By Greg Chapman
Over the years outdoor equipment has seen an exponential increase in variety and choice - an accelerating march towards improvement and refinement. From jackets to climbing harnesses, from camping bowls to rucksacks, modern offerings are diverse, lavish and feature laden, catering for almost any niche the end-user can conceive of within any given category.
Recusant to this maelstrom of design ingenuity the bouldering crash pad has long remained a much maligned product group. Whilst a wide range of brands and models are on offer to the consumer, many are indistinguishable from one to the next and homogeneity reigns through a category where the price point, rather than innovative design, has long determined the finished product.
Obviously there are exceptions to this rather sweeping assessment, although even here where brand’s show promise in terms of feature innovation, these are often offset through cost savings made in the build quality or even the lifeblood of the pad - its foam. Conversely, other manufacturers have built their reputation purely on build quality and componentry, providing solid reliability and functional performance but with little in the way of real innovation.
Longstanding giants of the climbing and outdoor market, Petzl, first entered the crash pad sector around two years ago with a series of three pads, designed to cover most bases. Until this point in time, the best pads had generally come out of smaller brands who have a specific background in this small corner of the market. With this in mind Petzl had two paths open to them: make a good cutting edge product which, like their other products, sat at the top of the tree in terms of performance, features and price. Or, like other large corporate brands before them, make a functional but lower grade product aimed more at brand building and marketing than actually doing a good job. Fortunately they opted for the former path.
Image: Fly Life (7C+), Harter Gold Boulders, Duddon Valley, Lake District.
As mentioned, the range features three models; a standard sized pad (Alto), a large highball pad (Cirro) and a basic sit start add-on pad (Nimbo). Here we focus on the two main pads (Alto and Cirro), which mirror one another's design and are simply varying sized versions of the same pad.
The primary function of a crash pad is of course giving you maximum protection and cushioning when gravity comes a callin’. In this regard the Petzl pads stand up well to the competition, being on a par with the best of the rest. Both use atriple-layer of polyethylene (PE) closed-cell and polyurethane (PU) open-cell foam which stacks up to 10cm deep in the Alto and 12.5cm in the Cirro. The quality and ‘spring back’ (longevity) of the foam used is as good as almost any pad I’ve encountered. I’ve had my Petzl pads for almost a year and in that time they have been absolutely hammered, yet both are still going strong.
In this feature set the Petzl pads excel. The carry harness is a custom built laminate system making it low profile and ultra comfy. Easily adjustable via metal slide-lock buckles on the main straps and Velcro on the chest strap and waist belt, it has a form fitting, stable feel and weight distribution more akin to a backpacking rucksack than that of a crash pad. I visit plenty of crags with long walk-ins and these pads are by far the best I’ve carried long distances. The superb carry of the pad is perfectly complimented by the clever and unique reverse flap closure mechanism (see features), which means stashed gear is held securely and has almost no chance of falling out of the pad.
Along with the superb carry harness, the next most notable feature is the innovative flap closure. This funky mechanism means the rucksack straps - which as with most modern taco pads face up on the landing zone to prevent them getting dirty - are completely covered when the pad is in use via this flap (to prevent tripping). When the pad is in ‘carry mode’ the flap fully reverses and allows you to zip the pad shut, making it ideal for holding gear and taking on planes. To fully appreciate how this works check out the video below. The zipper is a burly YKK no.10 which will take a lot of hammer. However, to help reduce the chance of failure or damage, strain on the zipper is minimised by a metal hook buckle which is best closed before the pad is zipped shut. The zip flap itself is also fitted with a similar buckle which can be quickly looped shut once the pad is zipped up to further reduce strain on the zip. In practice the system works well and I have found it an extremely useful innovation.
Another neat feature is the bandoleer strap which can be used for dragging the pad around between blocks but more interestingly can also be readjusted and used to set the pad up as a seat - perfect for lounging around camp or simply chilling at the crag. In addition, the Petzl crash pads come supplied with all the standard features you’d expect of top-end pad: multiple grab handles, water resistant ultra-durable fabrics and reinforced corners and seams.
Build quality is excellent across the board and further enhanced thanks to the various reinforcements previously mentioned. The foam is equally top-notch, comparable or better than that used in any other premium crash pad supplier you can name.
Image: Son of Kong (7C!), Harter Gold Boulders, Duddon Valley, Lake District.
My biggest gripe is with the Alto, which whilst sold as a standard sized pad is little smaller than most of its direct competition. Whilst the pad certainly isn't too small, it seems that cranking the long axis up from 118cm to around 130cm would massively increase the appeal of this otherwise superb product. Another minor complaint, aimed both the Alto and Cirro, focuses on the reinforced rubberised corners, which are internally stiffened with a metal wire. I have noticed in three separate well used pads the wire eventually pokes through the rubber, resulting in a nasty and hard to see needle like spike poking out. This is easily rectified by removing the wire with pliers, however it's not something you’d really expect from such a quality product. Finally the pads are quite heavy (5.7kg and 9.4kg), although this is mainly down to the quality of materials used and the amount of features incorporated. So more of a consideration than an actual drawback.
In spite of a few minor drawbacks, for me the Petzl pads offer the best balance of innovative features, comfortable carry, solid durability and good impact protection currently available. Whilst not cheap they do last well and the carry system alone is considerably more advanced and comfortable than any other pad I’ve used. In the Alto and Cirro, Petzl have certainly set a new standard in top-end crash pad design and function.