The Best Climbing Approach Shoes for Men Review
What are the best climbing approach shoes? We compared eight of the most popular models side-by-side this past winter: bouldering and sport climbing in Bishop, scrambling and trad climbing in Joshua Tree, and getting up, down, and around Red Rock Canyon. Our testers have abused countless pairs over the years, from El Cap ascents to the summits of the High Sierra, the Rockies, and beyond. Our evaluation metrics - climbing ability, comfort, support, weight/packability, and durability - reward contenders that both climb and hike well.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Approach Shoes
Five Ten Guide Tennie
The Five Ten Guide Tennie wins our Editors' Choice award; it delivers the best combination of climbing ability and comfort for hiking and scrambling. Five Ten's recent redesign of this time-tested classic hikes better than its predecessor, and maintains most of the climbing performance it is famous for. The sticky rubber toe rand protects more of the upper than it did in the past, and the updated Stealth C4 Dot sole provides both better traction for sandy hiking, and better edging if you are sizing them snugly for climbing performance. The Guide Tennie has long been a favorite of climbers who spend lots of time in Joshua Tree National Park, where the approaches to, and descents from, the climbing routes can be more hair-raising than the climbs themselves. It excels in this terrain, and the increased midsole cushioning makes the Guide Tennie hike better than ever. If we could only buy one shoe for an endless climbing road-trip, this is it.
Best Bang for the Buck
La Sportiva Boulder X
As always, our Best Buy award goes to the product that delivers the most bang for your buck. The La Sportiva Boulder X is relatively affordable, climbs well, and is better suited to covering long miles on big approaches than any of the models with similar or better climbing ability scores. Additionally, the lacing system that extends around the back of the ankle provides a great fit for a variety of foot shapes. While the Boulder X is quite a bit heavier than the Guide Tennie, this translates to increased durability and a midsole that supports the foot much better when carrying heavy loads.
Top Pick for Casual, Lightweight Shoe
We awarded the featherweight Evolv Cruzer a Top Pick award. This barely-there shoe could be likened to a bedroom slipper with sticky rubber for climbing. Sized to fit snugly, the Cruzer climbs surprisingly well. Even though it received the lowest scores for durability and support, there are compelling use cases for the Cruzer. Clipped to your harness or stashed in your small climbing pack, these are awesome for toting up multi-pitch routes for the descent. For long routes where the approaches are relatively short, and the descents often involve slabby down-climbing, the Cruzer rocks. And while this is a lace up shoe that can be cinched up on your midfoot when desired, the heel portion can also be folded down to the footbed for slip on entry. We love this feature for quickly bouncing around the boulders and sport crag. Available in several colors, including a tan and gray, this is the most unassuming looking shoe for casual wear as well.
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Analysis and Test Results
Climbing approach shoes are a specialty product. Rock climbers place unique demands on the footwear we use to get to and from the boulders, cliffs, and mountains where we practice our art. Two attributes define this category of footwear:
Sticky Rubber Soles
All products included in this review utilize a rubber sole that prioritizes 'stickiness' on rock. The rubber compounds used are softer than the ones used for hiking boots and shoes, generating more friction on rock. These sticky rubber soles give us confidence that our feet will stay put on steep rock slabs, the tradeoff being they wear down faster than harder formulations.
Durable Upper Materials
In general, approach shoes' uppers are constructed with materials that are more capable of withstanding the abuse of scuffing against and grinding into rock. A full leather upper, with the toe covered by a thin, sticky rubber cap, or rand, is a necessity for the longevity of shoes that get crammed into cracks or scuffed against talus and scree.
Our Buying Advice article provides an in-depth discussion of what type of footwear to choose for getting to and from climbing areas, and a discussion of sizing your approach shoes appropriately for climbing performance, hiking comfort, or the best combination of the two.
Each product's individual review discusses best uses and details its score in the five performance metrics. As always, we compare and contrast each model to the most similar products to help you make an informed decision. Our climbing ability metric takes into consideration how well each shoe edges, smears, and crack climbs, and you'll find the scoop in individual reviews. Below, in the main review, you'll find detailed descriptions of our evaluation metrics and the top scorers in each.
