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Protective Surfacing for Your Play Set

By Nikki Thomas

Swing Set Buying Guide

After lots of time and research you have found the perfect swing set for your backyard. The kids are excited, it’s going to look great, but now comes the real work – installation. One of the most important aspects to consider when beginning the installation of any play structure is safety. Did you know that 60% of all injuries are caused by falls to the ground? That is why the protective surfacing you put under and around your playset is a critical factor.

The swing set itself will come with lots of built-in safety features but it is up to you to make the play space safe for your kids and their friends. At Totally Swing Sets we want to make that process a little easier by providing this guide for choosing and installing the right protective surfacing to keep your kids safe while they play.

Types of Protective Surfacing

Wood Chips

Wood Chips

Wood chips are probably one of the most common materials used as protective surfacing under swing sets. They are easy to find at most hardware or garden stores and can be purchased in bulk for covering large surface areas. While they are more shock absorbent than gravel or sand their disadvantages include having to replace or refill frequently because they become compacted and they can blow away or be carried into the grass easily on clothing or shoes.

Wood chips are made from cutting or chipping larger pieces of wood and because of this process wood chips tend to be irregular in size. When installing wood chips you’ll want to watch for and remove any large pieces that can trip kids or cause serious injury if fallen on.

Shredded Bark

Shredded bark is very similar to wood chips except that it has a finer consistency and is slightly more shock absorbent. This protective surfacing material is also made by chipping and then shredding the bark from trees. Pieces are smaller so falling on them may lessen the chance for injury, but its small size also makes it more prone to sticking to clothing or ending up inside shoes. Unless the surface area of the swing set is surrounded by some sort of border, shredded bark may frequently be spreading into the grass around the area.

Shredded Bark

Rubber Mulch

Rubber Mulch

Most playground rubber mulch is made from recycled tires or rubber that has been shredded into small particles. Rubber mulch is extremely shock absorbent and is free of sharp edges and splinters that could be found in wood surface protectants. It is also a preferred choice for surrounding a swing set as it does not rot or break down like wood materials.

Other advantages of rubber mulch include that it is maintenance free, extremely durable, and long lasting. It can also add to the fun appearance of your swing set area because it is usually available in a variety of bright colors including blue, green, or red along with colors that look more like wood including cedar, brown or black. A major disadvantage to this surface protectant is that it can be considerably more expensive than wood bark or chips

At Totally Swing Sets we offer a very durable, long-lasting rubber mulch that is non-toxic and free of contaminants. It is made of 100% recycled rubber and is rated as some of the safest rubber mulch on the market. We offer it in 5 colors including blue, black, brown, green, and red and shipping is always free. Read below to determine how much of this mulch you’ll need or contact us anytime and one of our customer service representatives can help you decide.


Sand is a great material for breaking falls as long as it is applied in a safe depth and kept soft and clean. When wet, sand can become extremely hard and will require some maintenance to keep it loose and shock absorbent. Kids love having their swing set surrounded by sand since it also becomes a huge sandbox and area to dig or build sand castles. While sand won’t rot or break down like wood materials you will find it readily available inside shoes and clothing after your kids get done playing. It is also an attractive material for animals who like to dig or use it as a litter box.


Wood Chips

Pea gravel is the most common type of gravel used in playground surfacing. It is made up of small, rounded, and clean particles of gravel. Gravel that has sharp or irregular pieces should be avoided when being used under a swing set.

For a while, pea gravel was one of the most popular choices for playground protective surfacing. It is still used, but is less popular than wood chips, bark, or rubber mulch as it is not nearly as soft and can become compacted underneath making it less shock absorbent. The small gravel pieces are also seen as a potential choking hazard for smaller children.

How Much Mulch Do I Need?

When choosing the right protective surfacing to put under your playset, one consideration is how much material you will need and how much you are willing to spend. The price of surfacing materials varies greatly and you will want to choose something that not only fits into your initial budget but will fit into your future budget as well. If you choose a material that will break down or become compacted, you will be spending more money over the years to replace and resurface the area, while a more resilient material will last longer.

