Before you set out for a day on the rocks, you’ll want to take a moment to consider what you’re wearing on your feet. You can’t just wear any ol’ pair of kicks climbing, you’ll need some specialized rock climbing shoes to avoid injuries, slips, falls, and frustration. In the climbing world, there are a good amount of shoes to choose from, with more added each year. If you’re just starting off, this could be a little intimidating with all your options. There are a lot of factors that you should consider when looking for your first pair of climbing shoes. You’ll also need pointers if you’re trying to step into intermediate or advanced shoes. With that said, this is our guide on how to choose climbing shoes. Let the match begin!
How to Choose Climbing Shoes Infographic
How to Choose Climbing Shoes: In-Depth
Step 1: Choose a Shape
Now, when learning how to choose climbing shoes, the shape of a climbing shoe is probably one of if not the most important factor when it comes to performance and comfort. The general consensus is this: more aggressive shoes provide more performance but less comfort, flat-soled shoes provide more comfort but less performance, and cambered shoes offer a bit of both worlds.
When learning how to choose climbing shoes, most people starting off with a more neutral shaped shoe and move up the ranks as they improve. A few start off with downturned or moderate shoes right away. Use your best judgement to decide what’s suitable for you.
- Flat-soled / Neutral — Flat-soled shoes are like wearing a pair of regular sneakers, with the added benefit of a layer of sticky rubber underneath to stand on rock. While the most comfortable shape, neutral shoes have an issue standing on small edges and hooking onto overhung terrain. However, flat-soled shoes generally do better with smearing and crack climbing.
- Cambered / Moderate — Cambered climbing shoes have a slight arch that gives your feet a little downturn. Although not as aggressive as fully downturned shoes, cambered shoes offer more technical performance than flat-soled shoes when it comes to edging and hooking while also smearing better.
- Aggressive / Downturned — Ever seen how an eagle or a falcon hunts? Their downturned claws allow them to grab prey like a fat kid grabbing cake. With aggressive climbing shoes, you’ll be the predator and the rock is your prey. These types of shoes force your feet into a downturned position where your toes curl up like a claw. This allows you to grab onto crevasses more easily, slide into pockets, stand on dime-thin edges, and climb overhung rock more easily.
Step 2: Pick a Closure System
The closure system refers to the way that you tighten climbing shoes. There are three options to choose from: velcro, lace, and slippers. Different styles offer different levels of comfort, fit, convenience, and performance. Let’s take a look at each.
Velcro — Velcro shoes are easy to take on and off and have a certain degree of adjustability when it comes to comfort and fit. Gym use and bouldering are where Veclro excels since you are often hopping in and out of your shoes at the start and end of climbs.
- Lace — Lace shoes use laces to get the job done, and offer the most adjustment toward comfort and fit. However, there are those who complain that it takes a lot of time and effort taking lace shoes off. That’s why they are highly recommended for either sport, trad, or multi-pitch climbing where you are going to be wearing them for extended periods of time.
- Slipper — Last but not least, you have slipper style climbing shoes where it’s a simple on and off fitting procedure. Almost like wearing a glove, slipper shoes work well for all types of climbing although they often suffer in performance once you progress to the higher levels due to their fit. Being the most comfortable type of climbing shoes, many beginners often start off with slippers.
Step 3: Know Your Rubber
Rubber is very important when buying a pair of climbing shoes since that’s mostly what helps you to stay on the rocks. Of course, there are varying levels of rubber stiffness and thickness that will affect your performance. Softer rubber allows greater sensitivity and smearing capability (because of greater friction) at the expense of edging and durability. Stiffer rubber lets you edge more precisely, is more durable, and offers more protection although you’ll lose out on some feeling and smearing can be a challenge. Most rubber soles on shoes vary anywhere from 3mm to 5.5 mm. Thinner soles will be more sensitive although they’ll wear more quickly, while thicker rubber will be more durable at the cost of sensitivity.
Step 4: All the Other Essentials
What’s a climbing shoe made of? It’s often unlined leather, lined leather, or synthetic materials. There’s really no best type of material, it’s all a matter of preference and offer their own advantages and disadvantages. Let’s talk a little about each:
- Unlined leather — Can stretch a lot, even up to a full size. You’ll want to size these right to accommodate the stretch. It’s okay if they are very painful at first, over time they’ll form to your feet to become super comfortable. They’re also often very breathable and has the least amount of stench.
- Lined leather — These will stretch less than unlined leather, but still expect them to stretch quite a bit. Around half a size is reasonable. Just like unlined leather, they are also breathable and the least stinky.
