People who own a home climbing wall, staff at smaller climbing facilities, or people who just are getting into route setting may not receive adequate training on route setting. These instructions are intended to demonstrate how to create a basic bouldering problem for people who are untrained or under trained in route setting. You will learn how to plan, organize, implement, and finalize setting a route . After following the steps, you will be able to set a entry level boulder problem in a safe and effective manner.
Before you begin, make sure you meet the following criteria.
- Understand bouldering grades
- Understand different hold types
- Permission to set routes
- Familiarity with facilities policies and regulations
I have been climbing for over ten years, and route setting for many of those years. While working for a climbing wall, I've witnessed common problems with route setting and ways to prevent them. Also, I own a home bouldering wall, which has allowed me to expand my route setting knowledge. My years of experience have taught me many tricks and tips to aid in setting successful climbing routes.
Throughout these instructions, there will be comments within the pictures.
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Step 1: Materials
- Climbing Holds
- 3/8"-16 Bolts
- 7/32" Allen Wrench (Small Wrench)
- 5/16" Allen Wrench (Large Wrench)
- 3/8"-16 Tap
- Wood Screws
- Electric Screwdriver
- Various Tape Colors (Optional)
- Safety Glasses
Holds should be chosen that are appropriate for the wall angle and ability of the climber. More information on the specifics can be found on the hold manufacture's website. The hold set used in these instructions are primarily from So-Ill. Other similar holds can be found at the website of So-Ill, E-Grips, Atomik, Metolius, Teknik, and many other manufacturers. Each manufacturer has their own uniqueness to their holds, and it's personal preference what you decide to use.
The standard method to fasten holds to a wall uses 3/8"-16 bolts. Typically there will be various lengths and two different styles of bolts, socket head and flat head. The flat head have a tapered end and resemble the shape of a martini glass while the socket heads are the shape of a cylinder. Holds that have a lower profile tend to use the flat head bolts whereas larger holds with washers use the socket head. Flat head bolts use a 7/32" Allen wrench and socket heads use a 5/16" Allen wrench. Occasionally when bolting on holds, a 3/8"-16 tap is required to clean and realign the threads of the t-nuts that holds attach.
The third type of fasteners required are wood screws. Some holds will only be attached with screws or with screws and a bolt. In order to use the wood screws, an electric screwdriver is required. The same style of screws should be used for all routes to make setting smoother. They shouldn't change from Torx to Phillips or any other type of screw.
Marking routes should be done with tape or using the same color hold, monochromatic setting. Gaffers tape is an excellent choice for marking routes. It doesn't glare like duct tape and leave residue. Some gyms may have other methods to mark routes, and whatever method used should be preserved with new routes.
Step 2: Find Location to Set Route
After ensuring all the tools and materials to set routes are available, start planning the route to be set. Look at the wall and choose a path that the route should follow to the finish. Remember, this isn't picking which bolt holes you are going to use, just a general idea where the route will go. Some things that might influence the path are natural features, steepness of the wall, and adjacent routes. Those features can affect the grade of the route. A route within a dihedral allows climbers to stem, and will require different holds and styles of climbing than a route that is on only overhang. The route may end up deviating from where you originally wanted to go, which is a part of the process.
If you are attempting to set at a certain grade, the steepness of the wall will drastically change the difficulty of the routes. Holds used on a vertical or slab wall will be much more difficult to grab when used on an overhung wall.
Step 3: Locate Potential Hazards
An important aspect of route setting is keeping the climbers safe. After choosing a path up the wall, look around the area for objects that the climber could hit when they fall or while moving on the route. There may be a volume, large modular hold, from a different route that a climber could strike if they slip off. Sometimes routes set near the ends of the wall have adjacent structures that can become hazards. As a route setter, you want to mitigate the risks of climbing and avoid unnecessarily dangerous moves.
