Things no one tells you when you start bouldering outside

Author: Stanley Hunter

This isn’t a ‘how to for starting to boulder outside, instead it’s my personal opinions about starting to boulder outside. For a good guide with the basics, I’d recommend this video by the Climbing Nomads:

You need less than you think

One of the draws to bouldering is the simplicity, but the times of “just your climbing shoes and chalk” all but faded with the brilliant but bulky  invention of the bouldering mat. It’s easy to get held back getting outside by thinking you need a £300 mat, £100 shoes, guide, brushes, tape, chalk, special climbing trousers* and 10 different gadgets to warm up with. You really don’t. I started climbing mainly doing trad in my dad’s shoes from the 80s, the 1989 yorkshire grit guide and when bouldering we’d sometimes borrow a mat. Obviously, I was in a privileged position to have access to that stuff for free but if you climb inside regularly there’s a good chance you can go out with someone who already has gear. This is something I’d highly recommend anyway for them to show you the ropes (or lack thereof).

If not and you need to buy gear, I wouldn’t recommend the best shoes and mat money can buy, instead ebay, gumtree and facebook marketplace all have second hand options that will be more than enough for when you first start. You never know, you might hate it! I remember me and Will, who I started climbing with, took pride in managing to get up a route with our old trad gear (no cams) and old shoes, but we were also cocky teenagers who loved taking the piss out of people with ‘all the gear and no idea’.  I saw something recently about ‘gear shaming’ in the outdoors, especially towards POC, this is obviously not okay and goes against climbing’s roots, as a community we can’t simultaneously idolise dirtbagging and climbing’s rebelliousness while shaming people for their lack of nice gear. Climbing shouldn’t just be a community for the middle class and up who can afford the gear, bouldering doesn’t need to have a £400 minimum initial investment to get the so called ‘essentials’.

Font 2017 - Will starting a problem above our 'bouldering mat', a 1cm foam sleeping mat folded in half 


Remember that bouldering did used to just be just shoes and a chalkbag, and people climbed really hard! Even today, Charles Albert did the second ever proposed 9A/V17 boulder barefoot and without any mats.

However even if it’s just a towel and toothbrush (not that that’s what I’m recommending if you can afford something better) make sure you’ve got something to clean your shoes before climbing and brush your chalk (and use them).

*Military surplus light trousers are the best climbing trousers I’ve ever worn. Light weight, all the range of motion you need, little built in adjusters on the waist and made to stand up to lots of abuse. Plus cheap!


It’s not _______, it’s your technique

I’ve taken a lot of people out bouldering for their first time or early on when they start and heard a lot of blame placed on the wrong type of shoes or not being strong enough, but when you first start (and for a long time after) you wont be falling off because of those things, you’ll be falling off because of poor technique. Climbing is skill-based and when you first start, you’re going to have poor technique, that’s ok, you’re a beginner. If you’re weak as well, good! It’s much harder to learn technique when you can just muscle through moves then it is to learn technique when you’re weak, you can always get strong later. I’m sure it’s not the first time you’ve heard this but there’s a reason for that, it’s true.


The thing that along with technique that could be holding you, back, TRY HARD!


The guidebook isn’t the rulebook

A well written guide is great and guidebook authors deserve more credit than they get, but… you don’t have to listen to them. Coming from inside where you start at the tagged hold and finish matched on the top one it’s easy to think of problems as a very prescribed thing where you have to go from point a to point b using only x,y and z. Outside no on set the boulder for you, just because the first person to climb a problem started on this hold and took this line, giving it a name and grade, doesn’t mean you have to. See a line you think looks good, give it a go! Bouldering isn’t just about getting the tick. You can’t take the tick of a boulder originally done from a sit start by doing the stand, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun doing the stand.


Let’s talk about grades

“Outside is much harder” is a common thing to hear, really, it’s just different. I think a lot of the thought of it being ‘harder’ is because of grades. Most indoor walls have easier grades compared to outside as telling someone they never climbed harder than V0- is quite demotivating and not great for business. The styles are also getting further and further apart, being a good indoor and outdoor climber requires different skills, personally I usually climb lower grades indoors because of this, I wouldn’t say outdoor climbing is ‘easier’ though.

It’s not a perfect system outdoors either, graded vary place to place and each person will find different things hard; it goes back to the guidebook not being the rulebook, grades are a rough estimate of difficulty. Try to go outside with no expectation of what grade you’ll climb, when you first start just getting lots of moves on rock at any level will help your progress. Don’t aim for grades, aim for challenges. This is especially true when you start and you’re the least well rounded, for example you might find a friction slab as hard as a steep wall of incut crimps that’s two number grades harder. Yes, you might not get the nice higher number if you spend as much time on the slab but in the long run it’ll make you a better climber. You progress trying things at your limit, this doesn’t mean things that are the hardest grade you’ve climbed, it means things you find hard to climb, whatever the grade.

In the words of John Sherman (creator of the V grade scale) : “The numbers are fine when it comes down to finding problems of a level you want to try or having a little carrot in front of you to try improve… but don’t become a slave to those numbers, take it from me, I created the number system. And if that’s all you’re climbing for; you have fallen for my evil plan!... Be master of your own experience, not slave to my numbers”

Get outside and have fun!


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