Rock climbing shoes are the interface between you and the rock, and the wrong fit or style can hold you back. Beginners should start with a versatile pair of all-around climbing shoes for comfort. As your climbing goals and style develop, add shoes that address different demands of the sport.
For a more detailed look at your choices, read on.
Your most versatile choice is in the all-day comfort category. These shoes work well for indoor and outdoor climbing at novice to intermediate levels. If this is your first shoe, fit it so it feels like a running shoe but with the tip of your longest toe just touching the end of the shoe. If you are focusing on a specific type of climbing (e.g., cracks, crystals or overhanging rock) match your shoe to suit your purpose.
More experienced climbers own multiple pairs of shoes. Start with a pair of all-day comfort shoes and then add shoes as your climbing abilities and objectives develop. Rotate your shoes to help develop footwork, since each specific model climbs a bit differently. This approach also helps prevent hotspots that can develop when you wear the same pair of shoes day after day.
|All-day Comfort||- Flat-toed fit
- Relaxed heel rand
- Heel cushioning
- Medium to stiff midsole
- Thick rubber sole
|The most versatile category, these shoes should fit comfortably right out of the box.|
|Steep Face||- Medium to snug toe fit
- Relaxed heel rand
- Midsole balances stiffness for edging with flexibility for smearing
|This category includes sport climbing and intermediate trad routes. If you're climbing 5.10 and above, toes can be slightly curled but not crimped. For climbing areas with lots of pockets, look for a pointy toe.|
|Bouldering/Gym Climbing||- Snug to slightly curled toe fit
- Soft, sensitive midsole
- Thin rubber sole
|These shoes can go from 5.8 to 5.13. Consider a hook-and-loop closure, especially for snug-fitting synthetic models. For overhanging routes, look at shoes with downturned toes.|
|Crack Climbing||- Flat-toed fit
- Narrow toe profile
- Durable upper
- Stiff midsole
|If your toe knuckles are curled, they will rub on the rock. Flat toes slide more easily into thin cracks.|
Shoe uppers are either leather or synthetic. Leather shoes (lined and unlined) offer the easiest care, including deodorizing. Most performance shoes are synthetic, and many vegetarians and vegans prefer synthetic shoes.
Unlined leather: Unlined leather shoes can stretch up to a full size. Size them so that your toes just touch the end of the shoe, so you can feel (but not see) your toe knuckles pushing against the leather. Be aware that an all-leather shoe tends to bleed shoe colors to your foot.
Lined leather: When a leather upper is lined, stretch is reduced to a half size or less. Sometimes manufacturers line only the toes since it saves money and impacts where stretch is the biggest problem.
Synthetic materials: These doesn't stretch much. Shoes soften up slightly with use, but there is little give, much less than a quarter size. Perforated synthetic uppers give a bit more than a solid fabric. Some materials allow feet to breathe and wick away sweat.
Lace-ups: This is the most versatile style and is best for beginners. When your feet get hot and swell up, or for walk-off routes, you can loosen the laces. But for a difficult pitch or climb, crank down at the toe and instep to bump up the shoe's performance.
Rip-and-stick: These closures (also known as "hook-and-loop") offer superior on/off convenience. They are ideal for bouldering and gym climbing.
Slippers: These slip-on shoes with elastic closure systems offer the greatest sensitivity and lowest profile of any shoe. Slippers are fun for training—without a traditionally stiff sole and midsole, your feet will get stronger, faster. Their lower-profile is appreciated even by the world's top thin crack climbers. They are also light, stowable and slip easily into a daypack or suitcase.
A "last" is the foot-shaped model around which a shoe is built. It gives shoes their instep height and volume, heel and toe dimensions and width. Most rock climbing shoes are slip-lasted (sewn like a sock around the last).
The shape of most lasts falls into 2 categories:
Weight is a big factor in hiking boots, but with climbing shoes, the difference between styles is just a few grams. For most climbers, the difference of a hundred grams or so is not critical to success.
Regardless of your gender, don't rule out a so-called women's specific model. These are generally cut lower around the ankle and have a smaller heel cup. They also may have a slightly longer toe bed and lower volume forefoot than their unisex cousins. The women's category has produced so many good designs that men with low-volume feet make up a significant part of the customer base.
While you can rent children's rock shoes at your local climbing gym, it's more efficient for them to have their own gear, especially if they also climb outdoors. Kids' feet grow quickly, but their shoes are stiff enough that they can wear them bigger than can an adult. Fit them about a size too big—children prefer a relaxed fit. As their skill level increases, so will the size of their feet. Stick with rip-and-stick closures until children can tie their own laces.
Fit is the most important factor in finding a good pair of rock shoes. If possible, compare and try on a variety of models.
Your feet can swell up to a full size during the day. Go for a walk, run or, better yet, climb before you shop. Keep in mind that you'll most likely be sockless, since the inside of shoes are designed to work with skin to reduce slippage. For cold, alpine conditions that require a sock, buy an all-day comfort shoe a half-size too big.
Ideally, you should shop in person so you can easily try on multiple sizes. If you are buying online, order more than one size and return what doesn't fit. Try on shoes at home to make sure there are no hotspots.
