Spotlight - equipment views and reviews from the AK team
How to choose a Bouldering Pad
By Hati Whiteley
27, Nov, 2018
What do you need to consider when shopping for a bouldering pad? Here are the Alpkit team's top buying tips!
We've been making bouldering mats for over 10 years and have answered a lot of questions in that time. Here's some simple advice for buying your first bouldering mat.
If you've climbed indoors you will be familiar with crash pads. Whether you have face planted one or just spilt your coffee on one, you'll appreciate these thick foam mats make bouldering much safer. Outdoors things get more exciting: you're responsible for your own protection, and this is where bouldering mats come in.
A bouldering mat is a portable, reusable and durable foam mat that you can place underneath your climb to reduce the risk of spraining your ankle (or worse) if you fall off.
The two most important things to consider when buying a bouldering mat are:
Bouldering pads have a tough life. They get dragged through the mud, stacked up against abrasive rocks and take a pounding every time you fall. They need to be made of hardwearing materials like 1000D Cordura and stitched together with reinforced or bartacked seams that are not going to blow apart when you land.
Foam is what keeps you safe, but not all foam is the same. Don't scrimp on safety, look for durable cross-linked foam - it spreads the force of your impact more effectively and lasts longer. A bit more on this further down.
That's simple right? If you purchase a pad based around that advice, you'll be a long way towards having the best bouldering pad you can. If you have more time buckle down because I'm going to take you through some other considerations:
Types of crash pad
Foam - what to look for
Taco versus hinge fold
Carrying your pad to the crag
Custom bouldering pads
Types of bouldering pad
Boulderers will commonly refer to 3 types of crash pads. Each plays a specific role in protecting you when you fall.
Satellite pads (Also known as sit start and slider pads)
These are small crash pads that are used to cover the gaps where two pads meet, protect your fall on a sit-start, protect low traverses or cover outlying roots and rocks. They're usually slim and portable and are used alongside a bigger bouldering mat.
Full pads (Also known as main and mid-sized pads)
The crash pad most people buy. There's some size variation in this category, but one full pad should be enough to keep you protected from a mid-level fall. They fold in half so that they can be easily carried and fit into most car boots. High mileage boulderers often have two of these.
Oversized pad (Also known as fat pads)
These crash pads tend to be for protecting you on highball problems, the biggest, baddest climbs around. They're big big mats and excellent at supporting and cushioning your fall. Weighing in around 9/10 kg they require a good carrying system and will fill your car boot (or your entire car if it's a Kia Picanto).
Check out the Project if you have a head for highballing.
Technote: Foam in more depth
Don't be fooled by soft mats. Sure they feel nice to lie on, but they'll give you little protection for even the smallest falls. Most pads are made of 2 - 3 layers of foam. The top layer is usually closed cell foam (feels harder and spreads the impact of your fall) and underneath this is open cell foam (softens and cushions your fall). In 3 layer pads, there's another layer of closed cell foam at the bottom to protect you on higher falls. 2 layers of good foam is fine for most scenarios, but I'd recommend 3 layers for highballing.
Generally speaking, the heavier the pad, the more durable it is and the longer it will sustain bigger falls. Good quality pads achieve are firm because of the dense structure of the foam itself. Lighter, cheaper mats are firm because they use chemical hardeners which break down quicker, leaving you with a lightweight soft and floppy pad within a few sessions.
You can make your foam last longer by storing it properly and not sleeping/sitting on it, but eventually all foam breaks down. How quickly this happens depends on how often you use it. That doesn't mean you have to buy a complete new pad, many manufacturers sell replacement foam and repair shells.
Have we piqued your interest in foam? Read Pete's High Perfoamance develop post for more.
Now let's take a look at how you'll be getting your bouldering mat to the crag.
Taco fold versus hinge fold
Bouldering mats fold to make them easier to transport to the crag. There are two types of fold available to climbers: Taco and Hinge. I'll explain the pros and cons of both so you can decide which is best for you.
Hinged bouldering mats
The foam in these pads is cut in half so that they fold flat when closed, a bit like a book. These pads take up less space in your car, are easier to carry and can be stored folded you're not bending the foam. When you're climbing, hinged pads lie flat on the ground or can be flipped and folded around large rocks in your landing area.
Taco bouldering mats
These pads contain continuous sheets of foam with no seams or hinges in the middle, giving you an uninterrupted landing zone. The pad folds in half like a taco when you're transporting it, leaving a space inside where you can stash stuff to carry it to the crag. Taco pads take up more storage space than a hinged pad for the same landing area and should be stored flat.
Hinge and Taco fold pads
Bouldering Pad Comparison: Hinge versus Taco closure
|Examples||Mujo, Project||Phud, Origin|
Hinge or Taco, which one will it be? It is a toughy... For more advice, get in touch and share your pain, we've all been there!
Carrying your crash pad
The heavier the pad, the more support you'll want from your back system. My favourite carry system for a crash pad has rucksack straps and a hip belt to take the strain off your shoulders. The extra support pays dividends on long walk ins.
Smaller full pads might have a single shoulder strap rather than rucksack straps which is really handy for hopping from boulder to boulder (especially on a Font circuits.) It also means you can wear your backpack for the walk-in.
I love grab handles! They are convenient for carrying the pad between boulders without having to buckle the pad up, as well as moving it around to spot your friend.
Carrying multiple crash pads
Many boulderers take multiple crash pads to the crag with them. The easiest and most comfortable method is to hang one pad over another using a shoulder strap. For advice on using multiple pads, read Ashleigh's Spotlight on bouldering with multiple pads.
Bouldering Mat Features
Last bit I promise! These aren't essential, but can make life a bit easier if you're out bouldering a lot.
Ideal for stuff you don't want to stuff inside your pad , I can't count the amount of times I've gotten lost on the way to the crag and realised my guidebook is buried deep in my pad.
Back support cover
If you can't remove your rucksack straps, can you cover them up? It's easy to get psyched and throw your pad in a bog only to pay the price on the walk home with a dirty back.
Respect the rock! Some crash pads feature a built-in shoe wipe for when you forget your doormat/tea towel to the crag.
Custom bouldering mats
You can't always get what you want off the shelf. Having in-house design and manufacturing facilities means that we can offer a bespoke design service, so whether it is simply a choice of your favourite colour, extra straps, thicker foam or a completely unique mat, just to get in touch!
Ready to boulder?
We are boulderers and climbers, we handmake our own pads so we understand what makes an excellent crash pad. I hope this article has helped you take a step towards finding a pad that is right for you, however if you are still unsure what pad is right for you send us your question or visit our stores in Hathersage or Ambleside. Both stores are within a stone's throw of some great bouldering areas.
Phud8 cm thick light and portable taco-style bouldering pad, ideal for whipping round your local circuit (or in Font if you’re lucky) or as a second pad; made in our UK factory£99.00
Origin11 cm thick taco bouldering pad for up to high level falls, an ideal main pad for frequent boulderers with an adjustable, adaptable rucksack carry system£145.00
Mujo12 cm thick bouldering pad for up to high level falls, an ideal main pad for frequent boulderers with a hinge fold and an adaptable, versatile backpack carry system£175.00
Project15 cm thick uber-sized bouldering pad with a thermoformed back system for comfortable weight bearing; perfect for big boulders, big projects and big dreams; made in our UK factory£229.00
SputnikSlim satellite bouldering pad with high quality closed cell foam for covering gaps and seams in your pad stack, as well as boggy and snowy starts; made in our UK factory£39.00
Waffa5cm thick small bouldering pad for up-close impact (sit starts and low traverses); with layered open and closed cell foam to support your fall; made in our UK factory£40.00
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