I started setting routes in the small bouldering gym of our climbing club. I'm basically learning by doing this, so my approach is basically to try to think of some interesting moves, put up the holds and then tweak the route. Pretty often, this includes finding out that the move I intended doesn't work, or that there is a shortcut that completely takes away the challenge.

So my question is: How do I get from trial-and-error route setting to something more systematic? Are there any important points to consider when starting route setting? Even though my context is bouldering, I'm also happy about any hints that apply to route climbing.

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    I hope indoor climbing is on-topic, since it is specifically NOT an outdoor activity. And most artificial walls are indoors...
    – anderas
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 10:58

2 Answers 2


It is a lot of trial and error. Setting bouldering problems tends to be easier since they are shorter.

The biggest thing to consider is height. Assuming you are reasonably tall individual, solicit feedback from some of the strong junior climbers. They will often be able to tell you where they need an extra foot chip to make a reach or even use it as a hand hold to make a bump. One rule of thumb is if you cannot make the reach with your elbow, the move is too long. If you are short, it is often very hard to judge just how far a tall person can reach.

Another thing to consider is injury potential. Reaches around features can cause people to bend in weird ways and odd body parts to rub against the wall. No one likes banging an elbow/knee when they fall or rubbing their wrist raw.

Gimmick moves are over rated. I would avoid trying to set move that requires a knee bar, figure four, dyno, or heel hook. Just stick with straight forward moves that flow.

Setting below your max grade is much easier than setting at, or even worse above, your max climbing grade. Everyone needs to warm up so good easy routes/problems will not go to waste.

Overly tweaking a move is generally not a good thing. If the quality/difficulty of the move changes drastically with a few degree change in a hold, it is probably not a great move. Eventually, the clean hold will get slimy and it might even twist a bit, essentially reversing all your tweaking. Further everyone climbs differently and has different reaches and balance points. Making a move fit you exactly, or not fit you, does not mean it will fit/not fit other people.

Makes routes consist of moves of consistent difficulty (and quality). No one wants a route with a single killer move.

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    I agree with your last point: Constant difficulty is much better than a single crux. And tailoring boulders to your specific height and style. However I strongly disagree with your position on what you call "tweaking" and "gimmick moves". Holds that cannot be held regardless of body position are great if used consciously, holds/feet that are redundant (i.e. even a small climber might skip) don't add anything to a route and heel hooking is certainly not gimmicky in bouldering. Interesting routes are those, were the routesetter had an idea when setting. People will anyway find ways to deviate.
    – imsodin
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 10:02
  • @imsodin I agree, but to a beginner route setter, these are hard concepts to master. Further, there is often a strong desire to do these things as a setter and it is possible to set good moves without them.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 21:17

Forcing moves is one of the hardest things to accomplish in route setting.

In general, setting easy routes is easy, setting hard routes is even easier, but setting beta specific intermediate routes can be next to impossible.

One of the most effective methods I've found for establishing interesting problems that force specific beta is to play take-away. To play, designate your starting hold and your end hold, then get bunch of guys to climb with. At the beginning everyone is climbing open holds, but each time someone climbs, they get to choose one hold to take away from the problem, and no one is allowed to use that hold anymore. Every time the problem is climbed it gets more and more challenging, and the beta gets more and more specific. This method of problem setting helps eliminate those alternate solutions to a problem, because if you notice a bunch of people all using the same hold to get through a part, you can take it away and force them to do something different.

Something I'd do to force moves, was to place holds so they could only be held in one very specific position. Such as using slopers on an overhang, people can't hang from slopers from specific angles, so they're forced to think more about body position and footwork. Avoid using too many jugs when setting problems, because stronger climbers can just campus through them, swing their bodies around, or dyno to the next jug, etc.

One of my favorite things to do was put jugs on the wall in a way that made them anything but juggy to hang onto, like putting them on upside down or backwards. This forces people to think about the hold differently, and use it as a sloper, undercling, gaston or crimp. People tend to get too familiar with climbing holds, for example, if I see a teknik fatty-fat pinch in a route, I know exactly what I'm in for. But from the right angle, that fatty fat can transform from a fat pinch to a dirty sloper. Use a hold differently than it's normally used and you can change the dynamic of the problem.

One dirty trick you can play on people is stick a really juicy jug in the problem that distracts them from the proper solution the to the problem.

There's nothing really systematic about route setting. It's more of an art than an exact science. You need imagination, or you need inspiration. Watch some bouldering competions online, or better yet, go participate in a competition. Climbing a variety of problems helps you bring a greater variety of potential problems back to your gym. Climbing outdoors gives you a lot of inspiration too. It's common for people to duplicate the crux of their latest project so the can practice it in the gym, then go flash it on the boulder.

  • The last two sentences are one thing that I tried, and that worked reasonably well. But in winter, access to outdoor routes for inspiration is a bit hard/cold :-(
    – anderas
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 11:00
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    @anderas People up here will boulder year round. It is cold, but people will take turns. They'll all sit in the car where it's warm and tackle the rock one at a time. But that's at Frank Slide, which is the worlds biggest roadside bouldering crag.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 0:33

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