Bouldering has always existed in some form, but it wasn’t until pioneers like John Sherman and John Gill started doing it for its own sake that the activity became widespread. These days, bouldering is an extremely popular sport on its own, partially due to the low cost and low technical know-how needed. To boulder, all you really need is a pair of climbing shoes, a chalk bag, and a bouldering pad. Bouldering pads, or crash pads, are pieces of foam covered in fabric intended to increase the safety and comfort of a fall. Usually they have carrying straps similar to a backpack. Climbers in groups may bring multiple crash pads, either to stack on top of each other or spread out along the base of a climb.
Foam types: There are three main types of foam used in bouldering pads at the moment: closed-cell polyurethane foam, open-cell polyethylene foam, and recycled shredded ethylen-vinyl acetate foam (EVA). Most pads on the market use a combination of closed and open cell foam, sometimes in multiple alternating layers, all with the intent to soften both small and larger falls. Generally these pads are constructed in one or two sheets of foam pad layers. New to the market are pads with baffling that holds shredded EVA, recycled from running shoes. The benefit of this material is that it is much more flexible, meaning it drapes over irregular terrain.
These days most bouldering pads will be made with heavy-duty 500+ denier materials, but if your crash pad is not, it will not hold up to long-term use. Avoid flimsy pads or anything that has a thin-feeling exterior fabric.
Folding types: Generally bouldering pads fall into three different categories of folding: book-folding, taco-folding, or bias-cut.
Book-folding pads: These are made with two foam pads that fold 180 degrees. This allows for better durability of the foam, but they need velcro or straps in the middle to prevent the center of the pad from folding up when a climber falls on the pad. For this reason many people prefer a taco-style folding pad.
Taco folding pads: These are made from one continuous foam pad. This creates no break in the foam, but is slightly less compact, and over time the center of the foam will break down from continuous folding and unfolding. The other benefit of a taco fold is the gap in the pad that allows you extra room for storage.
Bias-cut pad: A compromise is the bias-cut pad, which is cut at 45 degrees in the middle, so that the two foam pieces overlap.
Dimensions: Depending on the types of foam used, pads basically fall into three rough sizes: accessory pads with smaller dimensions, oversize pads for highball climbs and extra protection, and the everyday use pad.
Everyday use: Generally speaking, pads for everyday use are usually around 48″x40″ in size when unfolded, and range from 3-5 inches thick.
Accessory pads: These are anything significantly smaller or thinner than the everyday use pad, and can be used to increase the protection of your main pad, for shorter climbs, or to protect specific areas.
Oversize pads: are usually anything significantly bigger than standard, and can get up to around 7’x4’x5″. Folded thickness is usually twice the thickness of the foam, but with taco style folding pads you can get pads 12″ thick or thicker.
Straps, accessories, and other considerations: While crashpads are made of foam and are generally not particularly heavy (although the big ones can top 20 pounds), many people will try to fit everything they need for a day into their pad, including shoes, chalk, water, food, sunscreen, bug spray, guidebooks, etc. Add that to the fact that sometimes, your intended climb is miles into the wilderness.
Straps and suspension: The heavier the pad and the farther your approach, the beefier your pad’s suspension needs to be. Make sure to look for a pad with a heavy-duty waistbelt. Metal buckles will hold up better than nylon, but are often harder to replace. The amenities you’d look for in a backpacking pack, like sternum straps, load lifter straps, and contoured shoulder pads are what you want to look for here as well. It’s also nice if the suspension is removable so as not to get damaged.
Replaceable foam: Some pads have replaceable foam, which can be a great option, as the foam will eventually degrade and will not offer the “catch” it originally had. If your pad has this option, make sure that you check the zipper or Velcro flap access to the foam regularly, as they are failure points.
Other niceties: Many pads have a fabric flap underneath that allows you to carry your gear without it falling out. Look for pads that strap together with metal buckles. Small zippered pouches for keys and wallets are nice as well, and are often built into these fabric flaps.
Some bouldering pads have unique features, like a carpeted top for scraping off your rock shoes, the ability to turn into a lounge chair, and some pads are even designed to act as the padded base of a tent for camping.