They say that if you’re not falling, you’re not trying. So if falling is the key to sending that project, we’d better make sure we’re doing it properly.
There’s more to safer landings than just putting some foam at the bottom of the boulder.
How high can you safely fall from?
In short – there is no 100% safe height to fall from. A fall from any height could result in injury when bouldering, be it at 10 cm or 10 m, but the higher you climb, the more likely you are to get injured.
The key is to make sure you’re aware of the risks of injury before you start climbing. Personally, I feel most comfortable bouldering up to 3 metres; at 3 – 5 metres I feel more tentative on any sketchy or dynamic moves. The higher you are, the smaller your boulder pad will seem and the easier it is to miss it when you fall. Plus, as good as you feel on the climb, there are always variables beyond your control that could cause a fall: stuff like a breaking foot or handhold.
When routes become boulders…
What qualifies as a boulder problem and what qualifies as a route is a controversial topic amongst climbers, as many extreme graded trad climbs are now climbed as highball boulder problems. (Read Hazel Findlay’s interview with Katy Whittaker for some insight.)
Choose your bouldering pad wisely
You’d think that the softest pad would be the best to fall on. But, as squishy as it is, it probably won’t protect your fall so well. Do your research and choose a suitable pad for what you’re doing. (Hati’s How to Choose a Boulder Pad post should help).
Position your bouldering mat
Map your fall zone: read the boulder problem and consider where you are most likely to fall. Are there moves that will put you in funky positions? Where is the crux? This is where you want your crash pad to be.
For some boulders (like traverse and highballs), one pad isn’t enough to cover all bases and it’s well worth taking multiple pads if you can.
Survey the ground: look for rocks and uneven or sloping surfaces in your landing zone.
If your landing is soft and flat, you might use your boulder mat to cover protruding rocks rather than the ground. If your surface is sloping, your mat could slip from under you as you fall on it. Jamming another pad underneath could help keep it in place.
Stacking pads: for straight up highballs, some boulderers put on pad on top of another for a softer, more protected landing.
Once you’re climbing, be aware of your position relative to the mat and surrounding objects so that you can avoid sketchy moves when unprotected. You may discover some funky movements that you hadn’t anticipated; I’d recommend jumping down and repositioning your mat.
Try to relax into the fall rather than tensing up or trying to fight gravity. Tensing up when you fall is more likely to lead to broken bones or sprains. Flailing for handholds to prevent a fall can make you land awkwardly.
If possible, land with feet shoulder-width apart and soft knees – you want your lower body to take the force of the fall, not your back!
Land on the base of your feet, not on the sides, so you’re less likely to roll an ankle.
If you’re falling onto your back, tuck your chin into your chest to reduce the likelihood of whiplash.
Spotter vs no spotter
A spotter has multiple roles: they should guide the boulderer onto the mat when they fall and might move the boulder pad as the climber is climbing to make sure it’s well positioned (for example, on a traverse).
Spotters should never try to catch the climber.
Some climbers prefer not to be spotted because bad spotting can do more harm than good. Spotters should avoid common mistakes like standing beneath the climber (a fall could injure both parties) and should stand with their legs shoulder width apart and a bit bent to avoid kneeing the climber.
Know when to back down
Knowing when to back down and let those niggling problems go is an essential skill when bouldering. You can always come back another day to tackle them!
Let’s sum it up:
There’s no 100% safe height for bouldering.
Avoid soft and squishy bouldering pads, they’re not particularly protective.
Read the problem before you climb and position your pad where falls are more likely or the fall zone is uneven/rocky.
Be aware of where you are relative to your pad as you climb.
Relax! Don’t tense up or try to fight the fall.
Land with your feet shoulder-width apart and let your lower body take the force.
Consider bringing a friend along to spot.
Know when to call it a day.
The beta on buying a bouldering pad.
Hebe, our UK-made designer, talks you through how we put together our range of bouldering pads
Read this article for some in-depth foam beta.
We have over 10 years of experience making pads, find out more about our design criteria.
More pads are better than one pad! Using multiple pads brings its own challenges, Ashleigh explains what to look out for.
Design your own custom bouldering mats
Got specific needs? We make our pads in the UK so get in touch and we will do our best to help.
Looking after your bouldering pad, how to replace foam, repair your shell, clean and store it.