(Published January 2018)
Bouldering is a form of rock climbing that takes place on artificial bouldering walls, large natural boulders (rocks) or small rock formations, close to the ground without the use of ropes or harnesses. There are plenty of fantastic facilities, both indoor and outdoor, to suit all ages and abilities.
Although a sport in its own right, bouldering can be used as a first step into other disciplines of climbing. It is also great for helping to develop co-ordination, problem solving skills, flexibility and increasing fitness.
This guidance aims to give some hints and tips as to how to safely mange bouldering as an activity.
Bouldering wall – a man-made (artificial), typically an indoor, low height climbing wall (max. 4.5 metres), with an appropriate safety matting system.
Boulder – a large rock that has become detached from a rock formation typically made from sandstone, gritstone, limestone or granite.
Boulder problem – the path that is taken by the participant to complete the route. This could be vertical or horizontal.
Traverse – a boulder problem where the participant travels predominantly sideways.
Grading system - most bouldering problems will have a grade which helps to tell you how easy or complex the problem will be. Depending on where you are bouldering, there are different grading systems in place.
For more information check out the BMC website where you will also find a downloadable UK Grades Comparison Table.
Note: Many other climbing grade conversion tables and calculators can also be found online.
Spotter (spotting) – A person used as a safety measure, to help reduce the risk of someone falling off the boulder/bouldering wall and getting injured. A person spotting (the spotter) stands at the bottom of the boulder/wall, typically with their arms raised and ready to make sure the climber, if they do fall, falls on to a bouldering mat. The spotter can also be used to give encouragement to the climber and can help direct the climber if they get stuck.
When running bouldering activities always check you have appropriate equipment for the activity, environment and group members. Any equipment must follow manufacturer’s guidelines for use, storage and maintenance.
Suitable clothing – that allows lots of flexibility. Unless it is warm, you will need a couple of layers for your top half; you’ll most likely boulder in a t-shirt as you will get hot, but you will need a jumper for when you are standing spotting. Loose trousers, shorts or leggings are ideal for your bottom half. Anything which could catch onto the bouldering features should be avoided.
Bouldering mats/pads – to help to cushion any landings or falls. Indoor facilities will already have bouldering mats/pads in place. When bouldering on natural rock, you will need to make sure that a mat is provided or that you take one with you.
Climbing shoes – although not essential when you first try bouldering (trainers will do), they are well worth investing in if you are going to undertake bouldering or other forms of climbing on a more regular basis. They aren’t the most comfortable to begin with but help with gripping the rock/wall, control and flexibility. Many climbing centres will have climbing shoes for hire.
Chalk – helps with grip and can be used for both indoor and outdoor bouldering. Comes in either lose powder form or as a ball and is generally stored in a chalk bag.
Guidebook – useful for outdoor problems, guidebooks often give information about a bouldering area(s), and generally include graded boulder problems, maps, pictures/diagrams and top tips.
Scout-led bouldering activities
Scout members who are leading bouldering activities do not need a climbing permit but should be aware of the risks involved in the activity and plan for the limitations of their groups. Where artificial bouldering venues provide operating procedures these must be followed.
In these situations the following guidance should be followed by the person leading the activity in order to manage the activity safely:
- Risk assessment - conduct a comprehensive risk assessment of the situation and make informed decisions as to the management of the activity. This risk assessment should be dynamic and continue throughout the activity. If the safety cover feels at any stage that the risks are too high then the activity should be stopped.
- Environmental factors - assess factors such as weather to determine a suitable duration of activity. Temperature will be a factor for bouldering outdoors but also indoors.
- Bouldering proficiency - have sufficient bouldering knowledge and experience to support the group members and encourage skill development throughout the activity.
- Incident management - be capable of responding to an incident and administering first aid to a casualty if needed, this includes getting them to a point of safety, this should be appropriate to the location and equipment available.
- Equipment - be capable of identifying suitable equipment (both personal and group) for the activity and then ensure that it is stored correctly.
- Bouldering area - clearly define the bouldering area and communicate this to the group in an appropriate way. When deciding on the bouldering area consider your own experience, the ability of the group, safety cover, other users in the area, etc. The bouldering area should also include the limits of height that the group are expected to stay within, this should be no more than 2.5 times their personal height.
- Communication - clearly communicate with the group. This needs to be included in any briefing given so that the participants are aware of the signals for when to stop bouldering, exiting the area, etc.
- Access – specifically when bouldering outdoors ensure safe access for the participants to enter and exit the bouldering area. Access to the area must be possible to conduct a rescue or recovery.
- Manage the group effectively whilst the group are bouldering - This will include; adequate briefings prior to the group starting their climb, defining a suitable area, what to do in an emergency and communication whilst the group is doing the activity.
- Ratios - provide adequate cover based on the ratio identified in the risk assessment, and ensure that additional adult supervision is provided in line with the section ratios for any outdoor bouldering activities.
If you are bouldering outdoors, you may need a Terrain 1 or Terrain 2 hillwalking permit holder to get to and from the boulder area. At any point you require ropes for your boulder problem, this stops becoming a bouldering activity and you will need to follow the rules and guidance for climbing.
For younger and less experienced climbers, an artificial environment may be more suitable as the area can be controlled more than an outdoor location. It is down to the leader in charge to set appropriate boundaries (including a maximum height if required) for the group to stay within. It is easier to extend the height rather than reduce the height during a session. A piece of tape across the wall or identifying a specific hold to be the finish hold could be used as a height marker.
If your group is lucky enough to own or have regular access to a wall, regular re-routing is a great way of retaining interest in bouldering and promotes creativity amongst the participants. You may want to encourage older sections to have input in designing bouldering problems. Re-routing should be supervised by a competent adult.
It's not recommend that you take a group bouldering on natural rock without significant bouldering experience in the leadership team and confidence in the abilities of all participants. Bouldering outdoors on natural rock is more difficult than on artificial walls.
Externally provided bouldering activities
There are many externally managed bouldering facilities within the UK. These normally come in the form of climbing centres and activity centres.
It's important to check that you are satisfied that the provider is meeting the externally led activities requirements.
Taking it further - Bouldering Games
Once climbers are comfortable with their technique and are bored of just doing problems, you may want to play some games. These are best suited to indoor bouldering walls, due to having larger matted areas, but some games could be adapted to play outdoors. All games should be considered within the risk assessment.
Rules relating to bouldering