How to Choose a Crash Pad
Updated: Sep 20, 2022
Calling all pebble wrestlers! Let’s talk crash pads. How do you choose one? What makes some bouldering pads or bouldering mats preferable to others? What are the best bouldering crash mats out there? Can’t I just use a mattress? We will cover all of that and more. But before we get started, you should know the following:
You will be hard-pressed to find a “bad” crash pad from big-name brands. If you are nervous about buying a “bad” crash mat, stay within the established climbing brands: Organic, Mad Rock, Metolius, Black Diamond, Petzl, Misty Mountain, and Evolv. You can’t go wrong with a bouldering pad made by one of these companies. This guide, however, is designed to help you pick the best bouldering pad to meet your needs.
If you haven’t budgeted at least $150 for a bouldering pad, wait until you can. Any pad cheaper than $150 will not be worth the purchase.
Lastly, please be sure never to buy used pads as you don’t know what conditions they’ve been kept in.
Let’s do this! Not all crash mats are created equal, especially regarding your budget. To pick out a bouldering mat that hits all of your needs AND falls within your budget, let’s first go over the difference between a $400 Black Diamond Mondo Pad and a $150 Metolius Session Pad. These are both great pads but have very different uses. To understand those uses, we’ll break down crash pads into three distinct attributes: style, size, and materials.
Crash Pad Style
The style of a bouldering pad refers mainly to the closing method of the pad but also the overall design. As of 2017, there are three main bouldering pad styles: Hinge, Taco, and New Baffled.
Hinge crash mats are really two pieces of foam held together by a thin piece of the outer fabric. Often times they come with straps to wear as a backpack AND to carry like a briefcase. There have been a couple of iterations of hinge pads over the years by different companies, including the angle hinge, which angles the top layer of foam all the way to the closing point of the hinge, and the hybrid hinge, which contains one layer of continuous padding along the top while the bottom layers are separated as normal. Be sure you know what kind of hinge you are looking at when shopping for hinge-style crash mats.
Folds nicely. Hinge-style bouldering pads fold down most of any style, which is optimal for storage. I have found that they are also the best to shove gear into on the approach.
Lays flat. Hinge pads also lay the flattest on flat ground. They create the safest landing zone when there isn’t much debris.
Tri-fold. The hinge design allows for pads to be bigger and fold up smaller. Because of this, we get the tri-fold option which is a great way to get a big pad that won’t take up your entire trunk.
Rocks can get through the hinge. I cannot tell you how many times I have laid my hinge pad down on a landing only to fall and be stabbed through the thin hinge by a protruding rock. Hinge pads are the worst choice for uneven terrain. While angle and hybrid hinge variations work to alleviate this problem, in my experience, they have not completely solved it.
Taco-style pads comprise one continuous piece of padding that is closed by folding the single piece in half (it looks like a taco). Every taco pad I have seen comes with backpack straps, but sometimes they do not have side handles.
No hinges or openings for rocks to poke through on uneven terrain. Taco pads are perfect for laying right over any terrain and creating a nice landing zone when there isn’t one.
They can’t lay flat. Because you are folding the single piece of padding, taco pads don’t lay flat and are therefore the worst option for flat landings.
Not to mention they are a pain in the butt to store in a closet or trunk.
There is currently only one pad on the market with this style (hence “new”), and it is the Mad Rock R3 crash pad. Go Mad Rock for changing up the game! You’ll find reviews across the internet raving about this pad, and I have been lucky enough to fall onto one of these bad boys. New baffled style pads are essentially comprised of a couple of tubes of recycled material connected by padded hinges.
This thing is a beast. Regardless of the terrain, new baffled pads lay flat and conform to the landing. They also fold up nicely for storage (and are the comfiest to sleep on!).
They have the most failure points.
New baffled pads have a ton of little hinges holding the tubes together. While we haven’t had enough time to test the new baffled style, more hinges = more opportunities to fail.
It is one of the heaviest pads on the market at 18lbs. As boulderers, our approach usually isn’t so bad, but it is still worth noting.
One size, one manufacturer, one option.
Crash Pad Size
Bouldering mat manufacturers make size choices pretty simple for us. You will generally find two sizes of pads: small and large. Sometimes these are called half and full or medium and big. Regardless, you are looking at a 3ft x 4ft pad or a 4ft x 5ft pad. These sizes may vary slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer but for the most part, these are your options. So, are you looking for a big pad or a little one?
Cover more landing area
Take up a lot of space
Difficult to travel with
Take up little space
Easier to travel with
Cover less landing area
Get one if you have the space and budget for a big pad. Otherwise, I’ve taken plenty of falls onto small pads, it’s not so bad.
Crash Pad Materials
Now we are getting down to the nitty-gritty. There are 2 different materials to be aware of in a bouldering mat: the cover and the foam. The cover would be just that, the material on the outside of the pad. It’s the material you come in contact with every time you fall or pick it up. The foam is the innards or the actual pad portion of the crash mat.