There is no rock-shoe sizing standard, and everybody's feet are different.
What's the shape of your foot? Each shoe model fits differently. Most important for climbing is to know your toe shape. Is your big toe the longest or do you have a Morton's Toe (second toe is longer than big toe)? A shoe's toe shape is described as:
Flat or traditional: This toe-shape is most similar to a snug-fitting walking shoe. It is ideal for moderate to intermediate climbs. Shoes with flat toes can be designed for all-day comfort, steep face climbing or crack climbing.
Pointy: Shoes with a pointy, low-profile toe are designed to better fit into pockets and cracks.
Symmetrical: The longest part of these shoes is closer to the middle toe than the big toe. These best fit people with Morton's Toe. You can use these shoes in the gym, on faces, in cracks and for all-day climbs.
Asymmetrical: The longest point is over the big toe. Some shoes follow the anatomical shape of a foot that has the biggest toe as the longest point; a few radically asymmetrical designs (best for bouldering or gym climbing) push the toe point even farther to the inside of the shoe to increase power over the big toe and inside edge.
Down-turned: Also called a "cambered" shoe, these are designed for moves on overhanging rock. The toe position allows climbers to pull in with their feet.
Rock shoes do not need to fit painfully—in fact, foot pain will prevent you from climbing to your full potential and may cause problems like blisters, bunions and calluses.
You will, however, get more performance out of a shoe in which your toes are slightly bent at the knuckles. As the slingshot heel rand (the rubber that wraps around the heel and connects to the midsole) becomes tighter, the foot is pushed forward in the shoe. This positions the toes more powerfully, but also keeps them in a curved-to-crimped position.
Some general fitting rules:
Q: Does the type of rubber matter?
A: Sticky, high-friction sole rubber revolutionized rock climbing in the 1980s, and the rubber compounds continue to improve today. Rubbers have different performance and durability characteristics but basically the stickier the rubber, the harder you will be able to climb. To gauge the "stickiness" of a rubber, use your fingernail or a dime and push it into the rubber's surface. Then twist slightly. High-friction rock climbing rubber will conform to your fingernail and hold the shape rather than pushing away from the object. Note that rubber performance can be affected by heat, cold and moisture.
To revitalize the rubber on a current pair of shoes, watch this tip:
Q: If I have a narrow foot, should I buy a men's or women's shoe?
A: Buy whatever shoe fits your foot the best. If you have a low-volume, narrow foot, a shoe designed on a "women's" specific last might be the right choice. Men with narrow or low-volume feet should definitely consider women's models. When women buy unisex shoes, they must adjust their size accordingly; men buying women's models can also expect to wear a different size.
Q: Do higher priced shoes offer more performance?
A: Manufacturers tend to use their newest technology and most expensive materials in their higher priced shoes. Because the cost of rubber is directly related to the price of oil, rubber can be the most expensive part of a climbing shoe. This means that shoes with advanced compounds are generally pricier. Modern boulder problems and sport climbs have increased emphasis on toe and heel hooking, so rand rubber needs to cover more of the shoe, which also increases price and weight. Finally, high-performance synthetics cost more but provide solutions to breathability, moisture wicking, odor control and stretch.
Q: How do I fit shoes when I'm ordering off the internet?
A: Whenever possible, try shoes on before buying. But if you can't, pay attention to each shoe's specifications. Unless you are sure of your size, you might consider bracketing your regular size with additional pairs, trying them on at home and then sending back the ones that don't fit. Caution: Buying a highly specialized shoe before you are ready for highly specialized climbing will hinder your progress.
Q: Can I resole my climbing shoes?
A: If the rand and upper are in good shape, climbing shoes can be resoled to extend their life. Many climbers use resoled shoes for training and save their new pair for difficult routes. While do-it-yourself resole kits are the least expensive way to go, a good climbing shoe resoler assures you of a first-rate job to increase the longevity of your shoe.
Last: A last is a solid foot-shaped model around which a shoe is built. The last gives shoes their anatomical definition—instep height and volume, heel and toe dimensions and width. Most rock climbing shoes are slip lasted—sewn like a sock around the last.
Midsole: This is an internal stiffener between the footbed (the material on which the bottom of your foot rests) and the outsole (more commonly known as the sole). Shoes with stiff midsoles are good for edging and for protecting the feet in cracks. A more flexible midsole enhances the smearing capability of a shoe.
Rand: The rand is the strip of rubber that covers the perimeter of the rock shoe between the sole and the upper. Most climbers won't notice the difference in rand performance unless they are using the entire shoe for toe and heel hooks.
Slingshot heel rand: This strip of leather is critical in the shoe's shape and fit. The slingshot heel rand defines the shape of the shoe and keeps the toes forward. The slingshot gains importance with leather uppers, since good toe position is critical to climbing shoe performance.
Toe box shape: Traditionally, climbing shoes were nearly symmetrical on both sides. Now toe boxes have become more ergonomically correct (asymmetrical). Some toe boxes can also be pointy for pockets, low-volume for cracks, or downturned for overhangs.
By Nancy Prichard Bouchard Ph.D.
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Last updated: 11/08/2012
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