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Crash Pad Review – No 214 – August 2002

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Bombs away —Jumping into the best all-around crash pads

Like most great inventions, the crash pad is slap-your-forehead simple. Take some sturdy slabs of foam, cover with durable fabric, attach shoulder straps and handles for maneuverability, and place the pad between yourself and the ground. Duh. You’d be an idiot to boulder without one.

Yet until quite recently (the first commercial crash pads date from 1993) most boulderers never considered cushioning their falls. I certainly didn’t, and have mushy knees and a badly healed broken ankle to prove it.

Today, stupidity is no excuse for not using a crash pad — there are over 30 models ranging from $90 to $355, some as portable as daypacks, others so big they require a minivan or pickup truck to transport. Like me, you probably need some help to narrow down all the options. This spring I hit the road with a posse of 13 of the most popular, standard-sized pads (approximately 3 feet by 4 feet), and fell off scores of problems at Bishop, California, and Joe’s Valley, Utah. Over time, the differences between the pads became clear — some provided bone-saving protection from 10-foot falls, others were little more than picnic seats that bottomed out from five feet up. Here is what I looked for during my tests:

Foam quality. Often ignored, foam is the first thing you should think about when buying a pad. The padding varies between brands, and it’s no surprise that good foam lasts longer and cushions falls better.

Inside a crash pad (open the zipper or Velcro seam along one side) are two or more layers of foam of two different densities: closed-cell on the top and open-cell on the bottom. The thin, stiff closed-cell layer acts like the skin of a drum, dissipating the force of impact. The thick, spongy open-cell layer acts as a brake, slowing you down and absorbing the shock of a fall. At first glance it’s hard to tell good foam from bad, and I came to learn the differences in cushioning and durability only after weeks of testing.

Some climbers like a very firm pad, similar to a gymnast’s mat; others, especially if they have wobbly knees like mine, prefer a slightly gentler catch. But beware of pads that are ultra-soft; if the cushioning is too springy, a big fall will bottom out the pad. Also important is shock absorbency. A good pad muffles the force of a fall, rather than bouncing it back. You should feel like you’re landing in a loose sand pit, not on a trampoline.

Sandwich, taco, or burrito design. Crash pads divide into hinged and unhinged designs. A hinged, or sandwich-style, pad has two separate slabs of foam joined by a central fold of fabric, allowing it to pack quickly and stow neatly. Because the foam itself is not being folded, manufacturers can make the cushioning of firmer material. The downsides: Hinged pads don’t have much carrying capacity; if you bring more than just your bouldering gear and lunch, you’ll need a separate day pack to carry your stuff. Also, with the exception of the innovative Metolius pad, they don’t provide seamless fall protection if the hinge straddles a protruding obstacle like a tree trunk or rock.

Unhinged pads are made from a single slab of foam; most fold in half, like a taco, when packed. The main advantage of the taco design is that you can load it with gear like a backpack (straps or flaps close the bottom and keep small items from falling out). The disadvantage: The firmer the foam, the harder the pad is to fold, and folding can stress and weaken the foam in the center of the pad. You can prolong the life of a taco-style pad by storing it in the open position.

A burrito design is an unhinged pad that closes with two or more folds. Burrito models work with jumbo-sized pads and put less severe bends in the foam, but can be complicated and time-consuming to pack.

Bells and whistles. Pads have become increasingly tricked out. Here’s my list of preferred features in descending order of importance.

Metal buckles: Plastic buckles break, and if the female ends are sewn into the pad, they are a chore to replace. The best buckles are metal S-shaped “speed” buckles that hook into a webbing tab.

Carpeted upper: Great for buffing your shoes and lounging around on. Carpet also acts like an extra layer of foam, increasing the pad’s cushion.

Side carrying handle: Helpful when toting a second pad to the boulders, shuttling a pad between sites, or scrambling through narrow passageways.

Waist belt/padded suspension: Most of the pads tested weigh between 9 and 14 pounds. The bigger the pad, the more important a waist belt becomes, but only if you plan on hiking with it for miles.

