How to Choose Rock Climbing Shoes

Scour the internet through hundreds of thousands of reviews and blogs and you will find, time and time again, climbers tell you which shoe is best for what. But there’s a trade secret they don’t want me to share with you: there’s no best climbing shoe or climbing shoe brand. Does this mean that some shoes are not better than others? Of course not! Different rock climbing shoes excel at different things. So I am going to teach you how to find a shoe that is right for you!

Let’s break this down. There are about 8 BIG climbing shoe brands: La Sportiva, FiveTen, Evolv, Scarpa, Butora, Mad Rock, Tenaya . . . heck, even Black Diamond is in the game now. Each of these brands boasts a selection of shoes ranging in price from somewhere around $50 to somewhere around $170; some more, some less. A lot of companies advertise their shoes in one of three categories: Aggressive, Moderate, or Flat, and as such, a lot of times we see that, to use “Yelp-speak,” Aggressive=$$$, Moderate=$$, and Flat=$. This is not always the case, but for the most part, this is what you will find when shopping for climbing shoes.

Now, what do these words mean? You would think that Flat=Beginner, Moderate=Intermediate, Aggressive=Advanced. And this is, for the most part, true! But choosing a shoe that’s right for you is more difficult than picking from Flat, Moderate, or Aggressive. Why? Have you ever noticed in climbing videos when climbers wear two different shoes? Apart from being a bold fashion statement, they are actually utilizing the best, most optimal features of each shoe for specific pieces of footwork. In other words, some shoes are good for heel hooking but might not be the best for edging.

Around the gym we often see the same iconic shoes flashed around: La Sportiva Solutions, FiveTen Hiangles, Evolv Shamans. Try not to fall into the trap of buying shoes because they are trendy at your gym. This happens more often than you’d think. I remember once in college walking into the gym and seeing the strongest guy in there wearing Scarpa Instinct VS’s. Two weeks later? Boom! Orange feet everywhere!

Let’s get into it. Here are my tips for choosing climbing shoes:

1. The first thing that I do when picking out a pair of climbing shoes is I identify what I am going to use the shoes for.
  • Gym bouldering?
  • Gym sport climbing?
  • Gym top rope?
  • Outdoor bouldering?
  • Outdoor sport climbing?
  • Trad?
  • Multipitch?
  • Learning to boulder?
  • Learning to sport climb?
  • Warm up shoes?
  • Onsighting?

From here, I have already vastly narrowed my search down. How? Different attributes of shoes are beneficial for doing different things. If I am going to be using shoes frequently, for training or for regular bouldering sessions, for instance, I am not going to want to buy shoes with thin rubber because it will wear out very quickly. How about if I am picking out shoes for long sessions of top rope in the gym? I am not going to want a pair of aggressive shoes because my feet will be killing me halfway through every session.

2. After I decide what I am going to use the shoes for, I use this info to build a list of attributes I’d like my shoes to have.

Here’s a breakdown of the different attributes of climbing shoes that you can use to create your own list when you are choosing shoes! There’s no formula to building this list. We’re trying to choose shoes that are right for you, after all. What we can do is take a look at these attributes and talk about why you may or may not want to take advantage of them:

[ MATERIAL ]

  • Leather: Most importantly, leather shoes will stretch. This is an advantage for most climbers because the stretching creates a shoe that is the tightest and most form fitting. This may be a disadvantage because breaking in leather shoes can be a bit of a pain and the dyes in leather may dye your feet for the first few wears.
  • Synthetic: Synthetic shoes will not stretch, so the break-in process is a bit easier. They do not breathe well and are by and large the smelliest shoes, but if that doesn’t bother you, they are more durable than leather shoes and will last you longer through wear and tear.

