Basic Bouldering Equipment

Essential Gear for Bouldering Fun

Logan Berndt spots Ian on a boulder problem at Big Bend near Moab, Utah.
Bouldering doesn't require lots of expensive climbing gear. Rock shoes, chalk bag, a crash pad, and a good spotter is all you need for fun. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

Bouldering is simplicity itself. The beauty of bouldering is not just doing hard moves but also its minimalism. You don’t need to spend lots of money on climbing equipment to have fun on the boulders. Here are the 3 essential pieces of personal climbing equipment that you need to go bouldering.

Bouldering Requires Minimal Gear

Bouldering requires less gear than other types of climbing. All you really need for a successful bouldering session is a pair of well-fitted rock shoes, chalk for sweaty palms, and a chalk bag on a waist belt. Besides these three essentials, boulderers often use a crash pad to lessen the risk of foot and leg injuries when they fall, a toothbrush for cleaning chalk and dust from holds, and sometimes a short length of climbing rope to use as a protective top-rope on problems with rocky landings.

Rock Shoes are Most Important

Rock shoes are the single most important piece of climbing equipment that you need to go bouldering. Sure a pair of athletic shoes can work—but only on the easiest of the easy boulder problems. If you’re going to be successful on the boulders, you need a good-fitting pair of rock shoes. The soles of rock shoes are composed of smooth sticky rubber that keeps your feet on the rock. The soles are smooth so that you have lots of rubber molecules contacting rock molecules rather than a lug-type of the sole which has less contact with the rock surface and lots of air between the rubber pads.

Buying Rock Shoes for Bouldering

What rock shoes you wear is up to you. If you’re new to climbing, you’ll want an all-purpose shoe for all-purpose bouldering. Pick a shoe that is flexible enough to smear on smooth surfaces but also stiff enough to stand on tiny crystals and edges. Before you buy a pair of shoes, read 10 Rock Shoe Buying Tips. At your local mountain shop, ask which shoes would be best for bouldering. Most shops also have a small wall where you can test the fit out on. Just remember that a tight fit is best, with you toes slightly curled. The shoes should also be uncomfortable to walk in.

What Kind of Chalk to Use?

If you boulder much, you’ll find your hands are going to sweat and sweaty hands often grease off the rock, especially if you’re crimping small holds or crystals. Climbers usually use chalk, which is magnesium carbonate, to keep their hands dry and sticking on the rock. What kind of chalk should you buy? My advice is to use whatever is available. I often buy blocks of gymnastic chalk because it’s relatively cheap and readily available at sporting good stores. Climbing companies like Metolius offer chalk formulated for climbers, which comes in bags from 2.5 ounces to five pounds as well as blocks.

Chalk is Controversial

Chalk, of course, is also controversial. Some climbers don’t use it because they see chalk use as a form of cheating. The best argument, however, not to use chalk is because chalk's long-term use damages the rock surface. There are lots of boulders, especially overhanging ones in dry climates, where chalk stays for years. The build-up of chalk creates a slippery surface, so even more chalk is used. Chalk stains are also unsightly, which ticks off land managers who then want to close bouldering areas or ban the use of chalk. Some climbing areas, like the Garden of the Gods in Colorado, require climbers to use colored chalk that matches the tone of the rock surface. An alternative to chalk is the Eco Ball from Metolius. It’s highly absorbent and leaves no stain on the rock surface.

You Need a Chalk Bag

Lastly, you’ll need a chalk bag to keep the white stuff in. These nylon bags come in a wide variety of sizes and colors. If you’ve never owned a chalk bag, you’ll probably want a medium-sized bag that you can easily slip your hand in and out of. Test it out in the store. You don’t want your hand fumbling or catch inside too small a bag when you’re on some heinous boulder problem. Some boulderers use chalk pots, big fat bags that sit on the ground and are used by a communal group of climbers. You'll also need a nylon waist belt, preferably lightweight and snapped closed with a fast buckle, to hang the chalk bag around your waist.