Accessory pocket: Keeps you from losing your car keys, athletic tape, etc.

The Test Results

Bittersweet Double Wide Summary: Bittersweet is on to something here. Two 1.75-inch-thick, standard-sized pads are sewn together end to end. Lay them out and you have a mat that’s almost 7 feet long — ideal for traversing problems and as a sleeping pad, but too thin for big falls. But when you stack both halves of the Double Wide, you have a 3.5-inch-thick, standard-sized pad with good shock absorption.

The pad lacks a carrying handle, and the speed buckles aren’t very speedy to use, as the webbing eyelets are too small for the metal tabs. Otherwise this is a versatile, innovative design. Bittersweet also make a 41x47x3-inch Single Wide.

Specs: 81x46x1.75 inches (1 inch open-cell, 0.75 inches closed-cell), 12 pounds, carpet, shoulder straps and waist belt, metal buckles, and accessory pocket; burrito design.

Pros: Innovative, variable-size pad.

Cons: Lacks handle; time consuming to pack and unpack; expensive.

Price vs. performance value: B+

Cassin Crash Pad Summary: This no-frills, taco-style pad, has a tough nylon shell, shoulder straps, and basic foam. Its most notable feature: the nice price tag. Six buckles — too many for me — make packing the pad a chore. The landing is a little springy, and the padding feels under-stuffed. Foam quality wasn’t great either; after a couple of sessions the closed-cell foam buckled, making a ridge in the middle of the pad.

Specs: 40.5×47.5×2.75 inches (2 inches open-cell, 0.75 inches closed-cell), 11 pounds, shoulder straps stow away, plastic buckles, handle; taco design.

Pros: Inexpensive.

Cons: Plastic buckles; low-quality foam; underpadded and springy.

Price vs. performance value: C

Cordless D-Lux Pad Summary: Big and beefy, the D-Lux is a great all-around pad. At 48×41.5 inches, the landing area is a little bigger than most standard-sized pads. The foam is good-quality, with just enough give for a soft landing, but stout enough to withstand big impacts. The D-Lux also has metal speed buckles, although they aren’t quite as easy to use as the Metolius and Globe designs.

Other Cordless pads are: All Weather Pad, a stripped-down, urethane-coated version of the D-Lux; the 39x30x3-inch Circuit Pad; the 64x52x5-inch Evel Pad; and the hinged, 46x32x3-inch S7 Pad.

Specs: 48×41.5×3 inches (2 inches open-cell, 1 inch closed-cell), 9.5 pounds, carpet, shoulder straps and waist belt, metal buckles, handle, and accessory pocket; taco design.

Pros: Big pad; lots of features.

Cons: None.

Price vs. performance value: A

Flashed Master Mat Summary: The Master Mat’s most striking feature is its expedition-quality waist belt and shoulder straps. The entire suspension, which borders on overkill, is adjustable and can be removed when you reach the boulders. A little longer than most standard models, the Master Mat folds like a burrito. This gives it a huge gear-carrying capacity and spares the harsh taco-style bending of the foam, but makes it one of the most time-consuming pads to pack, a problem exacerbated by fiddly D-ring buckles.

The Master Mat is upholstered with plush carpet and gives a softer landing than most pads, which I liked because the high-quality foam didn’t bounce back like pads with cheap foam. However, with only 2.75 inches of foam, it’s possible to bottom out the pad on big falls. (The Master Mat is available with an extra inch of foam for an additional charge. Other Flashed Mats include the 54x36x3-inch Sensei and Temple models, and the 78x48x4-inch Chi.

Specs: 56x36x2.75 inches (1.75 inches open-cell, 1 inch closed-cell), 13.5 pounds, carpet, removable shoulder straps and waist belt, metal buckles, and accessory pocket; burrito design.

Pros: Well made; comfortable suspension; soft landing; huge carrying capacity.

Cons: Expensive; awkward to pack; bulky; slightly understuffed; no handle.

