Crash Pad Review: The Best Bouldering Pad
We tested fifteen of the top bouldering crash pads at many world class destinations as well as some first ascent territory in uncharted backwoods. We used the pads to cover everything from flat dirt to jagged boulder strewn landing zones. We bouldered on various rock types, from gritty granite and sharp volcanic tuff in the desert around Bishop to soft sandstone and slick greenstone along the lush Northern California coast. There was a nice blend of beginner to expert level boulderers to help us on most occasions. The testers found the right balance of falling, sending, lounging and critiquing. They used their battle-tested wisdom from the early days of the crash pad along with highly evolved modern day experience to give a thorough breakdown of what each pad does best and worst.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Update - June 2015
We added three new pads to mix: the Petzl Alto, Metolius Session and the Black Diamond Impact as well as one revised pad, the Black Diamond Drop Zone that has new foam and a slightly new design. Out of the fifteen pads we tested for this review we chose the top ten that are currently for sale at our major retailer affiliates. The other five pads are only for sale with a custom order from the manufacturers website and are all listed at the bottom of the review in our Favorite Custom Order Pads section.
Favorite Custom Order Pads
We also chose the Organic Full Pad as one of the best medium pads and Organic Big Pad
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Analysis and Test Results
After side-by-side tests, we have found some big differences in each of the pads when evaluated by foam, design, durability, and features. There were many different designs and types of materials with the hinge vs taco style designs being the most important design traits to consider and the type of foam layers being the single most important aspect of the materials. We put all the pads through a variety of rigorous tests. Our test metrics included: how they performed at Padding Falls - high falls and low falls; how they performed Packing Gear - packing big stuff and packing small stuff. The other metrics included: how useful were the Features in the long-term, such as needed handles for carrying, soft material for lounging, and last but not least, of course, Durability. We then chose our Editors' Choice, Top Pick and Best Buy award winners.
While overall some pads edged ahead of others, all the pads excelled in some areas. For this reason, it is especially importantly to evaluate the pads on both individual scores as well as overall scores. In selecting a pad, you really need to decide what features are most important to you. Is it foam? Pad design? Carrying ability? Cool materials? Value? Or a mix of all of the above? Read more below to see how all the pads compared when being tested head-to-head.
We defined a "medium bouldering pad" as being about 36" x 48". We also put pads that were up to about 41" x 49" into the medium pad category. A medium pad is the most common size because it fits in most cars, is relatively easy to carry, and is a good size for most low to medium height problems.
Large pads are generally 48" x 60" all the way up to 50" to 72."
A new style of smaller, auxiliary type "mini pad" is emerging that is great for sit-starts or the sides of landing zones as well as for the spotter to deflect a fall. These new mini pads are also good for covering the the seam area on a hinged style pad. They are all lightweight, portable and very effective. If they continue to grow in popularity, we will test and review them soon as well.
High Fall Test
Our favorite foam to fall on for big drops was the 5" thick foam on the Black Diamond Mondo and all the Mad Rock pads. The Mad Rock Mad Pad is our Best Buy winner and was also really stiff, which made it the pad least likely to bottom out on for high impact falls as well as being the most affordable. The older model Black Diamond Drop Zone with 3.5" foam started out great but after a few months it got really soft due to its thin foam. It remained a great pad for shorter problems but we were concerned to take big drops onto it. Any pad with foam thinner than 4" we would not recommend for high bouldering problems by itself. The foam on the new model Drop Zone is still 3.5" but is a more dense higher quality closed and open cell mix so our long-term tests will tell if it stands up to the test of time.
