If you’re looking from below on up at a climbing wall, when someone asks how high climbing walls are, you’re likely to tell them ‘too high’ if you’re afraid of heights. Despite this, many of us have gotten over that initial gut check and scaled up there. Many more of us still likely didn’t know how high those climbing walls were at the time.
It’s probably for the best if you’re queasy about heights. But hey, most of us get a little spooked by the heights. It’s the high that comes with scaling to those heights that makes you forget that fear and reach higher each time.
So how high are lead climbing walls and bouldering walls?
Keep reading and you’ll find out what you’re in for after you slap those climbing shoes on your feet!
Lead Climbing Wall Height
First, let’s talk about the lead climbing wall. On average, you’ll find lead climbing walls to be about 49 feet (15 meters) tall. The minimum is 43 feet (13 meters) while the maximum allowed is 59 feet (18 meters). These babies are usually about 39 feet (12 meters) wide. This allows for 4 routes at the same time. One route is minimally 10 feet (3 meters) in width.
The overhang on average is 30 feet (9 meters) with 23 feet (7 meters) being the minimum and 36 feet (11 meters) being the max. Then there are the profiles with an average inclination near 30°. The lowest you’ll see is 10° while the max will be 60°. North or northeast is generally the orientation and the covering is at least 3 feet (1 meter) plus a raindrop of 15°.
With lead climbing walls, the horizontal distance between the anchors needs to be less than 3 feet (1 meter) so that routes can be curvilinear. The angles between two panels should never go over 120°.
Bouldering Wall Height
Now for that bouldering climbing wall. If you’re new to climbing, generally this might be where you start to get your footing about you. Plus, you won’t need all that other equipment yet. This is why so many people start here because they get a feel for the sport.
Bouldering walls are 15 feet (4.5 meters) high on average. They tend to be 98 feet (30 meters) in width to allow for 10 routes at the same time. Each route is 10 feet (3 meters) in width at a minimum too. The overhang features various profiles which tend to average 30° though you’ll find minimums of +5° to maximums of 60°.
The orientation is always north and there’s a mattress plus a raindrop of 15° covering for your safety. The mattress spans 8 feet and 2 inches (2.5 meters) in every direction from the most challenging point and is 1 foot and 3 inches (0.4 meters) thick, a requirement set by the International Federation of Sport Climbing.
While there are certain specs climbing walls must follow, they are not created equally. There are some that focus on aesthetics while others are more functional. Those that are sculpted from fiberglass certainly look beautiful but they’re not realistic, not like the walls built with concrete castings from real rocks. Fiberglass also echoes spectacularly when everyone’s climbing on it which can really rattle your concentration.
Climbing wall height differences for bouldering and top roping
When it comes to climbing walls at the gym, you’ll basically find two styles – top-roping and bouldering. When it comes to top-roping, you clip the rope in with a harness that attaches to your anchored belay. Bouldering is more of an angle-based climbing situation where there’s no safety harness or rope tethering you, but the heights aren’t as great, plus the mats below cushion any falls.
With rope climbing, the flooring system is basically a backup floor to protect you in the event that your belay fails. For bouldering, you’ll fall a bunch of times. We’re talking a good 20 to 40 solid falls, especially when you’re starting out. Even when you do get to the top of the bouldering wall, there’s really only one way down and that’s to fall. That’s why the floor is more cushioned.
The surface that’s intact under your bouldering wall has to be thicker than the one with the top rope. It’s almost like that stuff they use in Olympic sports like gymnastics or pole vaulting. The industry requires it to be one inch thick for every foot (30 cm) of wall you have. That means a 13-foot wall (4 meters) would have 13-inch (33 cm) flooring to protect your falls.
It also depends on who is using the climbing wall though. Gyms that have a younger climbing audience are interested in thicker and softer padding. It’s all about physics really because when a larger person falls off that wall, they’ve got a greater surface area to distribute that weight evenly on the landing surface. When a kid lands on a bouldering floor designed for adults, it will feel too hard for them.
The kind of thick and soft padding used for bouldering is just too much for a top rope wall and is rather counterproductive, at best. That floor must be stable so spotters and others below can stand on it much like any floor. It’s there as a liability to protect as an added measure of insurance coverage. That way if someone falls and gets hurt, the gym was well within its regulations and requirements.
Flooring commands the climbing wall height
So for bouldering walls, the surface below it needs to be thicker and have more cushioning. It is regulated to be at one inch thick per every foot of wall that you have. So a 5-foot (1,5 meter) wall means the floor needs to be 5 inches (13 cm) thick. A 10-foot wall would need to be 10 inches thick. You get the idea.
With separate mats, they need to be linked together so it creates a continuous space for impact. There should be no dead zone between them. Straps need to lock them into place so they don’t shift when people crash onto them or walk across them. This way, it stays in place to uphold safety.
Unfortunately, standard athletic flooring isn’t an option for climbing walls. There needs to be great care taken when laying the floors beneath top rope walls and bouldering areas. There’s no set standard for a fall attenuation in the climbing industry so they recommend using what is most effective to prevent a tragedy.
There’s no one material that’s recommended though. Quite a few options exist to create safety surfaces that can keep all climbers safe. Because there’s no set standard, the climbing industry has borrowed safety surface inspiration from many other sports where it has been shown to be effective in keeping people safe.
