Climbing Shoe Buyer’s Guide
So- you’ve been climbing a few times, liked it, and you’ve decided that flailing up the wall wearing boots, wrestling shoes, or trail runners is no way to advance as a climber. Or, perhaps you’d like to move past using the Lysol-infused (or worse, devastatingly smelly), ill-fitting, worn-out shoes you’ve been borrowing from a friend. It’s time to get some shoes of your own, that will cradle your feet in a glove-like fit and propel you upward effortlessly. However, before you visit your local climbing shop and grab the latest/prettiest/cheapest/gnarliest pair on the wall, it’s worthwhile to arm yourself with the knowledge you’ll need to make a good purchase. Properly cared for, climbing shoes can serve you well for years, and although you may purchase one or more additional pairs of specialized shoes, a wise initial purchase can remain useful even as your skills grow and your collection of shoes reaches Imelda Marcos-like proportions.
A word of caution: You may be tempted to buy shoes sight-unseen from an online merchant offering low, low prices. As this article will discuss, fit and sizing are of paramount importance for climbing shoes. With proper sizing and fitting, even entry-level shoes can offer excellent performance, while the most advanced high-end models will be nearly useless if they’re the wrong size or don’t suit the shape of your foot. By finding and patronizing local shops that offer a large variety of different shoes (15+ models in stock) and employ knowledgeable staff, you maximize your chances of getting the right shoe and having a great time climbing. And when you visit a local shop, if you spend 30+ minutes working with a salesperson that provides great assistance in helping you find the perfect shoe and size, please reward them with your business instead of making your purchase online. If you value that level of personalized knowledge, service, and advice, support your local store and help them stay in business; otherwise, they may not be there next time!
So, before you head down to your local shop, you should prepare yourself with the knowledge and information that will help you to find the right shoe. This article is broken down into three sections- the first will help you reach some conclusions about the type of climbing you expect to do the most, the way your shoes should fit, and your budget. By sharing this information with the salesperson at your local store, you’ll arm them with the information they need to give you the best assistance. The second part primarily deals with some of the different features of climbing shoes that will be helpful when making a decision about which shoe is best for you. Finally, we’ll close with a brief section on shoe care that can help you get the longest lifespan and optimum performance out of your shoes.
Part One: Self-knowledge
1. What kind of terrain will I be on?
It’s important that you buy a shoe that’s appropriate for the type of rock you’ll be on the most, whether that’s climbing cracks at Yosemite, smearing on the grit at Joshua Tree, toe-hooking a pocket on a boulder in Hueco Tanks, or pulling plastic at your local indoor gym. Shoes come in a variety of shapes, can be stiff or flexible, and range from low-top pull-on slippers to ankle-high lace-ups. These attributes make them well-suited to particular uses and not so good for others. If you’re not sure what you’ll be doing most, or are planning to do a little of everything, don’t worry- there are many shoes that work well on many different types of terrain.
2. How do you want your shoes to fit?
Until recently, climbers determined the correct size by jamming their feet into progressively smaller shoes until they could go no smaller without amputating toes. The rationale was that a super-snug fit was more secure on the foot, and even if the shoes stretched a bit they would remain skintight. Fortunately, masochism on this level is no longer mandatory – climbing shoe design has improved greatly in the past 15 years, and you can now get great-performing shoes that will not leave your face twisted in a grimace of pain. However- don’t expect climbing shoes to be “comfortable” in the same way as your skate shoes, hiking boots, or flip flops; they need to be tight enough to remain secure on your feet and will often compress your toes together to form a narrow point at the tip. If you’re planning on doing nothing more than moderate routes at your local gym or crag, you’ll be perfectly happy with a moderately-tight shoe that you can wear for hours at a time. On the other hand, if your aspirations include hard bouldering, thin face climbing on tiny edges, or other more ambitious pursuits, you’ll need to accept the fact that the best shoe, size, and fit for these objectives is probably going to be a bit uncomfortable. A good rule of thumb is this: if the shoes are uncomfortable when you’re standing around or walking in them, but don’t bother you while climbing, you may be in the right size. On the other hand, if your feet hurt so much that even while climbing the pain is distracting, and you avoid certain foot placements because they’ll hurt too much, you’re probably overdoing it. Another note: wearing socks is fine when borrowing or renting shoes, or if you’ll be climbing in an alpine mountaineering setting and need them for warmth. However, for most climbers it’s recommended that you go barefoot, as this will yield greater sensitivity and a better fit, and is well worth the slight increase in shoe funk, which can be offset by proper cleaning.