[ RUBBER ]

  • Rubber density: Thin rubber shoes offer the climber more sensitivity while climbing. While this will hurt your toes if you are not used to it, thinner rubber offers the climber better edging and smearing abilities. Thin rubber also creates a lighter shoe that performs better on overhangs. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that the thinner the rubber, the fewer uses you are going to get out of your shoes. This effect is multiplied outdoors.
  • Rubber coverage: Different shoes have varying amounts of rubber wrapped around them. Having lots of rubber creates a heavy, sometimes less form-fitting shoe, but also one that is adaptable to different footwork techniques and will likely last longer. These shoes require less precise footwork to be effective. Low rubber coverage shoes require more precise footwork to be effective but give the climber a lighter, tighter fitting shoe.

[ CLOSING APPARATUS ]

  • Laces: Lace-ups used to be the dominant shoe type back in the day, but as velcro straps have come into play, lace-ups have fallen behind. Laces give the climber the ability to customize the fit of the shoe: tighter in some places or looser in others. But then you have to deal with laces. This means tying and untying for breaks and having the laces dangle while you climb.
  • Velcro: Velcro straps allow the climber to get in and out of their shoes fairly quickly, but do not offer the customizable fit that laces do. You are stuck with the fit that the strap provides.
  • Straps: However, straps have gotten better. So keep in mind that the more straps you have, the more customizable the fit . . . but also you lose that rubber coverage. 3-strap shoes are going to be very poor toe-hooking shoes while 1-strap shoes will excel at toe-hooking.
  • Slip-on: Slip-ons give the climber easy access in and out of the shoe. Some climbers love this and do not care about the customizable fit and tightening. There is obviously zero additional tightening with slip-ons, which may be a huge disadvantage.

[ OTHER ATTRIBUTES ]

  • Downturn/Aggressiveness: The more aggressive a shoe is, the better it is going to perform when executing precise footwork. This works inversely, however. The more aggressive a shoe is, the worse it is going to perform when executing poor footwork. The more downturned a shoe, the more uncomfortable it is going to be for extended periods of time.
  • Toe-Box: The toe-box is the portion of the shoe surrounding your toes, specifically your big toe as most climbing shoes come to some kind of point there. Toe-boxes range from larger and boxier to very precise and pointy. A pointier toe-box is designed to bring all of the force you apply to a hold to a single point. Wider toe-boxes are built for comfort and extended use but offer less precision. Toe-box size often coincides with the downturn of the shoe; more aggressive shoes have pointier toe boxes.
  • Heel-cup: Heel-cups vary from rounded to boxy. The most important part of the heel cup is how it fits you. Try on some shoes and find out which types fit better.
3. Once you’ve chosen the attributes of your climbing shoes, you need to make an honest evaluation of yourself.

This part is difficult. All too often in the gym, you see climbers in shoes that do not know how to take advantage of the attributes of the shoes. This is a poor choice of shoes for this climber. So… how is your footwork? If you are still learning, don’t grab a pair of aggressive shoes, instead, you are going to want a pair of moderate or flat shoes that help introduce you to advanced techniques.

Aggressive shoes require a concrete understanding of footwork in order to use them properly. The strengths of aggressive shoes are the ability to focus the weight of the foot onto pinpoint positions and the ability to pull off of holds using the downturn. If you are not familiar with these techniques, that’s okay! Lots of shoes are designed to teach you them, and you will certainly pick them up as you continue to climb. But avoid falling into the trap because you may end up with foot cramps and shoes that are not right for you!

So you’ve identified what you are going to use your shoes for, used this to create a list of attributes you’d like your shoe to have, and made an honest evaluation of your climbing abilities.

4. You’re ready to start trying on shoes!

If your local gym carries climbing shoes, head on in and try on some shoes that have the attributes you want. Other climbing shoe carriers like REI are great as well but have a limited selection. So do not feel pigeon-holed into buying shoes that they carry. One thing that I will do is order a couple of pairs of shoes on Amazon, try them on, and return them if they aren’t for me.

5. Finally, let’s talk briefly about fitting and sizing.

[ FITTING ]
Your climbing shoes should be snug. If you are going for a more aggressive and/or leather shoe, they may even hurt for a time. Keep in mind that if your leather shoes fit perfectly on day one, they definitely won’t fit perfectly after a month of climbing.

