What’s the Difference Between Climbing and Bouldering?


Traditionally, bouldering was always just a way to stay in shape for ‘real’ rock climbing, just as rock climbing was originally a way to stay in shape and practice for mountaineering. Over time it has evolved into its own separate discipline, though most climbers also boulder, and most boulderers also climb.

Bouldering is a form of rock climbing that does not require ropes or other technical gear, and can be practiced alone. Bouldering is practiced on short walls or large boulders, generally between 3-5 meters in height. Many climbers use bouldering as a way to physically train.

Odds are, you’ll end up doing some of each discipline throughout your life. As you consider doing both, or decide which one is best for you, these are the factors you will need to look into:

Bouldering SoMo

Advantages and Disadvantages to Rock Climbing versus Bouldering

While climbing and bouldering require a lot of the same physical techniques, the technical ropework and risk factors are completely different. They attract pretty similar crowds, but climbers in general usually focus on one or the other. Here are some reasons why:

  • Climbing Styles: Rock climbing requires maintaining a clear headspace at great heights, and sustained strength and conditioning. Bouldering necessitates tactical control and brief moments of intense strength.
  • Gear: Bouldering requires a lot less gear than rock climbing, but still does require at least shoes and a crash pad. Rock climbing gear can really get expensive, especially if you decide to put together a trad rack.
  • Knowledge and Skills: Bouldering does require a bit of knowledge of physical techniques like crimping or heel hooks, but you don’t even need to know how to tie a single knot. Rock Climbers need to have a lot more in their arsenal.
  • Risk: Bouldering injuries are often much less severe than rock climbing injuries, due to the proximity to the ground; however they can be more prevalent because there is less protection.
  • Social: One of the best advantages to bouldering is that it can be done by yourself in the gym if you can’t find a partner. Except for the occasional auto-belay in a gym, you really need a belay partner for rock climbing.
  • Grades/Ratings: The rating systems for climbing and bouldering are very different, and climbing one discipline very well doesn’t necessarily equate to climbing the other at the same level. I’ve included more information below.

What follows is an in-depth explanation of each of these main differences.

Climbing Styles

Mental Challenges of Bouldering and Climbing

Sending difficult bouldering problems often requires a lot of trial and error, as you work through different sequences and try different variations of moves until you get it right. The mental fortitude required is to force your body to stick to the rock longer than you think you can and to trust in your spotter to keep you safe.

Rock climbing requires different mental control, as you have to block out everything going on around you that could distract you- primarily the intense heights and exposure you get being up off of the ground.

As you learn to trust the ropes and gear, this becomes easier- but never let yourself get complacent. A fall from up high can definitely kill you. One of the most difficult things initially, or when you are mentally and physically exhausted, is to keep a state of mind that is focused enough to tie into and rig anchors correctly.

Physical Challenges of Bouldering and Climbing

Bouldering requires somewhat brief moments of great strength and flawless precision. As grades increase, the problems become a lot like a puzzle where there is only one correct placement of each finger and foot.

With bouldering, the problems rarely last more than 30 seconds or a minute, but the physical difficulty is very intense. You can’t take a break while bouldering without starting back on the ground again.

Climbing has moments that require the same physical level as bouldering (often called the ‘bouldering problem’ of the route), but the majority of the fitness level required is for sustained movement. With climbing, you can always lean back and take a break after completing a difficult move and clipping a bolt or placing gear.

Climbing Gear

What Gear do I need for Bouldering?

One of the biggest advantages to bouldering is that you need a lot less gear. This can keep your costs low, and you can always try to borrow stuff from friends if you do decide to climb with ropes occasionally.

For Indoor Bouldering, all you need is a good pair of bouldering shoes. I wrote all about how much climbing/bouldering shoes cost and which ones I recommend in this article: How Much Are Rock Climbing Shoes? It’s also recommended that you pick up a chalk bag and a chalk sock (most gyms don’t like loose chalk), and a brush if you get serious.

For Bouldering Outdoors, you do need a little bit more. The most important piece of kit you need is a crash pad. Even falling a few feet or 1-2 meters can cause a serious injury- especially if the ground is rocky or uneven.

Depending on the area you’re climbing in, you may want multiple pads. Make some friends and you can lay out a pretty large protected area. You will definitely want to bring chalk, and will want a climbing brush for cleaning dirt and debris from critical holds.

What Gear do I need for Rock Climbing?

If you’re top-rope rock climbing indoors, you just need a pair of climbing shoes (see above) and a harness. Most gyms will lend you a belay device like an ATC or a GriGri, but if they don’t you’ll need those along with a locking carabiner. See our Recommended Gear Page for climbing belay device and carabiner recommendations. Gyms have top ropes set up you will use, which keeps your costs relatively low.

Without going into too much detail, you will need more gear for different styles of rock climbing. I wrote up a whole guide to the gear you need and the costs for rock climbing, which you can read in this article: How Much Does Rock Climbing Cost?