3. How much do you want to spend?
The price of a new pair of climbing shoes typically ranges from $60-170. Shoes at the upper end of this range are usually made from more advanced materials or with specialized construction techniques and will often perform better than less expensive shoes in certain conditions. However, even the most basic models available today are infinitely better than bare feet, hiking boots, or wrong-footed Converse tennis shoes (worn in the early days so that the straight edge was on the inside of the foot for better edging).
In fact, if you took a modern entry-level shoe back to the 1970s, you’d be accused of cheating, witchcraft, or both by EB-clad old-school climbers baffled by your ability to stick to dime edges and tiny crystals. There are very good reasons why more-expensive shoes are priced the way they are, and while you may decide to spend $130 or more for your first pair, make sure you understand specifically what benefits you’ll be getting from them.
Part Two: Climbing Shoe features and technology
Closures- Laces, Velcro, Elastic?
One of the more obvious differences between shoes is the variety of closures that are available. Initially, all climbing shoes used laces, but now you can find laced models alongside Velcro closures and slippers that use a highly elastic tongue.
The advantage of laced shoes is that you’re able to really dial in the fit; most laced climbing shoes have many tightly spaced lace eyelets, and will lace right down to the toe. With this kind of lacing you’re able to adjust the tightness of your shoe from ankle to toe, which is especially helpful for people with unusually shaped feet. On the downside, laced shoes take the longest to put on and take off, and a broken lace can put a crimp in your climbing trip if you don’t have a replacement on hand.
Many climbers choose shoes with Velcro closures because of the ease and speed with which you can get them on and off. This is particularly important for climbers who seek maximum performance and fit their shoes extremely tight; as soon as they are done on their route or boulder they’ll want to get their shoes off ASAP. On the downside, Velcro shoes do not permit as much fit adjustment as laces; they typically have two or three straps between the mid-foot and the shoe opening. It’s still possible to get a great fit, but with Velcro it’s even more important that the shoe matches the shape of your foot.
The final type of closure is elastic; shoes like this are often called slippers. Like those with Velcro closures, elastic shoes are quick to put on. Although there is no way to adjust the fit of this type of shoe, their large piece of elastic cinches pretty tight on your feet, which can yield a good fit as long as the shoes match the shape of your feet. One concern with this type of shoe is the possibility of a loss of elasticity in the closure. As always, proper care of your shoes can help prevent many common problems.
A little geometry- symmetry, curves, and more
There’s a big variety in the shape of climbing shoes. Some have flat soles, while others are curved like bananas. Some have rounded toe boxes while others narrow to a point. This image, credited to La Sportiva, shows some examples:
It should come as no surprise that shoes with flatter soles are generally more comfortable than highly asymmetric, dramatically downturned (sometimes called “cambered”) shoes. So, why would anyone choose to wear a less comfortable shoe? The answer lies in the way we use our feet while climbing. On most climbing routes, you’ll rarely have more than half of your foot on the hold- often far less. Typically, the foot is positioned with the instep against the rock, with the area between the ball of the foot and the tip of the big toe taking most of the weight. The other common position is with the foot straight on (as if walking), which is used most commonly on large footholds, on low-angle slab climbing, or when the toe is inserted into a pocket. In both of these cases, the toe is responsible for supporting the entire weight placed on the foothold. When using a flat soled shoe, the muscles of the foot have to work hard to maintain the desired shape. However, if you bend the toes down as with a downturned shoe, you create an arch- a much stronger shape, and one which allows the use of smaller holds, for longer periods of time, and with less fatigue. In this way, downturned shoes help focus power to the “sweet spot” between the toe and ball of the foot and can also enhance the precision of foot placements because they allow the climber to put the most powerful part of the foot exactly where necessary on tiny holds. Another advantage of downturned shoes is that when used on overhanging routes they can help the climber hook the edges of pockets and take weight off their hands. Of course, these benefits are balanced by the fact that most climbers find downturned shoes tolerable only for a short time; in some cases and especially for beginners, a less-aggressive shape may be a better choice.
