How different is outdoor bouldering from indoor bouldering?

A strawberry is to a tomato, what indoor bouldering is to outdoor bouldering.

I mean, sure, they’re both technically a fruit and both are usually pretty sweet— but does that mean that they both go well on a cheesecake? Oh please, no. Not again. My friend had a cake like this in China—a nice sponge cake with cream and fruit on top, and amongst the strawberry, rape, and mango … and a tomato.

So yeah, outdoor bouldering is very different from indoor bouldering in some aspects. If you like the gym vibe, cheer your friends up indoor bouldering is great. If you love the adventure, and being outside plus you’re not afraid of learning to fall, then outdoor bouldering is better. Outdoor bouldering also is very different in how it feels on your fingers – you won’t find a gym where you have rain, mud and snow on the holds. The difference between the two sports; between indoor bouldering and outdoor bouldering, is getting greater and greater all the time. What was once used only for training and practice, has become almost completely unrecognizable, with some problems being as far from anything you would find outdoors as— say, a strawberry is from a tomato.

The roots of bouldering

The roots of outdoor bouldering find themselves used as practice and training for outdoor rock climbing and mountaineering— a way of staying in shape during the offseason and practicing hard moves while having barely left the ground. A great way to train finger strength, stay fit and improve technique by just climbing the hard part over, and over, and over.

It wasn’t long before outdoor bouldering became its own sport, pretty much entirely separated from rock climbing with a rope. No longer just practice for the main event, many people these days considered themselves only boulderers—because, well… they only do bouldering. Some boulderers will spend their entire climbing career on this discipline, never once even wearing a harness. Just climb some ridiculously hard problems, problems which would be near impossible for most rope climber guys and girls to even consider.

This passion for the sport of bouldering gave rise to bouldering gyms; gyms dedicated to the art that is indoor bouldering.

Back in the days

But let’s back up a little.  Back to when bouldering first arrived indoors. It usually had a little section of the corner of the climbing gym. The gym I used to frequent, they had this little cave that was not too much bigger than the inside space of a van. Again, it was to repeat and train on those hard moves, and not many people spent much time in there. Indoor bouldering was used primarily as training for the ‘Main Event’, or even training to get stronger for indoor rope climbing.

Back then, all these indoor boulder problems were set in a way as to mimic an outdoor boulder problem or the crux sequence of a hard rock climbing route. The holds used were fairly similar to real rock, typically designed to imitate limestone features, and were mostly holds to pull down on. Balancey movement on slab style walls and volumes weren’t really a thing. All the bouldering walls were either caves or 45’s. A 45, is a steep wall, overhanging at a 45-degree angle.

As more and more people realized, not only is this indoor bouldering ‘training’ hugely beneficial to one’s climbing game, but it’s also a lot of fun. And with more and more people bouldering, this gave rise to specific bouldering gyms. Dedicated gyms, purely for indoor bouldering.

The sport of indoor bouldering

As indoor bouldering claimed its place in the climbing world as its own discipline, the movement for the problems gradually changed and evolved. It became much more gymnastic; launching oneself around a corner to purposefully fall to the next hold— or using massive half spherical volumes, alien heads and more recently, moving ‘wheel’ style holds. Many modern indoor bouldering problems include movements seen in parkour and free running— something rarely seen in outdoor bouldering.  

Different Holds

The days of problems being restricted to simulate the movement of outdoor boulders have disappeared, as did the restrictive use of ‘outdoor like’ or ‘rock mimicking’ holds. Of course, a lot of the route setters still go for the ‘similar to outdoor’ style, which is great. Just don’t be too surprised when you have to stand on a volume and jump across three more volumes to reach the final hold, which happens to be the shape of a bubble. Just to be clear, holds of these shapes; bubbles and big triangular volumes— they do all exist in nature in some types of rock— but they do not often exist in these sequences and patterns.

Parkour of climbing

If you don’t know what I mean, about the holds and the parkour-ness of it all, take a look at one of the IFSC bouldering world cup events. I remember this one problem, it was the men’s 3rd boulder problem at the bouldering world cup in Vail, 2016. The problem started on a big pentagonal volume. The contestants then made this huge dynamic move, jumping up into a sort-of iron cross position, with both hands outstretched to either side, pressing on the volumes they had just jumped to. These problems were never meant to be like the outdoors. They were set to be unique, and to force the contestants to use interesting and non-conventional movement. The movement we would rarely (if ever) use in climbing of any other form— a rope or not, indoor or outdoor. Some people could (and do) argue, that indoor bouldering has become equal parts climbing, gymnastics and parkour— whereas outdoor bouldering, has remained much the same—just the difficulty of the problems are being pushed to ridiculous new levels.  

