A woman outdoor bouldering at Stanage Edge in the Peak District

From the Wall to the Wild – How to Start Bouldering Outdoors

Climbing has seen a huge boom in popularity over the recent years, with indoor bouldering gyms popping up in cities all over the world. What at one point was an esoteric pastime of a small minority, is now a popular and undeniably mainstream sport to be featured in the next two Olympic games. With so many new people getting into bouldering through indoor climbing walls – the transition to outdoor climbing is becoming more and more difficult. This article will walk through the most common questions people have about how to start bouldering outdoors.

Where to go bouldering outdoors?

To find a good climbing wall, it is enough to type it into Google and pick from a myriad of search results and reviews. Finding out the best outdoor bouldering venues will require a bit more research, and most likely experimentation. The easiest way is to go with someone already in the know about the areas near you. But this is not possible for everyone.

That’s were guidebooks, websites and topos come into the picture. For your first trip outside, it is best to look for bouldering venues with a good range of different grades. Some locations have a reputation of being beginner friendly, whereas others are considered more as training venues for local climbers. You can usually get a good understanding of what the venue is likely to offer by looking through UKC logbooks, or other similar local websites. This will offer you great insight to the climbs at the crag. But everyone has their personal favourites, to find out yours, you just need to go out and find the one you like best.

If you’re near the Peak District, check out my guide to the Best Places for Low Grade Bouldering in the Peak District! The Peak District is a great place to star bouldering outdoors, as there are just so many places to go to!

What gear do I need for bouldering outdoors?

In short, the gear you need to start bouldering outdoors includes:

  • bouldering mat
  • climbing shoes
  • chalk bag
  • bouldering brush
  • towel
  • climbing tape
  • guidebook

Part of the ease of indoor climbing is that you need very little gear. And as you are getting into the sport, everything can be rented from the climbing gym. When transition to outdoors, it is time to invest in some equipment. It is likely that you already have your own climbing shoes and a chalk bag. And now is time to get a bouldering mat.

Bouldering mats, or pads as they are also called, are used to secure the landing below boulders. For your first bouldering mat, it is good to go with a medium to large one. Most climbers start with just one bouldering mat (although people tend to grow their collection after a while!) However, while you only have one mat, it is good to opt for a bigger option. This will make things safer but is also good for confidence.

Other important things to bring with you to the crag include a guidebook (or the Rockfax App) and a brush. Get a soft bouldering brush that will not cause unnecessary wear on the rock or use an old toothbrush. This can be used to clean the rock of sand, dirt or vegetation before climbing. But it is also good etiquette to brush your chalk off the rock after your session!

It is also a good habit to bring a towel or a little piece of carpet with you, especially if the ground is likely to be muddy. This will allow you to clean your rock shoes before getting on the climb in order to avoid slipping due to wet shoes. It will also help to avoid eroding the rock due to sand and mud on your shoes. One final thing I always have with me for bouldering outdoors is climbing tape. Real rock is much harder on the skin than plastic and getting cuts and scrapes is very common.

What is different about climbing rocks?

But surely the climbing itself is the same? Well, not really. Indoors we are used to thick mattresses protecting the landing. This allows us to fully commit to moves high above the ground with the knowledge that we can safely land on the mats below. When you are just getting into bouldering outside, buying a decent bouldering mat is one of the first investments. However, one crash pad offers significantly less safety than an indoor climber is used to. So it is crucial to learn to fall safely, position the crash pad correctly below the climb and ideally have an attentive ‘spotter’ with you. The job of the spotter is to stay on the ground and ensure that the climber will land on the mat if they fall off. Their duties might also involve moving the mat, so that it stays under the climber at all times.

Furthermore, where in a gym the aim is to follow a line of coloured plastic holds, outdoors we need to figure out the moves ourselves. A guidebook will give you the general line of the problem, but it is down to you to figure out the holds and the sequence. Therefore, if you have not climbed on rock before, prepare to drop down a good few grades from you level in the gym, while you figure out the more organic style of climbing outdoors.

One final thing…

Finally, an important consideration before setting off the ground, is to find out how to get down! Gyms are built with safety and usability in mind, unfortunately nature did not design most outdoor boulders with this objective in mind. So, it is crucial to check that you will be able to get back down before setting off. As the name indicates, bouldering will usually take you up a freestanding boulder. Different descents include climbing (or sometimes walking) down an easier side of the boulder, down climbing the same or an easier route, jumping down onto your mat or occasionally setting up a rope to aid coming down. The key is to have a plan!

I hope you will enjoy the amazing world of outdoor climbing! And that this article has answered to some of your questions about how to start bouldering outdoors.

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