Climbing Shoes Buying Guide
You've hiked and scrambled your way to the crag in your trusty approach shoes. You're now standing at the bottom of an immense wall, facing the climb you've set out for. Or perhaps you've just reached a super sweet bouldering site. Even yet, you might've just driven through your own city streets and landed at the climbing gym. Whatever the case, it's time to don your specialized footwear and get to climbing. No idea what type of climbing shoes you need? Read on, you, and I'll take you on a journey of the wonderful world of climbing shoes.
WHAT AND WHERE ARE YOU CLIMBING?
Is that rock real or fake?
Not all climbs are alike.
Before purchasing a beautiful new pair of climbing shoes, have a good, hard think about your climbs. While there is definitely overlap, some types of shoes will be better than others on particular adventures.
INDOOR or OUTDOOR - Make a note as to whether you'll be doing indoor or outdoor. Just because you frequent one or the other, doesn't mean you're cemented to a specific shoe. There are different types of routes available within each that can cause you to go for a flatter shoe one day and a downturned one the next. It is more likely you'll end up going with an all-around shoe for indoor gym situations, just because of the availability of different climbs all in one spot.
VERTICAL or SLAB - You'll find going for a flatter, more durable shoe on vertical climbs or slab climbs much more comfortable. Ready for some all-day action.
OVERHANGING ROUTES - This is where a downturned, aggressive shoe will shine. They're not terribly comfortable, but the performance outweighs the discomfort.
BOULDERING - A downturned, aggressive shoe will also work well when bouldering. Fear not! You'll be able to remove the shoes in between climbs to give your feet a rest.
Not all feet fit in the same shoe.
Recommendations from friends can be a place to start, but your wide, hobbit-footed best bud may like something a little different than your slim, elfin foot would. Just keep that at the back of your head as you're wondering why your foot doesn't quite fit right in the climbing shoe you just tried on. Some brands really do make wider shoes, while others make narrow ones. Still more brands will make a combination of wide and narrow. Best get yourself in a store or order up a few pairs to try on.
FIT - Your climbing shoe fit should be secure. You don't want to be wiggling around or slipping within the shoe when you're high up on the rock, balancing on one foot while grabbing for the next handhold. Beginners, you'll want to lean towards a fit that won't be crushing your foot and toes. If you're uncomfortable, you probably won't have a ton of fun climbing and you may not last long. There may come a time as you advance where you get a little something that is slightly less comfortable, but incredibly unbearable is no way to go about a fun sport.
GENDER + KIDS' - Climbing shoes are available in both men's and women's versions, but you'll see a lot of unisex out there as well. Don't be afraid to jump to whatever gender fits your foot best. Women's shoes tend to be more narrow, so a slim footed person, regardless of gender may be much happier in a women's option. For the little kiddos, they do make kids' shoes. Not only are they sized for smaller feet, but some have the ability to adjust as their foot grows. This way your kid can get some more time out of them before passing them down to their younger sibling.
SOCKS - Do it or don't. Most probably don't, as you'll get a better feel of the rock between your shoe and foot. If you are going to go with a sock though, make sure it's really thin and doesn't cause your foot to slip around within the shoe. Own it, whichever side of the debate you fall on.
Don't want those puppies falling off.
LACES - Laces on climbing shoes go from the toe all the way up the forefoot and end just before the ankle. They're the best way to tighten up the shoe for a secure, snug fit as well as allow for micro adjustments. They'll be the most time consuming to get on and off though.
VELCRO - Velcro closures are fast and easy. Pretty handy if you're taking the shoes on and off constantly, especially if you went with a pair that is on the snug side.
SLIPPER - Slipper climbing shoes don't really have a closure at all. They.... slip onto your feet. No laces to deal with, no scratchy Velcro, but incredibly thin. Not a beginner shoe, so don't be fooled. You'll see these on advanced climbers.
It's the top of the shoe, you guys.
Seriously, it covers your foot.
There are 3 main ways to get climbing shoes to stay on your feet. Read on!
LEATHER - Leather uppers on climbing shoes are common and comfortable. They will stretch over time. Generally it will be anywhere from a 1/2 size to a full size. Unlined shoes will stretch more, while lined shoes won't stretch quite as much.
