To find the best bouldering crash pads, we researched 20 models and bought 10 for side-by-side testing. We then set out to world-class bouldering 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.
The Best Bouldering Crash Pad Review
Since our last update, we've added the updated Mad Rock Mad Pad and Metolius Session II to our review. Each pad has seen some slight upgrades in their features but neither have changed too substantially.
Best Overall Crash Pad
Mad Rock Duo
The Mad Rock Duo earned our Editors' Choice award for its innovative strap system that enables you to carry a second pad easily. For those who want to bring an extra crash pad along there is no other option that makes this such an easy task. The Duo was also loaded with features and has impressively thick foam, which is the same as that of the Mad Pad and Triple Mad Pad. It was large enough to be a standalone pad, and with an extra pad, this is a great option for those who boulder alone or want to maximize ground coverage.
Like other pads with Mad Rock's 5-inch foam layup, the Duo is fairly stiff for low falls and awkward landings, where softer foam tends to provide a gentler impact. The pad softens up over time but we found it to be relatively hard through the break-in process.
Read review: Mad Rock Duo
Top Pick for Versatility
Black Diamond Drop Zone
The Black Diamond Drop Zone is our top choice for an all-around bouldering pad. It has a hingeless taco style design to completely cover jagged rocky landings, a flap closure that holds gear well, and many useful handles. The rubberized coating on its back is waterproof, durable and functional, helping the pad stick to angled landings zones. Black Diamond's sturdy metal hook buckles are some of the smoothest operating of all the buckles we tested. The shoulder straps and hip belt are also removable to protect from tripping and for strapping the pad to trees.
The main downside of the Drop Zone is its high cost to size ratio. For $250 it is relatively thin and the 3.5-inch thick foam wasn't very durable. If you're not too concerned with durability and want to get a luxuriously featured pad the Drop Zone won't let you down.
Read review: Black Diamond Drop Zone
Best Bang for the Buck
Mad Rock Mad Pad
The Mad Rock Mad Pad delivers the most pad per dollar of any that we tested and it is a great choice for anyone on a budget. The 5-inch thick foam is impressively durable and far more confidence-inspiring than that of thinner pads. It only has basic features such as couch straps and velcro tabs to connect multiple pads. At $170 the Mad Pad is among the cheaper models that we tested and will outlast far more expensive pads.
The Mad Pad's main disadvantage is its lack of a flap closure to help with carrying gear. It does fine carrying the bouldering essentials but small items tend to fall out of the pad when it is folded. Like the Mad Rock Duo, the Mad Pad's foam has a long break-in period and is not ideal for short falls when the pad is new.
Read review: Mad Rock Mad Pad
Top Pick for Carrying Gear
Mad Rock R3
The Mad Rock R3 stands out because of several reasons: The unique baffle design makes it the only pad made that conforms to uneven landings, the flap closure allows it to carry gear as well as the Black Diamond Drop Zone, it's not too expensive, and it is made out of recycled scraps of foam. The suspension system is top-notch and has reinforced shoulder straps with a handle between the straps to aid in lifting when heavily loaded.
The padding of the R3 is very dense and it was one of the heaviest pads that we tested, weighing in at 18 pounds. The foam is much softer than that of the Mad Pad and Duo, which made it better for low to medium height falls but not great for falling from very high up.
Read review: Mad Rock R3
Analysis and Test Results
After side-by-side tests we evaluated differences between each of the pads with regard to foam, design, durability, and features. There were many different designs and types of materials to consider. The hinge vs. taco is the most important attribute to consider and the type of foam layering is the most significant material consideration. We put all the pads through a variety of rigorous tests. Our ratings were based on the test metrics of High Falls, Low Falls, Packing Gear, Features, and Durability.
While overall some pads edged ahead of others, most of the pads excelled in some areas. For this reason, it is especially important to evaluate the pads on both individual scores as well as overall scores. What features are most important to you? How thick is the 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 after being tested head-to-head.
We define a "medium bouldering pad" as being about 36" x 48". We also put pads 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 large enough for most low to medium height problems.
