What is Bouldering? Here’s A Beginner’s Guide

By: Ashley Vitiello | Last Updated on December 22, 2023
Bouldering is a type of rock climbing that can be social, physically demanding, and lots of fun! But what is bouldering exactly? Let's talk about it.

Bouldering is one of the most popular types of rock climbing and it’s becoming increasingly popular in the United States and around the world. It’s a great way to get into rock climbing without purchasing expensive gear and it can be a fun, social hobby that gets you outside. But what is bouldering? Here’s a complete beginner’s guide on everything you need to know about this awesome sport.

What is Bouldering?

Bouldering is a form of climbing that uses only climbing shoes, chalk, and a crash pad or two for protection. The routes are short bouldering walls (less than 12-15′ tall) and are called “problems.” This type of climbing focuses on short, powerful sequences that can be quite different from other climbing disciplines like sport climbing or trad climbing. Some people consider it a more “pure” form of rock climbing because it’s just you and the rock without all the protective gear.

Bouldering is a type of unroped free climbing, which means there’s no climbing rope and you climb on natural rock surfaces without the use of equipment to help you get up the wall. It’s quite similar to free soloing, which became part of mainstream media with Alex Honnold’s free solo of El Capitan in Yosemite. The main difference is the length of the route, with boulder problems being quite short and free solo routes being quite tall.

Bouldering is pretty straightforward most of the time, but we’ve found there are situations when the lines between bouldering and other climbing disciplines can become a little blurred. “Highball” bouldering can be much taller than fifteen feet, and some can even have bolts to make it a sport climb. These tall walls could be considered bouldering or sport climbing or free soloing depending on how you approach your safety precautions.

Alex Honnold climbing Too Big to Flail, a V10 highball boulder in The Buttermilks of California. Photo from AlexHonnold.com

A Brief Bouldering History

Rock climbing first started appearing as a sport in the late 1800s, and bouldering originally began as a method of training for roped climbs, allowing climbers to practice tough moves while staying a safe distance from the ground. This also helped build strength and increase stamina without requiring the setup of safety equipment.

British Mountaineering by Claude E. Benson, 1909. Photo from the Origins of Bouldering by John Gill.

Fontainebleau in France became a prominent climbing area in the early 1900s, and it was home to the first bleausards (or “boulderers”). Fast forward to the 1950’s when American John Gill pushed the sport forward and advocated for bouldering to be separate discipline. He even started using chalk and proposed the earliest American grading system, the B Scale. He’s been quoted before, saying “I may well have been the first serious climber to specialize in bouldering and to promote the “new” sport as a universal activity – not restricted to a particular locale – and to argue for its acceptance as a legitimate form of rock climbing.”

In the 1980’s, the first bouldering mats (or crash pads) hit the market, which were a great upgrade from the random cushions and other items that were previously used. This is also when we started to see climbing gyms opening, which allowed climbers to train year-round. In the late 1980’s, John “Vermin” Sherman started proposing the V Scale, which is still in use today.

In the early 2000s, there was another upward tick in popularity for bouldering. This was due to the increased visibility of the sport through YouTube, vlogs, and blogs that helped climbers announce newly completed projects, share locations, and teach climbing technique to beginners.

All this led to what we know as modern bouldering, and starting in 2020, rock climbing officially became part of the Olympic Games. It has three disciplines of competition: bouldering, lead climbing, and speed climbing.

Indoor Bouldering

To climb indoors, gyms use artificial walls to simulate outdoor climbing on natural rocks. These walls are usually made of wooden panels and have plastic holds that are bolted onto the wall. The holds create the problem or route, and they’re color-coded to show you which holds you should use.

In the photograph below, you can visually follow the different color holds to see how each route leads you up the wall. In order to successfully climb a problem indoors, you should only use holds that match. Note: some smaller, budget climbing gyms may use tape to mark holds that belong to certain routes.

Sender One is a climbing and bouldering gym owned by rock climber Chris Sharma. This bouldering wall is at their LA location, but they also have five other California locations. Photo from the SO website.

To start climbing, use the marked starting holds and get your feet off the ground. Starting holds can be marked with a sign, a written grade, an extra piece of tape, or they may just be the most obvious ones at eye level. Either way, you must be off the ground before you can officially start your climb.