If you are Sport Climbing, your most expensive purchase is going to be a dynamic rope. You can read our rope buying guide here: What is the Best Diameter Rope for Climbing? You will also need to pick up 12+ quickdraws and some sort of a personal anchor system or safety tether. Always, always, always wear a helmet.

For Trad Climbing, your costs increase significantly. Putting together a decent rack of different-sized cams and nuts will cost you several hundred dollars, in addition to longer gear runners and other anchor-building gear. See our Recommended Gear Page for more hardware recommendations.

Knowledge and Skills Required

Basic bouldering is remarkably simple- climb up to the top of the rock, and be smart about how you fall if you fall. As you get more into it, you pick up some essential techniques that will help you push the grade and improve your bouldering. All bouldering techniques can be applied to rock climbing, often during the crux, the most difficult part, of each route.

For bouldering, it’s important to learn how to fall. Most indoor gyms will teach you how to fall and roll, and to downclimb to a safe height before dropping. In addition to learning to fall, you should learn and practice spotting other climbers, keeping heads safe and directing falls onto crash pads. You’ll need to pick up intermediate and advanced techniques like crimping, applying counter pressure, and using a heel hook as you improve.

Rock Climbing requires a lot more depth and breadth of knowledge and skills. The only knot you really need to know for indoor top rope climbing is a figure 8 retraced (some gyms also require a ‘backup’ hitch or fisherman’s knot to ensure the tail is long enough).

In addition to the knots, you need to understand how to belay with various devices. Lead climbing requires even more focus on safe belaying technique, in addition to quickdraw clipping and how to fall safely.

Outdoor climbing is a lot more complicated. It’s critical that you acquire the necessary skills and knowledge, from anchor building to proper belaying technique. Check with your local climbing gym, or with other guiding services to pick up these skills before getting on the rock.

In addition to the ropework skills required for climbing, you also need to be prepared for anything nature has to throw at you including rockfall and bad weather. What follows is a deeper look at the risks inherent in climbing and bouldering, and how they can be mitigated.

Vernacular

Bouldering routes are called problems, while climbing routes are just called routes. The hand and footwork share the same names in each style of climbing. Cliffs in climbing are generally called walls and crags, where bouldering problems exist on rocks or boulders.

Rock Climbing versus Bouldering Risk

There’s a lot of risk involved in climbing. There are both manageable and unmanageable risks, so there’s no way to be perfectly safe. In general, climbing indoors is much safer than outdoors, though accidents and even fatalities do happen occasionally in climbing gyms.

If you’re bouldering indoors, your main risks are twisting an ankle and overuse injuries. I have a friend who broke her leg when she fell and landed on someone who was dumb enough to walk beneath her. Learn to fall and practice falling, and downclimb to a safe height after topping out, and you’ll avoid most injuries. A fatality from bouldering would be virtually impossible.

For rock climbing indoors, the main risks come from user error if people forget to tie into the rope or use the wrong knot, or if the belayer makes a mistake and drops the climber. Non-climbers often worry that gear will fail, but this is largely a myth.

Manufacturers comply with extremely rigorous testing and quality requirements, and climbing gyms inspect their walls and ropes very frequently. The risk of an injury and subsequent lawsuit is substantial enough to keep things very safe.

See Also: Is Indoor Rock Climbing Dangerous?

Bouldering outdoors is more dangerous than bouldering indoors, and is probably even more dangerous than top rope climbing indoors. The odds of a fatality from bouldering are pretty slim, but could happen.

Most of what you will see are foot and leg injuries when a falling boulderer misses the pad or if the pad isn’t thick enough. I have another friend who broke his ankle bouldering when he landed on a rock in between two pads.

The safest way to boulder is to use one or more spotters to stand near you and direct you onto the pad if you fall, and specifically to keep your head from hitting anything. Bouldering above about 5 meters is considerably more dangerous. Pads only do so much.

There is a lot more room for error in outdoor rock climbing, and due to the greater heights a mistake can be much more severe. While gear that is maintained and inspected won’t fail, the environment is much more fluid. Holds that were bomber last week may be loose today, and the weather can change quickly.

There’s no one around policing your technique like there is in a climbing gym, so your innocent mistake might not get caught. Get in the habit of checking and double-checking the system before committing to anything, and practice good communication with your belayer.

For more information on the risks of climbing, read my article: How Many People Die Rock Climbing?

Climbing and Bouldering Partners

One of the most important difference between climbing and bouldering is the social aspect of them both. Unless you are very advanced and willing to accept a lot of risk, you absolutely have to have a partner for rock climbing. While there are ways to rope solo, it’s not recommended and can be very dangerous. With bouldering, it’s a lot safer (relative to climbing) to go alone.