Price vs. performance value: B

Franklin Drop Zone Summary: With 3.5 inches of padding, the Drop Zone is one of the beefiest standard-sized pads around. Foam quality is good and, because it’s so thick, gives a gentler catch than some harder, thinner pads. It’s also a hair bigger than most standard-sized pads. Flaps on the top and bottom prevent gear from dropping out of this taco design, but make packing the pad a little tiresome. Metal speed buckles are a great addition, but the hooks on these are too aggressive and don’t release as easily as they should.

Specs: 46x41x3.5 inches (2.5 inches open-cell, 1 inch closed-cell), 10 pounds, removable shoulder straps, metal buckles, handle, and accessory pocket; taco design.

Pros: Lots of cushioning; gentle catch.

Cons: Bulky; not the quickest pad to pack; no carpet.

Price vs. performance value: B+

Globe Ground Control Summary: Well-made and inexpensive, the Ground Control was one of my favorite pads. The shell is doubled with abrasion-resistant urethane at the corners — where most pads wear out first. Metal speed buckles make packing and unpacking the pad a snap. The foam is high-quality, giving a robust landing, but is rather firm for a taco-style pad — you have to flip the Ground Control upside-down and stomp on it to get it to lay flat after it has been folded. Globe also manufactures the 70x48x3-inch Terminal.

Specs: 48x41x3 inches (2 inches open-cell, 1 inch closed-cell), 10.5 pounds, shoulder straps, metal buckles, handle, and accessory pocket; taco design.

Pros: Great value; well made; packs quickly.

Cons: Firm foam for taco pad; no carpet.

Price vs. performance value: A-

Kong Crash Pad Summary: The Kong is a basic, affordable pad. The landing is reasonably forgiving, but a little springy. This pad will work for most bouldering applications, although the 2.75-inch-thick foam is relatively soft and you can bottom out if you hit it from 10 feet up.

Specs: 48x36x2.75 inches (2 inches open-cell, 0.75 inches closed-cell), 10 pounds, removable shoulder straps, and metal buckles, handle; sandwich design.

Pros: Inexpensive.

Cons: Plastic buckles; no carpet; a little underpadded and springy.

Price vs. performance value: C+

MegaSpot Solo Summary: With just a quarter inch of closed-cell foam and a whopping 3 inches of open-cell foam, the Solo gave the softest catch of any pad tested — great for roof problems where you might land on your back. The flipside, of course, is that a big, feet-first fall will bottom out the pad, and the springy open-cell foam bounces some force back to the climber.

At 53 inches the Solo is one of the longest standard-sized pads tested (another good feature for roof problems), and sports a carpeted upper. Non-adjustable metal clasps, instead of adjustable buckles, make packing and unpacking the pad a chore. MegaSpot also makes three other similar-sized pads: the Ultra-Lite, the Crash Pad, and The Pad, as well as the 72x54x4-inch Stunt Pad.

Specs: 53x37x3.25 inches (3 inches open-cell, 0.25 inch closed-cell), 12 pounds, carpet, shoulder straps, handle, and metal buckles; taco design.

Pros: Gentle catch; great for roof problems.

Cons: A little soft and springy; inconvenient closure system.

Price vs. performance value: B-

Metolius Large Crash Pad Summary: No bells and whistles here; just a solid, well-thought-out design. The Metolius pad is stuffed with 3 inches of dense, high-quality foam (2 inches of open-cell and 1 inch of closed-cell) — great for highballs. The landing is firm — no bounce back or risk of bottoming out. The hinged design and metal speed buckles make this one of the quickest pads to pack. One innovative feature is that the two halves of the hinged pad meet at 45-degree angles and are further reinforced by Velcro tabs, so there’s no unprotected space along the hinge. Metolius also makes a 36x32x3-inch Regular pad , a 72x48x3-inch Double Extra Large Pad, and a 36x23x2-inch Launch Pad.

Specs: 48x36x3 inches (2 inches open-cell, 1 inch closed-cell), 9 pounds, removable shoulder straps, handle, and metal buckles; sandwich design.

Pros: Well made; excellent foam; packs quickly.

Cons: No carpet.