Hiking or Climbing
Are approach shoes best suited for hiking or climbing? As we defined the category, the top overall scorers are the models that do both well. Only you know what demands you place on your shoes, and which evaluation metric is most important for your use. The Scarpa Zen is an excellent hiking shoe that climbs OK thanks to the Vibram Spyder sticky rubber. Meanwhile, the Editors' Choice winning Five Ten Guide Tennie and Best Buy winning La Sportiva Boulder X offer the best combination of hiking and climbing performance. The Guide Tennie, with Stealth C4 rubber climbs better, and the Boulder X's tread pattern and stiffer midsole make it a better hiker.
Consider where you will use your approach shoes the most, and what attribute is most important to you. Even if there are only short sections of rock to climb or traverse, you may prioritize climbing ability for security. On the other hand, you may prefer a model that is more comfortable for hiking and offers better traction on dirt. All of the shoes we evaluated here both smear and edge better than trail running shoes and hiking shoes. Below, in our Best Applications section, you'll find recommended models for various climbing areas and uses. Use that discussion to help inform your choice of which model is best for you.
Snow and Ice
One somewhat surprising question we get asked about approach shoes "Which is best for strapping a crampon to?" Approaching alpine rock climbs often involves crossing a bit of snow in addition to steep rock, often early in the morning when it's firm. By far, the best model we tested for kicking steps in snow is the Salewa Mountain Trainer GTX. This shoe, the Scarpa Zen, and Boulder X are your best options if you will encounter snow. Each readily accepts traction devices like the Kahtoola MICROspikes, and on their own are far better than trail running shoes when you depend on kicking steps.
We have found that attaching crampons to approach shoes is problematic. Years ago, our lead tester attempted a long mountain day, the car-to-car traverse of the Three Sisters above Bend, Oregon, known as the Three Sisters Marathon. In early summer, several long sections of hard snow and a small glacier lay along the route, as well as low 5th class choss on the North Sister. Five Ten Mountain Masters, similar to the current Five Ten Camp Four, with Grivel G-12 crampons attached for the hard snow sections, seemed the perfect choice for this mission. Everything went as planned, until he learned a hard lesson. It is difficult to keep low cut shoes bearing crampons on your feet when things get steep. If you require the combination of hiking and climbing performance approach shoes deliver, and you want to mount a true crampon on them, do yourself a favor. Mount your crampons on a mid-cut shoe that will stay on your foot! Better yet, save the crampons for boots which are intended for them!
Low-Cut vs. Mid-Cut
For climbers out there that want the smearing and edging performance of an approach shoe, but also desire more ankle support and protection, a mid-cut model is the perfect match. Some folks are comfortable carrying moderate to heavy loads over talus and slabs in a low-cut shoe, while others will appreciate the added ankle stability a mid-cut model delivers. Covering the ankle bones can prevent bumps, bruises, and abrasions as well. Cruising through scree fields, a mid-cut model will also keep more debris out.
Five of the models we tested are available in a mid-cut version, including the award-winning Guide Tennie and Boulder X. These two mid-cuts, as well as the Camp Four and Mountain Trainer, have the same construction and soles as their low-cut brothers. The Zen mid-cut is constructed differently, but is similar to the models we tested. These over-the-ankle versions often have a Gore-Tex liner, or the option. Check the "Other Versions" sections located at the end of each individual review for all the available flavors.
Best Uses for Approach Shoes
The variety of terrain and distances we encounter approaching and descending from climbs places quite different demands on our footwear. The Five Ten Guide Tennie and La Sportiva Boulder X are the best do-everything products we tested. The Guide Tennie, with soft Stealth rubber, climbs better, and the Boulder X hikes better, especially in loose dirt or mud. If you travel to many climbing areas, these are your best bet. Below, you will find recommendations for specific climbing areas and types of terrain.
Approaching Rock Climbs
Scarpa Mojito is the most durable of the lightweight products we tested, and is super comfy for short approaches with light loads. The granite here chews up even full leather uppers, and a liberal application of seam sealer will increase durability if you desire.
