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?
- Learning to boulder?
- Learning to sport climb?
- Warm up shoes?
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!