Getting started: bouldering outdoors

Posted by Tina Gardner on 15/05/2014
Stanage plantation: Photo: Alex Messenger

Here’s how to transfer your budding bouldering skills from coloured blobs at an indoor climbing wall to real rock outside.

For many boulderers, outdoors is what it’s all about: ticking famous problems (short difficult routes on boulders); going to legendary bouldering spots; checking out cutting edge new problems; cruising a dozen easier classics or terrifying yourself on high-ball problems (high and scary). The feel of cool grippy rock under your hands topped off by a sunset is magic.

Holds

If you’ve only climbed indoors so far then be prepared – there’s a lot more to contend with on real rock. For a start, the way ahead is not marked by bright coloured blobs. Holds won’t be as obvious, footholds might just be smears (place your foot and rely on friction) and it may not be clear where to go. You’ll have to look and think harder.

Techniques

Climbing outdoors demands more shifting around of the body, delicate footwork and the crafty use of a lot of varying body parts. Problems can also be more committing – higher, or with bumpy landings – so you may have more fear to contend with. Remember to breathe and think about where you position your mat and spotters.

Problems

Outdoor problems are – literally – set in stone. You can’t (and very definitely shouldn’t try to) change anything about them. The holds may be awkward or the rock sharp. They may be reachy or the crux (hardest move) may be above a rock buried in the ground. You can’t get an Allen key out and add an extra foothold. Also, it might be cold and wet.

Grading system

Most indoor walls have grading systems for bouldering, usually V grades (V0, V1, V2...) or Font grades (Font 4, 5, 5+, 6A...). Outdoor grades are exactly the same. However, for many of the reasons mentioned above, the grade you climb outdoors will probably be way below what you’ve climbed indoors.

Where to start

Try not to think too much about grades on your first few trips outside. Appreciate that you are learning a whole new set of skills. The strength and technique you have gained from climbing inside will soon translate to outdoor bouldering so just get stuck in. Start with easy problems and work your way up.

Caring for the rock

To keep climbs in good condition for yourself and others, clean your rock shoes so mud doesn’t get on footholds and try not to use too much chalk as it cakes holds up. After climbing, others will thank you for brushing away your chalk with a soft brush. Think before climbing on wet or damp rock as moisture can weaken it.

Check out our good practice guidance.

Family Fun

Age is no barrier to bouldering. What could be better than all the family exploring the boulders together on a sunny day.

Guidebooks

Most areas in the country are now covered by guides, whether in printed books or online. These explain what a venue is like, how to get there and give descriptions and grades of the problems. Guidebooks can take a bit of interpreting: where does the problem start and what holds can you use? With a little experience you’ll soon figure it out and be good to go.

Equipment

As well as climbing shoes, what other gear will you need?  

Bouldering mat: The bouldering mat is the main safety net between you and the ground and therefore the most important piece of equipment to own. Learning how and where to place them is a skill in itself, as is landing on them when falling off unexpectedly.

Boulder bucket or chalk bag: Most climbers wear a chalk bag around their waist when climbing routes. You could use this for bouldering too, but many people opt for a larger bucket that stays on the ground. Due to the short, sharp, and intense nature of the activity you don’t often have the time/opportunity to chalk up while on a problem.

Spotters: Spotters (other people) are an integral part of bouldering safely outdoors. If you come off awkwardly it is the role of the spotter to ensure that you are guided towards the safety of the bouldering mats. It’s important to learn to spot correctly.

Towel: Think of a towel like a brush for your feet. If your rock boots are dirty they won’t stick to the rock as effectively. With a thorough wipe your shoes can stay on even the smallest of holds.

Brush: When finding a problem tricky it is easy to over-chalk the holds through repeated attempts. Unfortunately this has a negative impact on friction – as well as being unsightly, so soft nylon brushes are used to remove excess chalk.

This article is an extract from Get into Climbing, our special edition magazine for beginners. The magazine contains 100 pages (over 30 articles) of essential information and expert advice on how to start climbing. Buy your copy from the BMC shop for just £5 (£3 for BMC members).

Find out more:

Watch the Bouldering Channel on BMC TV

Watch Dave Mason, a top boulderer from Sheffield, explain how he got started climbing, on BMC TV.



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