We take a look at the latest crash-pads for your bouldering adventures.
Things have come on a long way since we first started climbing. We remember the only protection (apart from my confidence, Dave) was stuffing our jackets into our packs laying them out under the route and someone even had the bright idea to put our foam sleeping mats on top of those (genius). We would then happily solo Downhill Racer (a notorious highball problem) at Froggat Edge in the Peak District (Bloody luxury ;-> for Psycho in the late 80s we just laid a beer towel out to aim at! – Rich). Soon after we acquired a gymnastics mat and we cut that up and gaffer taped it together for a mat. So you can imagine the revelation on a trip to Fontainebleau when I bought my first dedicated bouldering mat made by Beal. It was an absolute death trap when damp – but it was way better than anything we had before.
Thank goodness for progress I say. Today we have a plethora of mats to choose from, even ones for sit starts! Most climbers will own at least one and I’ve seen dedicated boulderers turning up at the crag with three or four! I will often take a couple of full sized mats and a sit start one if I am working on a long traverse project.
If you are new to bouldering outdoors then a mat, although not essential, is sensible. It helps keep your feet clean, it helps soften the landing; it even provides you somewhere to sit on a drink your coffee. What they not do, however, is guarantee a 100% risk free fall zone. I have seen some pretty bad accidents bouldering and when I’m running bouldering courses I spend a lot of time looking at mat placement and spotting.
So what would you look for in a good crash pad? Our Buyer’s Guide will go through the components and then we detail 6 pads that are currently on the market.
There are two (OK perhaps three) main types of mat. The ‘clamshell’ (or hinged) type which has a distinct fold line. This makes for a more compact mat as there is no dead air when the mat is folded in half. The disadvantage of this fold is that there is a slight dead spot where no padding exists. The other type is the ‘taco’ type of fold. This is ensures that full mat area is padded with no dead spots. The disadvantages are that there is more volume when the mat is folded, they are more awkward to fold (which is a pain if you’re are in a bouldering area which is spread out) and if there no system of making a flap across the bottom, your kits falls out of it. There are some, very large area, mats that have a concertina (or Z) type of fold in order to keep the size of the mat down. Another benefit is that if you need to replace any foam it could be cheaper as you may only need to replace one side. Some pads now use a ‘hybrid’ clamshell where there is a thin layer of foam that continues across the hinge helping to mitigate the problem of a ‘hinge gap’.
Some manufacturers have designed their mats to fold with the landing area outside. This is a great idea as it always (assuming you’ve followed the correct mat etiquette) keep your clothes clean when you are carrying it. It does, however, cause some problems on the landing area and you’ll find a variety of solutions in the pad review.
Probably the most important part of the mat. Contrary to what you may think, the padding needs to be quite stiff. A mat’s padding is usually made up of two parts; a softer foam which is the main part of the mat. This can be up to 100mm thick, on top of this there will usually be a thinner (25-30mm) harder foam, this can often be a two piece laminated affair which offers more impact resistance. This system is designed to absorb much of the force when you come crashing down from the slimy top sloper of your project. The mat should be designed in a way that it makes straightforward to replace the foam pieces, so look for a large zipped section for access to the foam. You are also looking for a shape that keeps the foam firmly in place and that the foam does not move when zipped up, the last thing you want is the foam moving around when you land on it. Thicker pads are usually more shock absorbent but so much depends on the foam this is not always the case – however thicker pads always make reaching that high first hold a little easier ;->. We also note whether you can order replacement foam from the pad maker. Replacement foam has proven to be a bit of a moot point as some manufacturers who did once provide it have stopped doing so due to a lack of demand – it would seem in many instances that by the time foam needs replacing the mat as a whole may be on its way to retirement.
