Bouldering, or climbing rocks while remaining low to the ground, has grown in popularity rapidly in recent years, but figuring out how to understand the different bouldering grades can be challenging. Depending on your country, you will likely be using one of two major bouldering grading systems, but converting between the two is a whole different story.
That’s where we come in! In this article, we aim to give you all the information you need to know in order to understand the grading systems used in bouldering. We’ll cover both the V scale and the Font scale, so make sure to read on.
What is Bouldering?
Bouldering is a type of climbing that does not involve any ropes, harnesses, or anchors. Instead, climbers climb closer to the ground over the top of pads or mats that will help protect them from injuries if they fall.
Bouldering is often seen as a great way to get into rock climbing since the gear you need is much more minimal than for roped rock climbing. Boulderers need only rock climbing shoes, chalk, and a pad for the ground. This means that bouldering is also a more approachable form of climbing since it has much fewer upfront costs.
Unlike roped climbing, where each climb is called a route, bouldering climbs are called problems. Boulder problems are rated using a different scale than roped climbing, and, like roped climbing, different scales are used to rate boulder problems in different parts of the world. Understanding these scales can be confusing, but it will help you feel more comfortable as you get started bouldering.
What are Bouldering Grades?
Bouldering grades are what climbers use to discuss the difficulty of the problem. These grades differ from roped climbing in the scales used and the numbers and letters used to denote hard, medium, or easy climbs.
Similarly to roped climbs, boulder problems are rated based on their hardest move, not the average difficulty of their moves. This means you could come across a boulder problem rated V4, but most of the moves on the problem are really V3 or V2 moves.
Although bouldering grades will give you a good idea of the difficulty of a boulder problem, they are not an exact science. It all depends on your individual climbing abilities. For example, if you tend to climb V5 and struggle on V6, you may find some V6 problems that feel easier to you than some V5 problems. You may even find a V4 that is challenging or a V7 that you can do.
In general, there are two main bouldering grading systems; the V scale and the Font scale. The V scale and the Font scale are both systems that are used to communicate how easy or challenging a boulder problem will likely be. The difference is the way this information is communicated and the places where these scales are used in.
The first bouldering grading system was the B scale, which was used by John Gil and only consisted of three grades; B1, B2, and B3. In this scale, B3 indicated that a problem had only been completed once and would need to be regraded once it was climbed again. As more people were getting into bouldering and climbing, this scale quickly became too simplistic and far too much work to upkeep.
We’ll be breaking down both the V scale and the Font scale next, but after the B scale was phased out, these newer scales began to be widely accepted. Now boulderers in the US use the V scale, and boulderers in Europe use the Font scale.
What is the V Scale Grading System?
The V scale is used across the US to denote the general difficulty of a boulder problem. John “Vermin” Sherman and his climbing partners in Hueco Tanks, Texas, created V scale climbing grades in the early 1990s. The grading scale uses a numerical system with the letter V in front of each grade. Although you might see problems labeled “VB” for beginners, the scale typically starts at V0 and increases through V17, although in theory, it could increase much more.
The V scale can be broken down even more by the addition of plus and minus signs to help tell exactly how easy or challenging a boulder problem might be. For example, a problem that is rated V7 will be easier than a problem rated V7+.
- Easy boulder grades:
Typically boulder problems in the V0 to V2 range are considered easy. These are the problems that everyone starts out on as they are first learning. They tend to have straightforward moves and holds that are easy to grip.
- Intermediate boulder grades:
V3 to V6 is the range of boulder problems that are considered to be intermediate. These problems will have more complicated movements and often utilize more challenging holds. Problems in this range will either have hard movements or hard holds but very rarely will include both, as this would likely make the problem a harder grade.
- Hard boulder grades:
The hardest bouldering grades that casual rock climbers typically climb are in the range of V7 to V10. These problems are hard moves on hard holds. In order to get good at boulder problems in this range, you will need to put a good amount of time into learning how to boulder.
- Professional boulder grades:
Boulder problems in the V11 to V17 range are typically reserved for the pros. These problems take immense body control, awareness, and incredible strength to complete. Training to climb at this level takes a long time, which is why most casual climbers don’t climb at this level.
What is the Font Grading System?
The Font scale, or the Fontainebleau scale, is named after the famous French climbing area called Fontainebleau. The name of the scale was shortened to the Font scale, but it is also a numerical scale. Unlike the V scale, the Font climbing grades also include letters to help differentiate between easier and more challenging boulder problems.
The first number is the first to look at in the Font scale. Grades increase in difficulty as the number increases, so a 3 is easier than a 4. Next, look at the letter. The letter tells you how easy or hard that problem is within the range of that number. So a 6a is easier than a 6b. So a 7c is easier than a 7c+. Lastly, plus and minus signs are used to delineate between easier and harder climbs of the same number and letter.
Easy: When using the Font scale, anything below a 5+ is typically considered to be an easy climb. These climbs are straightforward and don’t include any flashy or complicated moves.
Intermediate: Intermediate problems on the Font scale are between 6a and 7a. Like we said before, these problems either have more complicated moves or more challenging holds, but rarely both.
Challenging: 7a+ to 7c+ is usually the range of boulder problems associated with challenging ratings on the Font scale. This category can range a lot depending on the climber, but this is the generally accepted range of boulder problems.