Another element of shape to pay attention to with climbing shoes is their asymmetry; as seen in the chart above, some shoes have a highly pronounced curve between the heel and toe. The illustration to the right illustrates the dramatic difference that can be seen even among shoes from the same manufacturer. As with downturned shoes, greater asymmetry allows for power and precision using the toe of the shoe. One thing to consider is the shape of your foot; Morton’s Toe is a common condition where the second toe is longer than the big toe. For people with this foot shape, an asymmetric shoe with an aggressive fit can be very uncomfortable. It may be necessary to fit the shoe based on the longest toe (in this case the second toe) and not the big toe; alternately, a different shoe with less-dramatic asymmetry may work better.
Finally, be aware that many shoes are available in Men’s or Women’s versions. Women’s models are not merely scaled-down versions of the Men’s shoes, but are built on unique lasts that reflect the fact that the female foot is proportionally narrower, longer toed, and higher arched as compared to men. In some cases, men with low volume feet or women with high volume feet may get a better fit by trying shoes originally designed for the other gender.
As you peruse the (hopefully) many options available to you at your local climbing shop, you’ll notice that some shoes are extremely stiff while others are flexible enough to fold like a taco. This difference is largely due to the type and thickness of the material in the shoe’s midsole, which is between the insole and the sticky rubber outsole. The stiffest shoes typically use a full-length midsole that can be 2mm or thicker. Softer, more flexible shoes use thinner midsoles that may only extend to the ball of the foot. In addition, some shoes use a midsole that is concave- this can make the shoe conform more closely to the foot, can stiffen the perimeter of the toe box for better edging, and allows for a softer center for superior smearing on tiny holds.
So, what’s best for you? There are benefits to each; stiff shoes are generally more comfortable, provide more support for feet that are still developing climbing-specific muscular strength, and are good for edging and most crack climbing. Softer shoes provide superior sensitivity for precise placement on miniscule holds, and their greater flexibility allows them to conform to small features- this means more rubber on the rock and vastly improved smearing performance. Also, sometimes the steepness of the rock can act as a guide to desired stiffness; on less-than-vertical rock a high percentage of weight will be on the feet, so a stiffer shoe can help to provide necessary support. On steeper or even overhanging rock, there is less weight on the feet and a greater need for flexibility to allow the foot to conform to and grasp any feature available. Of course, there are downsides to both kinds of shoes; extremely stiff shoes may be so supportive that they retard the growth of foot strength, while a beginner with a too-soft shoe will rapidly find themselves fatigued and in pain. Beginners looking for their first pair of shoes are usually best off with an all-around shoe of moderate stiffness; after climbing for a while and developing an interest in bouldering, multi-pitch epics, or crack climbing they may choose to buy additional shoes specialized for those purposes.
Uppers- natural leather vs. synthetics
Traditionally, climbing shoes were constructed with natural leather uppers. Many shoes continue to be made from natural leather, as its durability, softness, and stretch-to-fit qualities are well-suited for climbing footwear. When buying shoes constructed from natural leather, be aware that the fit of the shoe may change over time; if your shoes are tight in specific areas they will probably “give” a bit as you wear them longer. As a result, you should make a decision about what size to purchase based on how you want them to fit down the road, even if that means the shoe is a bit tight at first.
