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What is bouldering? A beginner's guide to rope-free climbing

A climber performs a heel hook while bouldering over a red crash pad
Bouldering is a relatively low maintenance activity that distills rock climbing down to the bare essentials: you and the rock. (Image credit: Keri Oberly)

Getting into rock climbing is exhilarating, but it’s also a big commitment. Just to get started, you need a lot of pricey gear, training in how to use it and at least one other person with the skills and ability to be your climbing partner. Bouldering, on the other hand, is a relatively low maintenance activity that distills rock climbing down to the bare essentials: you and the rock. 

So what is bouldering? We shed a light on this minimalist style of climbing and reveal what’s to love about this low maintenance sport. 

What is bouldering? 

A woman bouldering over a yellow crash mat while her dog looks on

The main difference between bouldering and rock climbing is that in bouldering you don’t use any of the typical gear such as a harness or ropes (Image credit: Getty Images)

As we explain in our guide to rock climbing terms, bouldering is a form of rock climbing where you climb rock formations that are smaller and closer to the ground. The main difference between bouldering and rock climbing is that in bouldering you don’t use any of the typical gear such as a harness or ropes.

You read that correctly; there are no ropes in bouldering. But before you start getting vertigo thinking about Alex Honnold spidermanning his way up El Cap, remember that in bouldering you probably won’t be more than 15 feet off the ground, and you’ll actually have a crash pad beneath you to cushion your falls.

Bouldering can take place on a large boulder, on the bottom section of a cliff, or indoors. It’s common to see people bouldering in urban environments like Central Park in New York City as well as in the wild. 

What is the difference between bouldering and rock climbing? 

lead climber being belayed

Bouldering can be a relatively social sport compared to sport climbing, where one of you stays on the ground while the other climbs for some time (Image credit: Getty)

In addition to the obvious lack of ropes and addition of a crash pad, there are a few key differences between bouldering and other types of rock climbing. Rather than following established routes like you would starting out in sport climbing, bouldering involves a series of technical maneuvers referred to as ‘problems’. Though there are always exceptions and blurred lines when it comes to delineating different types of climbing, generally speaking, bouldering problems will be shorter in length and you will remain closer to the ground. 

Bouldering emphasizes strength and technique rather than endurance that you might need for trad climbing. When you get to the end of the route, instead of smoothly lowering down on your rope, you’ll essentially fall off the rock, landing on the crash pad beneath you. 

It can also be a relatively social sport compared to sport climbing, where one of you stays on the ground while the other climbs for some time. In bouldering, several people can be figuring out different problems on the same rock simultaneously, and you’re all close enough to talk to each other. That said, you don’t need a climbing partner so if it’s solace you’re seeking, you can head out alone no problem. 

Is bouldering hard for beginners? 

Two men bouldering on large rock in a grassy field

You don’t have to learn how to use climbing equipment and how to belay, so in some regards, bouldering is actually easier for beginners (Image credit: Cavan Images)

In some ways yes and in other ways, no. Bouldering grades have no end in terms of difficulty, so you could end up tackling some pretty challenging rock and of course, you’re not roped, so you’re using your own strength to stay close to – and move up – the wall. 

On the other hand, you don’t have to learn how to use climbing equipment and how to belay, so in some regards, bouldering is actually easier for beginners.

How safe is bouldering? 

Three friends bouldering together in the desert

Perhaps a better question than whether or not climbing is safe is what kind of injuries you’re likely to sustain doing it (Image credit: Peter Amend)

Obviously, the chances of falling are increased with bouldering because you’re not roped, but you won’t fall far and you have your trusty crash pad. Perhaps a better question than whether or not climbing is safe is what kind of injuries you’re likely to sustain doing it. Some of the more common bouldering injuries are sprained, twisted and broken ankles and shoulder injuries sustained when falling, so if you do decide to give it a go, you’ll want to learn how to land properly. 

Is bouldering a good workout? 

A woman bouldering in the desert.jpg

Just like rock climbing, bouldering provides a pretty intense physical challenge, strengthening the muscles of your arms, back, core and legs (Image credit: Johannes Kroemer)

Definitely. Just like rock climbing, bouldering provides a pretty intense physical challenge, strengthening the muscles of your arms, back, core and legs – essentially your whole body. It’s also amazing for improving your balance, coordination, mental focus and problem solving abilities. 

What gear do you need to get started with bouldering? 

A group enjoys a bouldering clinic in the mountains

Crash pads come in folding, highly portable designs nowadays with carrying handles or straps so that you can wear them like a backpack (Image credit: Arc'Teryx)

Here comes the good news. Literally all you need to get started in bouldering are a good pair of rock climbing shoes and some chalk, which you’ll keep in a chalk bag. If you’re climbing on an indoor wall, they’ll have crash pads there but if you’re heading outdoors, you’ll also need a crash pad. These come in folding, highly portable designs nowadays with carrying handles or straps so that you can wear them like a backpack.

Ready to get started? Head over to our article on how to train for climbing for more tips. 

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Adventure.com. She is an author, mountain enthusiast and yoga teacher who loves heading uphill on foot, ski, bike and belay. She recently returned to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland after 20 years living in the USA, 11 of which were spent in the rocky mountains of Vail, Colorado where she owned a boutique yoga studio and explored the west's famous peaks and rivers. She is a champion for enjoying the outdoors sustainably as well as maintaining balance through rest and meditation, which she explores in her book Restorative Yoga for Beginners, a beginner's path to healing with deep relaxation. She enjoys writing about the outdoors, yoga, wellness and travel. In her previous lives, she has also been a radio presenter, music promoter, university teacher and winemaker.