Grading systems

Both indoor and outdoor bouldering, use either the V scale or The Fontainebleau Scale (the font scale) to grade a problem’s difficulty. Which system a particular bouldering area or gym uses, is based on location—and worldwide it’s pretty evenly divvied up. All over the US, China, and Australia, the V system is used—whereas all of Europe, South Africa, Japan, and India go for the font scale.   

Given this, you might think then, that a V5 in a bouldering gym in Australia, and a V5 outdoors somewhere else in the world would be similar— they’ve both been given the same grade. But if you climb a problem indoors, especially one at the lower end of the grades, around V0-V3; the outdoor version seems hard as nails in comparison!

If they’re both the same sport using the same grading system, why would the outdoor version of the same grade be so much harder?

In a bouldering gym, a route setter will craft their problem, climb it multiple times, then decide a grade based on not only what they think it is, but what it’s difficulty is in comparison to the other problems in the gym, too. Some say grades are a little softer in the gyms to keep everyone stoked, to keep that feel good vibe. No one wants to arrive at the bouldering gym only to find they are struggling on a V0.

Generally, after the problem is set, it’ll stay up for a few weeks, maybe a month or two, then they will be cleaned and reset as a different problem. There is not a whole lot of time or need to get everyone’s opinion on the grade of this boulder that will be gone shortly anyway.

It’s not necessarily the most important thing either, for the grading to be accurate on a global scale. The importance is more in the consistency of the problems in a gym or area. You don’t want to have two V6’s in a gym, with one far more difficult than the other.  

Outdoor problems: Permanent

Outdoor problems, unlike indoor problems, are permanent. There is no going anywhere for them, and they obviously can’t be rotated or changed (unless a hold breaks, making it easier or harder, and in this case, the grade will change). A boulderer will find, clean and claim the first ascent of a new problem. They get the prestigious honor of naming the problem—and as far as the name goes; the more ridiculous the better. Some current boulder problem names include; ‘Birth Canal’ in Squamish, ‘Pumped full o’semen’ in Hueco Tanks and ‘Hand on poop’ in Dao Cheng.

The climber may grade the problem immediately after having sent it— this is especially the case if the first ascensionist is familiar with the area, as to keep the grades consistent among the area— or they may get a consensus from multiple other climbers before assigning the problem a grade. Over a long period of time, many climbers from many different countries will try the route, and this opens the grading of any particular problem up for peer review.  

The benefit of having the opinions of multiple other boulderers is that you will get a more ‘real’ or ‘accurate’ grade, as opposed to the grades you’ll find indoors, which are often very local to that gym. You’ll have professional boulderers, amateurs and everyone in between, all trying the same lines and agreeing upon the grades. Sure, a V3 in Yosemite might feel like a V6 anywhere else, but as long as the area is consistent, no harm no foul.

Outdoor bouldering: Outdoor experience, Indoor bouldering – gym vibe

The experience of the two sports though is really the biggest difference of all. If you’re bouldering indoors, you’ve got a vibe of a gym. Going hard, cheering others on, sharing beta, getting your sweat on! It’s social. It’s all about pushing it and trying to get better. Go there anytime, rain, hail, snow or shine and crush it. It’s fun, and I can see why a lot of people only boulder indoors.  

Outdoors, on the other hand, you’ve got the elements. You’ve got to travel to the area, you’ve gotta carry your pads and backpack. The end of the day usually results in climbing tape covered body parts, and depending on the rock your climbing, bleeding fingertips. You’ll need to take at least one other person with you, so you can spot each other. You’ve sometimes got ice in the pockets at the top of the boulders, dirty holds, wildlife, uneven landings and your pads blowing away with each gust of Galeforce. Freezing fingertips in spring and autumn are another “plus” you get extra for free if you live in northern Europe or northern America.

It’s only when you really get out and do both, that you’ll realize how huge the difference really is. Like I said—strawberries and tomatoes.

Conclusion: Try both – and see why they’re different but awesome

So, go ahead, try it out, if you never bouldered outside, definitely try it out. Just make sure to pick an easy traverse first, and practice landing first before you try a higher boulder!

If you need some tips for choosing the right pant for bouldering and climbing, read my other article!