[ SIZING ]
A good place to start when picking out shoes is to take your street shoe and downsize it by 1 whole size. Unfortunately, however, there is no real way to know until you go try some shoes on. You will learn over time how different brands and types of shoes fit you. For instance, I wear a size 10.5 street shoe. My La Sportiva Miura’s are 8’s, my Evolv Defy’s are 9’s, and my 5.10 Arrowheads are 7.5’s. There’s just no telling!

If you need any more help picking out shoes or want a couple more tips, come on into the gym and ask anyone at the front desk or even any of the climbers around the gym! We have all been through the shoe choosing process and can offer you our take on it. Remember, though, at the end of the day it’s about choosing a shoe that’s right for you, no one else!

1 Comment

  • EverythingAboutClimbing Posted June 20, 2018 3:03 pm

    Nice article!

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Year you started climbing?
2010

Year you started working at Sportrock?
2014

Favorite climbing spot?
New River Gorge, WV

Most memorable climbing experience?
Splurging on a cabin at the New and getting to soak in a hot tub every night after climbing. Not so much the having to sleep on the couch after.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee?
Summer Camp instructor, Belay instructor, Front Desk staff, Marketing Manager, Brand Manager.

Passions in life?
My family, all animals (especially my two cats), design, and popcorn.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words?
Creative, loud, and obsessed-with-animals.

What would surprise us to learn about you?
Surprisingly, there are still people at Sportrock who don’t know I have an identical twin sister...even though we climb together. Also that I’m originally from California and married to my high school sweetheart.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why?
Definitely a cat. I love naps in warm, cozy places.

Lillian Chao-Quinlan
Lillian Chao-Quinlan

President

Year you started climbing? 1999

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2000

Favorite climbing spot? Kalymnos, Greece.

Most memorable climbing experience? Too many and all memorable for different reasons - sending a hard climb, being in a beautiful place, climbing with my husband and friends...

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? Instructor, Investor, President.

Passions in life? Creating opportunities in the climbing community that support people in discovering their potential!

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Passionate, driven, reliable.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I LOVE M&Ms (dark chocolate specifically!).

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? Grizzly bear because I love the great outdoors, eating fish and scaring campers!

Andrew Kozak
Andrew Kozak

Senior Director | Director of SR Sterling

Year you started climbing? 1999

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2002

Favorite climbing spot? Red Rocks, NV.

Most memorable climbing experience? The Great Arch in Stone Mountain, NC.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? I’ve done them all.

Passions in life? Family.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Caring, Committed, Clean.

What would surprise us to learn about you? On hard, crimpy boulder problems, I only climb with 9 fingers.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? A pet panda for my daughter because she LOVES them.

Sean Taft-Morales
Sean Taft-Morales

Director of SR Alexandria & Outdoor Programs

Year you started climbing? 2001

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2010

Favorite climbing spot? Yosemite in early spring.

Most memorable climbing experience? One of my most memorable moments came at the end of the first day of my first big-wall climb. I was hating life, had been belaying on a 6 inch ledge for hours, was cold, hungry, and had forgotten my headlamp in the bottom of the haul bag. I was just about ready to give up on climbing forever when the sun started to set, and a cloud of a thousand swifts started feeding all around me. Climbing to me is all about stepping back to find beauty in these extreme environments and experiences. You have to get out of your head and recognize that it's a pretty cool planet.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? Outdoor guide, Desk staff, Closing manager, Basic Skills instructor, Camp Director, Director of Alexandria, Director of Outdoor Programs.

Passions in life? Aside from climbing, I love baking bread, sailing, and playing dungeons and dragons.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Evidence-based, Glittery, Color-coordinated.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I once hitchhiked over 2,000 miles in 8 months around the southwest US climbing. I also started climbing after attending a Sportrock birthday party.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? I would be a blue whale - it's the most alien landscape and fundamentally different experience I could imagine.

James Anastasion
James Anastasion

Director of Membership

Year you started climbing? 1994

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2003

Favorite climbing spot? Chattanooga, TN.