Step 4: Determine Holds to Use
Picking holds to be used routes can be difficult. To make hold selection easier, eliminate holds that are physically unusable on the proposed route path. They may be holds that are too big, too small, or are not grabbable at the wall's angle. Then narrow down the selection even more by selecting a theme for the route. Should the route use holds with deep edges being used as sidepulls? Maybe the route should have unstable slopers and precise foot movements? The size and shape of the holds will often determine whether the route will have powerful big movements on good holds or slow controlled movements on small holds. Think carefully about how hard it would be to use the holds on the wall you want to place them. This will also help in determining what the grade will be. Whatever the theme is, attempt to make it consistent throughout the route. If selecting a theme is difficult or there is a really large hold selection, look at and touch different holds, there may be a set of holds that is visually or physically appealing that would be great to set with.
Routes with holds that change texture, shape category, and color are considered bad style, and should not be set unless the setter is experienced and knowledgeable.
Step 5: Set a Work Time
By setting a work time, the climbers will not have an unexpected shut down of their favorite climbing section. Try to work on an area at a time people don't typically climb. Clients will be appreciative because they will have new climbs when they arrive and they won't have to climb in other areas that they don't prefer. Also, when you set a work time, make it a point to be finished by a certain time. If you're struggling to set a route in a timely manner, it may be helpful to cooperatively set a route with another person. As a climber, it can be frustrating to start climbing on what is believed to be a new route only to find that it's unfinished.
Step 6: Gather Holds
Now that a plan has been established for setting the route, it's time to organize the materials. Sort through the hold selection and pick out holds that may be used on the route. While picking out holds, think of the types of movements the climber could do with the holds. Larger holds can be used for big moves while smaller holds tend to be more precise and controlled. Having more holds than you need is beneficial because holds can be swapped out if the climbing sequences are not working as intended.
Some of the organizational steps may already be complete. If they are, verify that the step has been followed through completely.
Step 7: Find Correct Fasteners
After all the possible holds have been set aside, It's important to find the correct fasteners for the holds.There are typically three common ways that holds are attached to climbing walls, which are flat head bolts, socket head bolts, and wood screws.
When holds are put onto a route with the incorrect fastener, holds can break, t-nuts get damaged, holds become stuck, holds are loose, wall structure get damaged, climbers get injured, and spectators get injured. These are only a few worst case situations, but many others could arise just from using the wrong fastener. When a hold breaks it results in a lost hold, which can be expensive, and it can creates a safety hazard too. Broken holds could fall off the wall and strike someone, causing injury. Also, the broken hold could injure the climber by cutting him/her on a sharp edge. Fasteners of incorrect lengths can also damage the wall and t-nuts by wrecking threads or pressing into the structure behind. Correct fasteners must be used or the route set can become a disaster!
The two most common holds use 3/8"-16 bolts as a fastener. The diameter is 3/8 inch and there are 16 threads per inch. The climbing wall should have the bolts required on-hand, and it normally isn't necessary to know the specifications of the bolts for setting. What is important is the use of the correct type of bolt for each hold. A flat head bolt, shaped like a martini glass, is used with holds having a tapered bolt slot and a socket head bolt is used with holds that have a metal washer or are flat within the bolt hole. Once the type of bolt is determined, bolts should be paired up with the holds that use them. Make sure that the bolt goes through the hold far enough to use all the threads of the t-nut that it attaches. If the wall is 3/4" thick, the bolt should stick through the hold at minimum 3/4", allowing the bolt threads to contact all the t-nut threads. However, bolts can be too long. Some bolts have a smooth shaft near the head of the bolt. If that smooth shaft starts to enter the t-nut, the t-nut can be damaged and make hold difficult to remove later and may prevent the hold from being completely tightened. Other possibilities of using excessively long bolts are wasting time setting/removing holds, damaging structure behind wall, and eliminating long bolts from holds that need them.