Construction and Materials
Your crash-pad is taking quite a hammering, repeated blows from dropping onto it, placing over sharp pointy landings, placed in muddy pools. It takes it all so you will want to be looking for burly construction, heavy duty material and lots of bar tacking for straps, buckles, etc. Buckles in particular need to be burly. Most manufacturers are moving towards metal buckles, as plastic ones won’t last too long. We’ll be looking out for those in the pad review. A brightly coloured landing zone can also help when trying to spot your landing in that split second when you peel off!
This is where things have changed massively over the past 5 years. I was happy with just a standard shoulder strap on my first bouldering mat. More modern ones have some very sophisticated carry systems that wouldn’t look out of place on a mountaineering pack. Other carry options to consider are, the ability to convert into a shoulder strap as well as handles for a quick fold and carry.
Some mats also have added carpet, for cleaning feet; sewn in pockets for carrying your shoes, chalk bag and other bit and bobs needed for a session out. Some also even include an extra ‘sit start’ pad and we have one in the review that even turns into a seat!
That covers just about everything you should be looking for in a modern crashpad so what’s on the market and how do they perform. We’ve tested 6 mats from the main manufacturers to see what they’re made from. All the mats chosen were for what we would call a standard size, so nothing too big and one of our tests was how well it fitted into the boot of a VW Golf.
The Petzl Alto is a taco style crashpad that is either brilliantly or over engineered depending upon how you feel. I personally found it a great piece of kit once I got my head around how it worked. The Alto was held together with a zip than ran around 2 sides of the pad. One way zipped it all together and exposed the awesomely comfortable carry system. You unzip this, unfold the mat and with a nifty fold of the zip zip up the other side and this then covers the carry system and created a safe landing area free of straps. Once open there is a handy, Velcro strap that can be used to carry the mat around between problems without refolding.
The foam was was nice and dense, the two layers are laminated and there is a nice thick layer of softer padding. Petzl stated that you cannot buy foam from them. I felt safe enough when falling off onto it even though, at first, I was a little apprehensive about the way the carry system was covered. This though has never been a problem and the Alto was fine to land on.
The taco fold did take up a little volume but it did fold up neatly and it fitted into the boot of the VW Golf fine. As I said earlier the Petzl Alto can even be turned into a makeshift seat, which has meant that I’ve even been taking it out on sport climbing days with me. Just fold the mat into 90 degrees undo the Velcro shoulder strap, put each section through a handy loop. Fold over and connect the straps and hey presto! However, you’ll be sitting on the black underside as I couldn’t get it to fold on the clean side. So you may not want to sit on it if it’s dirty. No problems if it get wet and muddy mind, just unzip the orange flap, fold so the black underside is facing each other. Do the nifty fold of the flap and zip it back up again to expose the carry straps.
The carry system was the best on test and super comfortable. There was even a sternum strap and a great, wide hip belt that was velcro fastened. The zip feature also meant you could stuff all your bits of carpet, rag, cleaning brushes with any fear of them falling out of the bottom. The Petzl Alto quickly came a favourite through the test because of the many, well designed features. The downside was that the zip system can be a bit of a tussle if your planning a speedy getaway from the crag and it’s quite expensive . If the Alto is too small it has a bigger brother: the Cirro.
Perfect for: carrying long distances.
We have tested Moon crashpads before and found them to be well designed and made. Just as you would expect from a master boulderer such as Ben Moon. The Warrior crashpad is the bigger and burlier cousin of the Pluto pad. It is a taco style fold system which was very simple to fold together with it’s three metal buckles.
The pad does have a carry system with shoulder straps which even had a hip belt and a sternum strap. It was super comfortable to carry and the size wasn’t too big to make it heavy. The materials and construction were absolutely bombproof and it will definitely last many seasons of abuse on the sharpest of jagged landing spikes. There is plenty of bartacking to hold together the 1000D Cordura material and straps. There are also plenty of handles for carrying the pad around a circuit without too much faff. The handles are nice and soft and make carrying the Warrior a breeze.
