A beginner's guide to bouldering grades

A beginner's guide to bouldering grades

So you’re new to bouldering? Well if you’ve done a bit of research or been to a wall, you may have quickly picked up that every defined climbing route has a grading to reflect its difficulty. This applies to indoor 

As fellow climbers rattle off phrases such as “oh man, I totally crushed a V16 last week”, you find yourself nodding along enthusiastically, knowing that this sounds impressive but you haven’t a clue what it actually means. 

Well, we’re here to help, with our beginner's guide to bouldering grades. Please note that his guide covers grading used in the UK, frustratingly the climbing community has yet to agree on an international standard. 

So here goes, enjoy!

Why Are Boulder Problems Graded?

Put simply, bouldering grading scales were developed as a way to quickly express the relative difficulty of a problem for climbers who have never tackled the route before. They help to give climbers an idea about which problems they could almost certainly climb, which ones will test them, and which ones would be too hard.

Grading boulder problems also makes it easier to compare between boulders and bouldering locations.

Indoor vs Outdoor

The first thing to understand is that it’s quite difficult to apply your understanding of grading indoors to outdoors and vice versa. Indoor grades are often ‘easier’ than their equivalent outdoor grades, especially at the lower grades.

There are a couple of reasons for this, firstly, indoor grades are decided by a small team who set the problems, rather than decided and confirmed by decades of climbers. Secondly, indoor grades tend to be made slightly easier to make indoor climbing more accessible. With this in mind, a problem grade you can complete easily indoors, may be a lot harder when you try the same grade outdoors. So remember to always climb with someone more experienced than you and don’t push yourself beyond a safe level of challenge. 

The Grades

Ok so we’re into the technical part, bare with us, it’s a little complicated but we’ll try and simplify things as much as possible. 

The three main grading methods used in the UK are; V Grades, English Technical Grades, and Fontainebleau Grades. They can be summarised as so:

  • V Grades: attempts to convey the overall difficulty of a problem
  • Fontainebleau Grades: also attempt to convey the overall difficulty of a problem but things get pretty confusing at the lower end of the scale. 
  • British Technical Grades: conveys the difficulty of the hardest technical move on the problem

bouldering grades

V Grades

The first thing to know about the V Scale is that it is unlimited. This means that there is no top difficulty, rather the highest possible grade will increase as the accomplishments in the sport of bouldering increases. Starting at grade V0, the V Grade scale currently reaches a maximum of V17. Typically you have to go outside for the real high grade problem, climbing walls tend to max out at around V10.

Conceptually, the V Scale is very straightforward - the higher the number, the harder the problem. However, things can get a little bit more complex, and you may see grades postfixed with a “+” or a “-” to further describe the difficulty of a problem. For example:

  • V3+ is harder than a V3
  • V3 is harder than a V3-
  • V4- is harder than a V3+

As a beginner, you may even come across a level called a VB - the B here simply stands for “basic” or “beginner” and describes a route even easier than a V0. 

“+” or a “-” postfixes tend to be applied to the lower half of the V Scale, moving up, each grade has it’s own range of difficulty. For example, there are “hard” V8s and there are “soft” V8s. This occurs when though a V8 might be harder than most other V8s, it might not be so much harder that it requires a V9 rating.

Font Scale (Fontainebleau)

The Font Scale is unlimited just like the V Scale. Starting at 1, the scale progresses upwards but it is rare to find grades easier than a 3. Quite simply, the higher the number, the more challenging the problem. 

However, there is a key difference compared to the V Scale. Beyond grade 6, suffixes are added to the simple number grades to indicate more subtle changes in difficulty. 

The first suffix that can be added to a grade on the Font Scale, are one of three possible letters; A, B or C. The later the letter in the alphabet, the harder the grade. So a 6C would be harder than a 6A. 

To complicate things even further, a “+” can be added to the letter to indicate further change in difficulty. A “+” is used to indicate a small change in difficulty that wouldn’t be significant enough to warrant using a letter. For example, a 6A+ is harder than a 6A, but a 6B is harder than a 6A+. Clear? Good.

British Technical Grades

British Technical Grades is probably the least commonly used system, but we wanted to include it in this guide so you could hold your own if it does ever present itself!

Technical Graders are designed to give an indication of the hardest move that will be encountered during the problem. The grades give no indication of how many moves there may be or how strenuous the overall problem is.

The grading scale usually starts at 4a, and runs as follows; 4a, 4b, 4c, 5a, 5b, 5c, 6a, 6b, 6c, 7a, 7b. Higher the number and letter, harder the move. It is another example of an open ended scale, but coming across a 7a is pretty rare. 

And there we go! We hope this guide helps and now you’re clued up on the grading scales, check out our blogs for the best Bouldering spots in the Lake District and Peak District.

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