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Bouldering vs Rock Climbing

Thinking of bouldering and rock climbing as two separate sports isn’t quite right. It’s not so much “bouldering vs rock climbing”, but that bouldering is a subset of rock climbing. Rock climbing is a general and vast sport. There are SO many niches within climbing: traditional climbing, aid climbing, ice climbing, alpine climbing, gym climbing… the list goes on.

Even just within free climbing, you could be big wall free climbing or single pitch climbing. Both may require the same gear, but you could be 1500 feet off the ground on a big wall instead of 50 feet.

A rock climber scaling the cliffs at the Endless Wall in the New River Gorge, WV.

What is rock climbing?

When we think of rock climbing, we generally think of rope climbing. Knots, belay devices, and safety gear weigh on the climber’s harness as they attempt to ascend the climbing wall. The climber has a climbing partner who will belay them as they climb.

Following, on top rope, Ecstasy Junior, at Seneca Rocks, WV

Let’s take a look at the different kinds of rope climbing that exist.

Top Rope Climbing

Top rope climbing utilizes a fixed anchor at the top of the pitch. The climber will always be climbing with the rope pulling on them from above. If the climber were to fall, their fall would be caught by the top rope and all the weight would be placed on that anchor. Anchors can be made from natural features (rocks or trees), bolts, or specialized climbing gear like cams and nuts. Top roping is one of the best introductory forms of climbing since the falls are small and the top rope can give beginners an added sense of security.

Sport Climbing

Sport climbing is less of a logistical challenge than top rope because no rope needs to be installed prior to this. There will be bolts already drilled into the climbing walls and the climber will clip a quickdraw into these bolts and then clip the rope into the quickdraws for protection.

If the climber were to fall, they would fall the distance to the bolt and then the additional distance of the rope slack in the system. Since the fall distance can be large while lead climbing, it’s important to climb safely and evaluate risks as you are climbing. If there is a ledge on the climbing route, you need to be aware of it because there’s a chance a fall could result in you hitting the ledge.

Trad Climbing

The classic trad route, Conn's East at Seneca Rocks, WV!

Trad climbing requires that climbers carry their own protective gear as they climb. Trad climbing protection can include cams, nuts, and pitons. Multi-pitch is one form of lead climbing where climbers complete one pitch after another.

Some climbers also take part in free soloing. It is incredibly high risk because of you fall while free soloing, you have no protection in the wall to stop your fall. Free soloing is not worth the risk and should not be done.

Top roping Juliet's Balcony at Great Falls Park, VA

What is Bouldering?

Bouldering is a form of climbing where you climb shorter walls without ropes or harnesses. These routes will typically be more powerful and intense, a boulder problem could be a crux found on a route while roped climbing.

Since bouldering does not involve ropes and harnesses, the rock climber will place protective crash pads beneath them to protect them in case they fall. Bouldering routes are typically not higher than 15 feet.

Which is better: rock climbing or bouldering?

Rock climbing and bouldering are both fun but are different in the physicality and the reward of the sport. Roped climbing can have easier routes that are similar to climbing a ladder. And the climber can climb up 100 feet off the ground and be rewarded with an incredible view of the great outdoors. Bouldering is powerful, it builds muscle and is an excellent workout. But you won’t typically be rewarded with a grand view at the top of a 15 foot boulder. But if you’re chasing the satisfaction of solving a complicated puzzle with your body, bouldering is the sport for you.

Is Bouldering a good activity for you? These two options are available indoors but also outside. You can head to your local climbing gym to try them both out and see which one is for you!

Key Difference between rock climbing and bouldering

Rock climbing and bouldering differ in multiple ways. Various degrees of strength and endurance are needed for each. Rock climbing is accomplished with rope, harnesses, carabiners, and belay devices while bouldering only requires the use of a crash pad.

The grading systems that express the level of difficulty differ between bouldering and rock climbing routes. Just like on a ski slope that’s rated a black diamond, rock climbing routes use a system to let climbers know the difficulty of a problem.