SYNTHETIC - Synthetic uppers aren't just for vegans. They're also for those that are looking for a shoe that won't stretch. It's possible it'll stretch a tiny bit, but don't count on it.
HYBRID - Hybrid uppers contain both leather and synthetic materials. This is where I'd actually really warn those interested in vegan footwear, as it may be harder to tell if it has leather in them at all. Just be sure to read the materials before purchasing. The advantage here is the upper will stretch in some sections, but not in others.
BREAK-IN PERIOD - How long will that take? That depends on how much you're climbing, the size of shoe you're starting with (in comparison with your foot size), whether it is lined or unlined and a leather vs synthetic upper. Only you know when you've hit your comfort level, but generally they'll start to change after 4-5 climbs, especially hot, sweaty ones.
STIFFNESS / FLEX
It's in the sole.
Stiff as a board or flexible like a bendy straw?
STIFF - Stiff soled shoes perform well when trad or crack climbing. This will help you stand on those edges longer, grabbing a little extra rest when necessary, or while planning your next move. You'll get more support out of a stiff shoe and they are typically more durable.
SOFT - Soft soled shoes have plenty of flex and you'll get a whole bunch more rock feel out of them. This will let you know what exactly is underfoot, so you can find those footholds all the better. The thinner soles will also allow you to grip smaller holds along the way. They work well when bouldering and they're better for smearing.
We're not talking about squares.
The shape of a shoe is best determined by looking at its profile. There are 3 options you'll have to choose from, but more often a beginner should start with something on the flatter end of the spectrum. If you're really into climbing and hit multiple types of climbs consistently, you will probably at some point end up with at least two pairs of shoes, a flat pair and an aggressive downturn pair.
Flat shaped shoes are the most comfortable and just the ticket as you begin your dive into climbing. It doesn't stop there, flatter shoes are also great for those that have been dabbling in climbing for years. They are stellar on looooong days on the wall.
Middle Ground is.... that in between that isn't quite flat and isn't aggressive yet either. Great all-around for the gym when you're moving from bouldering to a vertical wall to a crazy overhang in the same day.
Aggressive Downturn shoes shouldn't break your foot with pain but they're not exactly in the "fuzzy old lady slipper" department either. When you're always hitting overhangs or bouldering, this is probably the shoe for you.
Grip the wall like Spiderman.
With your feet!
Thickness of the rubber sole is provided in millimeters, so look for that good old "mm" in the product specs. A thicker sole will be more durable, but a thinner sole will be more flexible. A thicker sole also provides a bit more protection, while a thinner sole will help you feel the rock better.
Stickiness of the rubber is what will give you traction as you're heading up along that vertical rock. Some rubber is stickier than others and there are different applications for each kind. A super sticky shoe is great on sport routes and when bouldering, but it's also softer and will wear out faster. On the contrary, a harder rubber isn't quite as sticky, but it'll hold an edge incredibly well on steep routes.
Durability will probably drive you crazy at some point, regardless of what shoe you buy. Eventually, the rubber will wear it. However, a harder, less sticky shoe will definitely last longer than a softer, stickier shoe. The choice is yours, but you'll have to make a sacrifice between thickness, stickiness and durability. Give a little here, take a little there.
Resoling is an option with some shoes, but not all. If you just broke in the leather and can't bear tossing them and starting all over again, check with your local cobbler (or send them out, just confirm first they are familiar with climbing shoes) to get re-soled. This can also be a fun little experiment too, as you can wear your same, broken in shoes, but maybe ask them to attach a different type of rubber this time around. Maybe a little stickier, perhaps a little less?
NOW GET OUT ON THAT ROCK ALREADY
Decisions, decisions. I know they're tough, but to get the best performance, you'll need a pair of those fancy looking climbing shoes to really get going at the gym or on the rock. Beginners start slow with a flat shaped shoe and durable sole. As you increase your skills, maybe one day you'll be rocking a pair of aggressive downturned shoes that everyone is jealous of. Stay comfortable, don't destroy your feet and have an incredible time. With the right climbing shoe, you may even see yourself reaching heights on the rock or gym wall you haven't seen before.