- Synthetic materials — Synthetic materials are great for vegetarians and vegans, and they hardly stretch at all. Size close to snug (possibly a tiny bit tighter for better performance) and you should have a good pair of climbing shoes for the duration of its life. Synthetic materials also are very durable although not as breathable as leather.
Something you might not hear a lot about when learning how to choose climbing shoes is the asymmetry. This refers to the sole of the shoe and the shape of the curvature which can affect your climbing in different ways. Asymmetric curvature focuses all of your power over the big toe, which lets you edge better and with more precision. The more curvature, the better the performance. However, the less natural a climbing shoe’s sole shapes your feet, the more uncomfortable it will be. Asymmetric curvature can range anywhere from a small amount to a very large amount.
Some shoes have a midsole, some don’t, and some may have a partial midsole. What the midsole ultimately affects is the level of flexibility. A more flexible midsole helps for climbing steeper and more technical terrain. With its minimum foot support, it excels at smearing and grabbing. Rigid midsole are more ideal for vertical climbing, where you’ll want extra foot support for stability. Stiffer midsoles work perfectly for edging.
Now, let’s consider what you’ll be climbing most. Will it be the gym, bouldering outdoors, sport climbing, trad, multi-pitch, crack, or slab?
- Gym — You’ll most likely want a velcro or slipper shoe to get on and off easily. Durability is also a good thing to look for when starting out. Sensitivity is also great for training your precision and power in your toes helps to up your edging game.
- Bouldering — Since you’ll be hopping in and out of your shoes often jumping from one boulder to the next, you’ll also want shoes that are easy on and off. Velcro is probably the best choice, followed by slippers although there are some great lace shoes out there that can take your bouldering game to the next level. A downturned shoe is also the best for overhung terrain as you can grab rock more easily although you’ll want to pick up a pair of these only when you feel you’re ready. Size snug to tight for maximum performance.
- Sport — For sport climbing, since you’ll be climbing more than when bouldering, you’ll want shoes that can last you a good pitch or two. So size your shoes so that they don’t cause excruciating pain like boulderers do and look for good sensitivity.
- Trad — You’ll want a flatter, stiffer, more comfortable pair of shoes if you’re climbing trad/multi-pitch since you’ll be on the rock for extended periods of time. The LS TC Pro is the perfect example of a great shoe for this. Smearing and edging are also good things to look for.
- Crack climbing — Look for a flat sole and a relatively bare toe with soft rubber. Slippers are the best for sliding into cracks.
- Slab climbing — A soft and sensitive sole will work best, and flat soles are your best bet when it comes to non-existent footholds.
Step 5: How to Fit Climbing Shoes
When learning how to choose climbing shoes, fit is very important for getting all of the performance you can out of a shoe. To ensure a snug fit, make sure all the following ring true:
- A snug fitting heel with no movement
- No deadspace in the toes (unless you’re climbing trad/multi-pitch)
- Adequate width and volume
- No pressure points or painfully curled toes
- Fits the shape of your foot (especially for those with Morton’s toe)
You can also check out this guide on how to size popular climbing shoes.
Climbers also choose a tighter or looser fit depending on what they are climbing. Those that want more comfort in order to stay in their shoes longer often size up while those that want more performance often size down in order to have a tight fit. Some climbers go through immense pain working in feet binding shoes in order to climb harder. Tighter shoes cram your toes together, creating a better edging platform. Since comfort is largely subjective, sizing your shoes will depend on how much of a masochist you are. Generally, aggressive shoes will hurt more since they offer the most performance. Flat soled shoes are more comfortable although they offer less performance, and moderate shoes are a happy medium. If you’re just starting out climbing, it’s a good idea to choose a comfortable and more durable shoe that fits securely with no pain.
It’s very important to note however that your street shoe size will not be the same as your climbing shoe size. Different climbing shoe manufacturers make shoes differently, which means fit will vary from one brand to the next. That’s why it’s very important to try your shoes out in the store to see what fits you best. You should also shop for shoes in the evening as feet swell up throughout the day. Fit them without socks as well (or a thin sockliner at most). If you find them comfortable–no matter what level of climber you are–chances are they’ll serve you well.
Take note of how they’ll stretch though. Generally, unlined slipper-like shoes will stretch around one full size while lined shoes will stretch about a half size. Thus, if you’re purchasing an unlined leather shoe, fit them in-store until all the points discussed above are covered, then simply buy a pair a size down from that. Half size down for lined leather shoes and true to size for synthetic shoes.