Bouldering Climbing for Beginners: A Detailed Guide

With more and more people showing an avid interest in adventure sports and outdoor activities, we now find ourselves spoilt for choice when deciding on which particular adventure sport we would like to have a go at.

Rock climbing and bouldering in particular, are now more popular than ever, which is why we’re going to be looking at bouldering climbing for beginners in today’s guide. If the thought of hanging from a jagged cliff face, holding onto nothing but a rope and harness seems a little too daunting for you, bouldering is a much better option. If you think of bouldering as rock climbing, but scaled down massively, and without the awful heights, that’s pretty much what it is.

If you’re thinking of getting into bouldering there are several things you must know beforehand, which is why we’ve compiled this handy beginner’s guide to bouldering. Before beginning your bouldering adventure, familiarize yourself with the content of this guide today, and your experience will be far more enjoyable, productive, and safe.

Firstly, what the heck is bouldering?

You may currently be scratching your head and wondering exactly what bouldering is, but don’t worry because all will soon become clear. Bouldering is NOT the same as rock climbing. The easiest way to describe bouldering is to think of it as a massively scaled down version of rock climbing, stripped back to the absolute basic essentials.

Bouldering leaves behind the complex safety ropes, harnesses, pulley systems, and other equipment needed for rock climbing and basically is practiced on large boulders and very small cliff faces which are typically no more than 5 metres in height, at the most. There are also indoor bouldering centres for those of you wish to stay out of the bad weather, or simply keep yourselves that little bit safer. Though you may consider yourself an absolute beginner when it comes to bouldering, the chances are that when you were a child growing up, you may have done a spot of bouldering without even realizing it.

We’ve all seen large rocks when out in the countryside before and have experienced an overwhelming urge to climb said rocks, and if you did, that was your introduction to bouldering. The idea behind bouldering is that you choose rocks and cliff bases which are fairly high, but still small enough to allow you to jump off if you get into trouble.

Is bouldering safe?

Bouldering is much safer than rock climbing, because rather than climbing hundreds of metres into the air while scaling huge jagged cliffs and mountains, you simply scale small boulders which are typically no more than 5 metres in height. Because you aren’t climbing anywhere near as high into the air, you don’t need complex safety gear and equipment.

However, this does mean that, as you’re not wearing a safety rope or harness, if you do slip or fall, you are going to hit the ground one way or another. That’s why it is so important to take your time when bouldering, and it’s why it’s so important that you choose the right area and the right kind of boulder.

Again, as a beginner it is vital that you remain safe at all times, so the best advice here would be to begin with small boulders, and to climb over flat ground, ideally coated with grass or moss. That way if you were to fall and hit your head, landing on soft flat ground would obviously be much better than landing on hard ground surrounded by hard rocks.

Alternatively you can use indoor climbing walls for bouldering, whereby the bouldering sections are much smaller than the rock climbing sections, and are surrounded by plenty of soft crash mats at their bases. These indoor bouldering walls are great for practicing your bouldering technique, or for times when you aren’t located close to any suitable outdoor bouldering locations.

What kit will I need?

So, we’ve established that bouldering requires far less safety gear, kit, and equipment than rock climbing, but that doesn’t mean that you can simply go bouldering in your shorts, T-shirt, and sandals. Bouldering isn’t something you just decide to do on a whim to pass an hour or so, it normally requires several hours, so you will need to pack accordingly before you set off. Here’s a look at some fundamental examples of bouldering kit that you will need.

Appropriate clothing

When bouldering, it’s important that you dress for the occasion and wear the appropriate clothing. You want clothing which is loose-fitting and non-restrictive, but at the same time you don’t want it too loose as this could get caught on jagged rocks, or tangled under your shoes if your trousers are too long or too loose.

