Does the Type of Landing Surface Matter?

PART 3 – What is the Best Landing Surface for Indoor Climbing Facilities?

The best landing surface for an indoor climbing facility is dependent upon the needs, conditions, and type of usage. It should be able to absorb the shock of a climber’s fall and distribute the impact across a large surface area to reduce the energy their body endures and lessen the chance of injury. In part 3, we will determine what is the best landing surface for indoor climbing facilities.

Not all landing surfaces are created equal. Some can be soft and flexible. While others may be firm and rigid. Proper landing surfaces should not be so squishy and uneven that they become tiresome to stand and walk on, have seams that gap and buckle, edges that spread, or soft spots in landing zones. These conditions could increase the likelihood of a falling climber landing awkwardly resulting in an injury.

Top-rope and lead climbers are attached to a rope and have a belayer. When climbing an auto belay, as the name infers, the climber is connected to a mechanical belay system. The belay  provides the primary impact mitigation that helps lessen the potential injury risks of ground impact. The landing surface is essentially a “back-up” to the belay or belay system when a belay is utilized.

Lead climbers are not effectively protected from a potential ground fall by the belay until they have clipped the second or third anchor/quickdraw in most indoor climbing facilities. Therefore, the risk of impacting the ground from 15 to 20 feet high is realistic. While top-rope and auto belay climbing theoretically protect a climber from the ground, there is always the risk that human error could result in falling to the ground.

When bouldering every fall is a ground fall. Therefore, the landing surface is the primary system that mitigates the impact of any contact with the floor. The height a boulderer will fall in an indoor facility is usually no greater than 10 to 15 feet.  They will fall or drop to the ground every time they climb. Of course, the higher from which they fall, the greater the risk of injury due to the increased force of the impact. That is why it is recommended to utilize downclimbing holds when bouldering in order to decrease the distance of a fall and lessen the risk of injury.

A proper landing surface must look at several components such as practicality, durability, economy, and effectiveness. One of the most common materials used for landing surfaces in indoor climbing facilities is foam padding. The padding is often multi-layered, combining high density closed-cell foam for proper support, durability, and energy restitution (think easier to walk on) and soft open-cell foam for adequate cushioning and energy absorption. It is normally covered by vinyl, nylon, or carpet to protect the foam and keep it contained.

Another alternative found in some climbing facilities is shredded rubber. It can strike a balance between force reduction, energy dissipation, durability, and affordability . The versatile ergonomic characteristics of shredded rubber provide effective injury mitigation. Landing into the loose rubber absorbs the impact and tends to dissipate the force away from where the body part hits the surface by moving and redistributing the impact energy away from the individual better than foam.

Shredded rubber is also a low-cost alternative, easy to install, and simple to replace. Simply raking and maintaining the areas at the base of the climbing wall will keep plenty of rubber in the fall zones. If it becomes overly compacted, tilling it with a rake, hoe, or other garden tool will “fluff it up.” Rather than replacing the entire facilities landing surface, shredded rubber can merely be added to maintain depth, density, and effectiveness. Shredded rubber mitigates both immediate and long-term consequences of the constant impact that occurs in indoor climbing facilities. It is durable. and is a great alternative to other traditional surfacing options. It will not fade, tear, rip, stain, rot, compress, break down, or lose its original look, even after years of use and exposure to the environment. However, it does tend to end up in shoes, pockets, and spreads all over other surfaces and needs swept back into place.

The thickness of a landing surface is a critical factor. The height of the climbing wall and the types of falls that are likely to occur should be considered when determining a landing surface’s thickness. There are no viable alternatives available for indoor climbing facilities that can guarantee a completely safe fall from 30, 40, or 50 feet. So, it is best to determine at what height most ground falls could actually occur and design a landing surface that can best mitigate injuries from that height.

Because of the frequency, height, and nature of bouldering falls, covered dual-density foam padding or mats that are approximately 1-inch thick for every foot of climbing wall is most common. So, a wall where 12 foot falls are possible should have around a 12-inch thick landing surface. Because shredded rubber tends to move, potentially creating soft spots, it is not as effective in bouldering areas.

The size, shape, and placement of the landing area is another important consideration. It should be large enough to accommodate falls from all heights, overhangs, and angles. It should also be clear of any obstacles that could cause additional injury, such as protruding objects and edges. There must be adequate coverage for any potential fall. This may mean extending the padding beyond the base of the wall or placing additional padding in areas where falls are more likely to occur.

Landing surfaces should also be level and free of any gaps or seams in the padding. A level surface will reduce the risk of ankle injuries or tripping hazards, while a seamless surface will reduce the risk of feet, hands, fingers, or toes getting caught in the gaps and creating greater risks of injury. Maintaining the landing surface is important because it will compress and break down over time. This reduces its ability to absorb the impact of a fall. Shredded rubber can merely be “fluffed up” and doesn’t break down like foam. However, it is essential to regularly inspect, maintain, and replace any landing surface to ensure that it remains safe and effective.

Routine maintenance may include replacing damaged or compressed foam padding, filling in gaps or seams in the padding, and regularly cleaning the surface to prevent the buildup of dirt or debris. The surface should not look unkept and unsightly. Regular maintenance will not only ensure the safety of climbers but will also prolong the lifespan of the landing surface.

It is important to ensure that climbers are aware of the proper techniques for falling. Falling is a natural and inevitable part of climbing, but there are ways to minimize the risk of injury. Climbers should be taught to fall in a controlled manner, with their arms and legs positioned to protect their head and neck. Climbers should also be encouraged to communicate with their belayer or spotter, indicating when they are about to fall and where they will be falling. This will help the belayer or spotter to prepare for the fall and assist the climber landing.

The landing surfaces in indoor climbing facilities must have a balance between injury mitigation, performance, durability, and affordability. A number of factors must be considered to determine the best type of surface to meet the needs and usage of the facility. The type of landing surface in an indoor climbing facility does matter.

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