Crash Course: Everything You Need to Know About Boulder Pads

Because the humble pad will become such an important part of your life (and your new favourite sleeping mat), it’s essential that you find your perfect match. Luckily, there’s plenty to choose from!

Ah, the humble boulder pad… a lifesaver, an ankle-saver, a couch, a mattress, a backpack, a weapon, a friend that always has your back. These squishy monsters are arguably the most versatile piece of gear you will ever add to your collection, plus the value for money is absolutely stellar when you consider the fact that you could dirtbag your way through months in Rocklands with just a pad and the kindness of strangers (preferably rich internationals). 

Because the humble pad will become such an important part of your life (and your new favourite sleeping mat), it’s essential that you find your perfect match. Luckily, there’s plenty to choose from! Here we break down the factors you need to consider when picking a pad, the options on offer, and the basics of proper pad wrangling. 

A baby-faced Chris Cosser on the Black Diamond Impact boulder chairs

What is a Boulder Pad, Anyway?

This one is pretty self-explanatory – a boulder pad, also known as a boulder mat or crash pad, is a mattress-type pad made of thick foam that is used to protect boulderers when climbing outdoors. Pads are placed in the fall zone in order to ensure that if/when a climber falls, they do not injure themselves by falling on any sharp rocks or uneven ground.

Squish Factor

Pads generally consist of more than one type of foam; often there will be two or three types that differ in density. This allows the pad to better distribute the load of the climber on impact. It also helps the pad to offer a soft(ish) catch, while still protecting the climber from hard ground or rock. For example, if a pad was 100% high-density foam, the rocks would be kept at bay, but it would also knock the wind out of you. Vice versa, a pad that only contained low-density foam would catch you like a cloud, but offer little guard against pointy things. 

There are myriad ways that a pad may be constructed. For example, the Ocún Incubator has a sandwich-like construction, with two layers of high-density foam on either side of a soft, thick layer of open-cell foam.

The Moonwalk, on the other hand, uses three different types of foam, with the middle layer being the softest.

It’s important to remember that you should always have your pads the right way up so that the foam with the highest density is on the top. Some pads have a zipper that allows you to open it up and take a look inside; this is largely so that you can replace the foam if needed. 

Hinge or Taco?

As for construction, there are two types of pads: hinge and taco. Hinged pads have a join that allows them to be neatly folded and opened up to a flat surface. Taco pads, on the other hand, are a single pad with no seams or hinges that you can fold up… well, like a taco. Hinge pads tend to be easier to store, but a climber can get seriously injured if they land directly on the join. Taco pads provide a great landing because they have no join, but they tend to be bulkier. Furthermore, you should store a taco pad open because the foam at the fold can degrade more quickly if it’s stored wrapped up.

If you have any questions about pad usage and construction, chat to your local gear guru and they will get you sorted.  

Hinge vs Taco style boulder pads

Proper Pad Play

Boulder pads and spotters work together to keep the climber safe, and a large part of being a good spotter is knowing how to place pads and how/when to move them. 

For more about being a good spotter outdoors, check out this video:

When placing pads, there are a few factors to remember. Firstly, ensure that there are absolutely no gaps between pads – gaps are ankle eaters, and you could put yourself (or your climber) out of the game for months because of a wayward gap. Even if you smush your pads together, a gap could still form where two pads meet. Ideally, you should think about investing in a cover pad – sometimes called a seam sealer; these are fairly thin, smallish mats that can be placed over your other pads to cover any gaps. You could also dirtbag it and seek out foam suppliers or check out your local hardware store to see if there’s anything suitable you could use (just chat to someone who knows what they’re doing to ensure you’re staying safe).

Secondly, make sure that the climber is protected for 100% of the climb. Ideally, you should have enough pads to cover the fall zone for the entirety of the problem. However, you may only have enough pads to be able to protect a portion of the climb at one time. That means that you will have to work smart to place pads in such a way that they can be quickly and easily shifted as the climber moves through the problem. It’s also important to time your pad-shifting correctly so that the climber is protected at ALL times, and you don’t accidentally smack them with a pad.

Another essential factor to remember is the principle of Leave No Trace. You should never drag your pads across the ground, as this contributes to soil erosion and damages precious ecosystems invisible to the naked eye. It’s also absolutely critical that your pads (as with all gear) never interfere with or damage any vegetation.

For a visual demonstration of good pad placement, check out this video:

The Players

The Big Boys

As you can imagine, there are lots of factors to consider when buying yourself a pad. This includes size, design and (of course) price. While there are tons of options out there, here are a few of the best pads on offer: 

Ocún Dreamtime 

Considered a highball pad, the Dreamtime is large, durable and sturdy. It’s a taco design, meaning there are no hinges – great for spotting, slightly inconvenient for storage.

Shop the Dreamtime

Metolius Magnum

The Magnum is a large, hinged pad that provides a great catch and handy storage. A big selling point for the Mangum is the fact you can actually strap another pad onto it, as well as your pack. Not only is this super convenient, but it’s also a great way to get a thorough warm-up on the walk in!

Shop the Magnum

The Little Gems

While it’s great to have a gargantuan pad, there are some fantastic smaller options out there that will give you great bang for your buck. Plus, smaller pads will weigh less and thus are way easier to carry and move around.

Metolius Session

The Session is a hinged pad which is a fan favourite thanks to its practical and simple design, not-too-big-not-too-small size, comfortable carry straps and good price tag. The outer pouch of fabric around it also allows you to stash gear in your pad with no risk of it falling out the bottom. Since the pad is on the smaller side, you’ll want to have some other pads in your party (or get ready to move pads around a lot). 

Shop the Session

Evolv Iceman

Slightly smaller than the session, the Iceman is perfect for those looking for something durable yet compact and lightweight. The backpack straps can be converted to shoulder straps for ease of transportation, and the velcro opening straps eliminate dead spots while pad is open.

Shop the Iceman

As mentioned above, there are almost as many boulder pad options as there are rocks in Rocklands, so pop into the CityROCK gear shop to check out the full range for yourself, and speak to one of our gear gurus who will match-make you with your perfect pad.