding to a Font 4.

Every letter grade in Font adds to the V scale. So a Font 6A is a V3, and a Font 6B will be a V4. 

The pluses and minuses when converting between the systems cancel out. A 6B+ is equivalent to a V4. 

How Do You Start Bouldering? 

Bouldering is one of the most accessible climbing activities you can try. There is very little to learn and almost nothing to buy.

In fact, at many gyms, you can rent the few things you need and try a climb out on your first day. 

Equipment 

The only thing you need to get started is a pair of climbing shoes and chalk to help with grip. If you find that you like it or go out of the gyms and start climbing real boulders, you may want to add a mat to your equipment. 

If you enjoy the hobby, you can buy climbing clothes that are specifically designed for climbing. You can also get a climbing brush, climbing tape, and grip strengtheners.

These accessories could help the experience but are not needed to start. 

What to Expect on Your First Climb? 

First, you will have to choose whether you are starting with an indoor or outdoor climb. Indoor gym climbs have more things in common.

The gym boulders use a color-coded system for the holds. Starting holds will be marked, and often the ending holds will also be marked. 

Outside climbs are less organized. Holds will usually be covered in chalk. To climb a specific problem, you will have to be shown the solution or read a guide book.

When not at a gym, you may want to have other more experienced climbers around to help you get the hang of the climb. 

Bouldering Etiquette

When you’re bouldering, there are conventions that you need to follow so that everyone can have a good time, especially when there are multiple climbers around. Most of these are common sense and are easy to follow. 

When sharing a boulder, if you fall off, allow the next climb to start. You can take a break and think about how you will attempt your next climb. 

Marking your holds is fine. Just remember to remove the marks when you are done with your climb so the next person can discover the holds themselves.

If you disrupt a path marked by the park or gym, let someone know so they can fix it.

When you are waiting for the wall, only offer advice on the climb if asked directly. Conversely, if you need help, ask for it.

Problem-solving is part of the fun of bouldering, and no one wants to spoil that part of the hobby. 

If you are going to attempt an energetic maneuver like a swing across or a jump, let others know so you can avoid injuries. Also, keep your gear attached or stored in a place where it won’t affect other climbers. 

Bouldering is a fun activity, and most people take part in it for a good time and a workout. If you follow these simple rules, you are bound to have a positive experience.

Terms to Know in Bouldering

Like many sports and hobbies, bouldering has developed its own language. Learning the proper terms will help you understand what you are doing, and it will help you get better at the sport.

It will also make it easier to talk to other people who are enjoying the sport with you.

Problem

Problems are a set of holds with a starting point and an endpoint. 

Traverse

Traverse is climbing laterally on the boulder. 

Beta

Beta is when you discuss how to perform best a climb or what the next move should be for the climber. 

Campus

Campus is climbing with your feet. 

Dyno

Dyno is any move that requires both hands or both feet to leave the wall to reach the next hold.

Crux

The crux is the hardest part of the climb. 

Onsight

Onsight is a climb performed on the first try without the use of beta. 

Spray

Spray is giving beta to a climber that did not ask for it. It is considered annoying because it hurts the problem-solving aspect of the climb.

Top Out 

Top Out is climbing to the point where you can stand on top of the boulder. 

Learning the terminology of the sport will make it easier to advance in the activity. If you can’t remember all the terms, though, don’t worry.

Your fellow climbers will happily inform you of a term’s meaning. 

Types of Bouldering

There are many different types of bouldering climbs out there. They often fit into specific categories that will help you understand the kind of climb to expect.

Here are some of the most common bouldering problems that you will encounter on your climbs. 

Cracks 

These are mostly problems found outdoors. They tend to need specialized techniques and often make the overall climb a bit more difficult. 

Overhang 

Overhangs are problems that put a lot of stress on your arms during a climb. They usually need advanced techniques to solve, but falls on these tend to be clean.

Roofs 

Roofs are extreme overhangs that last for a long distance. These problems can be very intense on the arms and are considered advanced. 

Slabs 

Slabs are less than vertical problems. They help with balance and body awareness. 

Circus Tricks 

These are popular in gyms. They are problems designed for special techniques and unique movement. These moves include jump-starts and traverses. 

Arêtes and Compression

These problems involve the use of protruding fins that allow you to hug various holds. You will often use both your hands and your feet on these climbs.

Vertical 

A Vertical problem is one that requires good handholds and footwork to solve. They are in between slabs and overhangs. 

Traverse 

Traverses are lateral moving problems. These are endurance intensive and take time and energy to solve. 

Bouldering Safety

Even though bouldering involves climbing without ropes and pulleys, it is still important to stay safe. A few guidelines have been developed to make every bouldering experience better, more fun, and safer. 

  • Boulder with a partner for fun and safety
  • Spot properly. Learn from experts for the correct form.
  • Learn how to fall correctly by not reaching out to catch any holds.
  • Use sufficient padding.
  • Understand what level you are attempting.

Try Bouldering for Yourself!

As long as you follow the safety tips, you can easily jump into the world of bouldering.

Enjoy the great outdoors and some excellent exercise all in one! 

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