Choosing the right crash pad for bouldering

 “A good spotter is better than any crash pad” I heard that often. But a crash pad catches the impact of your fall, prevents injuries better than with just the spotter alone. So the importance of having a crash pad as well became indispensable.  

Old mattresses used to do the job. It was cheap, everyone had one somewhere at home and it worked well to go with the training wall in the cellar.  However, after the millennium, bouldering started to catch on in Europe. It developed into an independent discipline.  Lugging a mattress to bouldering areas was a bad idea. It was too heavy , too bulky and not particularly good for the natural environment. The hype of mobile crash pads started to spread around. You know, crash-pads-to-go.

I never thought it would get serious. It suddenly came to me that hanging out with friends with a  crash pad was not anymore enough. I wanted to have my own. I wanted the freedom to look for my own boulders and problems that appealed to me. I wanted my training hours to be fun, not just for the others. A new crash pad had to come.

I interviewed a few NERDY boulderers. I slowly learnt that a crash pad isn’t just a crash pad.  There were a few factors to consider before finding the right one. I had to ask myself:

  • How it should fold? (taco / hinge (burrito) / baffled) Is the protection enough?
  • How heavy it can it be? How is the handling?
  • How high are my boulders ? (traverse / high balls)
  • What will the environment be like? (plenty of other rocks, flat surface)

It wasn’t easy for me to find all the answers at once, since I wasn’t sure where this was all heading to. At the same time, I had too little boulder experience outdoors to tell what was waiting for me. I tried answering them the best I could.

Crash pad foldings and a note about safety

Behind my pink sunglasses, I thought how a crash pad folds was a pure logistic thing. But that wasn’t just it. How it folds tells you how the foams are put together. Obviously, it has advantages and disadvantages as well. They kept talking about tacos and burritos without the toppings and ketchup. The founder who came up with such a bizarre description must’ve been extremely hungry ??!

The burrito/hinge form:

crashpad burrito form
The burrito form crash pad. Folded and used as a table. To the right, it makes a good sofa too.

The crash pad size is halved into two and connected together with a piece of material so that it resembles a book. This makes transportation and storage an easy game. Some have a zipper that binds the two together.

The crash pad is absolutely flat when closed. You can sit comfortably on it, use it as a table, or a sofa, it folds nicely together. You can also sandwich all your stuff in between while moving from one boulder to the next.

thumbs up Closes and opens easily for transportation and moving around. Adapts easier to the terrain. Double use it as a sofa, bed, table.

thumbs down It’s weakest point lays at the hinge.  If you place the hinge at a sharp, jagged rock and incidentally fall right there, your ankles can hit through to the ground. (unless the foams overlap) If you have crash pads that are zipped together with a zipper, you might find them unzipping itself from time to time.

The taco form:

The taco form crashpad
A taco form crash pad

A taco is a piece of mexican flatbread  that folds in half. A crash pad that has a taco form has a few layers of foams which you then fold in half for transportation.

The pieces of foam are usually stiff and not very flexible. It’s not so easy to get them folded. Sometimes you have to use you own weight to make both ends meet.

thumbs up The foams are in one piece. You have a whole pad to land on, even on terrain with protruding rocks and tree stumps. No hinges, thus no weak points, unless the crash pad slides off it’s place before you land. This one piece crash pad offers you one of the best protections.
thumbs down Not easy to fold together. If you store this crash pad folded for a long time, it takes a while before the foam spreads out in a flat form again. The best remedy for this is to store the crash pad open, when not in use (unbuckled /unfolded).

Foam quality and why how you fall matters

The foam found inside the crash pad must provide sufficient protection for a fall. It’s the most important factor in a crash pad. A crash pad is usually a combination of 2-3 layers of different types of foam. Basically, there is a layer of thick soft foam (usually a PU foam), sandwiched by two layers of harder foam (PE foam) on the outer layer. Different manufacturers have them in different mix, so take a look inside. The dense and hard PE Foam helps to spread out the impact of the fall energy, the PU Foam in the middle functions to absorb the energy of your fall.