Most memorable climbing experience? Leading my wife up Old Ladies at Seneca Rocks to propose on the south summit.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? I started as a routesetter and continued with that part-time through most of my Sportrock career. I was also the SR Rockville Gym Director, Operations Director, Instructor, IT Department, Cleaner, Builder, Repairman, Purchaser, Installer, etc. And I continue to do many of these roles while also working as the Director of Membership.

Passions in life? My family is always at the top of my list. A recent and strong passion of mine though has become obstacle course racing. If I'm not spending time on either of those things, then you will probably find me in the shop fixing or building something.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Sarcastic (from my wife), Strong (from my daughter), Blank stare (from my son).

What would surprise us to learn about you? I can add poop and fart lyrics to most Disney tunes, especially Frozen and Descendants. If you want to get your daughter laughing, just sing “let it go, let it go, can’t hold it back anymore.”

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? Okapi. It is rarely seen and rarely heard of. However, when it finally comes to light you can only think that Prometheus’s children got a hold of the clay one day.

Molly Donelan

Director of Programs & Events

Year you started climbing? 2004

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2007

Favorite climbing spot? Echo Cliffs or Red River Gorge.

Most memorable climbing experience? Deep water soloing in Mallorca, Spain.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? Yoga Instructor, Climbing Instructor, Front Desk Staff, Outdoor Instructor, Lead Manager, Assistant Director, Director of Alexandria, Director of Programs & Events.

Passions in life? My family, jigsaw puzzles, my dogs, camping, climbing, running, baking, neurobiology, and eating.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Passionate, Crazy, Independent.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I used to run my own catering baking business, DC Treats, which served to over 15 bars/restaurants in the DC area, including Good Stuff Eatery and Sticky Rice.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? An elephant because they are strong, intelligent, loyal to the group, and unstoppable.

Leah Thomas
Leah Thomas

Assistant Director of SR Alexandria

Year you started climbing? 2010

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2010

Favorite climbing spot? Red River Gorge and Reeds Creek.

Most memorable climbing experience? The Red River Gorge was my first outdoor trip ever. I knew nothing and went with experts! It was my first lead belay and the first time I cleaned a route. I fell in love. And the experience reminded me that I was improving, growing, and getting over my fear of heights every day.

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? Birthday Party Instructor, Front Desk Staff, Front Desk Manager, Instructor, Retail Manager, Assistant Director of Alexandria.

Passions in life? My passion in life is helping others work for and achieve goals. Every personality test I’ve taken led me to the same common theme: helping, teaching, and motivating others. Currently, I want to share the love of climbing with those who may not have the opportunity to do so and introduce a new mental and physical challenge into their lives.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Loyal, Enthusiastic, Supportive.

What would surprise us to learn about you? Other than being absolutely afraid of heights...I love love love the sound of lawnmowers because it reminds me of warmer weather and free time. It's the sound of summer! I played soccer since I was 2 years old, was a Middle School PE teacher, and completed a 500 mile hike. I also lived in Istanbul, Turkey for six months and scored free tea and coffee almost daily for three of them!

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? Golden Retriever - The extroverted, loyal cuddler that loves to play and meet new people. They are energetic, active, and they love and want to play with everyone. They also like meeting new people, going on long hikes and adventures, and sharing hugs and treats.

Gray O'Reilly
Gray O'Reilly

Marketing Manager

Year you started climbing? 2012

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2014

Favorite climbing spot? Leavenworth, WA.

Most memorable climbing experience? Freezing temps. 50-degree sleeping bags. Car stuck in the mud. Unable to start a fire. Finally start a fire. Snow. Fire goes out. Car still stuck in mud. Start another fire. Survive the night on body heat and sheer force of will. Climb at Endless Wall the next day!

What roles have you had as a Sportrock employee? Belay bot for parties and open climb; Summer Camp instructor; Private Lesson instructor; Head Camp Coordinator; Marketing Manager.

