The North Face Guide to Bouldering


If you watched the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, you might have caught the climbing events, which made their Olympic debut. Sport climbing combined three different climbing disciplines into one event: lead climbing, speed climbing and bouldering. You don’t need to be an Olympic-level athlete to enjoy climbing though, and bouldering is particularly accessible to people of all ages and athletic abilities. 

What is bouldering?

Bouldering is a type of rock climbing done without ropes. Whilst you might think of rock climbers scaling tall walls, bouldering is done much closer to the ground. Bouldering problems – the route used by climbers – are usually less than 6 metres (or 20 feet) tall.

You can boulder either indoors or outside. Most rock climbing gyms will have some sections of wall that aren’t as tall as the main climbing walls, and this is where you’ll find people bouldering. Bouldering walls have crash pads on the floor, so if you fall or jump off the wall, they’ll reduce the risk of injury. 

Outdoors, it’s up to individual climbers to find the best hand and footholds as they move up the wall, whilst indoor climbing walls simulate outdoor conditions with artificial holds. These are usually made from plastic and bolted onto the wall in different sequences to create problems.

Is indoor rock climbing a good workout?

Indoor rock climbing is a great workout. It’s a full-body cardio and strength workout that targets almost all of your muscle groups at once. You’ll build muscles in your arms and shoulders as you move up or across the wall, and your legs are essential to power you higher. 

Although you might think of climbers as having muscular arms, the majority of the power should come from your legs to push you up, rather than using your upper body to pull you up the wall. 

You’ll also develop your core and back muscles as you learn how to hold your body close to the wall. More than just a full-body workout, climbing is also a mental workout. Climbing routes aren’t called problems for nothing – you’ll need to think about the best route to traverse both before you begin climbing and while you’re on the wall, so bouldering is a fantastic workout for your brain as well as your body. 

What do you wear for bouldering?

You don’t need any specific clothing for bouldering, other than climbing shoes. They differ from regular gym shoes in that they have a tight fit, are covered in sticky rubber, and sometimes have a downturned toe, all of which help you get good traction. Most climbing walls rent out climbing shoes so you can try them out the first few times you hit the wall.

As you become a more experienced climber, you may want to invest in your own pair of climbing shoes as well as chalk and a chalk bag. Chalk will help you to get a better grip on the holds as it absorbs the moisture on your hands – particularly useful if you’re prone to getting sweaty hands.

Otherwise, wear stretchy or loose, comfortable clothes that you don’t mind getting a little bit dirty. You don’t need to buy specific climbing pants, but you may want to wear shorts or leggings to ensure your legs can move easily. 

It can get sweaty on the wall, so you might want to wear a light t-shirt or tank top – but equally, climbing outdoor walls can often get cold during the winter month so layering up is key. You might want to wear a long-sleeve top and bring a fleece to stay warm when you’re resting in between climbs.

Bouldering isn’t a particularly high impact sport, but women will still want to wear a good sports bra. Otherwise, just wear whatever you feel comfortable in. Your usual gym gear is a safe bet.

What else do you need to know?

Find your nearest climbing gym on the British Mountaineering Council’s website, then book in for a session and head along. Whether you go with a group of friends or go it alone, you’ll have heaps of fun learning how to boulder. You don’t need to worry about grades when you’re just getting started, but if you are curious, just ask the staff at the gym – they’ll be more than happy to help.