What’s That Thing on Your Back? 10 Answers


A boulderer with a lot of crashpads on her back.
A refrigerator filled with crag snacks? Kasia Pietras is packing some serious foam. Photo: Terry Paholek

During a trip to Maine’s Acadia National Park, I decided to do a little bouldering. I brought one of the new Petzl pads from the office—it’s a standard mid-sized pad in outward appearance, but it’s also bright orange and emblazoned with a sizable Petzl logo. Its highly visible color scheme might have factored into the onslaught of questions with which passing tourists pelted me, most of them a variation of What’s that thing on your back?

I’ve bouldered for 20 years now and have been asked this question hundreds of times, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised when yet another stranger stops to gape at my admittedly Spongebob-like form… but I am. Every time I try to answer, I feel myself getting frustrated. Invariably, the curious person’s face grows more, not less, confused as I offer my explanation:

“Excuse me, but what is that thing on your back?” Asks the well-meaning passerby.

“It’s a pad. We put it on the ground when we’re rock climbing,” I’ll say.

“Oh, so you use it instead of a rope?”

“Not really. We’re climbing really short rocks, so when we fall, we just fall on the pads.”

“Oh, that sounds dangerous.”

“It’s not really dangerous. We’re usually only five or 10 feet off the ground…”

“So you’re practicing for bigger climbs, then?”

By this time, the futility of the conversation has started to sink in. To explain the intricacies of the various types of climbing is a surprisingly complex endeavor. Believe it or not, the differences between gym climbing, bouldering, sport climbing, trad cragging, ice climbing, big walling, and alpinism aren’t widely known or even intuitively grasped by the layperson. For most, the Alex Honnold profile on 60 Minutes and maybe the movie Vertical Limit comprise their only climbing reference points.

In an effort to shorten the length of such trail encounters, my friends and I have devised a list of short responses that, while patently false, might offer enough of an explanation (or create sufficient bewilderment) to allow us to plod on towards our little projects on little rocks. Following are 10 favorites (but I’d love it if you’d offer your own in the comments section)…

What’s That Thing on Your Back? 10 Answers:

  1. A portable massage table.
  2. Folded up hang glider—we’re hiking up to the top of this hill to jump off and fly back down.
  3. It’s just a big backpack. I like to have my bases covered while out on a hike.
  4. A sleeping mat for camping. Way more comfortable than those little roll-up ones!
  5. We’re training for the world stair-climbing championships, and walking trails with unwieldy 200-pound squares on our back has been shown to be the most effective way to improve quad and glute strength.
  6. It’s a parachute; I’m a BASE jumper!
  7. This a pad for climbing. We wear them on our backs while we climb big cliffs. If we fall, we try to lean back and land pad-first, so we don’t get hurt.
  8. Oh, these? These are components of a large robot, which my friends and I will assemble when we get out far enough into the woods.
  9. It’s a dog bed… hey, where is my dog? Oh damn, she was here a minute ago! Peaches! Where are you Peaches?!
  10. This is a trail rickshaw seat. For 20 bucks, I’ll give you a ride to the next viewpoint. Hop on!

Published by

Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

46 thoughts on “What’s That Thing on Your Back? 10 Answers”

  1. I enjoyed walking up to one of the bouldering areas in Zillertal carrying the team’s small but heavy rucksack with drinks, food etc. while the other half of the team – my seven year old son -carried the large but light pad. We both found the looks I as the evil father was getting from the passing tourists hilarious

    1. @brianpayst– We actually had someone ask us if we were “drawing up there”. Yes, it’s a portable drawing table. Most creative guess I’ve ever heard.

    1. Haha my previous favorite was similar to that (new fav if #7 above). Thought of it with a married couple I was climbing with, we were going to say “gay porn” and when people asked about the fact that one of us is a girl, respond with “someone’s gotta run the camera”

  2. I have told people I have narcolepsy, but still try and enjoy the outdoors…I tell them I have trained myself to fall backwards when an episode occurs…this one never fails!!!!

  3. I haves used the narcolepsy excuse on multiple occasions…however this might get you some nasty stairs when they realise your screwing with them…still its a good time!!!!

  4. My favorite is “It’s a raft” while bouldering in the Niagara Glen down by the Niagara River Class 4 rapids! People really think we are crazy knowing how dangerous it is to enter the water there.

  5. In RMNP, someone asked me if my pad was a kayak which made me wonder if this person had ever seen a real kayak before. I should have said “yes”.

  6. My favorite two explainations (usually at RMNP) are that we are part of NAHAA (Napping at High Altitude Association) or that we are moose vets and the pads are for protection of the moose when we tranquilize them. Altough the elk saddle is pretty priceless.

    1. Oh I have a way better bouldering and pad related story. A couple of ripped younger climber (early 20’s) were bouldering in bush land that was used by boulderers but it was also a gay cruising venue. One of the young climbers realised it’s other use and he told me in a conversation later, “those gay guys must have thought we were ultra easy (edited for general readers) because we had no shirts and we had a mattres strapped to our backs.”

  7. Its that damn floatation device aka seat cushion we grabbed onto when our plane exploded…not everyone made it so there were extras…

  8. It’s the my annoying passive aggresion that I carry around. Here, let me unload a little off on you with a smarmy response to an honest question.

  9. When they didn’t believe my honest response my partner told the incredulous dad of the bumpkin family in RMNP: “It’s a Flip n’ Fuck. You flip it open and have some fun.”
    … I guess it wasn’t a complete lie.

  10. Or you could actually explain it by simply saying “it is for rock climbing shorter cliffs, instead of using a rope we fall onto the pads”

    Wow look i’m done and the person won’t bother anyone in the future.

    Or you could make shit up and be an ass. That too.

Your comments go here