Low Fall Test
Our favorite pads for repeated low falls were the Black Diamond Drop Zone and the Petzl Alto. Both had slightly larger square-shaped surface areas, solid foam taco designs and softer edges. The softer edges were key to making the pads less likely to cause a rolled ankle or sore ribs. For the same reason, the Drop Zone was not ideal for tall problems, but it was nice on short problems because it was so soft. The solid foam, non-hinged taco design also meant that your back would not feel any protrusions come through the hinge on steep hard cave type falls. The Mad Pad was the only pad that was too stiff when brand new for low, jarring, on your back type falls. We joked that you had to pad the Mad Pad. If you landed hard on your back from a low sit start on a new one, until it broke in after about a year, you really felt it. One option was to flip the pad upside down and land on the softer side. However, then you had a big gutter in the middle and had to deal with the suspension system. Ultimately, the best solution was to just let the Mad Pad break itself in by falling on it a lot from up high.
Uneven Terrain Test
If you don't ever boulder over jagged rocky landings then this test is probably not a major concern for you. If you do boulder over sharp rocks often, or if you just want to make sure your pad is prepared, then please, read on. We put the pads over treacherous uneven terrain to see how they all handled and here are the results: Basically, the Mad Rock R3 with its innovative baffle design, shredded foam and medium-large size make it the best at conforming to large lumpy spots such as rocks or tree stumps in a landing zone. But, the baffles have seams that are less padded making them more likely to bottom out on sharp rocky or uneven landings where jagged objects could protrude through the multiple seams between the baffles. For the main impact spot in the center of a "bad" uneven, jagged landing zone, the pads of choice are, not surprisingly, the taco pads with medium-stiff foam - the Black Diamond Drop Zone and Petzl Alto were the only pads to pass the uneven terrain test with flying colors.
The Mad Pad did well because it had so much foam; it was hard to get rocks to come up through the hinge and the Triple Mad Pad has velcro so you can seal up the hinge. All hinged pads acted like bear traps over crevice type landings except for the Mondo and Triple Mad pad which come with straps to "deactivate the bear trap." If you fell in the middle of most hinged pads, the pad folded in half way around you. This is more annoying than dangerous, but there is always the chance that your foot can hit the hinge and find a hidden rock protruding through from underneath. The real need for the solid foam of a taco style design is really only evident on very sharp, uneven, rocky landing zones. If you boulder a lot at rocky spots, then we highly recommend a taco style pad, otherwise an easy to transport and store hinged-style pad is fine and might be best for your needs.
Packing Big Stuff
If you find yourself carrying a heavy load more often then not, then read on, otherwise this may not be a major issue for you. The pads that hauled the bulkiest, heaviest loads were the Metolius Drop Zone and Mad Rock R3. The Metolius pads with the flap closure, the Session, along with the Petzl Alto all came in a close second place. The Metolius flap closure has only one single hook buckle strap to secure it while the Drop Zone and R3 both have two hook buckle closure straps that allow those pads to hold bigger loads. Also their larger than average size and drum like shaped taco style help to pack in more gear. Both pads were also unique in that they had burly suspension systems. The shoulder straps on both pads are sewn-in (no Velcro) and have handles on top of the suspension to help lift the pad onto your back when heavily loaded.
The Petzl Alto has the most secure zip up flap closure but it is not adjustable. It fits an above average size load pretty well but large bulky loads don't fit as well. Our testers found the Velcro suspension system is also not as tightly adjustable as the old school buckle style and it has no center lifting handle to aid with heavy loads. The Mad Rock Triple Mad Pad, Metolius Recon and Metolius Magnum were the only pads that failed to handle carrying anything more than a small amount of essentials. We didn't find a big difference in the comfort in carrying big loads.
Packing Small Stuff
Hands down the best pad we've tested for carrying small to medium loads of gear is the Petzl Alto with its secure zipper flap closure system. The zip-up flap closes the bag so tight it is sealed like a backpack and not even spare change, or more importantly, car keys can even get out of the burly YKK zipper seal. The Metolius Session has flap closures that help keep small to medium size loads of gear in very well. Heavy bulky loads can fall out of the bottom since there is only a single top closure strap unlike on the Black Diamond Drop Zone and Mad Rock R3 that also have the flap closure that hold medium to large size loads of gear in well with double straps to secure the load. But none of the pads can beat the Alto for securely holding smaller loads with its zipper flap.