The foam is firmly held in place but can be replaced. Moon did confirm that you can/cannot buy spare foam from them. The 2 layer padding was firm to land on and the taco style gave a large landing area, one of the largest on test. It was even enclosed in polythene so you can tell it’s been designed for UK conditions! The carpet (which covers the shoulder straps) was great for cleaning rock shoes before attempting problems. The Warriors folds landing side out so as long as you keep the landing side clean, you’ll have a clean carry.
As I said above the Moon Warrior has a comfortable carry system. This is covered with the attached carpet when the mat is unfolded, there are 3 large velcro strips which help keep the carpet in place. The carpet stayed put when being landed on and as long as you are careful to make sure all the straps are well tucked under the carpet you should be safe enough. The carpet then folded over to the inside of the mat for the carry and was help in place by the webbing tail. This also acted as a bottom flap to the pad and this meant you can carry kit without it falling out the bottom. A neat solution to that problem.
All in all, a great pad. Super burly and bombproof in construction. It has well thought out features and will last you ages, even with plenty of abuse.
Perfect for: padding out that that nasty landing.
The DMM Highball is a clamshell style of crashpad. It was definitely the lightest of the 3 pads Dave tested. It offered a great size area in the landing zone and even came with its own bit of carpet! It was nice and simple to use as the shoulder straps were on the back and stayed there – unless you wanted to convert the carry system into a shoulder strap which was easy enough to do. I liked the way the DMM Highball adjusted its shoulder straps from the bottom which made adjusting on the move nice and easy.
The closure system consisted of three burly flaps that just about enclose the body when it’s folded in half. These are then tightened up using the Lowe Alpine buckles that have a great locking spur that holds everything perfectly, no loosening off at all. The carpet is accessed via a pouch on the landing side, this has a velcro closure. I never felt the pouch move when I landed on it and the carpet was very handy for cleaning feet and it was nice that was separate from the main mat so I felt it was a great addition to the Highball.
The outer materials were 1000d Ballistic Cordura, so super durable and easily took all the knocks and battering a typical bouldering session gave it. The thick padding is made up of three layers of foam in a sandwich formation (2 high density with the softer foam sandwiched in between)and it was firm enough to take the landings from those highball problems. It was super easy to fold up and carry between problems with the carry handles, the hinged type of mats are great for just throwing kit is and folding up, much better than taco style mats. The foam would be easy enough to replace with the zipped access and DMM confirmed that you can buy replacement foam from them via the dealer you bought the mat from.
The DMM Highball comes in two colours: yellow and green.
Perfect for: carrying long distances.
Edelrid Balance Pad
The Edelrid Balance Pad is a new product this year and a unique (to our knowledge) design. Consisting of a top layer of dense foam that closes with a taco fold with a semi attached ‘bean bag’ pad underneath. The Balance pad was envisaged as a way to level out uneven landing zones, whether they be sloping or covered in roots/rocks but also provides a very cushy landing. The Balance Pad is the most bulky of the pads we have on review but is surprisingly light and the combination of a top layer consisting of two layers of dense foam to spread the impact and a very absorbent soft bean bag underneath works very well at cushioning falls. Size measures 140cm X 110cm with 6cm dense foam over a 10cm beanbag. Quality of construction is superb with incredibly rugged metal hardware including the harness ladder-locks, a nice touch (the hipbelt fastens with a plastic fastex but is removable), recycled rope fixings, multiple handles to assist dragging the pad about and high quality stitching. The harness is top notch, adjustable in height and there are additional fixtures to allow a second pad like the Mantle to be carried. Access to the foam and beanbag is through zippers that have proved totally robust over the review period but do make sure you ‘park’ the zippers pull-tabs in their protective zipper garage. The Edelrid logo on the landing side is made from carpet to provide a boot wipe which is a nice touch but probably best used as a final polish rather than cleaning muck off.