Gyms will also have a finishing hold that you must grip with both hands before calling it a successful send. Some gyms may have places where you can ‘top out’ or climb over the top of the formation. Before you even start climbing, look for the easiest way down, whether that be backtracking, a nearby ladder, or large descent holds that make it easier.

The floor will be padded with thick bouldering mats that help protect you in case of any falls. Part of bouldering is learning how to fall properly to decrease the chance of injury, and the mats help cushion the ground. In our experience, it’s best to practice rolling backwards onto your back when you land, as this takes some of the pressure off your ankles and knees. Make sure you don’t throw your arms out, as landing on your wrists and hands can lead to sprains and broken bones. Here’s a great video representation of the best way to fall while bouldering.

With the quantity of climbing gyms on the rise over the last decade, there’s no shortage of indoor places to climb. Most gyms have a separate area for bouldering, but nowadays there’s even indoor bouldering gyms that focus completely on bouldering and don’t have roped climbing routes. If it’s your first time visiting your local gym, know that you can rent equipment there for a small fee: this includes climbing shoes, as well as chalk and a chalk bag.

No matter which type of climbing gym you visit, those indoor climbing walls offer great opportunities to climb and train regardless of weather conditions and the amount or accessibility of routes in your local area. They’re also a great place for beginner boulderers to get a feel for the sport and learn from other climbers before purchasing their own gear and venturing outdoors.

Outdoor Bouldering

Outdoor bouldering is more complicated than climbing indoors not only because you have to find where to go, but also because each problem is different depending on the type of rock and location. Some places may require long approaches (hiking in) and you will have to find something that fits within your abilities.

You can take some of the stress off by finding a mentor or friend who frequently boulders outdoors so they can take you along. This will help you find the best spots at your local crag and get some insider knowledge about the rock types present.

When you boulder outdoors, you will place your own bouldering mats for protection. It will take time and research to find the best local places to climb, and it’s worth asking some people you know at your local gym. You can also find bouldering problems on Mountain Project by filtering your search for bouldering.

In the United States and around the world, there are tons of prominent bouldering areas that are worth a climbing trip or vacation. There’s Mount Evans in Colorado, The Buttermilks in California near Bishop, and Hueco Tanks in Texas, which hosts an annual bouldering competition, The Rock Rodeo. Some famous places outside the U.S. are Rocklands, South Africa; Fontainebleau, France (which is where the Font Scale came from); and Albarracín, Spain.

Bouldering Grades

There’s a lot of different grading systems around the world and different types of climbing can even have their own system. Sport climbing uses a Yosemite or French scale, while other disciplines like ice climbing and aid climbing have their own systems.

There are two bouldering grading systems that are most commonly used: the V Scale and the Font Scale (short for Fontainebleau System). You can use the conversion chart below to go back and forth between the two scales.

bouldering grades conversion chart what is bouldering

Each boulder problem or route is assigned a difficulty grade based on a variety of factors. If you’re climbing indoors, the route difficulty was most likely established by the gym’s route setter. If you’re climbing outdoors, the difficulty level was probably established by the first person to climb that problem. Read our article about Rock Climbing Grades for more information about how grades are established and the downsides of grades.

V Scale

The V-Scale (aka Hueco Scale) is used in North America, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, and many other countries. It’s named after John “Vermin” Sherman, who worked with his climbing buddies in the 1980s and 90s to rate routes in Hueco Tanks, a famous bouldering area in Texas.

While the scale is open-ended, it currently goes from VB (B = beginner) or V0 and counts up all the way to V17 in numerical order (V0, V1, V2, and so on). The current highest rated boulder problem is Return of the Sleepwalker (V17), which was established by Daniel Woods in 2021 but has yet to be repeated.

Font Scale

The Font Scale can go by several names (Fontainebleau or French scale), and it’s most commonly see in Europe. It’s named after a famous bouldering area in France called Fontainebleau. While it’s similar to the French scale for sport and trad climbs, it’s its own distinct system.

It technically starts at zero, but routes below a difficulty of four are essentially non-existent. A 4 would be equal to the V-scale’s V0. Four and five can have an optional plus sign to further describe climbing difficulty, then numbers six and above have both a number and letter on top of the optional plus sign. For example, within the six range there’s 6a, 6a+, 6b, 6b+, 6c, and 6c+. The current hardest route is 9a (Daniel Woods’ Return of the Sleepwalker).