It is normal and completely safe to go bouldering indoors by yourself, which is one of the biggest draws to the sport. Because of the adequate padding underneath, you don’t need someone to spot you. You can boulder with a group of friends or completely by yourself, depending on your preference and availability.

With indoor rock climbing however, you will probably need a belay partner. Some gyms do have auto-belay systems that function like a seatbelt in a car: retracting slowly to capture your progress unless you fall, then the internal camming mechanism stops you. In general though, they may have only a few which can get pretty boring on the same routes after a day or two.

When bouldering outdoors, it’s definitely recommended that you bring along a spotter, as explained previously. If you take a bad fall in a remote place can have severe consequences. Depending on the location and your comfort with risk, you could potentially go alone as long as your pads provide adequate protection. Another advantage to bouldering is that it is easy to go with a bigger group, so it tends to be more social.

For more information on climbing alone, and some tips on how to find a good climbing partner, I wrote this article: Can I go Rock Climbing without a Partner?

Rock Climbing and Bouldering Grades

Rock climbing and bouldering use different grading systems. The reasoning behind the systems is often historical rather than sensical (sort of like the measurement system in the United States with inches, feet, and pounds!), but with a little bit of exposure to them, they make sense. There are also different grading systems throughout the world, as shown below.

American Climbing and Bouldering Ratings

In the United States, and most of the Americas, we use the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) for rock climbing routes and the V-system / Hueco system for bouldering. Climbers attempt to keep difficulties standardized between different crags and regions, but there’s inevitably some differences. For example, indoor gym climbing tends to be a bit softer than outdoor climbing in my experience.

The Yosemite Decimal System is based off of 5 different classes of walks, hikes, and climbs. Class 1-2 are for walks and runs, class 3-4 are more moderate scrambles and climbs with a bit of exposure that may include ropes, and class 5 is for climbs where you need some sort of protection because a fall would be catastrophic.

Class 5 is further divided into individual ratings, from 5.1 to 5.15 (for now!). Beginning at 5.10, they are divided into a, b, c, and d to further split things up. Routes may also include further symbols for additional risks and different styles of climbing required, but something like a 5.10a is pretty standard.

Climbers have continuously pushed the grades of what is possible, as it was previously believed that a 5.9-5.10 was the most difficult possible. You can read more about the history of rock climbing in an article I wrote.

In general, Climbing up to a 5.7 is easy and pretty much anyone can do it, a 5.8-5.10 is intermediate and requires some level of fitness and experience, and a 5.11 to 5.13 is for very advanced climbers with good physical conditioning. Above a 5.13 is reserved for the most elite climbers in the world.

Climbing Hold

The bouldering system in North America is based on pioneering work done by John Sherman in Hueco Tanks, Texas. It starts with a V0, comparable to about a 5.9 climbing route, and goes all the way up to V15 as the hardest in the world (again, so far!). For reference, the most difficult problems you’ll really see intermediate to advanced people doing are in the V6 to V7 range.

International Climbing and Bouldering Ratings

Several different countries have their own climbing and bouldering rating systems, including the UK, Australia, Brazil, and France (as well as many others). The French Numerical Grade for climbing and the Fontainebleau (Font) for bouldering are the most widely adopted around the world, so I’ll explain them briefly.

For rock climbing, the routes start at a 1 (very easy, walkable) up to a the current maximum of 9c. Starting with 4, the include an a, b, or c, and starting with 6 they start including a + to further differentiate. So the cadence would be 7a, 7a+, 7b, 7b+, 7c, 7c+, 8a. For reference, a 5c aligns with a 5.10a (YDS) and they progress in tandem from there. It’s not exact, but this is pretty close.

The Font bouldering system also uses the number, letter, + designation, though they aren’t aligned with the French Numerical System. The Font grades are about 2 ‘letters’ softer than their climbing counterpart. A V2 (YDS) is pretty closely aligned with a 6a in the Font system.

Related Questions

Is Bouldering Rock Climbing? Bouldering fits into the overall sport of rock climbing, but is largely considered a separate discipline. While some techniques are shared, much of the knowledge and skills required are separate.

Is Bouldering an Extreme Sport? Bouldering in general is much safer and less extreme than other extreme sports, and even rock climbing. Some forms of bouldering, including high-ball bouldering where problems extend above 5 meters, are much more dangerous and extreme.

Does Bouldering help Sport Climbing? Almost all climbers use bouldering as a way to physically train special techniques for harder sport routes. It is a great way to work on physical fitness and grip strength, and helps rock climbers improve their grade.

See Also:

The Best Diet for Rock Climbers – with FREE Meal Plan

How Can I Make my Climbing Shoes Last Longer?

Is Rock Climbing a Sport?

Jake Harmer

Husband, Father, Wild Animal. If I could explore canyons and cliffs every day, I would. For now, I dream about it during the week and go hard on the weekends. Living in the St. George area with my wife and kids.

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