Fall Heights and Surface Area

The height and surface area of the swing set are the two factors used to determine the amount of mulch or ground cover you will need. When you purchase a swing set you will be provided with the dimensions and height of the constructed product. In order to allow for suggested safety ratings you will then want to add 6 feet to all sides to allow for a safe area for swinging, sliding, and moving around the playset. For example, if your set is 21’ x 19’ your play area should measure 33’ x 31’. Then when calculating a mulch amount you’ll need enough to cover 1,023 square feet.

Your swing set’s height will help determine how deep the protective surfacing material will need to be. The taller a play deck, tower, or monkey bars, the deeper the material will need to be applied. Due to their varying abilities to absorb falls, each material choice will have its own depth requirement. At Totally Swing Sets we recommend a depth of 3 inches for a 5 foot fall height and up to 6 inches for a 12 foot fall height on the rubber mulch we offer. The chart below offers guidelines for other materials, fall heights and depths according to the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission).

Material 6 Inches Deep 9 Inches Deep 12 Inches Deep
Wood Chips 6' fall height 7' fall height 12' fall height
Shredded Bark 6' fall height 10' fall height 11' fall height
Rubber Mulch 10-12' fall height -- --
Sand 5' fall height 5' fall height 9' fall height
Gravel 6' fall height 7'fall height 10' fall height

Getting the Right Amount

Once you’ve determined which material is right for the surface underneath your playset based on your own budget and personal preference you’ll need to calculate the amount you need. This can be done by simply figuring out the cubic feet of your surface area – Length x Width X Depth. Don’t forget that your depth is in inches so you’ll need to convert it to feet first. For example, to cover a playset area that is 15 feet wide by 20 feet deep at a depth of 6 inches you’ll need to multiply - 15 x 20 x 0.5 = 150 cubic feet.

Measuring in inches

Length = 20"
Width = 10"
Height = 9"

20" x 10" x 9" = 1800"
1800" / 1728 = 1.04 Cubic Feet

Measuring in feet

Length = 4'
Width = 2'
Height = 7'

4' x 2' x 7' = 56 Cubic Feet

Most ground covering and protective surfacing material you buy will be sold in bulk by the pallet or the truck load. These are measured in either pounds/tons or cubic feet. At Totally Swing Sets we offer a rubber mulch that is sold by the pallet. Each pallet contains 2000 pounds and will cover 75 cubic feet. While a few of the smaller swing sets we sell will only require 1 pallet or maybe even less, the average swing set typically requires at least 2-3 pallets of rubber mulch. The infographic below provides a visual aide to help you determine the amount of rubber mulch you will need.

How much mulch for your swingset

Share this infographic!
<a href="http://www.totallyswingsets.com/Protective-Surfacing-For-Your-Play-Set.html"><img class="ailgnnone size-full" src="http://static.totallyswingsets.com/infographics/HowMuchMulch.jpg" alt="How much mulch for your swingset" width="600" height="1377" /></a>

Still need help determining the amount of mulch you need or simply have some additional questions about play set safety or protective surfacing materials? Our customer service representatives are both knowledgeable and friendly and can be reached Sunday - Saturday, 7am - 10pm CST. Contact them by phone at 1-800-866-3077 or by email at customerservice@totallyswingsets.com.

Nikki Thomas - Director of Sales and Services at Totally Swing Sets

About Nikki Thomas

Nikki Thomas is the Director of Sales and Service at Totally Swing Sets. Her main focus is on customer care - serving customers both before and after the sale. With expertise about each product, Nikki also writes and manages the content on the Totally Swing Sets’ website. She works diligently to oversee the sales process and maintain supplier relationships. Nikki resides in Iowa with her husband and daughter and enjoys reading and blogging in her free time.