How to choose a Bouldering Mat

By Hati Whiteley

We've been making bouldering mats for over 15 years, and falling on them long before that.

With every fall is a lesson learnt, and we’ve fallen a lot!

Here’s all the advice we can give you on making your crash pad choice.

Col and Ken bouldering in Val Bodengo, Italy 2006

How thick does my bouldering mat need to be?

We find the most versatile crash pads to be between 10-12cm in thickness. These mats tend to cover most of our bouldering needs, and are manageable enough that they can easily be transported around.

Not all pads are created equal though, 12cm of cheap open-cell foam won't do well at protecting you from bottoming out on higher falls. Plus, the outer shell needs to be tough enough to take a beating.

Foam Quality

Foam is what keeps you safe, but not all foam is the same. Don't scrimp on safety, look for durable cross-linked foam - it spreads the force of your impact more effectively and lasts longer.

You'll also often find a combination of closed-cell and open-cell foam. The closed-cell foam is there to add secure protection against the rocks and spread the impact of your fall, the open-cell then acts as a cushion for a softer landing.

Generally speaking, the heavier the pad, the more durable it is and the longer it will sustain bigger falls. Good quality mats are firm because of the dense structure of the foam itself. Lighter, cheaper mats are firm because they use chemical hardeners which break down quicker, leaving you with a lightweight soft and floppy pad within a few sessions.

Outer Shell Construction

Bouldering pads have a tough life. They get dragged through the mud, stacked up against abrasive rocks and take a pounding every time you fall. They need to be made of hardwearing materials like the 1100D Cordura we use, and stitched together with reinforced or bartacked seams that are not going to blow apart when you land.


What types of bouldering mats are there?

There are 3 types of crash pads: Satellite, Full and Oversized. Each plays a specific role in protecting you when you fall. There are also 2 different types of openings, Taco and Hinge style pads, these each have their pros and cons too.

Satellite Pads (also known as sit start and slider pads)

These are small crash pads that are used to cover the gaps where two pads meet, protect your fall on a sit-start, protect low traverses or cover outlying roots and rocks. They're usually slim and portable and are used alongside a bigger bouldering mat.

Check out the Waffa if you're after this kind of bouldering mat.

Alpkiteer Anna Wells making use of a sit start pad alongside a full pad for the sit start (the pads are the Waffa and Mujo)

Full pads (also known as main and mid-sized pads)

The crash pad most people buy. There's some size variation in this category, but one full pad should be enough to keep you protected from a mid-level fall. They fold in half so that they can be easily carried and fit into most car boots. High mileage boulderers often have two of these.

Check out the Phud if you boulder infrequently or the Mujo or Origin if you are out most weekends.

Oversized Pads (also known as fat pads)

These crash pads tend to be for protecting you on highball problems, the biggest, baddest climbs around. They're really big mats and excellent at supporting and cushioning your fall. Weighing in around 9/10 kg they require a good carrying system and will fill your car boot (or your entire car if it's a Kia Picanto).

"I love having a big and thick pad, first of all, because I’m easily scared by heights or bad landings, and secondly because it’s perfect for solo outings when I don’t have a spotter. Most big pads are really heavy, or not so comfortable to carry, so I thought that finding one that would tick all the three boxes: huge, light, comfortable; would be impossible. For me, that’s the Project." - Zofia Reych

Hinged Fold vs Taco Fold Bouldering Pads

Bouldering mats fold to make them easier to transport to the crag. There are two types of fold available to climbers: Taco and Hinge.

Hinged Bouldering Mats

The foam in these pads is cut in half so that they fold flat when closed, a bit like a book. These pads take up less space in your car, are easier to carry and can be stored folded so you're not bending the foam. When you're climbing, hinged pads lie flat on the ground or can be flipped and folded around large rocks in your landing area.

