In the world of rock climbing, bouldering stands out as an accessible and appealing discipline to get into. Compared to the likes of traditional, sport or alpine climbing, bouldering is comparatively simple and easy to get into – Shoes? Chalk? Climb! However, the choice between indoor and outdoor bouldering often poses a significant dilemma. Each option comes with its own set of pros and cons, catering to different preferences and skill levels. Let’s delve into the heart of this and explore the nuances that make indoor and outdoor bouldering distinct and showcase that they’re both amazing (spoilers).


Indoor Bouldering is great for Beginners:


For beginners, indoor bouldering provides a safe and controlled environment to hone their climbing skills. Indoor bouldering gyms offer carefully designed routes suitable for novice climbers, ensuring a gradual progression in difficulty. These gyms are equipped with big, thick crash matting, trained staff, and a supportive community, making it an ideal starting point for those new to the sport. Indoor bouldering also provides a sheltered space where weather conditions do not impede the climbing experience, allowing you to practice year-round – the Pizzas and Coffees don’t hurt either. Indoor bouldering comes with a myriad of advantages. The controlled environment allows for precise route setting, enabling climbers to focus on specific techniques and movements. Additionally, indoor climbing gyms offer a variety of holds and features, allowing climbers to work on their weaknesses and improve their overall skills. Whereas most outdoor bouldering destinations have very distinct styles, climbing at an indoor gym gives you wider choices with the option to go from pocket-pulling through a steep cave, straight onto delicate slabs and powerful dynamic comp routes. The convenience of indoor facilities, with climbs of all grades and styles with controlled low-risk landings, makes it easier for people to incorporate bouldering into their regular fitness routines and involves a lot less hassle to get a quick session in, especially in the middle of a city!


Indoor vs. Outdoor Climbing – Some Differences:


One of the differences between indoor and outdoor bouldering lies in the grading systems. Indoor climbing routes are generally graded on the V-scale, as we use at Flashpoint, which ranges from V0/VB (easiest) to V17 (most difficult – we have a V17 at Flashpoint Cardiff, its a replica of the hardest boulder in the world! However, we tend to max out around V12). Outdoor bouldering, on the other hand, uses various grading systems, but the most commonly used in the UK is the French/ Fontainebleau system. Outdoor grades take into account the natural rock features and environmental factors, making them somewhat different from indoor grades. You can translate one to the other, for example, 7a (French) is V6. 7b is V8, and just to confuse you, so is 7B+ (it’s just a slightly harder V8). It’s important to note that while both grading systems aim to quantify the difficulty of bouldering problems, the interpretation of grades can vary based on the local climbing community and the specific characteristics of the climbing area, just as some indoor bouldering gyms tend to set their routes “hard” or “soft”, it’s often perceived this way due to familiarity with the setting style. So when you venture to your first outdoor boulders, not only will you need a guidebook to tell you what each problem is, but you may also need to translate the French grades in the book to the V grades you’re used to. Use this to help you

The biggest shock and initial obstacle you’ll face when climbing outside is the lack of clear-coloured holds denoting the route. A guidebook will show you a vague line up the boulder, it is then for you to piece together what holds will work for you, where the minuscule feet are hiding amongst the blank sea of rock and how to position your body best to tackle the boulder. Likewise, there are no in-situ downclimbing jugs, nor fixed crash mats. Outdoor boulderers bring their own bouldering mats with them in an attempt to protect the fall zones and often have to top out the boulder and climb down an easier side of the rock. Always plan your landing zones and your way down before you set off! 

Spotting is another thing to factor in! As outdoor bouldering has a greater potential for injury due to the fact the landing zone is not a perfectly flat indoor padded gym, it’s best to brush up on your spotting skills to protect your falling bouldering buddies. That being said, it’s recommended to spot indoors as well, as accidents can still happen during falls. 


Is Outdoor Climbing Harder Than Indoor?


Outdoor bouldering presents a unique set of challenges. The unpredictability of outdoor terrain, natural holds (and finding them), and weather conditions can make climbing outside significantly more demanding. However, all climbing presents unique challenges, and determining which one is harder is subjective and depends on various factors. Both environments have their own set of difficulties, and what might be challenging for one climber could be manageable for another. Let’s explore the factors that contribute to the perceived difficulty of outdoor and indoor climbing:


Outdoor Climbing:


  • Natural Elements: Outdoor climbing exposes climbers to natural elements such as weather conditions, wind, sun, and sometimes even wildlife. Unpredictable weather, rock quality, and environmental factors can significantly impact the difficulty of outdoor climbs.
  • Route Setting: Outdoor routes are not set by humans; instead, climbers must navigate the natural features of the rock. This can make outdoor climbs more challenging as climbers need to adapt to the rock’s texture, holds, and formations, which are often irregular and less forgiving than artificial holds found indoors.
  • Mental Challenges: Outdoor climbing often requires a different mindset. Climbers must assess risks, make decisions about safety, and overcome the fear of falling on real rock. The mental aspect of outdoor climbing can be particularly challenging for some individuals.
  • Approach and Access: Outdoor climbing areas might require a hike or approach, adding physical exertion before even starting to climb. Accessing the climbing site can be a challenge, especially in remote or rugged terrains.


Indoor Climbing:


  • Controlled Environment: Indoor climbing occurs in a controlled environment where factors like weather and “rock” quality are standardised. Climbing gyms provide consistent conditions, allowing climbers to focus solely on their technique and strength.
  • Route Setting: Indoor routes are set by route setters, allowing for precise control over difficulty levels. Indoor climbing routes can be tailored to specific skill levels, providing a gradual progression for climbers as they improve.
  • Safety: Indoor climbing gyms are equipped with crash pads, trained staff, and safety protocols, minimizing the risk of injuries. This controlled environment provides a safer space for climbers to push their limits.
  • Training Opportunities: Indoor climbing gyms offer various training tools and equipment, allowing climbers to work on specific techniques, strength, and endurance. This controlled environment facilitates targeted training, which can be harder to achieve in outdoor settings.


To Wrap Up:


Both indoor and outdoor bouldering offer unique experiences and cater to different preferences. Indoor bouldering provides a safe and supportive space for beginners, with carefully designed routes and expert guidance. It serves as an excellent training ground for outdoor climbers, helping them improve their skills and techniques. On the other hand, outdoor bouldering offers the thrill of natural rock formations, unpredictable terrain, and a deeper connection with nature. Whether you’re a beginner looking to start your climbing journey or an experienced climber seeking new challenges, the choice between indoor and outdoor bouldering ultimately depends on your goals, preferences, and the kind of adventure you seek. However, you can have your cake and eat it too! Climbers often find value in experiencing both indoor and outdoor climbing to enhance their overall skills and enjoy the diverse aspects of the sport. You do not need to pick one style of climbing and stick to it,  there are joys to be had at crags and boulders alike, just as there are in gyms and at the top of beautifully set routes. Now that we’ve established both forms of bouldering are great, why not try getting a little further out of your comfort zone? Take a beginner’s course over at Redpoint Bristol and see if you can keep your cool at height!

-Flashpoint Bristol