Bouldering vs. Rock Climbing: What’s the Difference?

In the world of climbing there are a ton of different types, styles, and equipment uses to scale rock. The comparison of bouldering vs. rock climbing is a common question beginners have about two of common disciplines.

The biggest differences between bouldering and rock climbing are the highest at which each is done and the equipment normally used. Bouldering is done fairly close to the ground and uses crash pads and spotters, while rock climbers often scale walls that are hundreds of feet and use ropes, cams and bolts for safety.

Some might even argue that bouldering is just a style of rock climbing, but I don’t buy into this as the only major thing they share is they are done either in climbing gyms or on rocks.

What is Bouldering?

Bouldering is a form of climbing that is done with rocks or boulders of a different sizes and shapes that present short, difficult “problems” to solve. Often these problems require a lot of flexibility, coordination and power to complete.

Bouldering is usually done with mats called crash pads placed beneath the climber. The mats are usually fairly thick and are one of the few safety precautions that climbers have. Occasionally you’ll have someone with you to spot you, but no ropes or other gear is used.

What is Rock Climbing?

Rock climbing is done at a height usually much higher than bouldering, and because of this it requires different safety precautions. It is usually done with ropes and other gear. Rock climbers use hand and feet holds to scale cliffs and boulders that can be hundreds of feet high.

There are various styles of climbing that all entail using the same gear, but the techniques for using these gear, such as rope management and advanced techniques to make upward progress differ between styles.

Styles like Trad, Sport, Free, and Soloing all are specific types of rock climbing that we talk about in detail in our article about the different types of climbing.

What’s the Difference between Bouldering vs Rock Climbing?

As we said earlier, the biggest difference between rock climbing and bouldering is the height at which the sport is done, and the equipment used. There are other things, though, like the style and techniques generally used in each.

Height of Rock
Bouldering is normally done on large rocks and boulders that are no more than 20 feet off the ground. Rock climbing, on the other hand, often puts participants in situations and on routes that leave them hundreds of feet from the ground.

Bouldering is normally done with chalk, a crash pad or two, and occasionally a helmet. Rock climbers use a wide selection of cams, pinons, nuts, bolts and carabiners known as “gear”. Along with their gear are things like climbing harnesses, helmets, pulleys and belay devices.

Think of bouldering like a 100m dash, while rock climbing is more like a marathon. Bouldering generally requires short, intense bursts of effort while stamina and grip endurance are often the name of the game when rock climbing.

Is Bouldering harder than Rock Climbing?

Bouldering isn’t necessarily harder than rock climbing, it requires a different set of skills than rock climbing. Each has its own challenges and nuances that make it unique.

Many feel that rock climbing is generally more difficult than bouldering because it requires more endurance and uses a wider variety of techniques. Also, the gear used in rock climbing is much more varied, and using the right pieces in the right places is often very important for lead climbers.

Bouldering and rock climbing actually may be used to help improve each other, actually. Use bouldering to improve power, mobility and flexibility while working on hard moves, and use rock climbing to improve endurance!

Is Bouldering Safer than Rock Climbing?

Both bouldering and rock climbing come with risks, but then again, what sport doesn’t? The dangers climbers face differ almost as much as the styles do.

Rock climbers often suffer from strains and overuse injuries in the hands, wrists and shoulders. The equipment they use often keeps them safe from many major injuries although very serious injury can occur if the equipment fails or is used incorrectly.

Even with the equipment being used, falling off a rock can often lead to a fall of 5-10 feet before the last bolt in point. This is jarring at the best and can lead to significant injury if you hit the wall wrong after falling.

Bouldering doesn’t generally result in the overuse injuries, but because often only a crash pad is being climbers often land awkwardly and sprains, dislocated joints, and broken bones are not uncommon.

Does Bouldering make you a Better Climber?

I for one think that bouldering definitely makes you a better climber overall. Not only are you using bouldering skills, but also your overall climbing experience.

For example, certain bouldering moves are more difficult than their rock counterpart unless you have had a lot of experience on rock. Also, you will find that the more of the bouldering style you get into climbing, the better your overall climbing will be.

I would also say the reverse is true, rock climbing will help your bouldering. Having more endurance and stamina for longer routes is an asset. Also, the techniques that work for rock climbing will be valuable when bouldering.

The Final Pitch

I hope that I was able to provide some valuable insight into the world of bouldering vs. rock climbing. As you can see, there are many different aspects of this sport that make it really unique and fun to learn about.

Bouldering is a low-impact, high intensity workout that can give you all the benefits of rock climbing with less risk associated with overexertion or falls. It’s hard to beat finishing a rock climb and looking down hundreds of feet on what you’ve accomplished though!

Both bouldering and rock climbing are fun and rewarding in their own ways, and instead of picking one or the other….. do both!

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Our writer/editor and youngest team member, Nick is in school for journalism with a minor in climbing. Just kidding. There is no minor for climbing. We wish though!

Nick has the benefit of being fairly new to the world of climbing, and thus is able to look at our content and make sure we explain things in a way both experts and people who have never put foot on a wall will understand!