Many people interchange the words rock climbing and bouldering believing they are one in the same.
Though it’s true…
That climbing and bouldering both require ascending rock in some form but the reality is that they’re entirely separate subsets of the sport.
In this article, I’ll break down the concept of climbing vs bouldering thoroughly so there will be no more confusion.
What Is Rock Climbing?
In the simplest of terms, rock climbing requires you to climb up rock formations either on an indoor wall or an outside cliff face.
The goal is to get to the top.
Sound simple? Not so fast.
There is a lot to learn to do this safely, and though it is an incredible sport, the inherent dangers of climbing at height must be respected.
So first lets go over…
Types Of Rock Climbing
Rock climbing has branched out into four different sections. They all follow the same goal but require different strategies, training and gear. Here is the list of different methods:
Sport climbing is simply a generic term used by rock climbers to describe the form of the sport when the rock climber uses pre-placed anchor points for protection.
These are called “bolts”.
Their rope is attached to their body via the harness and is clipped into the anchors.
A super easy way to tell if a route is a sport climb is to look at the grade.
All routes (bouldering or sport climbing) have some sort of ‘grade’. The grade more or less tells the climber how difficult the route is.
The grading scale changes around the world, but the two most common ones are the Yosemite Decimal system and the French Decimal system.
This type of rock climbing involves a group of people with one person designated as the leader.
The lead climber wears a harness that is attached to the climbing rope, which is then connected to the other climber(s).
As the leader climbs, they will periodically connect the rope to the protection equipment in case they fall.
So lead climbing, essentially, is whenever a rock climber goes up a route clipping protection as they climb.
This means that lead climbing can be done with different types of rock climbing such as trad or sport climbing.
Traditional Climbing or Just “Trad Climbing”
Trad is short for traditional climbing.
This style requires the climber to manually place all of their gear in specific parts of the route they intend to climb to protect them from falling.
These protection pieces, called “pro” are then removed after a pitch (section of a route) has been completed.
Top Rope Climbing
Top roping requires the climber to securely attach themselves to a rope that is already anchored to the top of the climb. The end of the rope is connected to the belayer at the bottom who can help control the fall and keep the climber safe if they should slip.
Top roping is very commonly done in the gym, when the ropes are already fixed in place.
The climber simply has to tie into the end of the rope prior to climbing.
Similarly, all the belay has to do is clip the rope correctly into the belay device and take in slack correctly.
Top roping is the lowest barrier to entry when climbing.
And for these reasons, this is essentially always the first way rock climbers start climbing, as there is little required skill needed for top roping when compared to other types of climbing such as trad climbing or sport climbing.
What Is Bouldering?
Bouldering is a form of climbing, but the individual climbs huge rocks (“boulders”) or walls made out of artificial rock without a rope.
There are no harnesses, ropes or other gear used and they have to rely on their hands, shoes and mental problem solving to reach the peak of the rock they are climbing.
Though climbing without a rope may sound dangerous, the good news is that like with all types of climbing, there is specific gear used as protection.
In the case of outdoor climbing, one or more pads or ‘crash pads’ are used to protect rock climbers from falling.
Rock Climbing and Bouldering: The Differences Between Them
There are many differences between rock climbing and bouldering.
They are considered by most to be different sports, and there are many climbers who only do one of the two.
But here I’ll go over some of the main differences.
Differences in Rock Climbing and Bouldering Grading Systems
Rock Climbing has been separated into various grading scales over the years, as each form of the sport has distinct difficulties and considerations which need to be taken into account.
There are two common bouldering grading systems used around the world. The French system or “font scale” and the “v scale”.
The french system range is from 4 to 8c+, with a higher number or letter denoting that the climb is more difficult than a lower number or letter.
It works like this. Any climb with a higher number in front of it is harder than any climb with a lower number.
For instance, any climb with a “7” at the beginning is harder than anything with a “6”.