Pros
  • Lies flat on the ground.
  • Easily folded around large rocks.
  • Comfortable to carry.
  • Compact to store and transport.
  • Foam less stressed than in Taco.
Cons
  • Seam in the middle of the pad.
  • The pad can close around you if you land directly on the hinge.
  • Carrying straps can get dirty.
Mujo

11cm Hinge style full bouldering mat for regular rock wranglers

Project

15cm Hinge style oversized bouldering pad for high-ball problems

Taco Bouldering Mats

These pads contain continuous sheets of foam with no seams or hinges in the middle, giving you an uninterrupted landing zone. The pad folds in half like a taco when you're transporting it, leaving a space inside where you can stash stuff to carry it to the crag. Taco pads take up more storage space than a hinged pad for the same landing area and should be stored flat to keep the foam in good condition.

Pros
  • Uninterrupted landing zone.
  • Extra carrying capacity.
  • Carrying straps stay clean.
Cons
  • Cumbersome to store and transport.
  • Store open to protect foam.
Phud

8cm Light and portable taco style bouldering pad, ideal for whipping round your local circuit

Origin

11cm Taco style main bouldering mat for a portable uninterupted landing zone.


What’s the best bouldering mat carry system?

Rucksack straps, shoulder straps and carry handles are the most common systems used for carrying your bouldering mats. However the art in getting it right lies with matching a carry system to the pad.

Using the wrong kind of straps on your bouldering mat can lead to some truly frustrating approaches.

Here's how we match up our crash mats to their carry system counterparts...

Rucksack Straps

The heavier the pad, the more support you'll want from your back system. Our favourite carry system for bulky crash pads have rucksack straps and a hip belt to take the strain off your shoulders. The extra support pays dividends on long walk ins.

Rucksack straps also need to be positioned well on the pad, too low and you'll topple over, too high and it'll hit the back of your knees as you're walking.

Shoulder Straps

Smaller full pads might have a single shoulder strap rather than rucksack straps which is really handy for hopping from boulder to boulder (especially on Font circuits). It also means you can wear your backpack for the walk-in.

Grab Handles

We love grab handles! They are convenient for carrying the pad between boulders without having to buckle the pad up, as well as moving it around to spot your friend.

Carrying Multiple Crash Pads

It can feel like an effort to carry multiple full bouldering pads to the crag. Boulderers will often carry one pad using the rucksack straps and hang their second pad over the first using a shoulder strap. If you want to take a third, you'll have to get creative!

Sit-start and slider pads make the multiple pad walk-in much easier as they slot inside your main pad.

"I like when my pads attach to one another without any extra bits which get lost super easily. For example, it’s super easy to put a Mujo over a Mujo (just lengthen the shoulder straps and hook them over the top of the pad that goes on your back) or even a Mujo over the Project. The carrying system is stable enough to take the weight of two pads without feeling like it’s all going to topple over." - Zofia Reych

What are the best bouldering mat features?

We find that, although not essential, these extra little features can make life a bit easier if you're out bouldering a lot:

  • Pockets - Great for storing your guidebook, a towel or spare brushes
  • Back Support Cover - If you can't remove your rucksack straps, can you cover them up? It's easy to get psyched and throw your pad in a bog only to pay the price on the walk home with a dirty back.
  • Shoe Wipe - Respect the rock! Some crash pads feature a built-in shoe wipe for when you forget to take your doormat/tea towel to the crag.

Custom Bouldering Mats

You can't always get what you want off the shelf. Having in-house design and manufacturing facilities means that we can offer a bespoke design service, so whether it is simply a choice of your favourite colour, extra straps, thicker foam or a completely unique mat, just to get in touch!

Ready to boulder?

We are boulderers and climbers, we hand-make our own pads so we understand what makes an excellent crash pad.

If you are still unsure which bouldering mat is right for you, why not visit one of our stores and hire a bouldering mat.

"It’s important to ask yourself what kind of days you’re mostly expecting to do: volume days, or projecting days? Easy walk-ins, or long walk-ins over tricky terrain? Then, choose a pad accordingly with the biggest question being its size, especially if you’re buying only one. If you don’t mind having a pack in the front, hinge pads tend to be slightly more durable but if (like myself) you like having your hands free, a taco fold is a perfect solution as you can take everything you carry with you on the walk-in." - Zofia Reych

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