The multi-pitch climbs in Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas present a different approach and descent scenario. Longer, with much more steep terrain on loose rock and dirt, the approaches demand a shoe that hikes well, has good traction on steep dirt, and can still bust out 4th class terrain. The Guide Tennie is a great option here, especially for tricky approaches like the slabs that lead up to Levitation 29 and the Rainbow Buttress. Models that focus more on support and comfort for hiking are also well suited. The Five Ten Camp Four and Boulder X are two of the best hiking models we tested, and are great Red Rock shoes. These two both have better traction in dirt and sand than the Guide Tennie.
These famous "follow-the-sun-in-the-winter" areas are just two example scenarios - be sure to consider the the climbing you typically do and the terrain of your favorite areas. If you do a lot of scrambling, look for shoes that scored well in our climbing ability metric. If you only occasionally need to cross talus or rock slabs, but are mostly on trail, then comfort and support will likely be top priorities for you.
Easy Alpine Rock Climbs
Salewa Wildfire GTX, a hybrid running/hiking/approach shoe, and the La Sportiva Hyper Mid GTX, a mid-cut hiking/approach hybrid, are great choices for these big days too. If you loved the discontinued Exum Ridge from La Sportiva, check out the Salewa Wildfire as a replacement, we love it.
Do not hesitate to carry a pair of real climbing shoes with you to routes like these; the confidence gained on more challenging pitches can be more important than saving a pound on the approach.
Evolv Cruzer is a perfect descent shoe for the friction slabs in Tuolumne Meadows. Clipped to your harness or stashed in the second's pack, they're hardly noticeable. The Vasque Grand Traverse is only a bit heavier, but hikes much better. It is a perfect option for Eldorado Canyon or Lover's Leap. These two shoes are the least durable we tested, and the Scarpa Mojito is a great option for those that want a light shoe that is more durable. Not everyone is that concerned about weight, and the Guide Tennie and Boulder X will support your feet better.
Big Wall Climbing
Criteria for Evaluation
We tested each shoe in three sub-metrics here: Edging, or the ability to stand on small rock ledges ranging from a matchbook's width up to an inch. Smearing, or the ability to stick to steep rock that is devoid of any features. And crack climbing, the ability to stick your toe into vertical fissures in the rock and twist your foot to lock it in place. These are all important attributes for exposed scrambling, but consider which is most applicable to where you climb. At the end of this section, we list the top five performers for edging, smearing, and crack climbing. Climbing ability contributes 35% of each model's overall score.
The Five Ten Guide Tennie earned the highest score for climbing ability. We found it the best shoe for smearing, and it earned a high edging score as well. The La Sportiva Boulder X and Evolv Cruzer fill out second and third places for overall climbing ability. While the other three models maintain much of their climbing performance when sized appropriately for hiking, the slipper-like Cruzer climbs much better when sized to fit fairly snug.
Guide Tennie, Mountain Trainer, Boulder X, Cruzer
Guide Tennie, Cruzer, Boulder X, Grand Traverse
Best Crack Climbing
Boulder X, Cruzer, Guide Tennie, Mojito
How well an approach shoe hikes may be more important than climbing ability to many of you. For those who need sticky rubber to cross the occasional talus field, but primarily stay on trail, we would recommend prioritizing comfort and support - our two metrics that focus on how each model handles trail miles. Our rating for comfort focuses on features and comfort when carrying minimal loads, and contributes 20% to each product's overall score.
Comfort is determined in large part by how well your shoes fit your foot, and we recommend trying on several models you judge appropriate for your needs to see which matches your foot best. There is also a compromise when you choose your size. Size down a half or full size from your street shoe, and you'll get better climbing performance, but this can become really uncomfortable on long approaches. The Five Ten Camp Four and Scarpa Zen are the most comfortable shoes for covering many miles, and also have excellent traction in the dirt. But these two models earned relatively low climbing ability scores. The Five Ten Guide Tennie is the most comfortable shoe to hike in that climbs really well, with the La Sportiva Boulder X close behind.
In each product's individual review, we discuss the lacing system. Many of these shoes have lacing that extends closer to the toe of the shoe than hiking and running shoes, allowing you to cinch down the toe of the shoe for climbing performance, or loosen it for increased hiking comfort. We also discuss small features such as gusseted tongues, present in both Five Ten models, that help keep sand and debris out, and will save you from an instant soaking when stepping in shallow water. In addition, some models breathe better than others in hot weather.