Professional: Any boulder problem rated an 8a or above is considered to be in the professional sphere. These boulder problems take so much time to train for them that the only people who really can are professional climbers.
V Scale vs. Font Scale Bouldering Chart
Here is a simple bouldering grade chart comparing the V scale to the Font scale. Keep in mind that not all bouldering grades convert perfectly between the two scales, so this chart should give you a rough idea of the comparable grades between the two scales.
|V Scale||Font Scale|
The chart currently goes up to a V17 on the V scale and a 9a on the Font scale because this is the highest bouldering grade that is currently given to a boulder problem. The Burden of Dreams boulder problem in Finland is considered to be the most challenging boulder problem out there, but this will likely change as climbing continues to progress and develop.
Understanding Your Level and Progression in Bouldering
Focusing too much on the grade of boulder problem you can consistently climb is not usually a good thing, as it can be challenging to understand and can often make you feel degraded. Grades are a common way to compare climbs and boulder problems and to discuss what level of climbing you are at, but it is important to remember that they are subjective and not something you should base your worth as a climber on.
The best way to figure out what grade you climb is by climbing. There are a number of technical terms that climbers use when describing how hard the climbs and the problems they can do are. In order to understand what others say and to respond with your own answer of how hard you climb, it is essential to understand some of the jargon of climbing.
Here are some terms you should know:
- On-site: To on-site a climb means that you have successfully reached the top of the climb on the first attempt with no prior knowledge of the climb.
- Flash: Climbing a climb is described as a flash if you reach the top on the first attempt but have prior knowledge of the climb. This could mean you watched someone climb it, read the beta in a book or online, or asked someone about the moves or what to expect.
- Redpoint: Redpointing a climb is working on it for a while until you are able to get to the top without falling. Redpointing takes more time and involves practicing on the climb instead of getting it on the first try.
Although all three of these terms are sport climbing terms, they are often used to describe a person’s climbing level in top rope climbing, sport climbing, and bouldering. For example, someone might say that they are on-site V2, but their redpoint grade is a V5. This means that they can consistently jump on any V2, and they’ll almost always be able to do it without any help, but the hardest they have been able to do consistently with practice and falls is a V5.
Describing their climbing ability using more than one grade allows climbers to better represent their abilities since describing all the work and effort you do with only one number can seem daunting for any climber. It also gives you a good way to figure out what grade you can get on-site and what grade you can redpoint by thinking about how many tries it takes you to complete the climb.
It’s also worth noting that the grade you climb will vary depending on the type of boulder problem you are on. If you find slab problems easy, your overhanging grade might be lower than your slab grade, and that is ok and completely normal. Most climbers have a favorite style of boulder problem or climb that is more suited to their body.
There is no average bouldering grade that you should be able to climb, and even figuring out what a good bouldering grade is almost impossible since it is all subjective. If you find yourself caught up on bouldering grades and worried about what grade you can climb, try asking a climbing coach or guide to help you figure it out. Experienced climbers are also a great resource since they will be able to give you more insight into the grades and their meaning in your local area.
3 Tips for Climbing at Different Bouldering Grades
Increasing your bouldering grade is not something that comes easily. Boulder problems can be hard and can require large amounts of technical skills. These are some of our favorite tips and tricks to help you climb at a different bouldering grade:
1. Climb regularly
Climbing regularly is the best way to get better at climbing. Even if you are casually climbing with friends a few times a week, you are likely to notice an increase in your ability over the course of a few weeks. It takes time to develop the muscles needed for climbing as well as the ability to read a route or problem by looking at it.
Although hiring a coach or guide, our second tip, is a great option for speeding up this process, and it does cost more money. If you are looking to improve your climbing ability without spending more money, setting a schedule and committing to climbing regularly is the best way to do that.
2. Hire a coach or guide
A rock climbing coach or climbing guide is an expert in the field and will be the best way for you to improve your climbing ability. They will teach you the proper techniques as well as be able to teach you how to take care of your body. Rock climbing is hard on your body, so recovery is just as important as training and climbing.
Having an expert in the field teach you how to implement the best techniques and explain the grading system bouldering uses will always be better than just reading about it. A coach or guide will cost money, but if you truly listen to their advice, it can really be worth it in the long run.
3. Spend time cross-training
It might seem like the only way to get better at climbing is by climbing, but cross-training can really help improve your climbing ability. Bouldering is especially focused on body control, so any cross-training that will help improve your body control is a great option.
Make sure you are working out your core and legs since those are the largest muscle groups that are used in boulder problems. Although it is not as exciting as climbing, cross-training will really help improve your muscle tone and body control, which will, in turn, help improve your bouldering ability.
Wrapping Things Up: What are the Different Bouldering Grades?
Bouldering grades can be hard to understand and even harder to convert between, but grades aren’t the only thing that matters. Being able to understand what a bouldering grade means is only one part of the equation. The value you put on the grade comes from you, and that’s what really matters.
We hope that you are now able to understand the numeric rating systems of both the V scale and the Font scale, as well as how to improve your bouldering ability by climbing more, hiring a coach, and cross-training. You have all the tools you need to set off on your bouldering journey!