Some of the pads we tested had small storage pockets that some of our testers really found useful for holding keys, wallet, phone, etc.. But about half the testers never used it because you end up taking it out at the crag since you don't really want to have your essential items in the middle of the landing zone. Those testers just kept their main items in clothes pockets or a separate pack or bag of some kind from the get-go. Most of the other pads we tested have neither closure flaps or stash pockets so you might want to carry your stuff in a backpack.
The Black Diamond hook buckles are the best we tested. They are all more or less indestructible and about as easy to use as the plastic waist-belt style buckles. The Metolius and Mad Rock were a bit hard to pull tight or loose. All are much better than the old plastic style buckles that would break or the old Velcro closures that would eventually wear out. All the pads still use similar plastic buckles for the waist belts with the exception of the Petzl Alto that has a unique all Velcro waist and shoulder strap suspension system.
The straps were about the same on all the pads, generic nylon webbing. All the pads had padded shoulder straps. The Mad Pad has extra long straps that make the pad into a lounge chair, which is a cool feature but also means you have extra long straps that dangle around (a little annoying). The only pad without a waist belt was the Mad Pad. The Petzl Alto had the first Velcro fastening shoulder and waist straps. Without the buckles, you would have to undo and redo the closure to adjust it on the fly which was occasionally annoying but not a major problem. The Alto also had an adjustable bandolier strap that helped to transport the pad between boulders.
Comfort Hanging Out On
The pads that are nice to chill on are the Mad Rock pads and the Petzl Alto that all have straps that turn the pads into big lounge chairs.
Materials and Craftsmanship
The rubberized "Bat Man Suit" coating on the Drop Zone is not only waterproof but it sticks to angled/slanted/tilted landing zones better than any other pad we tested. The coating is also very resilient and long-lasting. The R3 pad from Mad Rock California uses recycled shredded foam left over from its manufacturing facility. One great way to help the outdoor environment we cherish is to reduce, reuse and recycle so this is our favorite blend of materials and design. All three pads also have the proven quality of their time-tested name brands.
Most pads on the market today have the softer, open-cell PU (polyurethane) foam and the more dense and firm closed-cell PE (polyethylene) foam combined in layers. The layering makes the pads firm on one side for tall high impact falls on your feet and softer on the other side for short hard jarring falls on your backside. This method allows the pads to simply be flipped over for either application. On most pads, the firm side is up for the most common falling scenario, a medium to high fall onto your feet.
The Petzl Alto padding is a thick layer of PU foam that's a bit too soft but the thinner layer is a 50/50 mix of different density high quality closed-cell PE foam that makes for a long-lasting pad good for low to high bouldering until the PU wears out and then it will have a long lifespan for low to medium bouldering with the long-lasting quality foam.
Mad Rocks uniquely designed R3 padding has shredded recycled foam that is heavy but lasts much longer than any other of the pads in this review. The Black Diamond Drop Zone and Impact pads we tested both have new improved layers of foam padding that held up very well in our overall fall tests and is still holding up well in our long-term tests.
The two that share first place are the Mad Rock R3 and its shredded foam baffles that have long-lasting firmness and the Black Diamond Drop Zone with its tough rubber coating.
Most pads had at least a few custom features. A lot of the features can be personal preference based on different styles of bouldering or needs for different areas and storage etc.. However important some of these features are is debatable compared to big deciders like quality foam, solid design and overall craftsmanship.
Petzl Alto: This new pad design has oversized contoured Velcro suspension straps, a lot of useful handles and the most secure zipper flap closure out of all the pads we tested. The zipper flap switches into a closure/cover for the suspension when in pad-mode which is probably one of the most useful new features of any pad on the market today. Our main concern is that if you use the pad more than average or are particularly rough on it, that the zipper and/or Velcro could wear out prematurely leaving the pad without a way to stay shut or be carried well in pack-mode.