Passions in life? School is and always will be one of my great passions. If I could professionally collect degrees in various fields, I would. Also, publishing a novel is a lifelong dream of mine. So I would say, besides climbing: learning, writing, music, environmentalism...and climbing.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Follows directions.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I was NOT in a fraternity in college. But I was in an all-male acapella group.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? Humpback Whale. No natural predators, meals swim into my mouth, and people travel from around the world to watch me belly flop? Yes, please.

Jeremy Hardin
Jeremy Hardin

Senior Director | Director of Routesetting (L5)

Year you started climbing? 2002

Year you started setting? 2004

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2002

How many comps have you set for? 100+ including multiple World Cup and National Championships.

What is your goal when setting? For gym setting, I try to make every climb consistent in grade, with respect to height and reach, with flow and memorable sequences or movement. For comp setting, the goal is to create fun and fair routes or problems to separate the field of competitors. We try to test all abilities and styles for the overall "best" climber of the event.

How do you come up with route names? That's the hardest part of my day. Normally it comes down to the first two words I can rhyme that are appropriate.

Favorite route name? One Crazy Hooker.

What inspires you to stay constantly creative? My reputation.

Setting pet peeves? When climbers do a sequence or move incorrectly or harder than what is obvious and then complain the movement was "awkward"... sometimes it's not the climb that’s awkward, it's the climber.

Words of advice to climbers who get stumped on your routes? Try harder.

Passions in life? My wife and son, cars and trucks, fixing stuff.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? He’s a Workhorse.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I train and compete in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? A Lion, because he’s the king of the jungle!

Stephen Meinhold
Stephen Meinhold

Head Routesetter (L4)

Year you started climbing? 1996

Year you started setting? 2001

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2017

How many comps have you set for? 32

Why did you start setting? Early on I was more focused on competing than setting. I competed in ABS & USA Climbing National events, UBC Pro Tour events, Mammut Bouldering Championships, Dark Horse Series, Portland Boulder Rally, 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, and even an Ice Climbing comp. I thought comps started to neglect the competitor for "world cup" style problems so I started to focus on setting to better understand this style. I have been head setter for a few different gyms in NC, PA, and OR over the years, and I have set multiple USA Climbing National events.

What is your goal when setting? To force you to do whatever I want you to do.

How do you come up with route names? I stare at the computer screen and mumble until I come up with something.

Favorite route name? Manilla Vanure.

What inspires you to stay constantly creative? Coffee and pastries.

Setting pet peeves? Metric bolts.

Words of advice to climbers who get stumped on your routes? Seek out beta or work it out with a friend. Sometimes I can set very contrived with a specific sequence, so if you can't figure it out maybe someone else can. Just like outside, learning how to project routes can help with the redpoint process. More pull-ups always help.

Passions in life? My wife and baby boy... and cookies, all of them.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Slow-motion Train Wreck.

What would surprise us to learn about you? Before getting back in the gym I was a High School Chemistry/Physics/Math teacher. I have horrible balance. I am a huge fan of rap and hip-hop.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? Gorilla, it’s my spirit animal.

JD Cantrell
JD Cantrell

Routesetter (L2)

Year you started climbing? 2005

Year you started setting? 2009

Year you started working at Sportrock? 2012

How many comps have you set for? Dozens.

Why did you start setting? I would skip class to go climb at Virginia Beach Rock Gym while my friends, Scott Johns and Tommy Morrison, were setting and they kind of took me under their wing.

What is your goal when setting? To force the movement, duh...

How do you come up with route names? I keep an ongoing list in my phone of things and phrases that I think would make good route names. There’s lots of pop culture references.

Favorite route name? All my favorite route names are NSFW.

What inspires you to stay constantly creative? The bills don't pay themselves.

Setting pet peeves? Not having enough coffee.

Words of advice to climbers who get stumped on your routes? Trade beta for baked goods.

Passions in life? Rock climbing, yoga, art, building things.

How would your family or friends describe you in 3 words? Doesn't follow instructions well.

What would surprise us to learn about you? I’m a bit of a neat freak.

If you could be any animal in the world - what would you be and why? A pug, everybody likes pugs.

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