Rating (out of 5)
Value For Money: *****
I remember attempting Syrett’s Roof, the classic Almscliff highball, back in the late nineties. Time and again I’d crater from the tricky rock-over onto the lip with only the unforgiving ground to stop me. I’d wonder why my ankles swelled and knees creaked, but that was what you did, anything else would have been regarded as soft, cheating or worse!
So, fast forward a little over ten years and picture this…
Bouldering mats! And not just one, but sometimes as many as ten. Stacked and packed below things that were once felt to be so high, that they required a rope! Times have changed.
Fancy some of this comfort and reassurance? Then read on…
My first bouldering mat was far from thick or enormous, but it felt like a top rope compared with hitting heel bruising blocks. I’ve had a few since then, the most recent which have been the Drop Zone pads from Black Diamond. I had the first generation BD Drop Zone (the one after the original and bombproof Franklin pad) which was a great pad and is still going strong today so I was keen to test Black Diamond’s new (and hopefully) improved offering too.
So how is it?
Well, I’ve tested the new Drop Zone for a little over 12 months, padding out boulder problems, highballs and well…proper routes, where the prospect of decking from high up was actually quite real! I’ve also used it as a trusty sofa, propped against the car when camping.
The new generation Drop Zone is similar in many ways to the old one. Dimensions are the same (104 x 122 x 9 cm), foam thickness is the same (25 mm closed-cell PE foam on top, 65 mm high-compression PU foam on bottom), it folds “taco” style to give a continuous landing area (no hidden hinges or creases) and it carries like a rucksack.
The rucksack straps are removable (not fully but they open out) so they don’t snag when the pad is open and it even has a waist belt for added comfort and stability on long carries.
But in other ways it is different. The closure system has changed and on first impression I thought this was for the worse, but having used it for a while I’ve changed my mind. The flimsy looking stretchy nylon mesh is actually very tough. In fact after 12 months of use it still looks new. Whereas the hypalon on my old pad has snapped so it doesn’t close properly any more. The new pad closes securely and allows gear to be stashed inside without falling out. A smallish day pack (say 30 litre or so) fits inside no problem as do the trendy modern courier style bags such as Black Diamond’s Pavement bag. It also features a small zipped stash pocket for storing smaller items and valuables on the approach (just make sure you take them out when you actually start climbing)!
One other thing I like is the fact that the pad features 2 suitcase style carrying handles. These were present on the original but as soon as you engaged the closure flap they were hidden and could no longer be used. It’s little improvements like this that actually make a new version worthwhile.
The outer fabric on top (1000d PU coated nylon) is also pretty tough, I certainly haven’t put a hole it in yet despite using it on many jagged and uneven landing platforms. But it is the base that has impressed me the most. On this new version Black Diamond have opted for an anti-slide and waterproof EPO coating (CFC free) over a nylon carrier fabric. This has proved to work brilliantly! First of all you don’t get a wet or muddy back on the carry in and out as it doesn’t absorb like conventional nylon.
Secondly it actually helps the pad to stay where you have placed it, particularly if it’s on rocky ground where the rubber coating can really grip. This system is proving to be so durable that the whole outer is still looking as good as new!
But all of these features (whilst obviously very good) are kind of missing the point. Is it any good to fall onto? That is the real question!
Okay, well as I said earlier I’ve used this pad for all kinds of things. Being of what I would probably call “medium” ground coverage it benefits from being perfect to carry round as a stand alone pad when doing problem circuits and is comforting to fall on if you don’t have a spotter. Basically it’s big enough so that you feel that you’re actually going to hit it but it’s not too much of a pain to lug it round from problem to problem either.
As things get higher then you’re going to want to use more than one. But as there is no hidden hinge to twist your ankle in and it has a non-slip base, this can be done with ease. Obviously I’m thinking your mates might also have one, not that you buy half a dozen, although I’m sure Black Diamond won’t complain! I’ve used these pads stacked (with other Drop Zones as well as pads by other brands) and they produce a pretty comforting landing zone. Great for protecting grit highballs and protectionless headpoints, although I definitely still admit to quivering a bit when I’m way above the ground. It’s not a toprope!
So this is a very good pad and defines the standard in mid-sized bouldering pads as far as I’m concerned.
But I do have a gripe…
The foam in this new version just doesn’t seem to be as good as my old pad. It’s 2 layer, 25mm closed-cell PE foam on top and 65 mm high-compression PU foam on the bottom. The idea of this is that the top layer is firmer and absorbs the initial impact. It also stops you bottoming out which is very important. The bottom layer is thicker but less dense, thus softer and this provides the meat of the cushioning. I have used other pads which actually have third layer which is the same as the top layer (25mm high density) and personally this would be my preferred choice, but I presume it is more costly to produce pads in this way? I suppose it depends how highly you value your bones!
It’s a real shame but it just doesn’t seem as good to land on as my old Drop Zone. Not even when it was new. It just feels too soft (this could just be my personal preference though). Slightly firmer foam would definitely make this pad top of it’s class as well.
The Drop Zone is almost the perfect bouldering pad. It is well designed, has a high quality outer and gives good coverage on the ground. It is a perfect pad to go to if you are just going to buy one and will fit in the boot of most medium sized hatchbacks (although not my 1 series which may as well have only 2 seats)! The only thing that lets it down is the foam which I feel is a little too soft if you are hitting it from any great distance.
The non slip base is definitely one of my favorite features. Good work Black Diamond!