I started bouldering only a few months ago actually, after moving to the Netherlands and realising it seems to be the thing for every other person here. I didn’t have much expectations and mostly went for the company the frist time because I met someone who was into it, but sooner than I knew the sport took me with it and ther’s no going back anymore. I seriously don’t know if I’ve ever felt as genuinely happy doing any sport – I’m excited everytime I go,and look forward to progressing and getting stronger and better, while having a good time with a cool bunch of people. What else can you ask for?
Recently one of said cool people asked me if I want to join them on a bouldering trip to France. I immediately said yes without having any notion about why France specifically or what outdoor bouldering even entitles, but later learnt that Fontainebleau is one of the biggest outdoor bouldering spots in Europe, and people travel there from all over. It was also the first time bouldering outdoors for all of us, so it was very much a learn-as-you-go experience. In case you also happen to be planning your first bouldering trip to Fontainebleau, here’s my five cents for preparing.
1. Getting there
Fontainebleau is located about an hour’s drive away from Paris, so it’s in a pretty accessible location geographically. However, the national park is located outside of the actual city of Fontainebleau, so getting around to the bouldering spots without a car might be quite tricky. I would definitely recommend either traveling there by car, or renting one in Paris (or maybe even Fontainebleau). Also, if you are driving and not coming from Paris, I recommend avoiding getting anywhere near Paris, especially during rush hours. Paris already has a bad reputation in many people’s minds, and the périphérique during rush hour will definitely not make you think better about it.
If you are staying in Paris and want to just take a day trip to Fontainebleau, you won’t need to think about extra accomodation as the drive is quite short. If you travel to Fontainebleau specifically for a bouldering trip though, you could either stay in Fontainebleau itself, which is quite a small town but has some accomodation options, or go camping. Personally I did the latter and find that it’s a nicer experience for a nature trip, there are a few campsites around the area and I can definitely recommend the Camping Ile de Boulancourt. The campsite was really nice, with good facilities and even a common kitchen.
3. What to pack
So what do you need for bouldering outdoors? One absolute essential is a crash pad – unlike at the gym, if you fall, you fall straight on the
ground, and in the worst case on other rocks or roots. To stay safe, it’s crucial to have a crash pad that you can carry around and fall on. You don’t necessarily need to have your own though: a lot of places such as the campsites rent crash pads. Another item I find quite essential is the Fontainebleau bouldering guidebook. The bouldering spots are spread all over the forest and are located quite far from each other so you will need to drive around if you want to test different spots. The maps are really handy to know where to drive, but specifically on site to find the right rocks for your level. The bouldering spots are not marked with signs leading to them, and I seriously don’t know how we would have found them without the guidebook. Additionally, each route is marked with a number that corresponds to the number in the book, so you can check what level it is.
Then of course you will need your normal bouldering gear, chalk (although I found myself using it way less than indoors), shoes, and long pants preferably (cheesegrating yourself at the gym in one thing, the rocks are way less forgiving), water, and some sort of snack to keep those energy levels high. Tape and plasters are also good to have because rocks are rougher than the boulders at the gym, and some sports tape might be handy just in case you start hurting. Finally, depending on what season you are going, mosquito repellent and sunscreen will make your life a lot easier, and tick tweezers are good to carry with you just in case.
4. Other safety measures and considerations
If you have been bouldering indoors before, you’re probably wondering how different or more difficult bouldering outdoors will feel. Personally, I didn’t find it more difficult – just different. Some things that made it seem even easier at times are that stone sometimes has a better grip, and that there are way more options for where to hold onto than on a built route. At the same time, because nature does what nature wants, grips wouldn’t always be as comfortable as those specifically shaped for your hands and feet, and getting down was sometimes more challenging. I would say however that the levels indicated in the book didn’t correspond to my level at the gym at all, and I am not sure whether it is because bouldering outdoors is more difficult, or because there’s differences in grading systems. At the gym, my level would be roughly between 5b and 6a, whereas outdoors I managed to get to a maximum 3c if I remember correctly.
One last comment: Always go bouldering outdoors with someone else. At the gym, there’s always staff and other people ready to help you in case of emergency, but if you’re alone in the forest, you can get in serious trouble. Having at least one person with you is also important to prevent getting in such trouble in the first place: in addition to the crash pad, you should always have another person ready to spot you if you fall and ensure you don’t hit yourself too hard or on something dangerous. And hey, bouldering really is always more fun with a group anyway, right?