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The Story Behind France's Craze for Bouldering

Picture of Alex Ledsom
Updated: 28 July 2017

Bouldering is a form of rock climbing done without ropes and it’s hugely popular in France. Here’s our guide on what it is, the kinds of people who do it, and where the best sites can be found. Check out our video above for a cinematic look at bouldering in Fontainebleau!

What is Bouldering?

Boulder climbing or “bouldering” is where you climb very large rocks without a harness or any kind of equipment. It’s a bit like rock climbing, but you usually do it on rocks near the ground. It might sound easier, but it can be very tricky because you only have yourself to rely on, not the equipment. It’s a great challenge to people seeking a new thrill. It’s the new craze sweeping France.

Bouldering near Vicdessos in the midi-Pyrenees.

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Who Are These People?

There’s a big culture behind bouldering. Locals near the main sites across France have been doing it for years and make it look simple. Enthusiasts love it because you can still do it if you suffer from vertigo and without much equipment. It’s also easy to get started, and you don’t need any experience. That said, it can be scary. The hardest thing can be the “top out” when you climb onto the top of the boulder. It can hurt like hell when you fall and give you a shock. It isn’t an easy thing to do and there’s a real sense of achievement when you complete the routes; sometimes it’s also a challenge to work out the right route. It’s also extremely physical—you might be left with cuts and bruised hands, even if you don’t fall. It’s a great adrenaline rush and many boulder climbers are keen rock climbers, who’ve turned to bouldering for a different sort of buzz.

Where Are the Best Places to Do it in France?

France is a great place to climb boulders. It has a great climate, a ton of rock in beautiful locations, a number of boulders with differing varieties of difficulty, and most of its rock is limestone (considered one of the best types of rock to climb). Fontainebleau, just outside of Paris, is widely regarded as the best site in Europe, if not worldwide. The forest here is expansive and covers 900 square kilometers. Since the 19th century, it’s been a training ground for Alpine climbers, but now bouldering is the number one activity across the site. It’s called “Font” by the British climbers and “Bleu” by the French and offers a dazzling array of routes and levels. Another great area is Targassonne, near the Spanish border. This area has granite rocks of different abilities but it’s at an altitude of over 1600 meters so you’ll need to go in milder weather (summer). It’s known locally as “the chaos” and is considered the second best location for bouldering after Fontainebleau. People also love La Prieure, near Montpellier, in southern France, but if you have a family and want to combine bouldering with other activities, head to Kerlouan, where you can climb on the sandy beaches.

The Essentials

You’ll need rubber-soled climbing shoes, chalk for putting on your hands to make sure they stay dry, and a crash pad or foam mattress to keep safe. Then the only other thing you’ll need is a ticket to one of the sites around France and someone to go with (or you can join an organized group). Make sure you stay together to help each other and help to position crash pads. For more information, check out the Climb Europe site here. Happy climbing!