How To Buy a Bouldering Pad

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.