In addition to natural leather, climbing shoes are now being constructed with a variety of synthetic materials. Going by names like Lorica, Cowdura, Synthratek, and others, these materials seek to emulate the durability of leather with more predictable stretch characteristics and without the need for animal products. One difference between most synthetic uppers and natural leather is that synthetics have little to no stretch; this makes the fit very predictable- if the shoe fits in the store, it will probably fit after break-in. On the other hand, it means that if the shoe doesn’t offer an airtight, near-perfect fit out of the box, it never will. Some climbers feel that broken-in natural leather shoes that fit well and are sized tight can provide a fit unmatched by synthetic uppers. Some shoes are made with a combination of natural and synthetic materials; this can include using natural leather in the toe box, where stretch can be beneficial, and synthetic material for the remainder of the shoe, where stretch usually just makes the fit sloppy. One disadvantage of synthetic uppers is that they are often not as breathable as natural leather- this can lead to a severe case of shoe funk. Some manufacturers address this by perforating the uppers to provide some ventilation.
Another feature to consider is the cotton or synthetic linings that can be found on the inside of some shoes. As was already mentioned, unlined natural leather shoes tend to stretch significantly, which is great for climbers seeking a customized fit but can also lead to sloppiness if the shoe was not small enough to begin with. Because linings are stitched to the upper, they help to limit this stretch. This can help prevent a once-perfect fit from turning sloppy, and can also help shoes retain their shape and improves their durability. Some shoes include padding as part of the lining, often in the tongue to prevent discomfort from tight laces, and some high-topped shoes place padding around the ankles for additional protection when the foot is deep in a vertical crack. Finally, a lining can help mitigate moisture inside the shoe by absorbing or wicking moisture away from the skin; this can be a big help for people that sweat profusely or climb frequently in hot climates or for long durations. One possible downside to linings is that they can retain absorbed moisture, providing a breeding ground for stank-producing bacteria- an excellent argument for getting your own shoes instead of borrowing or renting!
The Outsole: Where the rubber meets the rock
One of the most obvious features of a climbing shoe is the smooth, sticky rubber that covers its bottom and sides. There are a lot of different rubbers used on climbing shoes, and in many cases manufacturers use their own proprietary blends. Modern climbing shoe rubber is generally excellent, and most companies make a number of different formulations that vary in hardness based on the type of shoe for which the rubber is intended. Hard rubber holds its shape better than soft rubber, which makes it superior for edging and usually more durable as well. However, hard rubber usually performs less well on tiny holds and pure friction climbing due to its rigidity. Instead, soft rubber is preferred when maximum “stick” is required; because it can conform to holds or irregularities, a softer blend maximizes the amount of sole touching the rock, giving better grip. On the down side, soft rubber gives too much for optimum edging performance, and is often less durable. Be aware that the stick and edging qualities of rubber are affected by temperature; the same smeary foot placement that you stuck to easily with soft, warm shoes at 95°F may be sketchy at 45°F; conversely, a cold shoe may hold an edge that it could not when warmer.
An additional consideration regarding the outsole is the thickness of the rubber. Typically, outsoles are somewhere between 3.5 and 5mm thick. Thicker rubber soles last longer between resoles, and are suited for shoes where stiffness and support are desired. Thinner rubber provides superior sensitivity, which helps the climber to sense their exact position on a foothold, and allows greater flexibility for precise placement.
The type of rubber on any given shoe should not be the first thing you think about when making a buying decision. The best rubber on the planet isn’t going to do you any good if the shoe doesn’t fit right or isn’t appropriate for the kind of climbing you do. In the 1970s, before sticky rubber was even used in climbing shoes, climbers in EBs were putting up 5.13 routes and bouldering at V13, so clearly it’s possible to climb hard in any modern shoe regardless of which type of rubber it uses. These days, shoe manufacturers do a good job of matching specific types of climbing shoes with rubber that complements their intended function. Pick the right type of shoe for the kind of climbing you do most, find a model that fits your foot, and chances are good the rubber will be perfect. If you decide you want another kind of rubber later, you can always have your shoes resoled with another type once you’ve worn down the original sole.
