If you’ve ever fancied trying rock climbing, bouldering is a great pursuit that works your upper body, core and improves strength and confidence. Sian Lewis explains how to get started
The fine art of bouldering is all about climbing close to the ground (usually to a height of four or five metres maximum) without using ropes or protection. It’s not about gaining a lot of height, but more about solving the problem of how to get to the top of the wall without falling off (if you do fall, it’ll be onto a crash mat).
Bouldering is also one of the easiest ways to get into climbing and anyone can have a go. It is fantastic for all-over fitness and a huge confidence builder – there’s something very mentally beneficial about setting your brain to work on a route – it clears your brain of workaday worries and let you focus fully on something physical. These are our top tips to get you started.
Warm up properly
Bouldering is a dynamic sport with short, sharp bursts of activity, which means it’s easy to injure yourself if you don’t take care. Warm up properly before you hit the wall and start off with easy problems before progressing to the tougher stuff.
Read the route
When bouldering indoors you’ll be following a coloured and graded route. To complete a route, you start from a sitting position with your hands on the first hold(s), climb up to the top hold, and touch it with both hands. Before you set off, take time to look at where you’ll place your hands and feet to save searching for the next move mid-climb.
When you’ve bagged a route (touched the top hold with both hands), climb down to a safe distance rather than just jumping off from the top, and watch out for other climbers near or below you. Even better, try climbing all the way down to the floor – it makes for a better workout.
Think with your feet
Remember to use your feet as much as your arms when climbing and try to keep your arms hanging straight to save energy. Look for a foothold, then a handhold, and progress upwards. Climbing shoes can hurt, but they provide grip and their tight rubber toes mean you can work them into surprisingly small footholds.
Look after your hands
Take care of your hands by taping up your lower finger joints during and using a moisturising balm after a bouldering session. If you strain a finger muscle, don’t continue to climb on it – give it a rest for a week or two instead.
An introduction session is invaluable for learning the basics of climbing. Even if you’ve been bouldering for a few months, you might find that you stop progressing as fast as when you were a beginner. Try booking a one-on-one coaching session – you’ll come away with tons of handy tips for improving your skills.
Getting confident bouldering indoors? Buy a crash mat, head outside and try bouldering in nature. Sign up to an outdoor bouldering course with a company such as Pure Outdoor to help you learn safety techniques and gain confidence.
Try deep water solo
After a real challenge? Bouldering’s most extreme incarnation is deep water soloing, which involves climbing bouldering problems above water – if you fall, you splash down into the sea instead of onto a mat. Look for routes that traverse low above the water, so there isn’t far to fall, and check water carefully for any obstacles first.
Use mental focus
Bouldering is a surprisingly mindful sport. Focusing on solving a problem with both your head and your body is a great way to calm your mind. Chalk up your hands and treat a bouldering session as a chance to focus on one simple task.
Get kitted out
Look for a climbing shoe aimed at novice climbers – close-fitting heels are recommended for bouldering, allowing you to progress to heel hooks. Loose, comfortable clothing, chalk to keep hands dry, a chalk bag to clip around your waist and a crash pad are also kit essentials.
Where to try bouldering
The British Mountaineering Council (thebmc.co.uk) have a list of bouldering walls all over the UK. A session at a bouldering wall usually costs under £10, and annual memberships are also available. Once you’ve gained confidence and are keen to climb on real rock, we suggest signing up for a course to get you safely conquering routes in the great outdoors.
Sian Lewis is the editor of award-winning blog The Girl Outdoors and author of The Girl Outdoors: The Wild Girl’s Guide to Adventure, Travel and Wellbeing, published by Bloomsbury.