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Crash pads are for landing on. Once upon a time, hardcore boulderers just used a dirty rag as a landing zone. After a few hectic falls and broken hips, the climbers of lore realized that padding might be nice to have on the ground. Things have advanced a bit since then.
Crash pads are for landing on. Once upon a time, hardcore boulderers just used a dirty rag as a landing zone. After a few hectic falls and broken hips, the climbers of lore realized that padding might be nice to have on the ground. Things have advanced a bit since then. Gone are the days of carrying old camper van mattresses and couch cushions out to a cave to ‘practice climb’. Now pads have backpack systems that make them comfortable to carry, foams that absorb impact force to protect the climber and super-durable fabrics so they last more than a week.
Size is important to consider. A small pad is great if you use it correctly. But when it comes to bouldering, the more area you can safely cover the better! It can be handy to have different sized pads to safely pad your landing zone, and fill holes on uneven terrain.
Big pads are ideal for big boulders. They provide maximum foam coverage and most boulderer crews should have at least one big pad as their main landing zone. When bouldering, the mantra is almost always "the more foam the better".
Also referred to as "full pads" or small pads depending on who you talk to, but the landing zone is usually around 1 x 1.5 meters when opened. There are a few advantages to pads this size. First, they are easier to carry in and out. They are lighter and you are much less likely to catch your pad on trees or rocks when walking in. If you're in an area with super bad landings these pads are better at fitting around random rocks or tree roots sticking out. Two medium pads can give you options for protecting a landing zone, which can be more effective than a single large pad.
These could also be called a half pad or a briefcase pad. They’re pretty small and in most cases not entirely useful. If you're in an area with bad landings they can be nice to fill in holes or drape over rocks you might bounce off. They can also be good for placing at the start of problems with a sit start.
These pads are made of just one layer of stiff closed-cell foam. They’re used to cover seams between pads or as something to sit on or wipe off your feet at the start of a boulder.
Above: Flashed Drifter Pad
The foam absorbs the impact force when you hit the ground, dispersing the energy and keeping you safe. Not all foams are created equal and you generally get what you pay for. There are usually two qualities of foam in a pad: (1) a top layer of closed-cell foam and (2) a softer layer of open-cell foam.
The upper layer of closed-cell foam is designed to more evenly distribute the initial impact force of falls across the top of the pad so you aren’t as likely to "bottom out". Crash pads with better designs may have another thin layer of open-cell foam on top of this to make a landing on the harder foam more comfortable. The closed-cell foam layer can also serve to protect any seams in the pad which can protect against ankle rolls.
The main layer of foam is softer open cell foam which is designed to cushion the fall. This foam comes in a range of qualities and you pay for what you get. Cheaper foam is very squishy and will "pack out" faster. Better quality foams are firmer, won’t compress as fast during use, and will rebound back to their original shape making these pads far more durable. When comparing the price of pads this is really important to think about. A cheaper pad may seem like a good idea out-of-the-gate, but a more expensive pad will give you superior protection and may last five times longer. If you can afford it, it’s always advisable to splash out for a higher quality pad.
Above: Organic Full Pad
Shell fabric is the other main consideration when looking at materials. Your pad is going to get jumped on, shoved down holes, and rubbed against rock and dirt. And you expect to get years of life out of your pad, so it’s gotta be tough to live up to the demands of bouldering. Most shell fabrics are heavyweight nylons with high denier yarns. They are abrasion-resistant from developing scuffs, tears and holes.
Denier refers to the weight and density of the yarns used to make the shell fabric. The higher the denier, the more wear, tear, and abrasion resistant the fabric is.
All crash pads inherently have some weak points that are going to tear or break no matter how well they are designed. Look at the construction of the seams and corners of the pad to see if these are constructed well. The fewer seams the better. Look at the zippers that let you access the foam. Are they heavy-duty zippers? Any plastic or thin buckles are going to break, eventually.
Also very important is the backpack straps. How sturdy are these? Are they going to rip the first time you catch them on a tree root while moving your pads? Velcro is great for keeping pads open or closed, but if you're climbing somewhere where there is a lot of moss (Squamish has a lot of moss), then you're going to end up with a lot of moss in your pad and a velcro system that does nothing.
This style of pad folds in half. These are probably the most common kinds of crash pad out there — they are easy to make and easy to carry. However, larger taco style pads tend to take up a lot of space and can be cumbersome to carry. The center seam can be a weak point in the pad and is often protected with a thin layer of closed-cell foam.
Above: Mad Rock Triple Mad Pad
These pads are usually large pads and are divided into three parts. The pros of this design is that the pad is usually much easier to carry. The downside to this is that there are more seems to potentially break and more spots to potentially hit a rock through the pad.
These pads roll up to eliminate the need for seams on the surface of the pad. This is great maximizing the surface area and safety of the landing zone, but the downside is that they can be a bit more annoying to pack up when it’s time to go/move problems and they are definitely more cumbersome to carry.
Not all carrying systems are created equal. Some carry systems are simple, inexpensive shoulder straps, while others resemble proper backpack straps, capable of comfortably carrying greater loads over longer distances. Consider how much weight are you actually going to be carrying? Are you going to strap 4 pads together so that you have a raft of pads under your highball project, or are you just going to bring one small pad? If a pad’s backpack system isn’t high quality carrying in a bunch of weight can start to hurt fast. A good quality, structural waist belt can increase carrying comfort by transferring weight from the shoulders to the hips, and stabilizer straps help to keep the load stable.
If you plan on carrying more than one pad, it is worth understanding how different pads will accommodate this. Some pads work better with other pads within their brand and some work better with all pads. There is a multitude of ways that pads can attach. These vary in speed and durability. So take a look at the system your pad is using and decide if you're willing to spend 15 minutes finicking with busted buckles between each boulder problem.
It’s also worth thinking about how you are going to carry your gear for the day. Are you going to shove all your stuff into your pad or are you going to have a backpack? Will this backpack hang off your pads or will you carry it like a baby? Stuffing things inside your pads can cause the pad to bow out. This can wear down your foam quicker. It might be a good idea to find a bag system that can attach to the outside of your pads.
Your crash pad may be designed to take a beating, but using proper care when cleaning and storing your pad will ensure you get years of service from your pad. If you have space, try to store your pad in its natural state. Don’t store it with much weight sitting on it or with any folds as this can pack out the foam faster. If your pad gets wet make sure you dry it out or it can mould. If your pad gets dirty or sweaty, make sure you clean it as this can cause the buckles to corrode or the fabric to fall apart faster. Finally, don’t store your pad in direct sunlight. UV will quickly wear down the shell fabric and foam.
Repairing the fabric of a pad is often inexpensive. A knowledgaable seamstress can repair the outer fabric of a pad in a few minutes and will not cost too much, especially if you provide your own fabric. However, if the foam starts to fall apart, it is often a better option to buy a new pad than to try and source new foam.