When you deploy the Balance pad you unfold the bean bag underneath and this conveniently covers the harness area preventing it from getting grubby or wet, so when you finish at the end of the day you can pack it out without getting a mucky back – a big plus in the UK! Once you have unfolded the beanbag YOU MUST RE-FASTEN THE STRAPS TO STABALISE IT! This is not brilliantly clear on Edelrid’s hangtag and if you don’t it can be like landing on a sledge, unstable and potentially dodgy. With the straps fastened to stabilise things you have a fantastic large landing zone with the firm upper foam distributing impacts across the softer beanbag beneath. I don’t know if this hybrid construction will be as durable in the long term compared to standard pads as there will obviously be more potential for movement this may lead to lead to friction and potential wear or it may eliminate ‘catching’ of the material and reduce wear. Certainly over the review period of almost three months there is no evidence of wear being a problem. Using the Balance pad to level out a dodgy landing is a mixed bag. It definitely works but you have to be aware of the limitations and in some situations you would want an additional pad to make things safer. If you arrange the Balance pad to level a sloping landing you end up with just a thin layer of foam at the top of the slope and a super cushy layer of bean bag and foam lower down creating a level drop zone which is great if you have a second mat to put on top but not so good if it’s just the Balance pad and you drop onto the thin end. Likewise with rocky/rooty landings – it creates a stable and level drop zone but with ‘thin spots’ above the rocks/roots and again a second mat helps here. Edelrid have designed the harness on the balance so it can be adjusted or modified to attach to an additional pad like the Mantle III so bring a second mat is not a chore.
Overall there is nothing else like the Balance Pad out there and it is a more specialist product compared to other pads in this review, involving a little more effort beyond just dumping it underneath your problem, but the return is increased versatility and the ability to cope with landings that would be hard to render safe with standard pads. That’s not to say you can’t use it as an everyday crash pad but you do need to think about how it is used and it is probably best suited to more experienced boulderers. What you get is a superb pad for everything from low traverses to fairly highball drops and the ability to make difficult drop zones level and a lot safer especially with the addition of another pad. Size wise you may need a big-ish car to take the Balance Pad away on trips as it does use a fair bit of boot space.
Perfect for uneven drop zones.
SNAP French Toast
The French Toast is SNAP’s new entry level pad. It consists of a simple hinge fold pad with the addition of a large Velcro patch to keep the hinged pad open when deployed. Size measures 100cm X 120cm with 10cm of foam arranged as 2cm high density and then 8cm” soft, low density foam. Fastenings are all-metal (apart from shoulder strap ladder-locks) and consist of easily detachable buckles to convert from back pack to shoulder strap carry. Likewise it can easily be moved or even removed to keep it out of puddles and muck. Additionally there are two comfy suitcase handles to assist short portages of the pad between problems or adjacent areas. The pad is closed using Velcro cinch straps, which is unusual in a world of hooked ladder lock buckles but works just as effectively and allows for just enough adjustment to stuff a slim bag or pack into the pad. SNAP employ a clever construction technique where they eliminate seams on the edges to help prevent wear and potential blowouts by effectively ‘edging’ the entire mat with heavier ballistic nylon (the black border on the pad in the photographs) – it appears a small thing but goes to show the attention to detail that SNAP put into their pads and means that your SNAP pad will last for years to come. The landing zone incorporates SNAP’s logo as an area of carpet – useful for a final wipe and clean of your boots before stepping onto the rock.