Black Diamond Drop Zone: "Batman-suit-style" bottom coating that is technically called "Anti-Slide waterproof EVO (PVC Free)" keeps water from soaking into the pad and helps it stick to sloping landing zones.
Mad Rock Mad Pad: Comes with a handy square of carpet for keeping the feet clean and dry. It also comes with Velcro attachments to connect multiple Mad Pads together. This is a great idea. If you are torn whether to get a giant pad or a medium pad, you can buy two of these Best Buy award winners, lash them together and have the best of both worlds.
The History of Bouldering Crash Pads
The bouldering crash pad is an incredibly simple invention. But to understand its place in climbing history you need to understand what came before its creation. During the early years of rock climbing the focus and objective was to conquer a mountain or imposing rock cliff. The most natural way to the summit of these formations was typically the first to be climbed. Rarely did the earliest climbers, those of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, look to the large boulders as being suitable objectives for rock climbing. However, in some regions, the various mountaineering or climbing clubs began to utilize these large boulders as a training ground of sorts for learning some of the basic climbing skills required in the mountains.
Few areas hold the prestige and history of 'bouldering' as Fontainbleau, a forested area south of Paris, France with a huge density of large sandstone boulders. In the early 19th century, the Club Alpin Francais who would come to be known as Bleausards would gather and climb on many of these boulders. Many went on to make early ascents of impressive mountains from the Alps to Aconcagua and even into the Karakoram as early as the mid 1930's. It is also here that Pierre Allain invented the precursor to the modern climbing shoe, the P.A., and later the EB, a smooth rubber-soled shoe intended for climbing on rocks, although a bouldering crash pad was never considered.
Meanwhile, in England in the late 19th century in the Lake District a similar form of 'practice climbing' was being developed. In this region it was being spearheaded by a strong, gymnastic and revolutionary climber named Oscar Eckenstein. Here the bouldering was again being used as practice for the bigger mountains of the world; however, legendary bouldering pioneer John Gill notes that Eckenstein was pushing the limits of climbing in the Lake District in a way that suggests a "competitive environment, eclipsing the role of bouldering as merely training for the mountains" thus possibly marking the beginning of a sport within a sport.
In America in the 1950s, John Gill took a gymnastic approach to bouldering, or 'short rock climbs' as he referred to them. Inspired by gymnastics, and a gymnast himself, Gill began to challenge difficulty with his climbs and introduced a more dynamic style of climbing. Gill is often credited with the invention, or at least popularization, of the 'Dyno.' However, again Gill never used a bouldering crash pad.
Throughout the 1960's, 70's, 80's and even the early 90's all of this bouldering was done without any sort of protection or padding to break one's fall. Often climbers would throw down a "chuck mat" or small piece of carpet or rug to brush their feet on and clean the soles of their shoes before climbing and climbers would 'spot' or stand on the ground and break the fall of the climber should they take a tumble. Despite both exceptionally tall and extremely difficult boulder problems, climbers were not yet using any sort of bouldering pad on the ground. From time to time some moves on the climbs were rehearsed with top ropes and then done without, as a proper boulder problem.
It wasn't until 1993 that the first commercially available bouldering crash pad came to the market, although rumors of full sized mattresses being hauled to the base of boulders are prevalent before 1993. The Sketch Pad by Kinnaloa was designed by legendary pioneer of hard bouldering, John Sherman, also the creator of the V-Grade system, and is credited to be the very first commercial pad. However, these pads didn't catch on until the late 90's when bouldering slowly emerged to become its own facet within the greater sport of rock climbing.
Today an assortment of high tech high density foams are used to make bouldering pads. Different foams are layered on each other in hopes of protecting the feet, ankles, knees and back of a falling climber. Indoor gyms utilize massive pads to cover the floor, and equally massive pads like the Black Diamond Mondo Pad, Metolius Magnum or the Mad Rock R3 provide an airstrip of landing space for your outdoor bouldering needs.
— Chris Summit, Chris McNamara
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