Bouldering Difficulty Ratings

Here’s a breakdown of what the difficulty grades generally mean on the bouldering scale.

  • V0-V2/4-5+: Beginner levels of bouldering that are best for learning the basics.
  • V3-V5/6A-6C+: Intermediate level climbs. You can probably flash boulders you couldn’t even climb when you first started.
  • V6-V9/7A-7B: Advanced climbs for people who have spent a lot of time bouldering.
  • V10-V13/7B+-8A+: Expert climbs that require years of training and bouldering experience. You climb more than just weekends and perhaps may compete in competitions.
  • V14+/8B+: Elite climbs that are usually only for professional and sponsored climbers who have a natural ability and are in peak shape.

Bouldering Grading Systems Around the World

Here’s a map of the countries across the globe and which grading system they mostly use.

Legend:
Pink = V Scale
Blue = Font
Purple = both V and Font but mostly Font (UK and Ireland)
Orange = Dankyu (Japan)

Bouldering Jargon

Here’s an alphabetical list and definition of words you may hear while bouldering.

  • Approach: the walk or hike to the rock where you intend to climb.
  • Beta: Information about a climb that usually involves the best way to ascend and where the holds are.
  • Crack or crack climbing: a type of climbing where you follow a crack in the rock’s surface.
  • Crag: slang for a climbing area or rock.
  • Crux: the most challenging move or sequence of moves on a route.
  • Flash: to climb to the top of a route on your first try with the aid of knowing beta beforehand. Similar to onsight and redpoint.
  • Highball: a really tall boulder problem that blurs the lines between bouldering and free soloing.
  • Onsight: climbing to the top of a route on your first try without prior knowledge or beta beforehand. Similar to flash and redpoint. Onsights are rare because of all the information available online and in guidebooks.
  • Overhang: when a problem leans past 90 degrees.
  • Problem: a route or sequence of holds you climb when bouldering.
  • Project: to ‘project’ a route or to have a project means working on a route that takes several tries. Some of the most challenging routes on the top end of your abilities can take days, weeks, or even months of projecting.
  • Pumped: when your forearms are fatigued, making it harder to keep going.
  • Redpoint: successfully climbing a route after having practiced it before. Similar to flash and onsight. If you hear about someone climbing near their redpoint, that means they’re climbing near the threshold of their ability.
  • Roof: a type of problem where the overhang is pretty much horizontal instead of vertical.
  • Send: to climb a route.
  • Spotter: a friend or mentor who stands near the crash pad while someone else is climbing. They hold their hands up in the direction of the climber and help redirect their fall to a safe spot.
  • Spray beta: providing unsolicited information, which includes pointing out holds to a climber currently on the rock. This is a no-no.
  • Top Out: to climb to a point where you can stand on top of the boulder or problem.
  • Traverse: a type of bouldering where you climb mostly left and right instead of up and down.

Bouldering Etiquette

Don’t spray beta (provide unsolicited information) for other climbers unless they ask for help. Part of this includes brushing off tick marks that point towards small holds, that way other climbers can discover these on their own.

Share the wall. Whether you’re indoors or out, bouldering is typically a more social form of rock climbing where you’ll have other people around. Don’t hog a problem, especially if there’s other people around who want to give it a try.

Speaking of social climbing, make sure you chat with nearby climbers and make friends. It’s all part of the fun!

Leave no Trace. As with any outdoor recreation, always leave no trace. This means packing out trash, staying on trail when possible, and peeing/pooping in accordance with local regulations.

Don’t play loud music or make too much noise. If you’re outdoors, refrain from playing loud music that may disturb other people and climbers. If you’re climbing indoors, don’t use headphones that may prevent you from hearing warnings from nearby climbers.

Most of all, be friendly and supportive. Let everyone climb their own climb and cheer them on, regardless of how easy or difficult you think that climb is.

Bouldering Safety Tips

Fall properly: First, always make sure there’s nothing on your crash pad – you wouldn’t want to twist your ankle on a water bottle laying around. If you do fall, don’t try to catch yourself with your hands, as you’re more likely to break or sprain your wrist. Land on your feet (keeping your arms tucked) then allow yourself to roll backwards onto your back.

Spot properly: Spotting indoors is often unnecessary (but not always) because the pads cover every surface, but spotters can be a great safety measure when climbing outdoors. Crash pads often leave gaps and don’t cover everything, so a spotter can help guide a fall to make sure the climber lands in the correct spot. Keep in mind that a spotter’s job isn’t to catch the climber, but to push the climber in the right direction (like the bumpers on a bowling alley).