The third method of attaching holds uses wood screws. Some holds will have small drilled holes that allow screws to pass through and attach the hold to the wall. Occasionally, a hold will have both a bolt hole and screw hole. The screw normally prevents the hold from spinning or pulling away from the wall and the bolt is the primary fastener. Much like bolts, the screws need to be an appropriate length. They should protrude from the hold at similar lengths to bolts. If the screws do not go in far enough through the hold, they could be torn out of the wall, sending a hold with sharp screws flailing through the air with a climber not far behind.
If the correct fasteners are not found before setting begins, the route could go unfinished or holds get put up lazily to finish the route. Also, bolts with threads that are damaged should be discarded and not returned with other usable bolts.
Step 8: Gather Tools
During the planning phase all the materials needed should have been accounted. It is now time to gather the tools required for setting. Place all the tools in a spot that can be accessed readily. It is wasteful of time to be running back and forth to get the right tool. Tools may even have belt loops or other ways of keeping them within reach to prevent wasting time. Be careful not to put tools in places that people or objects could fall on them. Caution tape or construction cones can be used to designate a working area.
There may be some tools not listed that are required. One common tool used in gyms is a ladder. Be very cautious when using a ladder and never leave materials on it. For information on using a ladder safely, visit OSHA's website.
Step 9: Layout Holds to Be Used
Start the setting process by laying out the holds in the order you want them to go onto the wall. While laying out the holds, focus should be on the rotation and order of the holds to create specific climber movements. Leave the spacing between holds for when they actually get attached to the wall. However, it is good to have an idea of the spacing to approximate how many holds will be needed, just don't lay them out with the spacing they will be likely be attached. Once the hold layout is done, it will be easier to visualize the movements the climbers will have to make and the sequence in which they must use the holds.
Step 10: Attach Starting Holds
Begin the route by attaching its starting holds. Keep the holds within reach of your average climbers and don't make the start of the route the crux, which is the hardest move. When the start is the crux of the route, people will become discouraged and give up on climbing it. This will make your setting efforts valueless. Instead, make the starting holds slightly easier to use than the average holds on the route, allowing climbers to become established on the route.
While attaching the starting holds, ensure that the bolt is perpendicular to the wall so that the threads of the bolt line up with the threads of the t-nut. Bolts that go in at an angle can destroy the threads of the t-nut, causing huge set backs in the setting process. Also, do not force the bolt to thread through the t-nut. Sometimes threads of t-nuts are damaged or dirty and require a tap to be ran through them in order to realign or clean the threads (There is a picture of a tap above being used on a dirty t-nut). Once again, like a bolt, do not force the tap through the t-nut. The tap may require it to be threaded in and out incrementally to effectively clean/realign the threads. If the bolt is aligned with the t-nut and threads easily, continue fastening the hold. Near the end of the fastening, grip the hold in the position it should be in and tighten the hold so it cannot spin. After setting a few routes, setters get a feel for how tight is appropriate to prevent the hold from spinning.
New setters should avoid using and electric driver to attach holds until they are familiar with what to expect while setting. Electric drivers can strip t-nuts very rapidly and cause drastic measures to be taken to remove a stuck hold.
Step 11: Attach Hand Holds
With the starting holds in place, begin attaching hand holds sequentially. Place holds with intention of making the climber move in a particular way. To get ideas for movements, it may be helpful to watch people climbing at the gym or in climbing videos. Don't be overly concerned with foot holds as of now. Frequently hand holds serve a double purpose and are used as foot holds as well. On steeper walls, holds need to be closer together since gravity will be constantly pulling the climbers body away from the wall as opposed to a vertical wall, where the climber is being pulled down the wall. Climbers come in all shapes and sizes too. Holds need to spaced within a reasonable distance for the average climber. If you are tall or have a long arm-span, avoid placing holds at a distance of your maximum reach. Instead place holds at a distance where your arms can remain bent. A route that is difficult because holds are placed far apart will alienate climbers that are shorter than average or have a shorter reach. Alternatively, adjust difficulty of routes by changing holds or moving feet. Occasionally moves can be tested during the setting process, but it should be done on a limited basis. Otherwise too much time and energy will be spent developing the route. Not every climber can be kept happy with every route, but with practice, routes can be made that appeal to each person.