Examples would be those rubber pellets, tiles, or soft surfaces of playgrounds or the kind of mats used in wrestling, gymnastics, or track and field sports. As climbing gains popularity, these measures are being adapted to the climbing wall.
Plenty of factors go into choosing the correct flooring for each facility. It all depends on the type of climbing that the gym offers. Then the decisions go on how easy it is to get the flooring out, if it can be used again, and other concerns.
With roped climbing, it’s a much less expensive flooring system to set up. It takes roughly $10 to $16 per square foot of space (0,3 m²). Bouldering floors can cost plenty more, at a minimum of $35 per square foot (0,3 m²). The only thing that could possibly cost more would be an insurance claim or lawsuit from someone that was injured as a result of a lack of proper flooring in the gym to cushion their fall.
As climbing grows in popularity, there are more products that are being developed exclusively for it which means a better climbing experience for those at the climbing wall. Among them are safety systems that have layers of foam underlayment built to the specs to match the height of a particular wall which are then covered with durable material to prevent wear and tear. In the case of bouldering, that’s usually something with a vinyl base and for top-roping, there are both vinyl and carpet-bonded foam options.
The vinyl has a longer life but with it comes a greater cost. Still, it’s worth it in the long-run as it will last longer than the carpet-bonded foam styles. Vinyl surfacing seems to come out ahead in other areas as well despite being more costly because it’s easier to clean and doesn’t retain chalk and bacteria like a carpeted surface would. Studies seem to confirm that the air quality in climbing facilities is better when there’s no carpet to trap airborne particles of chalk or bacteria.
Some climbing gyms may even invest in poured-in-place rubber surfacing. It’s costly but it could be an option for certain locations to consider when installing the safety floors by the walls. Still, many gym owners are looking forward to the new developments coming forth, like Nircos’ tarp system at Vertical Endeavors in Glendale Heights, Illinois. It features foam covered with a large tarp that stretches over the entire landing surface.
Another interesting product for climbers that enjoy top roping is called the One More Life system. It is designed to crush in under impact from a falling climber. It can save the life of someone falling from 60 feet in the air, though the section will need to be replaced after such a fall.
Not all climbing gyms have permanent setups though. Some like having the option to move safety flooring when they need the space for other events and activities. That’s why there are also flip-up or landing pad systems. This is ideal for multifunctional spaces like indoor basketball courts. These floor pads flip up with a Velcro loop making them easy to move away and put back in place.
Large moveable crash pads are also popular, though safety experts are less keen on them. That’s because bouldering areas should always be properly covered. When pads don’t cover the whole floor, climbers can hit the edge of the pad and suffer injuries. Pads like these can slip and slide too which means they move out of place, likely at inopportune times.
The risks that come with higher climbing walls
That brings us back to talking about high climbing walls. You’re probably well aware of the risks associated with climbing. Just because you’re in a gym setting doesn’t mean you are any safer. Especially if that gym doesn’t have the right padding to cushion your fall.
Tall walls mean nothing if the padded flooring is done right and covers all the fall zones. Drag mats in the bouldering area aren’t ideal either because you have people moving them where they want them and others too lazy to move them back. This is where you get a lot of injuries. Padded flooring is always the best option for bouldering. When looking for climbing gyms, you shouldn’t just look up but you should also look down and see what’s below to cushion your fall. If you see drop mats, it’s probably in your best interest to find a different place to climb. You don’t want the added pain or expense of an injury because there wasn’t enough mat coverage below the wall.
If you do choose to climb in facilities that don’t have the proper cushioning, climber beware. You’ve been warned!
Higher climbing walls aren’t necessarily better
Climbing walls were made to give us a place to practice indoors away from the elements in a controlled environment. It’s a great place to practice your technique and learn the ropes (pun intended). But a higher climbing wall doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better choice.
The best height is around 30 to 40 feet. Anything higher than that costs a lot more because of the structural requirements and the limitations with installation. It also limits the number of climbers because it would have a greater width if it wasn’t so monstrous. And with that of course means that fewer people get a chance to climb while others are up on routes for longer. That’s just a turn-off, having to sit and wait a long time to take a turn. For the climbing gym though, it’s much more expensive to operate. The routes have to be set above ladder height which adds tons of setting time to the process.
Climbing wall width and design are more important than height
The design of the climbing wall is the most important aspect. Width ties with that too. These are just so much more important than having a high climbing wall. Having a massive selection of several holds is important so that more people can climb at once.
If the bouldering area is less than 430 square feet, a modular and movable structure is best. Indoor boulders are best from resin textured plywood.
When you have more handhold fastener density that means there are more happy climbers out there. This creates better routes and better routes mean everyone is more enthusiastic overall. Low handhold fastener density creates the opposite effect as it limits the route setting and it doesn’t challenge the climbers. It’s certainly something to keep in mind if you plan to build your own climbing wall. And if not, it’s something you need to look for when you select a gym to join. This will be the place you practice before you ever get out on the rock so make sure you feel safe and enjoy being there.
Climbing walls should never be too high. That makes safety more difficult and it limits the potential of climbers. When choosing an indoor climbing gym, always think about the safety measures you see below you too. While bouldering is usually the place you’ll start off at, you’ll want to be sure you don’t hurt yourself on your first experience. Look at the flooring and don’t be afraid to ask to look around at the construction of the climbing areas. Ask the other climbers how they like it. It’s important you feel happy here. Just remember that bigger isn’t always better though, and that couldn’t be truer when it comes to climbing wall height!