When I first came up with the idea of starting a company that would manufacture custom bouldering mats, I don’t mind admitting that I was slightly lacking in some of the prerequisites that one might imagine would be needed. Firstly I didn’t know how to sew (that’s a whole other blog post) and secondly I knew nothing about foam.
Now considering these two points it soon became clear that to produce a product of quality, both of these things would need to change, and so it was I set about my journey into foam.
My starting point was the websites of other mat manufacturers to see what all this squidgy (or not so squidgy) stuff they were putting in these mats was. The first thing I was struck by was how little information many of the big manufacturers actually give you about the foam they put into their mats. In fact, the only company I could find that gave details of the densities of the foam they used on their website was Alpkit (who I think should be applauded for this).
Now it seems odd that in the climbing world, where virtually every bit of gear is tested and rated for strength, that when it comes to bouldering mats the best assurances we seem to get is that the foam is “high quality”. Well compared to what? Compared to the foam used for industrial dampening or compared to foam in the little pointy finger I got at Twickenham once? Can you imagine buying a set of nuts that were rated as “very strong”? You wouldn’t go near them would you? Many companies seem very keen to tell us about their unbreakable buckles and ballistic covers, but what about the important stuff thats stops us hurting ourselves? THE FOAM!
Now, I am not saying that the the foam used in all pads is rubbish (far from it) – we all know there are some great manufacturers out there, but if we don’t know what densities and grades of foam they are putting in them, how on earth can we make any sort of comparisons?
Now most regular boulderers are aware that the typical foam lay up in a mat is a layer of closed cell foam ( a firmer foam) on top of a thicker layer of open cell foam (a softer foam) – the basic mechanics of it being that the firmer layer helps dissipate the force of the fall over a wider area of the open cell foam which compresses to absorb the impact. Now there are a couple of variations on this set up but this is by far the most common.
The prototypes we have tested have taken many forms and with many different combinations of foam but we have come to the conclusion that ‘less is more’ and that it is better to have less layers of higher quality foam.
Having moaned about the lack of technical information companies put out I better set out our stall for all to see – We are still busy testing but it seems likely that we will be using an EVA closed cell foam (50kg/m3) on top (very resistant to repeated impacts) with a 33kg/m3 open cell foam underneath. Very few manufacturers are using EVA foam, mainly because it’s expensive, but compared to the Polyethylene (PE) foams used by most companies it is much more durable and has a less rigid feel. This means it will perform better for longer.
I don’t claim to be a foam expert (far from it) but I want to start a conversation about foam in our community and try to give my future customers as much information as I can, so they can make an informed decision as to whether our mats are right for them.
I see this blog as only the beginning of the process, so keep an eye out on our website in the coming months for more detail and demonstration as to why the foam we use is as good as we say it is.
Gareth, Momentum Bouldering