There are other methods of route setting. The method in these instructions work for a broad audience.
Step 12: Attach Footholds
Directly after setting the hand holds, the route will be at its highest difficulty and may have abrupt movements. In order to allow the route to be climbed smoothly, without many jarring movements, foot holds can be added throughout. Foot holds also help fine tune the difficulty of the route. With the handholds set, there should be anticipated movements during the climbing of the route. While thinking about these movements, try to visualize where the climbers feet will be and how they should be used. If there are hand holds that can be used as foot holds, then there doesn't need to be another foot hold. On the other hand, if there isn't a foot hold where the climber needs to step to get to the next move, then a foot hold should be added. They can also be added to bring holds within reach of climbers and to make some movements less powerful, typically reducing the grade of the route. Caution should be used with using larger foot holds. When footholds are too large, they can become hand holds, allowing climbers to bypass certain parts of the route.
If the grade of the routes doesn't need much adjustment, but a foot hold needs to be added, worse foot holds can be selected that are harder to use, just like hand holds.
Step 13: Tape the Route
With all the holds on the route, they now need to marked. Frequently climbing facilities mark their routes with tape. Gaffers tape is an excellent choice for tape, as it does not reflect light and adheres very well. Although any tape that sticks to the wall can be used. Start of routes normally have an upside down "V" taped to the wall with the convergence point of the two lines touching the starting holds. An alternative to taped "V"s are route identification cards next to starting holds. Typically the route finishes will also be marked with a "V" like the start hold, or use a taped box around the finish. All the other holds that compose the route should have short segments of tape taped next to them at an angle. If an aesthetically pleasant look is desired, then all the tape can be the same length and same angle. However, the tapes purpose is to denote the holds on a route, so tape may be placed at different angles, allowing the climbers to identify the holds they can use. No matter which way the tape is placed, make sure that it adheres to the wall by firmly pressing on the tape. Also, the tape needs to be long enough to be visible when climbing, but not too long that climbers constantly kick it and roll it up.
There are many variations to route marking, and whatever is standard to the climbing facility should be used. One such variation is using only the same colored holds, referred to as monochromatic setting.
Step 14: Climb the Route As Intended
Most of the setting should be done now. The last part of setting a good boulder problem is testing the route, known as forerunning. For this step the route should be climbed as intended. However, while climbing the route, note where holds feel awkward, too far away, too close, and don't exist. There is a possibility that there was a different sequence that would have been easier to climb too. Sometimes the routes grade or the way it was intended to be climbed doesn't turn out as desired. These will be locations to make adjustments to the route.
The final steps may need to be repeated several times to achieve a quality product.
Step 15: Make Adjustments
The problem areas with the route have been identified, and now adjustments need to be made. Holds should be rotated, moved, removed, added, and swapped to compensate for the undesired sections of the route. After all the changes have been made, climb the route again, while taking note of the same things as the initial climb.
Step 16: Attempt to Climb Route to Verify Grade
The route is close to completion and should be climbed with unintended movements. By doing this step, the difficulty of the route can be verified. Any movement that isn't intended should be more difficult or not change the difficulty. If the climbers can bypass moves to make the route easier, the route may need to be changed. The route setter will have to determine if the unintended moves should be incorporated into the route or eliminated. Depending on how much time should be invested into each route, changes may or may not be made.
Sometimes the final route ends up being completely different than initially planned. There is a possibility that the route just doesn't work and the setting process will need to start over. Before getting to that point, get a few different opinions from other setters. They may have a few ideas to salvage the route and thwart starting from scratch.
Whoever is responsible for route setting will have final say on whether routes are acceptable
Step 17: Label and Grade the Problem
After the exhaustive setting process, the approximate grade of the route should be known. Grades can be subjective to the climber, and may need many people to climb it to solidify its actual grade. Until the route has seen multiple climbs by different people, the setter should mark the route using the facilities labelling and grading system.