Essentially it’s the same thing with the letters and the plus signs. Any climb with a “b” is harder than any climb with an “a”, assuming that the number at the beginning is the same.
So a “6b” climb is harder than a “6a” climb.
Same with the pluses. A “6a+” is harder than a “6a”, but easier than a “6b”.
It is also worth noting that the french scale for sport climbing works similarly but the numbers don’t align exactly.
For instance a “7a” bouldering problem on font scale isn’t necessary as hard as a “7a” sport climb.
Yes, us climbers like to overcomplicate things.
But wait there’s more…
The V-system is another commonly used system for bouldering in North America.
It has a range of V0 to V17.
It’s more straightforward, as there are no letters or plusses. A “v1” is easier than a “v2”, a “v3” harder than a “v2” and so on.
Rock Climbing Grades
There are at least three grading systems that are commonly used for all types of roped climbing: French and Yosemite. The French system is perhaps more widely used and has a range of 2 (easiest) to 9c (most difficult). The United States uses the Yosemite system with a range of 5.0 to 5.15.
Yosemite Decimal System
Originally developed by the Sierra Club in the 1930s, this is the grading scale used in North America for all sport and trad climbs.
A sport climb in the Yosemite scale is always denoted with the number 5, a decimal, another number between 0 and 15 and sometimes a letter.
For example, 5.5, 5.9 or 5.11c are all examples of sport climb grades.
French Grading System
Most commonly used in Europe and Asia, the French scale is always composed of a number, a letter and sometimes a plus sign.
5a, 6b+ or 9a are all examples of sport climbs on this climbing grade.
Gear Used For Rock Climbing vs Bouldering
Rock climbing requires a lot of gear to reach the top of a climb, such as harnesses, ropes, shoes, chalk bags and a helmet.
Someone who prefers bouldering would only need the right pair of bouldering shoes, a mat (known as a crash pad) in the case of a fall and chalk to keep their hands dry.
Both bouldering and rock climbing will get you ripped.
Climbing is a full-body exercise.
Regardless of the type of rock climbing performed, the act of climbing will increase lean muscle mass in your shoulders, back and arms.
Boulderers tend to get ‘bulkier’ when compared to sport climbers, as, generally, the moves required for bouldering are much more explosive and powerful, requiring larger muscles.
If you’re looking to get that kung-fu grip you’ve always wanted see check this out: “6 Best Grip Strengtheners For Climbing“.
Climbing vs Bouldering: Injury and Safety Considerations
Accidents and missteps can happen when performing either activity. Taking the time to prepare yourself for possible injuries and how to prevent them is essential to being a good climber.
Most Common Injuries While Rock Climbing
The most common injuries while climbing are minor scrapes and bruises.
More serious injuries from climbing are tendon or ankle injuries.
It is of course possible to be very seriously injured while climbing. Though the sport has made massive improvements in terms of safety, deaths do still occur.
Safety Considerations While Climbing
Numerous precautions are necessary when rock climbing or bouldering. However, each technique requires different safety guidelines that need to be adhered.
There are two common safety measures you should use when bouldering: Spotters and Crash Pads.
A spotter’s job is to watch every move you make while climbing up a rock formation. They make sure you don’t hit your head or shoulders on the ground and guide you on how to land properly.
Crash pads are necessary in case the spotter is unable to catch the climber. When falling, the best thing for you to do is try to fall forward. By landing on your feet with a forward motion, you can tuck and roll, preventing as much damage to your body as possible.
Other factors to consider include:
- Warming up beforehand.
- Chalk hands properly.
- Tape up cuts immediately and use lotion after each session.
- Use tape for fingers prior to climbing for added support.
Rock climbing, when compared to bouldering, perhaps has more safety considerations as you are dependent on various pieces of gear.
Climbing gear is incredibly effective, when used correctly.
Almost all climbing injuries and death while rope climbing is caused by user error.
