Rock Climbing vs Bouldering: Everything You Need To Know!

woman bouldering using a heel hook
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The age-old battle: Rock Climbing vs Bouldering, Bouldering vs Rock Climbing.

So many questions:

  • Is bouldering actually considered rock climbing? 
  • Which one is better?
  • Which one is harder?
  • Which one gives you the biggest guns?

For those that have been climbing for a while these things may seem clear, but not necessarily to the uninitiated.

Now that climbing has been included in the Olympics and bouldering gyms are sprouting up more quickly than weeds in your grandmothers back-garden, you’re bound to get asked at the Christmas dinner table what are the differences between rock climbing and bouldering!

In this article we look at some of the main aspects between the two and shed some light on this age old mystery!

Different Types of Climbing

climber deep water soloing

Let’s get things clear right from the get-go. Rock climbing is the general sport of climbing; using your body to ascend a rock-face, cliff or other object.

Within rock climbing there are multiple disciplines:

  • Sport climbing
  • Bouldering
  • Trad climbing
  • Speed climbing
  • Alpine/Mixed climbing
  • Deep Water Soloing

Some people also talk about roped climbing, which just generally means any type of climbing using a rope. Top-roping would fall into this category.

There’s also aid climbing, where climbers additionally use artificial equipment to help pull themselves up the wall.

This is in comparison to free climbing where you only use your body to ascend the wall (plus gear for safety).

Lastly, we also have free soloing. Not for the faint of heart, this one is free climbing without any safety equipment at all.

What Differentiates Rock Climbing vs Bouldering?

climber in kalymnos

In general when people ask what are the differences between rock climbing and bouldering, they often mean sport climbing and bouldering.

This could potentially include top roping as some people may have tried this on a beginner course at their local gym.

In this article when we say rock climbing vs bouldering, we’re talking about sport climbing vs bouldering.

Minimum Gear For Rock Climbing vs Bouldering

What’s the minimum gear you need to get started in rock climbing or bouldering?

Bouldering: All you really need is a pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag. Pretty simple right?!

climbing shoe and chalk bag for bouldering

Then just head on over to your local bouldering gym and get started climbing the easiest problems. You don’t need any experience or necessarily be with anyone else to get started!

Climbing: Clearly a pair of climbing shoes and chalk bag as well, but you’ll also need for a harness and a belay device.

If you’re top roping at your local gym then the ropes are already in place, but if you’re heading outdoors you’ll also need a rope, quick-draws, a sling and an extra locking-carabiner.

rock climbing outdoor gear

Of course you can actually rent the gear (except chalk bags) if you’re heading to your local gym.

There’s definitely a bit more needed for roped climbing.

Basically, for a quick taste of bouldering, all you need to do is head to your local gym and you can rent a pair of shoes there.

If you like it or think you’ll do it a few times, you definitely want to buy your first pair of climbing shoes – it’s not very nice wearing those sweaty rental shoes, and a chalk bag asap.

Beginner Friendly

Bouldering: It literally couldn’t be easier to start bouldering. Even without any gear you can just go to your local gym, rent a pair of shoes, pay for a single entrance and climb away.

Even if you’re by yourself you’re golden.

Climbing: Firstly you need a partner to climb with, as someone needs to belay you as you climb. 

If you’ve never climbed before you will either need an experienced friend to teach you the basics or take a beginner/introductory course at your local gym.

You need to learn how to belay and tie a figure of eight, probably the most important climbing knot out there which you use to tie the rope to your harness with.

So there’s a few more hurdles to get a first taste of climbing in comparison to bouldering.

Chill Factor

climber resting in hammock

This has to be one of the great things about climbing in general.

You’re doing an awesome sport, but what’s even better is the relaxed, friendly and social atmosphere at the local gym or crag.

For bouldering, as you’re just doing very short routes/problems and then resting, there’s a lot of hanging around and talking!

Head over to your gym for some bouldering and you will meet people very quickly. A great way to meet people in a new city.

Both climbing and bouldering definitely have a huge social aspect, but bouldering definitely a bit more when it comes to indoors.

Sport climbing you’re mainly climbing with your partner, plus you’re meant to be paying attention while belaying, so no banter!

Different Length Routes in Rock Climbing vs Bouldering

Short and sweet.

Bouldering: Firstly we generally refer to the routes as “problems”.

The walls are generally only 3 or 4m high at most and you do a short amount of moves; maybe between 3 and 8.

