rock climbing vs bouldering

New to the world of climbing?  What are the differences between rock climbing vs bouldering. You may assume bouldering and rock climbing are one and the same – but you would be wrong. While they share certain similarities, the two activities are quite different. 

Let’s explore each sport individually before taking a closer look at what makes each discipline unique.

Rock Climbing

Rock Climbing

Rock climbing is not only a physical activity but also a mental one – a challenging exercise for both body and mind. The ascension of vertical surfaces such as cliffs requires immense strength as a climbers use their arms and legs to push and pull themselves to the summit. 

Tools, including ropes and harnesses, make traversing the most difficult of surfaces a little easier.  Ropes help to support the climber, safeguarding them against falls as they make their way to the top, but can also be used to swing to otherwise inaccessible places.  On surfaces where hand and footholds are sparse, ropes are used to assist the climber in continuing the ascent.

Mentally, climbing helps to boost brain function by forcing the climber to ‘problem solve’ on the ascent, as they navigate the identified route.  Climbing is proven to reduce stress levels by increasing the level of the chemical in our brains that helps balance the stress hormone.  Although rock climbing can be dangerous, the physical and mental benefits it provides are one of the most rewarding aspects of this hobby.

Bouldering

Bouldering

Bouldering is an alternative form of rock climbing, usually performed on artificial rock walls or smaller, low-level rock formations, typically 6 meters (20 feet) or less.  Given the lower inherent risk, bouldering requires less equipment and can be conducted safely without the need for ropes or a harness, although most climbers use specially designed shoes and chalk to assist with their climbs.

Pioneered at the beginning of the 20th Century near Paris, bouldering was initially used to train for outdoor roped climbs, but quickly gained popularity and developed into a sport in its own right.  Climbers liked to be able to practice complex and challenging moves on boulder walls at a short distance from the ground, before replicating on real-life rock faces.  Bouldering was seen as a more communicative and social alternative to traditional rock climbing and was embraced by a younger and energetic crowd.

Most bouldering takes place in specially designed bouldering centres, where climbing walls can be redesigned with ease because of the movable nature of the holds.  It makes for a fantastic social activity with friends but has the added benefit of being easily enjoyed as a solo climber.


Rock Climbing vs Bouldering | Similarities and Differences

Equipment

rock climbing gear

Although rock climbing and bouldering are very similar in their physical requirements, there are some key differences, the most obvious of which is the equipment needed.  A complete rock climbing kit can weigh up to 12kg, and usually consists of the following items:

  • Harness
  • Shoes
  • Helmet
  • Ropes
  • Carabiners
  • Belay Device (to act as a brake on the rope)

In contrast, to start bouldering, all that is needed is a pair of specially designed shoes, although most climbers opt to use chalk (including a chalk bag), to make the process a lot easier by helping them to maintain a grip on the holds.

Physical Strength

Rock climbing provides a heightened cardiovascular workout, increasing lung capacity, strengthening the heart muscle and improving muscular fitness and stamina.  An average person climbing below their level of maximum effort can burn between 8 and 10 calories per minute – almost equivalent to a cardio-intense spinning class.  When combined with the added fear factor, heart rate and calorific expenditure is further increased.

While bouldering is closer to the ground; a climber’s endurance is still tested as they scale shorter, challenging routes – pushing their agility to the limits.  Routes are unique, and no one surface is the same as another.  For your muscles, this means a different challenge each time – the key to long-term muscle gain.

Mental Strength | Using the Grey Matter

Rock Climbing is often likened to puzzle-solving, presenting many different options and routes for a climber to choose as they work their way to the summit.  Some will be easier on the body, but taking the time to mentally consider their options put a climber’s problem-solving skills to the test.  Routes can become more and more complex, requiring an ever-increasing level of mental prowess as a climber strategizes their options, determining how to make the next move.

Given the lower heights involved, bouldering routes are often much shorter, but that does not mean it takes any less mental agility to navigate.  Bouldering problems are often much more complicated, and in indoor facilities where they are humanmade, are designed to present a real challenge to a climber’s cognitive abilities. 

Benefits to mental well-being have been demonstrated in a recent study, showing that bouldering-based psychotherapy has helped combat mild to moderate depression.

The Fear Factor

Fear of heights is common, and there is undoubtedly an added adrenaline rush when you look down and see a 40-foot fall to earth.  Thrill-seekers enjoy the stomach-churning fear of an outdoor climb. 

At lower heights, bouldering can be considered less daunting.  However, 6 feet in the air can still be a little intimidating, and the added knowledge that you are relying solely on your grip and footing, and not a rope or harness can get the adrenaline pumping.

Safety

Risks associated with both rock climbing and bouldering vary.  While it is true, statistically speaking, that bouldering is more dangerous, rock climbing accidents are often more fatal.  However, risk of injury is inherent with all movement-intensive sports.

Common injuries climbers experience are through overuse of their hands and fingers, shoulders, knees and elbows.  Falls can occur whether climbing indoors or outdoors, a flawless safety technique, as well as the use of a helmet, will reduce the risk associated with outdoor rock climbing.  

In bouldering, most injuries occur with the lower extremities (such as the ankle) and are primarily associated with awkward landings.  Practising a safe landing technique is vital in reducing the associated risks.

Height

indoor bouldering

Indoor climbing will often take place on walls up to around 25 meters high, while outdoors,  it is entirely up to the experience of the climber to decide what height they can safely tackle.  In contrast, indoor bouldering takes place at much lower levels, up to around 6 meters.

Accessibility

Most major cities will have at least one facility devoted to indoor rock climbing or bouldering, and the best thing about indoor facilities is that you can begin the sport solo by making use of the assistance of staff.  Lessons are often available at indoor and outdoor facilities, helping you grasp the essentials such as technique and safety, ensuring you are well equipped to succeed in your newly found hobby.

Outdoor courses, although less common than indoor facilities, are still widely available.  The best way to find your local area is to contact a local climbing or bouldering club who can help show you the ropes.  It is essential never to climb outdoors on your own and always to ensure you have a climbing partner for safety.

For a list of your local facilities for both rock climbing and bouldering, check out this detailed guide.


Rock Climbing vs Bouldering | Which is Best for a Beginner?

So now you understand the basics about rock climbing vs bouldering, and a little more about the similarities and differences, but which sport is best for a beginner?

As a beginner, rock climbing requires patience as you master the skills and techniques needed.  It is often easier on the joints and requires a lower level of endurance than bouldering.  Because of this, it is popular amongst more mature climbers and those with less stamina.

Between the two, bouldering is often considered the more dynamic sport, relying on power and agility and requiring very little in the way on instruction to start.  Because of this, upfront costs are low.  For those that have strength and coordination, bouldering is a great choice. For those that enjoy socializing, a bouldering gym is a great place to meet like-minded individuals with a range of abilities, who are often willing to share their experience with new climbers.

The best option for a beginner would be to try both disciplines.  Only once you have had the benefit of experiencing the pros and cons of both rock climbing and bouldering will you understand which you naturally prefer.  If you are seeking a unique way to increase strength, stamina and general fitness (and to train those often-overlooked muscle groups), climbing is a great way to do it.  Whichever you decide, ensure you practice your newly loved hobby responsibly and safely.

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