This is why you should always consult a certified guide to receive proper instruction prior to climbing.
Here are some basic safety considerations to be aware of.:
It is important to check both the belayer and climber’s harness and that the buckles are doubled back. The leg loops should also be snug.
Each knot created should be tied correctly and completed with a backup knot. The rope should be threaded through the waist and leg loops on the harness.
Always use the appropriate length rope to ensure that it reaches the anchors, either to reach a belay ledge on multi-pitch routes or to lower back down. If it feels like the rope is too short, tie a knot at the end to prevent being dropped to the ground unexpectedly.
Bring Enough Gear
Following a guidebook is helpful to understand the basics. However, it is up to the individual as to whether they need more tools and gear for their climb.
If a leader happens to fall, the rope placed over the leg will cause them to fall backwards and possibly hit their head. Always wear a helmet for protection.
Bouldering vs Rock Climbing: Which Is Better For Beginners?
Someone who has never climbed rocks or boulders might be wondering which is better when getting started.
The answer is it doesn’t matter. Both develop skills that are important to become an all-around climber.
However, if you’re interested in developing a certain skill set, each discipline has its own strengths.
Rock Climbing: Mental Difficulty and Stamina
Rock climbing can be mentally challenging if you are afraid of heights. There are numerous safety measures that need to be learned and memorized in order to get through a complete climb.
In general, you do many more ‘easier’ moves as opposed to a few very hard explosive moves. For these reasons, rock climbing is better at developing endurance and stamina.
Bouldering: Raw Strength
Bouldering, on the other hand, is focused on a persons’ level of strength. It is physically demanding and requires you to have quite a bit of upper body strength to complete a climb.
For an analogy, we’ll take running.
Bouldering can be compared to sprinting, where you go as hard as you can for a very short amount of time.
Rock climbing is compared to long distance running, where it’s all about stamina.
Does long distance running help you sprint faster? Sure, especially when compared to someone who never runs.
But if you want to be the best sprinter, you’ll need to focus on raw strength. If you want climbing “power” you need to boulder.
Rock Climbing and Bouldering Terminology
The terms used for both bouldering and climbing are a little different and definitely good to understand and get comfortable using. This knowledge will help you communicate better with your climbing buddies and other bouldering and rock climbing enthusiasts.
Rock Climbing Terms
- Anchors: These are the chains that are clipped to one’s rope and personal anchor system at the top of the current climbing route.
- Bolt: A bolted, metal anchor placed within the climbing wall for protection.
- Clipping: The process of clipping one’s rope into the protective gear that is placed in a bolt of a wall.
- Belay: A device that is used to hold a rope to protect someone if they fall.
- Take: Having the belayer take some slack from a rope to allow the weight of the climber to rest.
Here are just a few common terms used in bouldering:
- Dab: Having any part of the body accidentally brush or touch the crash pad or ground.
- Top Out: Climbing on top of a boulder.
- To Spot: Guiding a potential fall by a climber to protect them.
- Mantle: A move similar to topping out.
Check out our ridiculously complete list of bouldering terms for more!
Bouldering vs Rock Climbing: Which is Better?
Bouldering and rock climbing have unique qualities that attract people with different preferences. They both build upper body strength and are good workouts, but only you can decide which one is more interesting and exciting.
If you enjoy looking at beautiful scenery and climbing high up, then rock climbing may be right for you. If, however, you like technical challenges and want to push your body to a particular physical limit, then bouldering might be better.
Two sides of the same coin, the choice is up to you!
There are a few similarities between bouldering and rock climbing but as this article explained, there are very specific differences that you need to know. Whichever option, climbing or bouldering, that you choose, you will have a good hobby to take part either by yourself or with friends and family.
And to get inspired make sure to check out: “Redpoint Climbing: What is it All About? (And Why You Should Care!)“
Editorial staff for The Wandering Climber. An expert roundup of climbing nerds from across the world!