Climbing: These can be anything from 10m all the way up to 40m/50m for the very long routes outdoors. There are of course multi-pitch routes, but here we’re talking about single pitch…

Rock Climbing Gear vs Bouldering Gear

For bouldering you need:

  • Climbing shoes
  • Chalk bag
  • Crash pads/Bouldering mats (for outdoors)

For rock climbing:

  • Climbing shoes
  • Chalk bag
  • Rope
  • Harness
  • Belay device
  • Quickdraws (for outdoors)
  • Sling (for outdoors)
  • Locking carabiners (for outdoors)

All the additional gear for climbing is effectively for safety.

You use the rope to tie yourself in, someone belays you with a belay device, you clip into your quickdraws as you climb and then you use your sling and locking carabiner at the top to anchor yourself and you’re on your way back down (in the simplest of situations).

Grading Differences

Within both bouldering and rock climbing there are multiple different grading systems.

Let’s start with sport climbing grades first. There are two main quotation systems:

  • Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), mainly used in North America. This starts at 5.10, and firstly progress with letters, (5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c then 5.10d). Then the decimal increases and starts at “a” again. It goes all the way up to 5.15d at the moment. (There is also the lower grades 5.0 to 5.9 but where you don’t have the middle letter grades).
  • French Grades (Used elsewhere). These start at 4a, firstly increase in letters to c then the number increases and starts at “a” again. So, 4a, 4b, 4c, 5a,5b all the way to 9c (equivalent of 5.15d YDS). The letter grades are also separated by a “+” grade to indicate it is slightly harder. So you actually have 7a, 7a+, 7b, 7b+ etc. The “+” is considered a grade harder, so 7a is a grade harder than 6c+.

Next bouldering grades.

There are also two main ones:

  • Font grading. Named after the grading convention established in Fontainbleau, this is similar to the French climbing grades, except the letters are capitals. These go from 3 all the way to 9A currently. Between 3 and 5 they are only differentiated by a “+”. So 4, 4+, etc.
  • Hueco/V Scale. Why V?  Named after the person who invented it. These go from V0 all the way to V17. Nice and simple here, no intermediary letters or “+”.

Strength and Technique in Rock Climbing vs Bouldering

Now we really getting into the meat of rock climbing vs bouldering.

Bouldering moves are generally short and powerful. This is the climbing equivalent of the 100m sprint or your 1 rep max at the gym.

You get on the rock, try your hardest for a few moves and then rest.

Climbing is more endurance: you do less difficult moves but much more of them.

Think of this as a 1500m! You’re still running fast but for much longer. Multi-pitch climbing would be your marathon!

If you want a great examples of these, check out Alex Megos on Lucid Dreaming. This is literally 3 moves:

Compare this to one of the hardest climbs in the world La Dura Dura 9b+, 55m of pure pleasure:

Muscles Used in Rock Climbing vs Bouldering

In terms of main muscle groups in the body, all climbing disciplines will use the same. These are the muscles which are involved in major upper-body pulling action:

  • Lats
  • Delts
  • Biceps
  • Forearm flexors

As bouldering concentrates on max difficulty over a short duration it involves fast-twitch muscle cells.

Rock climbing on the other hand, which is more endurance based, uses slow twitch.

Remember though, as you progress through the grades in sport climbing, you’ll get harder and harder moves en-route. This therefore also involves fast-twitch muscles and powerful moves, though not as concentrated.

Training Differences

power training with campus boarding for rock climbing

For both bouldering and rock climbing you need to train power as well as endurance.

If a boulderer has no endurance he won’t be able to link up multiple hard moves. If a route climber has no power he won’t be able to do any hard moves and get through crux sections.

That being said, the portion of time spent training each will be opposite.

Boulderers will primarily train power with a bit of endurance whereas route climbers will train endurance with a bit of power. 

Rock Climbing vs Bouldering: Which One is Better???

Of course there can only be one answer to this.

And it’s that there is no right answer. It only comes down to personal preference.

Bouldering and climbing are both disciplines of the same sport. If you like one, there are chances you’ll like the other.  You may have a preference for the chilling out and socializing aspect of bouldering or you may prefer the more endurance based sport routes.

There isn’t one that’s better than the other and they’re both absolutely awesome.

If you’ve hit a plateau in your sport climbing it may be time to get a bit more power through bouldering. If you’re getting pumped too fast on your boulder problems, it may be time to get out the dusty harness.

Do you prefer bouldering or are you more a route person?

What did we miss out or get wrong?

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