In the USA, a bouldering route will use the V Scale. The difficulty of the climb will be shown with a V and then a number, these range from V0 to V17 (for now!). In roped climbing, the route difficulty will be shown via the Yosemite Decimal System, or YDS. This will look like a decimal, 5.7 (you can say this as five seven instead of five point seven).

Top rope climbing a 5.9 trad climb, Night Moves at the New River Gorge, WV.

Why Bouldering is different from rock climbing?

Both climbing and bouldering are excellent workouts. However, these activities are different in numerous ways. A few factors make bouldering more difficult and faster than rock climbing.

Injuries

In bouldering, you need to take great care when setting up crash pads at the bottom of the climb. When you’re up 10 feet on the boulder, the crash pads look smaller and smaller. I always find myself wishing for the huge gym mats when I’m high up outdoors! The pads need to meet uniformly to create a landing area with no gaps. A gap between your crash pads could mean a busted ankle!

Once you have your pads taken care of, you need to think about who’s spotting you! Having a friend spot you is great, but only if they’re paying attention and that they know how to spot! The spotter isn’t there to catch you, but they are there to help you land on your feet. Talk through the plan with your spotters before each climb to make sure you’re all on the same page.

More common with rope climbing is dealing with rockfall. The top of many cliffs can be chossy, dirty, and full of loose rock. When you’re at the base of a cliff have your helmet on and be alert of the risks that are above you.

Adrenaline Rush

In bouldering the climber is usually climbing about 15 feet off the ground. Even though this isn’t as high as some multi pitch routes, I’ve felt more adrenaline from topping out a boulder than standing at the summit of Seneca Rocks! Since every fall in bouldering is a ground fall, one slip could lead to a severe injury from a fall. When I fall while roped climbing, I’m falling into open air with no obstacles to crash into, and then my rope and belayer gracefully catch me.

The adrenaline rush from bouldering is real. When I’m high up on a problem, I look down at my spotter and it feels like I’m looking at ants from miles away. Take caution while bouldering and always downclimb the route if it feels like you’re getting out of control.

Strength

The more you rock climb, the more muscles you activate that you didn’t even know you had. Your whole body engages in the climbing process and you’ll soon find lean muscles appearing all over your body.

A common problem for new climbers is climbing every day. This fatigue and overstress will cause pain, tendinitis, and injuries over time. Take your rest days. It’s better to spend a day or two resting instead of months trying to recover from an injury.

Endurance

Rock climbing is all about attaining heights, and this helps us improve our cardiovascular fitness!

Whoop data after a full day of outdoor rock climbing

Take a look at my whoop data from rock climbing. This was from a day of outdoor climbing which involved a 5.7 trad route and a 5.10C sport climbing problem. Between the approach (hiking to the crag) and the climbing itself, I had an incredible full body workout of cardio and strength training.

Bouldering is closer to the ground and has us scaling to solve problems on shorter routes. But despite the short routes climbing boulders can be an endurance challenge because it requires the ability to push our muscles and body to the max.

Problem Solving

Rock climbing involves problem solving, it doesn’t matter what discipline of climbing you’re in. Even in alpine climbing, you’ll have problems showing up in the weather, storms appearing, and managing your food or fuel. It’s critical to work on your climbing skills so you can solve any problem that arises in any environment.

Bouldering consists of simpler challenges. You’ll need to determine the correct sequence to solve a problem. Your hands and feet need to move in a coordinated sequence in order to send. Sharpening your thinking and problem-solving skills is essential. Rock climb involves complicated puzzle problems that require you to concentrate on the movement of bodies and focus primarily on thinking.

Take your time to think through a route and solve the problem at hand.

Different Terminology

Similarly, rock climbers differ from bouldering in the jargon used. Watch any YouTube video and you’ll hear let’s go said more times than it has previously been said in human history.

