Bouldering 101: How to place crash pads and not break your legs

I’ve had the unfortunate experience of witnessing many bouldering injuries. These range from nauseatingly audible pulley pops to countless ankle sprains to seeing someone break her back falling off an icy boulder in Wyoming. My least favorite memories are the accidents or near-accidents that were clearly avoidable. Usually those went something like this:

  1. some folks walk up to the boulder
  2. they huck an array of boxy budget pads in the general direction of the problem’s start
  3. they immediately begin climbing
  4. someone misses the pads, lands awkwardly on a pad edge, or comes within a few inches of lobotomizing themselves on a jutting rock

As a result I’ve become somewhat of a Captain Safety trope at the boulders. Frequently I’m the guy jumping in to push pads together, fold buckles underneath, or voice my concern if I feel that the landing should be rearranged. Bravado or downright ignorance in bouldering is bizarrely commonplace, even though it’s arguably the most injurious major discipline of climbing. After all, every fall is a ground fall.

Lesson #1: take falling seriously in bouldering. No amount of pad placement will make up for not knowing how to fall. Practice spotting your landing area, redirecting your momentum sideways and out, and “wet noodling” rather than resisting the impact. Learning basic rolls from aikido or judo would not be wasted effort at all. If you’re an older boulderer (or plan on being one someday) think about how to reduce the total number of falls, full stop. Learning how to downclimb and practicing how to top out without panicking are going to be essential tools for longevity.

This isn’t intended to make you afraid of falling; much the opposite. Knowledge is power. If you love bouldering, you’re going to fall a lot. Arm yourself accordingly.

Safety rant aside, here are my major tips on pad tactics.

Pad Tactics 101

Pay attention to what you’re doing. Every landing situation is different and complex in its own way. It’s the responsibility of the boulderer to know how to protect themselves and their companions. Don’t rely on any single piece of advice or rule. Be slow to assume something is safe, and be quick to be the one to suggest a change if something’s questionable.

Place pads where a fall is likely, not just somewhere underneath the boulder. This might not be directly underneath the holds or the boulder. We are concerned with center of gravity, and vector. Climbers generally have a habit of putting the pads too far in. When your feet come off first on an overhang, your center of gravity begins moving backwards as you fall. With slabs, assess the verticality of the line. Even a bit of traversing can necessitate the landing being several feet one way or the other.

In this case, the boulder is slightly overhanging and the topout is the area of greatest uncertainty and risk. The pad should be placed far enough back to be underneath the climber’s center of gravity while topping out.

Protect areas of risk and uncertainty first. If you can’t protect the entire landing, look to protect the most dynamic moves, or the areas of the climb where the sequence is uncertain. These are the areas where the most dangerous falls will occur. These moves might not necessarily be the crux.

Watch for edges and seams. Don’t stack multiple pads straight up if you can avoid it. Seams (pad edges) can be hard on ankles. Of course, this depends on the stiffness of your foam and ankles. In cases where you are confident about the fall area, it’s fine to stack pads – but try to keep their seams offset so that a wayward foot can’t dig its way through to the ground.

Hard pads on top for big falls and landing on your feet. Softer pads are more likely to roll ankles, especially with big falls. Many pads have two densities of foam. If your pad has a zipper or velcro, open it and check if you’re not sure.

In this case, the boulder is very tall and traverses slightly left. The bottom layer of pads just add cushion to a fall. The top layer are set up with certainty of the fall area. If there was more uncertainty, I would build a 2×2 grid rather than stacking 4 pads into a 2×1.

Soft pads on top for low falls and landing on anything other than your feet. Your legs are your shock absorbers. If you’re landing on your butt, back, hips, etc, you have no suspension – you’re going to want the landing to be as soft as possible.

Blubber pads are a double edged sword. They are great for covering seams, covering dab rocks that don’t have enough margin for a full size pad, and other utility uses. They aren’t great for covering chunky or uneven landings. You might only have a split second to see the fall zone; blubber pads make everything look flat. You need proprioception cues in order to absorb shock correctly. The best situation for a blubber pad is a big, flat landing with seams.

Using boxy pads to level out the landing with the rock pile. The rock pile is built up around one large sharp rock that cannot be extracted from the ground.

Use pads as construction blocks. In areas with lots of talus landings like Squamish, often blocky, budget pads can be used cleverly to flatten out the landing. Think of this like 3D tetris. Your goal is for the eventual landing zone to be as flat, large, and specific to the problem as possible.

Another example of pads being used as construction. The lower pads are attempting to level out the main fall zone. The top layer pad is an emergency pad to protect the gap behind the main landing, and the spotter ensures that the climber stays on the fall area.

Test your landing before committing. For tall or scary problems, if possible, take test falls. Look at your landing periodically while climbing on these test tries, and before you drop. Thinking about falling is not thinking about climbing, and vice versa. When you’re on point, you want knowledge about the landing to be hardwired already. Obviously this isn’t possible for first-try attempts of scary problems, which adds to the risk factor.

This shows both the tetris technique, and a test fall from the “rest” before the point of commitment.

Identify a safe drop zone. With landings where some areas are better than others, such as where a rock is underneath a section of the pads, you can use a target to identify a safe drop spot. Only deliberate falls will target it, but many falls are deliberate. It might be an entire pad, or one section of a pad. A chalk handprint can be useful as a marker.

Communicate with your spotters, if you have any. There’s a whole other article to be written about effective spotting, but in general, less is better. The last thing you want to do is hurt two people with one fall. At times, spotting is essential. Often these are obvious, but spotting should still be at the behest of the person climbing. If there has not been explicit communication about where spotting is needed, get the hell out of the landing zone.

Make plans if pads need to be moved. If the landing needs adjustment during the climbing, make the sequence of events clear. “When I get to the big sloper, move this orange Organic pad to here.” The climber’s life or well-being may depend on the action of the spotter in this case. Remove any chance of misunderstanding. Don’t trust your life to improvisation if you can avoid it.

All the gear, all the time. Do not leave a pad unopened sitting next to the landing zone. Except for the most humble lowballs, there is almost always something useful that pad could be doing. I have witnessed injuries where the person missed a small landing area and there were plenty of other pads nearby. There were a lot of guilty faces afterward, mine included. Don’t learn this lesson the hard way.

More is usually better. Your mileage may vary, but my 35 year old knees are always happier hiking in more pads than they are falling on fewer pads. Especially given the above rule, you should own plenty of pads, and be comfortable carrying as many as you need. The more distant and complex the boulder, the more social and logistical skills you need to reduce the risk factor. One SAR helicopter ride is more expensive than all the pads you’ll own in your entire life.

Safety first

In summary: just like intentional climbing is probably the best way to get better at climbing, intentional landing management is the best way to keep yourself safer while bouldering. Not getting hurt is one of the most essential elements of continuous progression, so being safer is generally good. “Being safe” doesn’t mean not attempting dangerous things. It means controlling the variables as much as possible and understanding what you’re getting yourself into. In bouldering, that understanding starts on the ground, with the pads.

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