Boulder Tips for Beginners

Bouldering 101: How To Boulder and Where To Get Started

Learning how to boulder is one of the best ways to kickstart your rock climbing career. That’s because bouldering is climbing distilled to its purest form: Without ropes or much (if any) gear, you don’t have to focus on anything except trying hard on the rock. And because most boulders are short, the movements can be much more difficult than the hardest moves you’ll find on many sport climbs, where climbers have to manage their endurance as well. That short, concentrated style of movement makes bouldering one of the best ways to develop power, strength, and good technique—all of which translate to other types of climbing.

The other amazing thing about bouldering is that it’s one of the easiest disciplines of climbing to get into. You don’t need to know anything about building anchors or managing ropes, and a crash pad is the biggest purchase you’ll ever have to shell out for. That makes learning how to boulder both incredibly accessible and easy to share with friends.

In this article, you’ll learn the following:

  • What is Bouldering?
  • Essential Gear 
  • Where to Go
  • Tips for Safe Spotting
  • How to Boulder: Basic Technique

What Is Bouldering?

Bouldering is a sport that requires a unique combination of problem-solving, strength, and body awareness. It involves climbing short sections of rock, usually with the goal of getting to the top of a large boulder (hence the name). In America in the 1950s, bouldering was mainly used as a way to practice and stay fit for longer, roped rock climbs. It wasn’t until the late ’50s that climbers started grading boulders, also referred to as “bouldering problems,” and recognizing them as routes in their own right. Today, bouldering is a distinct sport with unique grades, techniques, and culture of its own.

Bouldering Grades 

In the U.S., bouldering grades exist on a “V” scale, invented by John “Vermin” Sherman in Hueco Tanks, Texas in the 1990s. Many bouldering gyms also use the V scale. However, because grading is fundamentally subjective, some areas (and gyms) have reputations for being “soft” while others are known for “stout” or “stiff” grading. That means you may be able to climb V5 easily in one place and struggle on V3s in another. This is normal, and all part of the bouldering experience.  

It’s hard to exactly translate bouldering grades to roped climbing grades, but most people agree that a V1 is roughly equivalent to 5.10, V2 to V3 feels similar to 5.11, and V5 is about the same as a 5.12 crux.

Indoor vs. Outdoor Bouldering

Both indoor and outdoor bouldering are great options for getting stronger and honing your climbing technique. Keep in mind that the two often feel different in terms of style. So if you got your start indoors, don’t be afraid to encounter a new learning curve when you venture onto real rock. But don’t give up; the experience of working new problems with friends in a beautiful setting is well worth it.

A man reaching up, chalking a boulder.

Where To Go

Most rock climbing gyms have at least a small section dedicated to bouldering. There are also bouldering-specific gyms, which tend to have more unique and varied route-setting, more training equipment specific to bouldering, and more space to rest and talk through problems with other boulderers.

Finding good outdoor bouldering options can take a little more research. Talking to local climbers or gym staff is a great way to learn about nearby options. You can also walk into a local outdoor retail shop and browse guidebooks for your state. Online guides like also provide searchable databases of boulders sorted by location. If you use an online resource, just be sure to ask local climbers or land managers whether you should be sensitive to any cultural, environmental, or ethical issues before you visit a new place.

Tips for Safe Spotting

“Spotting” someone means being prepared to protect their head, neck, and shoulders if they fall. It’s good practice to ask for a spot any time you climb more than a few feet off the ground, especially outdoors when rocks and other hazards abound. Like being a good belayer, being a good spotter is an artform, especially when you’re spotting outdoors. Here are some basics to keep in mind.

  1. Communicate with your climber about when and how they would like a spot.
  2. Adopt an athletic stance: Knees slightly bent, legs staggered and shoulder-width apart.
  3. Keep your fingers together and palms open. Maintain a gentle bend in your elbows.
  4. Be prepared for your climber to come off the wall at any time.
  5. Focus on keeping the climber upright to protect their head and neck: If they pop off the wall down low or on an overhanging problem, catching them under the armpits could prevent a sideways fall or back-splat. If they come off the wall higher or on a more vertical boulder, try to grab them around the hips to slow and guide their landing.

How To Boulder: Basic Technique

Learning how to boulder is a lifelong process. You’ll pick up new tricks every time you climb in a new area or on a new type of rock, but here are some fundamentals that almost always apply. 

  1. Look at your route first. Before you start climbing, take a minute to scout out all your holds and imagine how you might get from one to the next. By getting a head-start on problem solving, you’ll maximize efficiency on the wall.
  2. Climb with straight arms. Keeping muscles contracted wastes energy. Hang on your skeleton instead: Between each move, sink into the hand-holds, let your arms straighten, and relax your grip until you’re holding on with the lightest touch possible.
  3. Use your feet. Move your feet before you move your hands. Deliberate, controlled footwork is a great way to save energy. Plus, the more you can boost yourself up the wall with your legs, the longer your arms will last before getting fatigued.   
  4. Twist your hips. Your natural instinct may be to climb facing the wall straight-on, but your center of gravity is in your hips. The closer your hips are to the wall, the easier it will be to reach upward. If you’re extending your right hand, for example, think about turning your right hip into the wall to lengthen through your side.
  5. Think outside the box. You can pull straight down on many holds, but some work better when pulled at from the side (“side-pulls”) or from the bottom (“underclings”). If you’re stuck on a problem, try something new. Can you grip a hold differently? Can you move your feet higher or lower to use a hold in a new way?

Essential Gear

Add these critical items to your bouldering gear list whether you’re venturing indoors or out.

Climbing outside requires a little more gear and preparation. For outdoor bouldering, you’ll also need the following items:

  • Crash pads
  • Chalk bag
  • Backpack
  • Sneakers or approach shoes
  • Warm layers
  • Athletic tape for fingers
  • Guidebook or app that functions offline
  • Plenty of food and water

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.