Part Three: How to save your sole (and the rest of your shoes, too):
With all the time and effort that goes into researching, trying on, and of course paying for climbing shoes, it’s understandable that climbers want their shoes to last as long as possible. To make that happen, there are a few things you should know:
Stay out of the dirt! The cleaner your rubber, the better you’ll stick. So, try to avoid stepping in dirt as much as you can, and don’t leave your $100+ climbing shoes on for even a short walk to an adjacent route. If you really want to leave your shoes on while not climbing, you can stand on a rope tarp, a nearby rock, or bring a small patch of carpet- you can use this not just for standing but for pre-climb dirt removal.
- Occasional cleaning will also be worthwhile- many climbers use a combination of water and a toothbrush to clean their shoes while at the crags. Also, the rubber can harden or oxidize with time, losing the out-of-the-box stickiness it once had; a careful going-over with a wire brush can help with this. Just brush until a dark black color is restored; get too aggressive and you’ll start to strip rubber off.
- Keep ‘em cool! Heat is not healthy for any kind of shoes. After a climb, many climbers just chuck their shoes into the trunk along with their pack. However, the inside of a car can become extremely hot, which is a bad environment for your shoes (as well as the nylon in your climbing rope, harness, and webbing slings). Excessive heat will loosen the glue that bonds the outsole to the upper. Eventually, the sole or rand will begin to peel, or delaminate, from the upper. While you can glue this back down, this is time-consuming and usually unsightly. So, keep your shoes out of the trunk, out of sustained sunlight, and away from the campfire.
- Although caring for the outsole of your climbing shoes is important, you also want to keep the upper in good shape. This is the part of the shoe where stink reigns, so make sure your shoes are completely dry before storing them or they’ll turn into a fetid horror show. As previously mentioned, despite their many benefits, synthetic shoes are especially susceptible to “the stank”. If needed, climbing shoes can be cleaned with soap and water (hand wash only!), or better yet with Nikwax Footwear Cleaning Gel. Also try to have clean feet when you put your shoes on; if you’ve made a dusty approach in sandals or flip-flops, you’ll be introducing a whole host of bacterial nasties the instant you put your climbing shoes on. Consider either wearing closed shoes for the approach, or at least clean your feet before putting your climbing shoes on. Sweaty or damp feet also lead to foul-smelling kicks; dry your feet before climbing, and consider wearing quality merino wool or synthetic socks that wick moisture. Finally, you can opt for foot powder to help keep things dry, and which can also be put into the shoes for added protection.
Don’t retire, resole! Once broken in, shoes take on a customized fit; they’ve stretched where needed to accommodate your foot, and bend in all the right places. It’s not unheard of for shoes to last 10+ years if you care for them properly and resole when needed; having more than one pair of shoes definitely helps too, and keeps you from having to take a break from climbing while you wait on a resole. Rather than wear them out completely, if you inspect your shoes regularly, you’ll be able to judge when it’s time to send them in for resoling. Don’t let the rubber get so thin that you wear through the rubber and into the leather or synthetic upper; if you do, repairs will be either impossible or more expensive. Qualified resolers can do full- or half-sole replacements, and can also repair worn and peeling rands. In many cases, the quality of work is equal to initial construction, with the benefit that you now have a perfectly broken-in shoe with brand new sticky rubber. Resoles usually cost $35-50 depending on whether you want a half or full sole and if additional repairs are needed to the rand or other parts of the shoe. Knowing which part of the rubber is sole and which is the rand can help: If you smear or edge on the thin rand, you’ll quickly wear holes through it; keeping the sole on the rock instead will yield better climbing and greater longevity.
It’s worth noting that as the quality of your footwork improves, your shoes will likely last longer; the slipping, sliding, and desperate flailing that characterizes many climbers’ early experience will be replaced with laser-like precision placement on even the most microscopic of holds, and this is much easier on your shoes.
So- by now you have hopefully determined what kind of terrain you’ll be climbing on, know how you expect your shoes to fit, and have an idea how much you’re willing to spend. Armed with some basic knowledge about the different features and benefits of climbing shoes, you should be able to walk into your local gear shop and find the shoe of your dreams. It’s my hope that this article has been interesting and helpful; if you have questions, suggestions, or corrections please don’t hesitate to post them as comments- I will continually monitor this page to answer any inquiries.