Rock climbing at a lower level in Summersville Lake

Rock climbing grades vs. bouldering grades

Each discipline has a distinctive grading system. Just like a ski slope that is rated at a black diamond, these ratings let us know what difficulty to expect.

The fran├žais (also known as the Fontainebleau) system is generally the most common system used on harder climbs. With routes to two grades from 9c (hardest) to 1.

In the United States, the Yosemite Decimal System is used whilst Australians use a different system where numbers range from 11 to 39. Another widely used system in bouldering is the V-System which starts from V0 up to V17. V17 is an extremely difficult grade that very few climbers have ever climbed on.

Rock climbing Grading

There are two major grades of rock climbing to be used today. For Bouldering a route is short because it can go up to 5 meters. Rock climbing indoors reaches as high as 18 m on the other hand. This means the scale will get harder for bouldering quicker than for sport climbing. Due to differences in rating systems it is still difficult to know what type of climbing is more difficult or more advanced. The Yosemite Decimal System (yds) and the French Scale are the two major scales used in rock.

Bouldering Grading

The Bouldering System includes five different scales: V, Fontainebleau system and Dankyu system. Among the most famous is the V scale.

Which type of climbing is right for you?

Anyone can learn to climb! Which type of climbing is right for you will depend on what you’re looking to accomplish. As with any new sport, it will face several learning curves. Chances are that the first time you head to the gym, it’s going to be hard and you’re going to fail. Don’t let that deter you! Keep trying.

Rock climbing is inherently dangerous. You need to be aware of safety aspects of the sport. Take a class at your gym and learn how to fall, how to use your belay device, and how to belay properly. This can save your life and the lives of your partners. Rock climbing revolves around finding the things in yourself that are motivating you to keep on exploring and pushing yourself.
Wrapping things up: Rock Climbing vs. Bouldering

Although there are large differences, most climbers enjoy bouldering and rock climbing. Practicing these disciplines will help you improve your overall climbing ability. Training in bouldering is going to make you a better sport climber and vise versa. Get out there and try to discover and push yourself in other climbing styles. Maybe you’ll find your new favorite sport! And don’t forget, climbing rocks!

Bouldering pads protecting the ground of a bouldering problem.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is bouldering the same as rock climbing?

Rock climbing and bouldering are the same sport, but can refer to vastly different activities. Bouldering vs rock climbing is a sort of nebulous idea since rock climbing encompasses bouldering. Bouldering is a discipline of the overall sport of rock climbing. There are significant differences in skills qualifications, instruction grades, equipment, safety considerations.

Is bouldering safer than rock climbing?

Bouldering results in more ground falls because every fall in bouldering is a ground fall. For the boulderer crash pads are the only safety protection in place. You need to have a spotter as well who stands below the boulderer to try to prevent your head from hitting the ground while falling. Rock climbing is considered safer but it is still inherently dangerous. Protection can still fail due to hardware issues or user errors.

Does bouldering make you a better climber?

Rock climbing not only requires strength but additionally demands long endurance. Bouldering is a good way to work on power and feel more comfortable on the wall or rock face before rock climbing on a large wall or face. Many people have used boulder problems as a way to recreate the crux on a harder section of a long rock climb. This way you can project the crux easily from the ground, instead of 80 feet up the wall. This is a great idea to practice the hardest moves of the route. You can walk up to the bouldering wall, practice the crux, and not be worn out from climbing 150 feet. Although rock climbing demands more endurance it also requires a certain amount of power which is why bouldering is very useful.

Bouldering helps build a climbing ability into greater technical knowledge, like in moves that require additional coordination. All of this helps when you travel to do high wall rock climbing where you focus on other aspects of endurance.

Which is better trad or sport climbing?

It’s a subjective question and it depends who you ask. Sport climbing can be more relaxed since you won’t have to worry about placing your own gear in the wall. While trad climbing, you need to be making many mental decisions in addition to the physical moves. This can be exhausting. Both sports are incredibly fun and improve your overall climbing ability.

Rehearsing the beta on a boulder problem.

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