Price vs. performance value: A-

Misty Mtn. Highlander Summary: The Highlander is a high-quality pad. With 2.75 inches of soft open-cell foam and a half inch of closed-cell foam for resilience, the Highlander feels well-cushioned, without being spine-compressing hard. The bar-tacked seams and strap-attachment points are bombproof, and the upper bed is upholstered in durable auto carpet. Those looking for a bigger Misty Mountain pad should check out the jumbo 60x48x5-inch Magnum.

Specs: 47x35x3.25 inches (2.75 inches open-cell, 0.50 inch closed-cell), 9 pounds, carpet, shoulder straps and waist belt, handle, and plastic buckles; taco design.

Pros: Well made; soft landing; great foam.

Cons: Plastic buckles.

Price vs. performance value: A-

Ocun Fat Pad Summary: The Fat Pad earns its name with a porky 4.25 inches of padding. Over half of this is closed-cell foam (more than any other brand), so the landing is a bit hard for lighter climbers. Heavier climbers or highball enthusiasts, however, will appreciate the sturdy shock absorption. The surface is reinforced with smooth urethane for durability and dirt resistance, and comes with two carpeted car mats Velcro-ed to the upper — handy when you want to place the mats at the start of a problem, and keep the pad underneath your fall zone. An adjustable strap allows the pad to be carried as a backpack or over the shoulder like a satchel. One caution: The edges of ultra-thick mats can be obstacles in themselves — landing on the edge of a fat pad is a quick way to twist your ankle. Ocun also makes the 39x31x3-inch Crash Pad.

Specs: 46x39x4 inches thick (1.75 inches open-cell, 2.25 inches closed-cell), 11.5 pounds, carpet, removable shoulder straps, handle, and plastic buckles; sandwich design.

Pros: Great value; well made.

Cons: Plastic buckles; padding can be stiff for lighter climbers; hard, curb-like edges.

Price vs. performance value: A-

Pusher Spot Summary: The Spot is a light, compact pad that folds burrito-style, with flaps on the top and bottom, into a backpack. These features make it convenient for tearing around a recreational bouldering circuit or as a starting pad when used in conjunction with a larger pad. It also works as a fair sport-climbing pack, and will help protect you before you clip the first bolt. But with only 1.5 inches of padding and small 46×30-inch landing area, the Spot isn’t a pad for tall problems or those that might toss you on your back. Pusher also makes the 41x22x0.75-inch Zone Pad.

Specs: 46x30x1.5 inches (1 inch open-cell, 0.50 inches closed-cell), 6 pounds, shoulder straps and waist belt, metal buckles, handle, and accessory pocket; burrito design.

Pros: Good carrying capacity; doubles as a backpack.

Cons: Too small for big or awkward falls.

Price vs. performance value: C

Zealot Love Cushion Summary: The Love Cushion uses high-quality, open-cell foam and a unique cross-linked, closed-cell foam that feels like the stuff in the soles of running shoes. The result is a durable, well-cushioned product that absorbs shock incredibly well.

You can purchase the Love Cushion with an extra removable 24×36-inch “Ottoman” half pad for an additional fee. The Ottoman packs neatly with the Love Cushion in a triple sandwich, and allows you to pad two separate landing areas and have a full-length sleeping pad later.

Specs: 48x36x3 inches (2 inches open-cell, 1 inch closed), 10 pounds, carpet, shoulder straps and waist belt, plastic buckles, handle, and accessory pocket; sandwich design.

Pros: High-quality foam and stitching; lots of features; Editors’ Choice Award.

Cons: Plastic buckles.

Price vs. performance value: A

More information

Bittersweet: 435-752-8152,

Cassin/Climb Axe: 503-236-9552,

Cordless: 888-3-PUSHER,

Flashed Climbing: 403-252-6779,

Franklin/Black Diamond: 801-365-5588,

Globe Climbing: 888-354-2513,

Kong/Climb Axe: 503-236-9552,

Metolius: 541-382-7585,

MegaSpot: 915-755-6684,

Misty Mountain Threadworks: 828-963-6688,

Ocun/Climb Axe: 503-236-9552,

Pusher: 888-3-PUSHER,

Zealot: 651-312-0325,