Although the French toast had the most basic harness of the three pads I reviewed it was perfectly comfortable and its simplicity actually meant that I was more likely to switch between back pack and shoulder strap modes as conditions dictated so this was one of the few pads that you could carry across your shoulder with a full rucksack on – ideal if you want to pad the sketchy start to a trad route. There was no waist belt but personally I never use one anyway. I could carry a carpet square and long handled brush securely in the pad but if I slipped bulkier items in then the lack of bottom flap meant slim items like the brush could slip out if not carefully arranged. When using the French Toast it is clear that the pad has been designed by people who do a lot of bouldering and think about their kit. There is nothing flashy (save perhaps the Wasabi bright green colour!) but each element of the pad has been designed with durability; Velcro fastenings to secure the foam and close the pad – pretty much unbreakable, no edge or corner seams, all metal fastening and extra heavy ballistic nylon around the edges. My only slight concern is the potential for the Velcro to become contaminated with mud and muck – not a problem in some areas, but certainly a possibility if yours is the unlucky pad at the bottom of the pile round by Black Wall at Alsmcliff after the cows have been round! So far this has not been a problem but it has required a bit of plucking to get rid of bits of autumnal bracken.
Overall the SNAP French Toast makes an excellent first bouldering pad, it’s the best price of all the mats reviewed yet gives nothing away in the performance stakes. Additionally it would make a great second pad or a good pad to travel with, as it strikes a nice balance between landing zone size & cushioning whilst still leaving room in the boot for holiday kit.
Perfect as a first pad that will always be useful.
Organic Simple Pad
The Organic Simple is Organic’s most basic pad but it packs a punch in terms of quality and usability. Certainly round our corner of Yorkshire Organic has become a very popular brand not only for their pads but also for the almost ubiquitous ‘Lunch Bag Chalk Bucket’ – it’s just as well they have such a variety of patchwork designs as finding you chalk bucket at the Depot could prove a challenge (I counted seven last time I was there). Worth remembering too is that all Organic products are sewn in their small scale USA factory where they strive to source materials from home grown sources. Organic do provide replacement foam but it would need to be ordered from the USA which would prove pricey for customers outside the US. Out on the local gritstone Organic pads are almost as popular as their chalk bucket. Throughout the review period I saw half a dozen different owners and all were pleased with their purchases. The Organic Simple is a hybrid hinge type pad – that is it is basically a hinge pad but it does have a layer of foam that covers the hinge area. Size measures 92cm X 120cm with 10cm of foam arranged as 2.5cm low density and 2.5cm high density as continuos sheets and 5cm low density in two parts like a hinge pad. This doesn’t impact the fold very much but it does help mitigate the hinge gap and help the pad lay flat when opened. All fastening hardware consists of metal hooked ladder-locks (apart from the harness), three along the long edge and one on the bottom. Again there is no flap here so although you can stuff kit inside there is a risk of small items slipping out. Carrying duties are taken care of by a backpack harness that includes a sternum strap and is adjustable in height. Organic pads are all sewn in the USA and the quality of construction shines through – one of the reasons for their popularity is a well-deserved reputation for rugged durability. Everything about the Organic Simple pad screams ‘bomber’. The pads are customisable in terms of design but these options are more limited outside the USA. Still, when you buy an Organic Pad it’s very unlikely to look like anybody else’s and there’s a huge range of graphic designs.
Marginally smaller in terms of landing area than the other pads I had on review the Organic Simple pad’s 5cm of thick softer foam topped by 2.5cm inch of stiffer and 2.5cm softer foam made for an excellent landing zone. Initially it felt a little harder than some of the pads but it soon ‘broke in’ to give a resilient but cushioned feel with no risk of bottoming out. The rugged build of the Organic Pad fills you with confidence and we were happily abusing it without a second thought – it’s like the Landrover Defender of bouldering pads; simple square and bombproof. The basic webbing ‘suitcase’ handles allow it to be easily dragged around problems but were not that comfortable carrying the pad any distance. Likewise there was no way to protect the harness from the ground at muddy venues however if this is a concern then perhaps look at upgrading to the Organic Full Pad that has a flap to cope with such issues – for UK based boulders the extra cost would be well worth it. The Organic Simple is compact enough to easily fit in the UIAA standard VW Golf boot leaving space for more kit so makes a great pad for trips away. If you want one pad to do everything then you won’t be disappointed with the Organic Simple.
Perfect as your ‘go to’ bouldering pad – probably the last pad you ever need to buy.