You might think i’m about to go on about the importance of wearing brightly coloured trousers when bouldering but there is a bit more to what clothing to wear than that. While working in the shop, i spent as much time talking to people about the technical aspects of clothing as almost anything else and that’s because in the outdoor world, clothing is very complicated. Does that mean that it’s the same for bouldering as for high altitude mountaineering? Of course not!
Worst case scenario is that you’ll go into the shop and the guy there will be a “proper” climber who thinks you need technical base layers and soft shells. The truth is you don’t but you do need some specific things. So let’s have a look at what you want to look out for.
Most of my work at the moment is talking about technical fabrics: Gore-Tex Pro Shell, Cocona, Schoeller Nanosphere, eVent, MeCo, Pittard’s leather. There are tonnes, from companies that just make fabrics like Gore, eVent, Schoeller to brands who use their own, like Mountain Equipment and their DriLite. And it’s all bollocks… for bouldering.
Let me explain a little more. If you’re out walking in the hills, running, cycling, mountaineering, anything along those lines, then high quality, breathable and durable layers are key to staying dry, comfortable and often in the more extreme cases, safe. Cotton is generally considered bad, as is denim, as they hold moisture and move the heat away from the body. The thing is, for bouldering, this isn’t relevant. Even for trad and sport climbing, it isn’t relevant, as you’re not generating the sort of moisture levels (through sweat) that require you to need breathable fabrics. Even waterproofs aren’t normally that necessary, as only the most stupid or mad keen of boulderers tend to try and get out when it’s actually raining proper – quite frankly, it’s just not possible to climb on rock when it rains!
There are exceptions, like Cwm Dyli in North Wales, with a three-mile walk in across Snowdon, where it’s more a day walking in the hills to get there and back. Is it worth buying all the technical kit for these one offs? No, definitely not, it’ll cost you a fortune for not a lot, it’s more if you’ve got it, you’d be better off using it. If you’re in this position, you’ll be best to use a bit of judgement and common sense as you’ll already have a good idea of what you’ll need for each long walk in. [NB That being said, if you’re tempted to get into the hillwalking thing, that’s no bad thing and well worth investing. For more info, e-mail me].
So, if you don’t want the £100+ softshell trousers the guy in Cotswold/REI/wherever is trying to get you to leave with, what do you want? Best way to think about it is to look at people are wearing down the climbing wall: jeans, baggy trousers, t-shirts and occasionally someone who is now far too old to be rocking that attractive lycra! There are reasons behind this, and i’ll explain, and go into a bit of detail as to why you should part with nearly £100 on something that looks almost the same as the jeans your other half bought last week from Primark. Easiest way to do this is to start from the feet and work up:
On Your Feet
I’ve seen all sorts of shoes on people’s feet when they walk into the crag somewhere. I’ve been known to walk in with a pair of full-on Winter mountaineering boots before, while at the other end of the scale, i’ve had friends who’ve struggled going up a steep grassy gully to Sheep Pen in North Wales in a pair of loose fitting loafers. Fact is, anything is possible but some things are better than others and while those skate shoes might look great when you turn up at Mile End Climbing Wall in London, try and get into the boulders at the Milestone Buttress in them and you’re likely to land on your face on a rock.
The term “approach shoes” started appearing at some point just after the start of the Millennium. Now, it’s a standard term for a type of shoe that all the brands use, but i get the impression the original intention is beginning to get a bit lost: approach shoes are for the approach to the crag. It’s as simple as that, they are made to do exactly what you’re doing. They’ve also become quite trendy and i’m normally to be found in them these days; I use them as normal casual shoes. In fairness, the idea of a pair of specific shoes to walk in to a crag was never really a viable business option for anyone, so they had to make them snazzy too, but which ones are good, and which ones are high-street-only.
It’s all about the sole unit. Pick it up, flip it over and look at the tread. A lot of them will have a “climbing zone” (a flat bit by the toe to allow you to stand on rock easier) which is quite a handy attribute and shows they’ve at least aimed it at climbers. Go for something that is fairly close fitting but nowhere near like your rock boots – fit them with an inch spare at the end and you’ll be making your walk in a bit tougher than needs be.
Gore-Tex (or equivalent) or not? Up to you; as we said before, you don’t normally go out when it’s hoofing down but there may be standing water or bogs to cross. At the least, go for something that will slow the water down a bit – nubuck or suede will do as well as full on waterproof. Don’t panic about socks but bear in mind a wool or synthetic fabric sock will mean your feet are a bit less sweaty when you get your rock boots on.
On Your Legs
Ah yes, the jeans debate. I had someone in the shop, a younger girl, late teens i’d guess, who found the jeans we had. She was having a rant about their unsuitability in the hills and how no-one should ever wear them. I tried to be as delicate as possible with her and explained that yes, to some extent she is right, she’s also very wrong at the same time. It all depends what you’re doing.
Jeans are bad because, put simply, being wet is bad. Water is a great conductor of heat and will move any body heat away from you much faster than if you’re dry – it’s the same principle your body uses to cool down by sweating. When jeans get wet, they hold the water and stay wet for ages, meaning you’ll get cold, they’ll chafe and if you don’t have them tight enough round the middle, they’ll be so heavy they’ll probably fall down.
But what if you’re (probably) not going to get wet? After all, if you were, you probably wouldn’t be climbing. When dry, jeans are tough, durable, take abuse like knee bars and grit rash without being phased and will stand up to far more than your skin or your expensive softshells! Just make sure you can move well in them, and a lot of the leading brands will have elastic or lycra in the mix and some articulation, and you’re away!
