More than a decade after bouldering pads became popular, the bouldering pad industry is still going through big changes. Even big manufacturers are changing their designs every year while small upstarts are introducing new innovative designs and features. There is a lot to cover when looking at a pad.
Taco, Hinge or new Baffled Design?
There are a lot of small differences in bouldering pads and two big ones: the foam they use and how they deal with folding into a backpack. To the folding question there are three answers: taco, hinge or new baffled. The taco style is a continuous piece of foam that folds in two and makes a taco shape - upside: no hinge that could fail on uneven terrain / downside: does not fold flat to lay on ground or store. The hinge style has a crease in the middle of the pad created by cutting the foam into two sections - upside: does fold flat to lay on ground or store / downside: hinge could fail on uneven terrain. The new baffled style (only on the innovative new Mad Rock R3) has many partial hinges that form several tube like baffles - upside: does fold flat and also conforms to uneven terrain / downside: heavier than most pads and the many partial hinges could partially fail.
On perfectly flat and even surfaces, the hinge styles are a little better because they lay flat and can't get picked up by the wind. However, on uneven rock surfaces there is a flaw with hinged pads: if the hinge lines up with a sharp/pointy rock it often does not cover it with padding and worse yet it also hides it. If you fall onto that point, there will be little to no padding: a dangerous surprise!
There have been attempts to solve this issue with hinged designs. The first was to introduce an "angled hinge" like on the old Metolius Stomp and currently on the Metolius Session II. This angled design helps a lot because it's less likely a rock or root or other object can stick all the way through the hinge.
Next came the "hybrid hinge" design where the top layer is a continuous piece of foam but the bottom layer is hinged. An example of this is the Organic Full Pad. A hybrid hinge means that even if a rock gets through the bottom layer, you still have that top layer. It's a better design than the original hinge, but it still does not give you the confidence the taco style gives you on uneven terrain.
The main flaws with the Taco folding designed pads are that they are more cumbersome when folded up that a hinged pad that folds flat and square and that it does not open up and lay perfectly flat, it usually has a slight bend or curve to it. The other minor flaw with the taco design is that over time they usually get an annoying lump in the center where it is folded. Storing your pad in the open position can usually delay a lot of that from happening. Also, the lump usually shows up about the time the foam starts to really break down and soften up (as all foam on all pads does). So it could be argued that is the time to replace the pad anyway. Of course, most people never toss their old beat up pads. They save them and throw them on top of their newer pads for highballs.
The taco type designs seem to hold the pad (in pack mode) with a slight tilt or twist. It is not really a big problem but it feels a little awkward sometimes, especially if the pad is heavily loaded. The hinged pads make a nice flat backside in backpack mode and carry the loads well, albeit a usually smaller amount of stuff then the easily loadable tacos.
A best of both worlds hinge design has been created by Stonelick pads with a "stepped hinge" that seals the hinge area perfectly. This innovative design offers all the easy folding and storing benefits of a hinged style pad combined with the solid and secure sealed seem to protect against bottoming out on jagged rocky landing zones.The 4th and final style of pad we tested is the new baffled design on the Mad Rock R3. There are 7 separate baffles or basically long tubes filled with foam. In the case of the R3 (Reduce Reuse Recycle) it is shredded recycled foam. The baffles are separated by 6 partial hinges that are about half the thickness of the pad and do not have the problem of hinge failure like fully hinged pads have when a rock can protrude through the hinge. The baffles combined with the soft, shredded foam allow the pad to conform to lumpy, uneven terrain like no other pad we tested. The pad is shaped like a taco style for the most part but it is so squishy that it can easily flatten into a car or storage area like a hinged style pad, so it has the best of both worlds - read the full review to find out more:
So should you get a taco, hinge or baffled style? It all comes down to personal preference. Many boulders swear by one design and curse the other. We can see the pros and cons in each so we will let you decide.
Foam Stiffness and Composition
On the surface, it may appear all pads use similar foam. They don't. Each manufacturer uses different foam based on three factors:
- Foam type: open cell, closed cell or memory foam.
- Foam composition: how many layers they use of each of the three foam types.
- Combined foam thickness: anywhere from 3.5-5 inches for medium pads and 4-5" for big pads.
A pad is stiffer, softer, durable or not durable based on how the three factors above are combined. In general, stiffer and thicker foam will last longer and be better for really big falls because you are less likely to travel all the way through the foam and "bottom out." That said, stiff foam can be unforgiving on short falls. If you have to clench every muscle in your body and let out a Judo style yell from only a 2 or 3 foot fall onto your back, then the pad is maybe too stiff. We generally preferred stiffer foam because it works for both high and low falls and will last longer over time. Also, usually someone has an old beat up soft pad that can be used on sit starts where you might take a 1-2 foot fall onto your back and want soft foam.