Keep your belongings in check. Make sure you stuff doesn’t spread out and intrude on other climbers’ personal space. Not only is this annoying, but it can be a safety hazard if someone falls onto your stuff or trips over something.

Bouldering Gear

Bouldering requires a minimal amount of equipment, which can be part of the draw for new climbers looking for a favorite discipline. Bouldering pioneer John Sherman said “the only gear really needed to go bouldering is boulders.” We couldn’t agree more, although climbing shoes and a couple other pieces of gear can make a big difference for your safety and enjoyment.

Read our post about climbing gear for beginners for more information about the different types of climbing gear and specific product recommendations.

Climbing Shoes

Climbing shoes are the piece of gear that has the most direct effect on performance. They are tight fitting shoes with either Velcro or laces that help the climber secure footholds better than any regular athletic footwear ever could. At first, you can rent shoes from your local gym, but once you start going more frequently, you should purchase your first pair of shoes.

Look for shoes that are mostly flat – more extreme, banana-shaped shoes are for expert and experienced climbers. We wouldn’t recommend spending too much money on anything fancy either – find a basic shoe that’s highly rated or even browse resale shops to find something in your size for cheap.

Chalk & Chalk Bag

Chalk helps absorb excess sweat and moisture, so it’s applied to climbers’ hands frequently and generously. You can store the chalk in a chalk bag, which attaches around your waist using a belt loop. A lot of boulderers may opt for a chalk bucket, which is a larger chalk bag that has a wider opening and it stays on the ground. This gives you the ability to re-apply chalk in between climbs instead of having a bag hang around your waist.

There’s also chalk socks and liquid chalk, but those can be experimented with once you are more experienced. At first, we think it’s best to just start with regular chalk that’s cheap – you won’t be able to tell the difference between the expensive stuff anyway.

Crash Pad

A crash pad or bouldering mat is a thick cushion that you place below you as you climb. If you fall, the cushion will help absorb the impact and provide space for you to roll out of the fall. Expect to spend a couple hundred dollars on these, but proper care will make them last a really long time.

At first, you can try to boulder outdoors with friends and mentors that already have crash pads or bouldering mats, but at some point you will need to buy your own. If you’re exclusively climbing indoors, you won’t need any pads since they’re already installed below the bouldering walls.

Accessories

There are some small accessories you can purchase that will further the enjoyment of bouldering in small ways. These things are items like a climbing brush, hand salves, finger tape, appropriate climbing clothing, and much more. Find what works for you and have the right gear on hand.

FAQ’s

What are bouldering problems?

A boulder problem is a route or sequence of moves that someone climbs without the use of rope or a safety harness. Routes in this climbing discipline are short walls that require powerful sequences while the climber stays fairly close to the ground.

Is bouldering dangerous?

Rock climbing is considered an extreme sport, but bouldering is relatively safe since you aren’t usually far off the ground. Your biggest injury risk is sprains from falling incorrectly. Read out article about the dangers of rock climbing for more information on this topic.

What is the point of bouldering?

The biggest goal for bouldering is to successfully reach the top of a climb using no safety harness or rope. While it’s easy to focus on the destination, remember that bouldering is also about having a good workout and strength training, spending social time with friends, and training your mind to solve problems.

Can I boulder as a beginner?

Bouldering is great for beginners, especially since it requires less equipment that other popular rock climbing disciplines. Visit your local gym to get started!

What is bouldering vs. rock climbing?

Bouldering is a type of rock climbing where climbers don’t use any ropes or harnesses for protection. The route is usually pretty short (less than 15 feet) and is quite different from other disciplines of rock climbing.

*Cover photo: Daniel Woods on The Process – photo by Reel Rock / Sender Films.

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About The Author

Ashley is an adventurous soul who loves all things nature, especially warm sunshine, wildflowers, scenic snacking, and mushrooms. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast who has spent years enjoying time outside doing things like hiking, camping, and rock climbing.
Her goal with Know Nothing Nomads is to make these hobbies easily accessible through knowledgeable content and how-to's based on all the stuff she's learned on her journey. If she isn't writing an article, she's probably in a forest looking at big mountain views and tiny pieces of moss on the side of the trail.

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