How to Plan an Outdoor Bouldering Trip
Updated: Jul 29, 2022
For individuals that have only ever climbed in the gym, bouldering is the perfect first step into the world of outdoor climbing.
Due to its relative simplicity (no need for ropes or belayers), bouldering is a great way to take your first steps outside the gym and experience what climbing is really about. All you need to do is spot an appealing boulder, throw your crash pad down, and go for it. Making your way to the top of a difficult bouldering problem can be immensely satisfying. And enjoying a difficult climb in the outdoors, especially on days of great weather and excellent views, makes the process all the more satisfying.
All that being said, if you’re brand new to bouldering outside, you might want a few extra tips and tricks before you head outside with your newly purchased (or perhaps rented) crash pad. Below, we’ve listed a few bits of advice to help your planned bouldering adventures go smoothly. Also, we’ve included a packing list for bouldering day trips.
Choose a Boulder Field
Depending on where you live, it might be difficult to choose a good bouldering field. Ideally, if you’re new to bouldering (or you’re going out with a group of mixed experience), you’re going to want to find a bouldering field that has a plethora of options. Going out to an area with mostly difficult bouldering problems (whatever difficult means to you) might deflate your ego a bit; outdoor bouldering has a reputation for being monumentally more difficult than gym climbers realize. It’s best to err on the side of caution and pick the mellowest or diverse bouldering field you can find. From Northern Virginia, Cooper’s Rock, Mt. Gretna, and Northwest Branch are all relatively close, high quality options!
Leave the Guidebook at Home
We all understand the value of a good guidebook, especially if you’re picking out unusually long and potentially dangerous rock climbs; however, bouldering is all about trying and failing. To religiously carry around a guidebook is a bit exhausting, and it completely defeats the feeling of wanderlust adventure that is associated with meandering from boulder to boulder.
It doesn’t matter if you’re climbing a V1 or a V6, if the bouldering problem looks like it’s worth a try, you should just go for it. You don’t need a guidebook to know all the beta or to have a better understanding of the exact subjective grade that has been assigned to any particular boulder. In bouldering, if you keep failing on a problem, you move your crash pad a few feet and try a different route.
Avoid the Highballs
If you’re new to bouldering, we highly recommend that you avoid climbing the high boulders (highballs). Admittedly, you’re your own person, and the final decision is up to you. But in our humble opinion highballs should be reserved for individuals that have more experience and have a better understanding of the risk associated. It is generally easy to walk away from a bouldering trip unharmed (if you’re smart about things) because you’re usually very low to the ground, have friends spotting you, and your crash pad is patiently waiting for you, but all that rapidly changes once you decide to climb up a highball.
Prepare to be Social
If you’ve never been outdoor bouldering before, you might be taken back by how bouldering can be a social gathering. Be prepared to make new friends when you’re hanging around popular bouldering areas. If you’re an extrovert, being social is part of the fun. If you’re an introvert, things might take some getting used to, but luckily climbers tend to be a friendly crew. Making new friends at the bouldering field is great because you’ll always have someone to provide some beta, and it helps guarantee there will be some extra crash pads around to help keep you safe.
Have a Spotter
It’s highly recommended that you have a spotter. Bouldering can be done alone, but it’s always much safer to have someone to move your crash pad around and keep your head from crashing into a rock if you fall. If you insist on climbing without a spotter, be extra cautious about the boulders you choose to attempt and be very thoughtful about where you place your crash pad(s) for protection.
It’s a Picnic!
Bouldering day trips are rather simple yet extremely enjoyable outings. It doesn’t take much to prepare for a day of bouldering, so if you’re new to outdoor climbing, this is a perfect way to leave the gym for the first time. If you’re new to outdoor bouldering, you should try to pick some “easier” boulders to start on – even if you’re a strong gym climber – because you might find that your ego gets crushed by the outdoors. Leave the guidebook at home. Bouldering is not the time to be over-thinking your climbing routes – merely enjoy your day in the outdoors. Prepare to be social, climbers hanging out at favorite boulder spots tend to be very friendly. Make sure you bring a spotter, there’s no sense in bouldering alone.
More than anything, don’t overthink things. Bouldering is a lot like having a picnic, and you happen to attempt some boulder problems in-between bouts of relaxing in the outdoors.
Day Trip Packing List
Water (at least a couple of liters)
And here is a pro tip: Pack all of your stuff into one backpack. Take that backpack and place it in the middle of your open crash pad. Fold the crash pad up tight so the backpack is sandwiched in between. Now when you are hiking to the boulders, you have nothing dangling around and your hands are free!
All in all, it's important to remember to have fun! Outdoor bouldering can be an amazing experience, but can be easily tainted by frustration and doubt. Whether you're with your friends, or taking time to yourself, allow your bouldering trip be a memorable, enjoyable experience.
Ready to get out there? Check out Rock Climbing in D.C.: Where to Go.