Spotters and Crash Pads

Tips for Safe Bouldering

Ian Spencer-Green bouldering on the Split Boulder in Indian Creek Canyon, Utah.
If you're bouldering on a high-ball problem, you better have a good spotter to keep you from injury if you fall. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

When you go bouldering, you’re going to fall. Bouldering is about pushing the envelope, about doing hard moves, about linking together tricky sequences. If you were busting those kinds of moves on a route, you would be tied into a rope with usually a bolt near your waist. If you fall, no big deal. But if you're bouldering, it can be a big deal.

Bouldering is the only climbing discipline that requires ground falls. When you’re working on a hard boulder problem, you’re usually ropeless and less than ten feet off the ground. Success on the problem comes only after numerous attempts and numerous falls. When you fall, and you will fall, you’re going to hit the ground. Remember, it’s not the fall that hurts—it’s the landing. It’s easy to get injured in a bouldering fall. Broken legs, bruised heels, wrenched knees, and sprained ankles are common bouldering injuries.

When you’re bouldering, especially at your limit when you know you might fall, do everything possible to mitigate a bad landing. Use a crash pad and a spotter. If it’s a high-ball problem, use a top-rope. There’s no glory in getting injured. Even John Gill, the father of modern bouldering, says that the ascent of a boulder problem with a protective top-rope is just as legitimate as a ropeless ascent. Don’t let ego get in the way of safety.

A good spotter and a thick crash pad are the two most important pieces of safety equipment to bring bouldering. Spotting, a bouldering safety technique, is when your climbing buddy on the ground helps break your fall and steers you toward a safe landing zone, usually a crash pad.

An experienced spotter is essential if you’re cranking hard boulder problems. When you go bouldering, it’s best to go in pairs so one of you can climb while the other spots. You keep each other safe. Make sure your spotter is not only experienced but also pays attention to you as you climb. An inattentive spotter is just as bad as not having one at all. The best spotters are usually as big as you. It’s difficult for a woman to spot a man who outweighs her by 50 or 60 pounds.