The softer the pad, the less protected you are as you fall. A softer pad is also great if you do a lot of sit starts and land often on your back.

On the other hand, if you love high balls, it would be better to settle for a harder crash pad. They absorb the impact of a high fall well. Then again, landing on a hard pad when your falls are low can be painful. Sometimes, if your foot lands incidentally on the edge, you could roll off the crash pad because of its stiffness. Twisted ankles and torn Achilles are some of the injuries that comes along with this.

If you do lots of traverse,  crash pads till 8-10 cm thickness work well.  If high-balls are in your daily vocabulary, you will want to check out pads that are thicker than 11 cm, and harder.

A good balance of everything would be perfect. There were quite a number of points here to remember.

Foam layers in a crash pad
Foam layers in a crash pad

Weight and size

Handling and Transportation
Perfectly camoflaged

Nowadays, there’s a crash pad for everything. A thin crash pad for sit starts, one for high balls, or one for less impact falls. You want to use it as a bed to sleep on? Go ahead, be creative.

A crash pads usually weighs anything between 5 and 10 kg. Not a big deal, if you compare that to a backpack with 20 quick draws, 80 m rope, and all your attire. The crash pads are not as compact as a backpack . When terrains get tough and uncomfortable you will start fretting about lugging that crash pad through narrow passages between boulder blocks and shrubs. Long access’  hikes becomes tedious and for all these reasons perhaps, many would rather stay in the indoor gym instead.

Crash pads comes in many sizes. It can go as big as 2.1 m or more, which is actually great. No? Usually, if your traverse ends with 2.1 m, then you’ll be protected all the way. But often, we find ourselves doing traverses that starts on one end and finishes around the block.  No matter how long your crash pad is, it will never be long enough. Maybe two crash pads are better than having just one. Place them on the cruxes where you would most likely fall.

Transportation and handling

Shoulder straps and buckles are great for transporting the crash pad from boulder to boulder. The bigger the crash pad, the more comfortable it should be to carry it on your shoulders. Having those shoulder straps padded (on your shoulders and waist) would mean less pain and more comfort on a long sweaty access. A foot mat on the pad is great to clean your climbing shoes before you start on the boulder. Straps that keep the ends together should be stable and firmly sewed on, as these are the positions where tears appears first. Little straps and bags for your stuff and gears where you could sandwich in during the access is a good thing, or you could take an extra smaller backpack along instead. Handles should be found on each end of a pad. This makes it easy for the spotter to adjust the position of the pads once you’ve moved on.

A folded crash pad should also fit onto your bicycle, car, van, truck. So before you choose one, consider the size of your trunk.  Is there enough space for two or three crash pads in your car? Do you need to invest in a van to transport all your crash pads ? ūüôā

Colour, Material, Price

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I checked prices in all the stores. 200-300 bucks for just a few pieces of foam!! I check out directly at a foam factory too ( I needed new foams for my furniture anyhow) and came to this conclusion. Foams comes in different stiffness qualities. The harder it is, the longer it lasts, the more expensive it is. There is literally no escape. Foams prices across Europe doesn’t vary much. They are all expensive.

The outer Material for a crash pad keeps the foam together. No matter how “durable” they are marketed as, these materials are the first to tear before the foams. Polyester 600D, Cordura or Ballistic Nylon are just some of the materials used today. They are durable and protects the foams when dragged through soil, mud, thorns, sharp granite rocks, roots, squeezed in between boulders – the first wear and tear will always be the outer layer.  Water repellant or even waterproof materials keeps your foam inside from getting soiled and wet after heavy showers or wet grounds.

Colour is perhaps the least important factor in choosing a crash pad. However, sometimes I think colours impacts on my performance. Ladies clich√© ? Never ever! ūüôā

 Did you miss something? What are YOUR factors when looking for a crash pad? 

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