Support is the second metric that focuses on hiking ability, and contributes 15% of total scores. Foot support is most important when carrying heavy loads, but even a "rope, rack, and the shirt on your back" weigh a fair bit. While climbers tend to have very strong feet, more support will mean less fatigue when the approaches get long and your pack gets heavy. Support also is important for a shoe's edging and crack climbing performance. All else being equal, a more supportive shoe will edge and crack climb better, especially when carrying a heavy pack.
The Salewa Mountain Trainer GTX is the stiffest, most supportive product we tested. It is an excellent shoe for carrying loads into the mountains. The La Sportiva Boulder X, Five Ten Camp Four, and Scarpa Zen all offer similar foot support. The barely-there Evolv Cruzer is the least supportive of the bunch.
Weight & Packability
Weight is always an important consideration for us here at OutdoorGearLab. If we are choosing between two products with similar performance qualities across other metrics, we favor the lighter of the two. With approach shoes, weight is of primary concern when you clip them to your harness or stow them in your climbing pack on multi-pitch routes. The lightest models we tested, the Evolv Cruzer, Vasque Grand Traverse, and Scarpa Mojito, are both compact and very light in comparison to the others we tested. The tradeoff here is obvious; these models do not support the foot and hike as well as heavier ones, and these shoes generally earned lower durability ratings as well. Weight and packability account for 15% of overall scores.
Our lead tester prefers to have each climber in a multi-pitch party carry their own shoes, water, and extra clothes on a multi-pitch route. Other folks prefer to give the leader the luxury of climbing without a small pack, or their shoes clipped to their harness. In practice, this means the second climber is often carrying a "second's pack," with food, water, clothing, and TWO pairs of approach shoes. TWO pairs of Cruzers stashed in the second's pack weigh less than ONE pair of the heaviest models.
The heaviest products we tested, the Salewa Mountain Trainer and the La Sportiva Boulder X, are comfortable and supportive for hiking, and earned high durability scores. The Cruzer is on the other end of the spectrum, earning top scores in weight, but lower scores in support and durability.
As we've discussed, increased durability to abrasion in rocky terrain is one of two defining attributes of this category of footwear. The uppers of all these shoes, save the Cruzer and to a lesser extent the Grand Traverse, will stand up to much more rocky abuse than the runners and hikers reviewed in our Trail Running Shoes and Hiking Shoes reviews. Durability scores account for 15% of overall scores.
We judged the Salewa Mountain Trainer GTX to be the most durable product we tested. It is a much more substantial shoe than most we tested. The Scarpa Zen is the next most durable. However, all shoes will suffer wear and tear on the upper materials if used repeatedly in a highly abrasive environment like Joshua Tree. Jamming in the flared cracks there can quickly wear a hole in the upper on the outside of the shoe just behind the toe rand. You can help prevent this by reinforcing this area. See our "Care and Feeding" section in the Buying Advice article accompanying this review for tips.
We have refrained from judging the durability of the sticky rubber soles of these shoes. The type of rock you climb on and your foot strike while hiking strongly influence how fast the soles wear down. It is a reasonable assumption that the shoes we found best at smearing have soles that wear more quickly than the others. All of these softer rubber formulations will wear down very quickly if you make a habit of wearing them on pavement or concrete. Minimize this to increase their lifespan. Most of these models can be resoled when the rubber sole wears thin. Resoling climbing shoes is a specialty task performed by only a few shops. We recommend consulting your resoling guru to find out if they are willing to resole a particular model if that is a deciding factor for you.
SilNet Silicone Seam Sealer
Superfeet Green Premium Insoles
These shoes are designed to wear approaching a rock climb. They are made with a sticky rubber sole and strong uppers for protection against corrosive terrain. We hope that this review has helped you to determine whether you are looking for a pair for comfortable hiking with better traction, or if you are needing a pair known for climbing ability and protection. Read through our Buying Advice article for more information on what to consider when selecting the pair for you.
— Brandon Lampley & Chris McNamara
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