The same goes for many cotton alternatives out there. Most leading brands in climbing clothing will do something in cotton, like Moon, Prana, Edelrid, E9, so on and so forth, and these have the advantage of being available in multiple colours…
On Your Top Half – Against the skin
£50 base layer? No need, although i wear them a lot in the winter as i can get a few more days out of them and they add a lot of warmth. No, a simple cotton t-shirt will suffice, or a couple if needs be, and again have the advantage of allowing you to tailor your clothing for the camera, if that’s your thing.
Not warm enough? Midlayers in Merino Wool? A cotton hoody will do nicely, will stand up to more abuse and will be a lot cheaper. Cotton is the same as denim in respect to it’s attributes for the outdoors (see section above) so as long as you don’t get it wet, you’ll be fine. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll find longer walk ins nicer in technical midlayers but you’ll pay double the price and suddenly realise that rucksack companies spend a massive wedge of money trying to get air to pass by your back and bouldering mat designers don’t.
Still cold? Well, two options: for those with money to burn, go and buy proper thermal stuff. For those without, keep stacking layers on top and don’t worry too much about movement as you’ll warm up once you’ve started and probably take half of it off again.
On Your Top Half – On the Outside
Ah, now, this is one of the useful cross-overs: the obligatory down jacket. Put simply, it’s a nylon jacket filled with bits of bird. The cheap ones will be filled more feathers, the snazzy ones with bits of down, exactly the same as your duvet on your bed. There are also synthetic options out there, which are heavier for the same warmth but stay warm when wet and can be used as an emergency waterproof if needs must.
You don’t need to go mad with the spending here but more money will either get you a warmer jacket or a lighter one for the same warmth. The most technical ones have things like elastic in the seams, to keep them snugger and more effective, or a built in hood as opposed to a removable one. Keep it simple, spend loads if you want to but it’s not crucial, a cheaper alternative will do the job.
A waterproof is a good idea if you’ve got a sizeable walk in, as it’s easy to get caught out, especially in the mountains. Again, you don’t need to go silly and spend £500 unless you want to or use it for other things. Something that packs up small is probably more important for that panicky dash back to the car. A decent softshell will suffice if you prefer and will be a touch more comfortable, and a touch less effective if it suddenly throws it down with rain.
Added extras – Head and Hands
Hands first. You might think a good pair of gloves is important but in my experience you’d be wrong and here’s why: as soon as you touch rock in the depths of winter, your hands will try and match the temperature of the rock, and will get very cold, very quick. Once they’re cold, there’s little blood flow, meaning even the warmest of gloves won’t do much, and you’ll only take them off again in a few minutes to have another go. Much more effective for that initial painful moment is to stuff your hands in your crotch or your armpits – they’ll warm up much better. I only really use gloves for the walk in and walk out.
A quick word about the neck: a scarf, Buff or similar is surprisingly useful, stays on while you’re climbing and traps all the warmth in your Patagonia hoodie. They’re one of those overlooked things that are ideal for most scenarios.
Now then, the head and the essential boulderers apparel – the beanie!!! They’ve come to define the boulderer, often staying on while the shirt has come off, to unintentional comedic effect. My theory is that because best conditions are often found in the colder months of the year, coupled with the old myth that you lose most of your heat through your head, it’s become a standard thing to wear. To be honest, too much is made of the Boulderers Beanie and you don’t need me to tell you how to buy one.
What About When It’s Too Hot?
So far, we’ve been staving off the cold and the wet, but what about when it’s too hot instead? The reason i’ve not mentioned it is simple: just take stuff off. The only limits are pride and company (i don’t want to suggest nude climbing in family friendly crags…). If you’re the type that doesn’t like exposing your nipples to all and sundry and you’re climbing when it’s baking hot, my advice would be to go for a synthetic and not merino base layer style top. They actively pull moisture, in this case sweat, away from the body and will keep you a bit more comfortable.
In hot conditions, i often take a pair of flip flops for dossing around the bottom of the crag, in case my bare feet can’t hack it. You can go for shorts if that’s your thing; i don’t personally, if you’ve seen my knees, you’d understand.
Not really. I always advise buying quality and even without staff discounts, i’ll go for better brands over £5 jeans from Asda/Wallmart/[insert cheap supermarket/department store]. I’ve put a list of my preferred brands at the bottom to give you some ideas of those that i prefer and they will last longer and allow you to move a bit easier. My t-shirts tend to come from my trips as souvenirs, which works well and gives me a smile whenever i open my t-shirt drawer or hang my washing out.
So there you go. Any questions, as always, feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and i’ll get back to you in due course.
Remember to look for the casual clothing as a lot of them do technical stuff too. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just some of the ones i know of, have tried and liked. There are plenty more out there and if i’ve missed your favourite, please let me know either by e-mail or by commenting below.
- Arc’teryx. Canadian company specialising in the best of the best. A personal favourite and the stuff lasts forever.
- Prana. Climbing and yoga clothing with a great ethos. A bit hippy for some but a personal favourite. ]
- E9. Hard to find in the shops in the UK, this Italian company really does great stuff and it’s often a bit out there, if you’re after something a bit different.
- Moon. I’m not a fan of Moon stuff personally but i know plenty who are and that’s just a preference, well worth a look.
- Monkee. German company (i think) with some well swanky lines. Another one worth watching out for.
- Patagonia. Most noted for their technical mountaineering stuff, they have a phenomenal heritage and make some snazzy t-shirts and hoodys.
- Blurr. Another Canadian one, making t-shirts and hoodies, often spotted around and quite popular without ever cracking it as one of the really big ones. A cult brand as it were.