You should be aware of the material that is covering the pad you are looking at. Hard covers will be more durable and often weather-resistant but won’t be as comfortable to lounge around on. This is a bigger deal than you may think, as there can be quite a bit of lounging when bouldering. Soft covers, on the other hand, are good for wiping off your shoes before you climb and are nicer to lounge on but may not hold up as well to the elements.
The foam is the most important part of your pad. While many pads may look the same (have the same height, give, etc.), they may not have the same foam core, which means that the pads will not take falls in the same way.
Closed-cell foam is a stiff, durable, weather-resistant foam. Many times in the description of a pad, you will see it referred to as “stiff foam” or “hard foam.” Unless you are looking to fall onto what feels like plywood, I wouldn’t suggest an entirely closed-cell foam pad, but many pads have at least one layer of closed-cell foam. More closed-cell foam means a stiffer, more uncomfortable, more durable pad. You also want to look for more closed-cell foam if you plan to fall from taller boulders, as the stiffer pad has a lower chance of bottoming out (compress all the way to the ground).
Open-cell foam is the opposite: soft, not as durable, and absorbent (so more prone to mildew and not as weather-resistant as closed-cell). Many pads have at least one open-cell foam layer, often called “soft foam.” While open-cell foam makes for a cushier fall and is nicer to sleep on, more open-cell foam means a much higher chance to bottom out when taking long falls.
Memory foam is found in some new models of crash mats. I have seen layered in as both “soft foam” and “hard foam” depending on the pad and the density of the particular memory foam used. These pads tend to be more on the expensive side, but, as one would expect, they take falls fairly well.
Take a look at how many layers of foam are in the pad and what those layers are comprised of. Using the info above about types of foam, you should get a good idea about how the pad will take falls from different heights and how durable and weather resistant the foam will be.
The overall pad height will also give you a good idea of how the pad will take falls. Small pads can be as little as 3 inches tall, and bigger pads can reach upwards of 5 inches. Taller pads tend to have more layers of foam and thus are more expensive. These pads are built to take bigger falls and distribute force more evenly. Meanwhile, shorter pads will likely be less expensive, but they are built for smaller falls.
With all this information in mind, I will leave you with some questions you can ask yourself when picking out a crash mat and some of my personal suggestions for pads.
How to Choose a Crash Pad
“What terrain am I mainly climbing on?”
If your local bouldering is incredibly developed, hinge pads are better suited for flat landings, so a hinge-style pad is probably the best choice.
If you are looking to bushwack it, you probably want a taco pad or a new baffled pad to cover those jutting rocks in your landing zone.
If you are into highballs, you will not want a pad thinner than 4 or 4.5 inches.
If you are terrified of highballs, you could save a few bucks by looking at thinner pads.
“What kind of storage do I have for a bouldering pad?”
If you live in an apartment or out of your car with little to no storage, you definitely do not want to go for a taco pad.
If storage isn’t an issue and you have plenty of trunk space in your car, you might consider a taco pad.
If you travel a lot to boulder, specifically on a plane, you definitely want a hinged pad and may want to splurge for memory foam as they tend to be lighter.
“How many pads do I already have?”
Zero. If you want to buy your first bouldering mat, I suggest a hinge style or new baffled style. While there really are no “beginner” climbing crash mats, when you are starting to boulder outside for the first time, you will likely climb in developed areas with flat landings, so you won’t want a taco-style pad.
One or more. If you already have one or more crash pads, consider buying a different style so that you are better suited for varying terrain. So if you have a hinge pad, I’d grab a taco pad. If you have both, seriously check out the Mad Rock R3.
“Do I want to sleep on my pad?”
If you don’t have a sleeping pad or just want your crash mat to be multi-functional, be sure to grab a big pad. Trust me. I am over six feet tall and have slept many nights on small pads with my legs hanging off. It is very cold. More open-cell or memory foam in the padding would also make for a better night’s sleep.
Organic Full Pad ($185): Ol’ Reliable. While this pad won’t completely break the bank, this has been my pad of choice for the past five years. It has survived storms, mud, snow, ice, and countless falls. It is just stiff enough to take tall falls well and soft enough to sleep on. It stores gear tightly for approach hikes and are all-around light enough to wear for approaches more than a mile long.
Mad Rock R3 ($189): The Golden Child. I have yet to find a bad review of this pad. Mad Rock is the first company to revolutionize bouldering pad design in years, which paid off. This pad solves many problems with traditional hinges and taco pads. It lays flat over uneven terrain, takes falls like a champ, and is the most eco-friendly pad on the market (R3=Reduce, Reuse, Recycle).
Black Diamond Mondo Pad ($400): The Big Boy. This is the best bouldering mat I have ever fallen on. Clocking in at 5 inches thick and almost five and a half feet long, this pad is an absolute beast. The only cons to the Mondo are the hinge design, the weight (20lbs), and, of course, the price.
Metolius Session ($150): #Value. The Session is the best $150 crash mat I have found. There are several others in the price range, but between the angle hinge design, lightweight (9lbs), decent size (4ft long), and the foam height (4in), it is the best value at the $150 tier.
Now that you've gotten your bouldering pad picked out, here's How to Plan an Outdoor Bouldering Trip.