There are two main pad sizes: medium pads are about 3 x 4 feet and large pads are about 4 x 5 feet or 4 x 6 feet. There are also much smaller pads but we don't recommend these unless you can afford a giant quiver of pads or travel on planes a lot.
Choosing pad size is easy if you have a big truck or van and lots of money: get all sizes of pads, pull up to the boulders and assess your needs. For the rest of us there are big trade offs: bigger pads are much harder to transport in a small car, are more expensive, heavier, and harder to hike with through tight trails and boulders. Smaller pads are easier to travel with but offer a much smaller landing area. Sure you can stack smaller pads but it means managing many more seams where the pads meet. In general, when you start out it is good to get a smaller pad because it will be so versatile. Once you are bouldering more often, you will want a big pad (and wonder how you ever bouldered with just one small pad). Some pads like the Organic Full Pad have ways to link together multiple pads when walking to the crag. This is something to consider as down the road it is nice to have the versatility of being able to carry multiple pads.
Packability — How the pad stores gear
For storing gear with the pad in backpack mode, four factors come into play: flaps, straps, taco vs. hinge, and pad stiffness. Closing flaps help hold small gear from falling out the bottom and rarely get in the way. Straps hold everything from the flaps to the shoulders and the waist. If the straps are too short you can't fit a big backpack in the center of your pad. Taco pads generally store more gear with greater ease than the hinge style pads. Last is the stiffness factor. This only affects the hinge style pads — the stiffer the pad the harder it is to pack (and the more it squishes your bag of chips). Some pads are just not able to fit big packs in the middle. If you like to boulder with a backpack full of shoes, food and random goodies, make sure your pad can carry it.
All around portability
When moving the pad a short distance, from boulder to boulder, it is often easier to carry it rather than put it on your back. This is done by grabbing any available handles on the top or sides. This is also important when loading it into or out of a vehicle and just moving it around anywhere. The placement and quality of the handles is vital. We love when a pad has a burly handle right over the shoulder straps. This helps get it on when the pad is really loaded with stuff. It also means you are less likely to rip the shoulder straps off. The way to tell generally if a pad has a durable suspension system is to look for big bar tacks (or not) connecting the tops of the shoulder straps to the pad.
One last handle to look for, especially on a big pad: a strap right in the middle of the pad at the folding point. This makes it easy to pick up the pad and walk short distances.
Everyone prefers varied levels of stiffness in the bed they sleep. Same with pads. If you like a stiff mattress and plan on using your crash pad for crashing on then you might want a stiffer pad, or vice versa. Since pads are not meant for sleeping on and ridge/therma-rests are affordable, then you should obviously not worry about this too much. The most important factor is size. Most truck beds will accommodate any size pad. However, most station wagons won't work with pads that are more than 38 inches wide.
Some pads come with pockets but they are usually just an annoyance; anything other than padding in the landing zone is not okay. I've been bouldering with people who carry things in the side pockets of pads and I have almost stepped on sunglasses and cell phones. It's very annoying to have to step over the pocket of goodies.
Not only are the best design and craftsmanship are needed to make a great product, but the third and final ingredient is the best materials. Most pads are made out of Nylon, Cordura Nylon and some have an auto upholstery top or a velvet top side. Auto upholstery or velvet make the best top side fabrics because they are better for wiping dirt off your feet and lounging around on. And let's be honest, how comfortable a pad is to lounge around on is very important.
One cool thing about the bouldering pad industry is there are still some very small companies offering made-to-order products. For example, with Voodoo and Organic you can select a variety of color schemes and fabrics.
Most pads are made of some type of ballistic nylon. All manufacturers like to mention how much burlier their nylon is than their competitors. However, we don't find a giant different in the durability of the different nylons. Yes, the thinner nylon wears out faster, but even the burliest foam wears out faster than the thinner nylon. Focus on the foam, not the nylon that surrounds it.
There are two important factors in pad design that can lead to a higher probability of an ankle getting rolled: thickness of foam and foam stiffness. When you have thick foam there is a greater chance that only half your foot will land on the pad and it will roll. This problem is made even worse if the pad is extra stiff. However, it is stiff and thick foam that makes a pad best able to absorb impact from a big fall. So there is a tradeoff here. One solution that legendary boulderer John Sherman has come up with is to cut slits around the edges of the foam. If you are considering doing this consult someone who has done it before. We don't want you to kill your pad!
View our complete Crash Pad Review.