Large pads are 48" x 60" all the way up to 50" to 72."
A new style of smaller, auxiliary type "mini pad" has emerged and these are is great for sit-starts or the sides of landing zones as well as for the spotter to deflect a fall. These mini pads are also suitable for covering the seam area on a hinged style pad.
The pads in our review have list prices ranging from $150 to $400. In general, price tends to correlate with the area and thickness of a pad. On the lower end pads like the Metolius Session II and Mad Rock Mad Pad cover medium areas and have simple features, while the $400 Black Diamond Mondo covers a massive area and features some of the thickest foam of any pad in the review. Pads in the middle of this range tend to incorporate various features that make them easier to use and carry around. At $240, the Mad Rock Duo won our Editors' Choice award for its combination of thick foam, a large area, and some unique features. We found the Mad Pad to be the best choice for those on a budget who are seeking a fully functional pad that will last for many seasons of frequent use.
High Fall Test
Our favorite foam to fall on for big drops was the 5-inch 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. With 3.5 inches of foam, the Black Diamond Drop Zone started out great, but after a few months, it got soft. It remained a great pad for shorter problems, but we were concerned to take big drops onto it. We don't recommend any pad with foam thinner than 4 inches for high bouldering problems.
Low Fall Test
Our favorite pads for repeated low falls were the Black Diamond Drop Zone and Petzl Alto. Both had slightly larger square-shaped surface areas, solid foam taco designs, and softer edges. The softer edges are key to making the pads less likely to cause a rolled ankle or sore ribs. For the same reason, the Drop Zone is 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.
Mad Rock's Mad Pad, Triple Mad Pad, and Duo were too stiff when brand new for low, jarring, on your back type falls. Some of our testers 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 a few months.
Uneven Terrain Test
We put the pads over treacherous uneven terrain to see how they all managed. 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.
Both the Mad Pad and Triple Mad Pad have velcro flaps to seal up the hinge. If you fall in the middle of most hinged pads, the pad folded in half way around you. The real need for the unhinged foam of a taco style design is 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, a hinged pad with a velcro flap might be best for your needs.
Packing Large Items
While you generally only need to bring shoes, chalk, and some water to go bouldering it can be nice to pack the kitchen sink if you're going to be hanging out for a while. The pads that hauled the bulkiest, heaviest loads were the Black Diamond Drop Zone and Mad Rock R3. The Metolius Session II, 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 few essentials. We didn't find a significant difference in the comfort in carrying big loads.
Packing Small Items
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 II 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 holds 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 except for 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
Mad Rock's Mad Pad and Duo, and the Petzl Alto all have straps that can turn the pads into couches when you aren't climbing. When present was one of our favorite features for a pad to have and it makes them especially useful around camp.
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 Mad Rock R3 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. Fortunately, the thinner layer is a 50/50 mix of different density high-quality closed-cell PE foam that makes for a long-lasting pad suitable 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 Rock's uniquely designed R3 padding has shredded recycled foam that is heavy but lasts much longer than most of the pads in this review. The Black Diamond Drop Zone and Impact pads we tested both have new and 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.
For the most part all of the pads that we tested are well-built and can be expected to last for several seasons of heavy use. The most durable foam layup that we saw was Mad Rock's 5-inch, 3-layer foam that is used on the Mad Pad, Duo, and Triple Mad Pad. It was also the stiffest and provided some hard landings for short falls. The R3 is very durable and has thick material and reinforced stitching to ensure a long lifetime of constant use.
Most pads had at least a few custom features and some can feel a bit superfluous. However important some of these features are is debatable compared to more substantial attributes like high-quality foam, solid design, and overall craftsmanship.
Crash pads are an integral part of modern bouldering and have the potential to make falls much safer than landing on the bare ground. They aren't cheap, so it's best to make the right purchase decision based on your individual needs, climbing style, and common landing surfaces (uneven, flat, etc). We hope this article narrows down your options to the best one or two products for you to make an informed choice for your future rock challenges.
— Chris Summit, Chris McNamara, & Steven Tata