Ideally you want the clothing to be breathable, and able to wick away sweat and moisture so as to not feel heavy and damp. You may also wish to pack waterproof clothing if there is a chance of rain. Also remember to pack a jacket as, although you may be warm when climbing, when you rest between climbs, or when you make your way back, once the sweat cools and evaporates you may find yourself feeling cold.

Footwear

Though it may be tempted to simply wear your regular gym shoes when bouldering, you should always take the time to invest in a good quality pair of climbing shoes before you take up bouldering. The reason for this is that climbing shoes are specially designed to provide protection for the feet, and comfort for the feet, all while providing huge amounts of grip in the process.

At first they will feel a little tight, but this is deliberate as they are created to adhere to the foot and to offer maximum levels of protection and grip in the process. Before buying climbing shoes, take the time to try them on, and leave them on for a while to allow your feet to get used to them.

Read our reviews of good bouldering shoes here.

Chalk and chalk pouch

Chalk is a climber’s best friend, and when it comes to bouldering things are no different. Chalk is incredibly useful for bouldering because when applied to the hands, it absorbs moisture and natural oil secretions. If you imagine grabbing onto a slippery boulder surface with sweaty, slightly oily palms, gripping onto the rock will be difficult as your hands will likely slip. If your hands were coated with chalk however, gripping the boulder’s surface would not be an issue at all.

You can buy chalk in balls, or in loose powdered form, and it can easily be carried within a small pouch which you can clip around your waist. For even less mess and an easy application, liquid chalk is perfect. Here chalk is combined with an alcohol solution, which, when applied to the hands quickly dries and evaporates, leaving behind a coating of chalk.

Food and water

As mentioned, bouldering is often performed in the countryside or in rural locations and it takes several hours. If you’re in a National Park, some Woodland, Moorland, or anywhere else for that matter while bouldering, you won’t have too many options in terms of food and drink. This is why you should invest in a cool bag/box and pack your own food, and make sure to bring plenty of water to stay hydrated.

Bouldering pad

This is probably the most expensive item in any boulderer’s dispensary, but it is also arguably the most important. As a beginner, safety is paramount and as you are still learning, a bouldering pad is an essential purchase. These pads or mats are made specifically from foam so as to act as a crash mat if you are to slip from the boulder you are scaling.

You can get different pads at different sizes and thicknesses, but just be sure to get one that you know will protect you if you do happen to slip. These pads are not only useful for potentially saving your life, they’re also very comfortable to sit on when you’re tucking into your sandwiches, and if you are camping out and really having an adventure-filled weekend, they also make great makeshift mattresses.

Bouldering Tips for Beginners

Now that we’ve covered the basics, the last thing we need to do is give you a few handy tips to help you out on your first few bouldering sessions.

Practice falling and jumping off

This may sound like fun, or quite daunting, depending on what floats your boat, but it is actually a very important aspect of bouldering. You see, when you’re bouldering, there will be times when you feel your grip going and your feet slipping, and you know that you’re about to fall off. This is where it is important to nail the dismount and landing. You need to know where your mat should be placed, and where to have your spotter (more on that next). Practice jumping/falling from a safe height, and gradually increase the height slightly if you’re confident you’re still safe.

Get a spotter

Never go bouldering alone unless you are bouldering indoors. A spotter is basically a buddy stood at the base of the rock, who verbally navigates you down so that you dismount the boulder safely. They also stand under the climber, with arms outstretched, and help break the climber’s fall when they dismount. You also need to learn how to be a spotter when your buddy has his/her go at climbing.

Master your technique

Before you take to large boulders, it’s vital that you first master your basic technique. When bouldering for example, your big toe should always be placed firmly on holds on the rock’s surface, and never your instep. Your feet and legs should support the majority of your body weight.

Ease your way in slowly

As you are new to bouldering, you should take the time to ease your way into it slowly, rather than jumping in head first. Consider taking lessons, practice with very small boulders, and don’t push yourself too hard. Before you head outdoors, indoor bouldering is recommended for safety purposes.