Best Climbing Approach Shoes for Men Review

We looked at 13 of the best approach shoes and put them through rigorous head-to-head tests. We scored them on smearing, edging, hiking, durability and their lightweight/compactness. We took them up El Capitan, to the sport crag, on long hikes, or just around town. In the end we choose a winner, but there were actually multiple winners depending on what activity you do the most (listed at the bottom of the review).

Check out our Approach Shoe Buying Advice for tips on how to select the one for you.

Read the full review below >

Review by: ⋅ Founder and Editor-in-Chief, OutdoorGearLab

Top Ranked Approach Shoes - Men's Displaying 1 - 5 of 10 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
La Sportiva Ganda
La Sportiva Ganda
Read the Review
Video video review
Evolv Cruzer
Evolv Cruzer
Read the Review
Five Ten Guide Tennie
Five Ten Guide Tennie
Read the Review
Video video review
Five Ten Camp Four
Five Ten Camp Four
Read the Review
Scarpa Zen
Scarpa Zen
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award  Top Pick Award  Best Buy Award  Top Pick Award   
Street Price Varies $199 - $250
Compare at 5 sellers
Varies $41 - $75
Compare at 6 sellers
Varies $99 - $130
Compare at 7 sellers
Varies $97 - $150
Compare at 4 sellers
Varies $145 - $149
Compare at 6 sellers
Overall Score 
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64
Editors' Rating
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User Rating
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86% recommend it (6/7)
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50% recommend it (2/4)
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71% recommend it (12/17)
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80% recommend it (8/10)
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100% recommend it (4/4)
Pros Maybe the highest performing approach shoe on rockLight, comfortable, great for long multi-pitch routes, stylish, smears well, great valueClimb great, low-bulkDurable, good all-around performanceBurly construction, great laces, durable, good toe rand
Cons Expensive, not great for longer hikesDurability (if using it hard on hikes,scrambling), not ideal for long approachesDurability, not enough cushion for big approachesNot great at edging, a little bulky when put in a backpackTake a little while to break in, irrated heel at first
Best Uses Guides and climbing addicts who want a comfy shoe to climb technical rock routes that are well below their ability.Urban style approach shoe that also climbs well and is ideal on multi-pitch climbsBig wall climbing, alpine rock, craggingBig walls, big hikes, every day approach shoeHiking, scrambling
Date Reviewed Nov 20, 2012Aug 23, 2012Apr 05, 2012Apr 29, 2012May 30, 2012
Weighted Scores La Sportiva Ganda Evolv Cruzer Five Ten Guide Tennie Five Ten Camp Four Scarpa Zen
Smearing - 20%
10
0
9
10
0
9
10
0
10
10
0
8
10
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5
Edging - 20%
10
0
10
10
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8
10
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8
10
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7
10
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6
Hiking - 20%
10
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6
10
0
5
10
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6
10
0
7
10
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7
Durability - 20%
10
0
8
10
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6
10
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7
10
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9
10
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10
Compactness Lightweight - 20%
10
0
7
10
0
10
10
0
7
10
0
6
10
0
4
Product Specs La Sportiva Ganda Evolv Cruzer Five Ten Guide Tennie Five Ten Camp Four Scarpa Zen
OGL Weight /pair (ounces) 15.4 (size 9.5) 26.6 (size 10.5)
Manufacturer Weight /pair (ounces) 29 15.4 (size 9) 29 29 31
Sticky rubber? Yes Yes Yes Yes No
Tread pattern Dot
Upper Material Leather and synthetic leather Cotton canvas Leather and mesh Leather Suede leather
Lining Material Microfiber
Toe rand Yes

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


  • Review Photos
  • Editors' Choice Winners
  • All Reviewed Products

Smearing
The best shoe for slabs and smearing is the Five Ten Guide Tennie. It has a full sheet of dot rubber on the wold and the super sticky Stealth C4 rubber. Very close behind is the La Sporiva Ganda. The Five Ten Daescent was a top scorer as well. We expected it to be better because of the flat sheet of sticky rubber on the toe. However, the shoe was a little too loose fitting in the toe to put it at the top. The surprise in this category was the Vibram Five Finger KSO. Even without sticky rubber, it is so sensitive that it scores surprisingly well whether bouldering on rounded holds or climbing a slab.

Edging
The La Sportiva Ganda came way out on top. It has a very precise fit and narrow toe. It is the only shoe that climbs almost like a climbing shoe. Most other top scoring shoes fell into two categories. A sturdy shoe like the Scapa Zen or Camp 4 could stand on a medium size edge fairly confidently but you couldn't even feel a small edge because of the thick sole. A shoe like Guide Tennie could smear edges but didn't have enough support to confidently stand on them.

Hiking
Long hikes really separated our contenders. The three running-style shoes, the La Sportiva Exum Pro, Evolv Escapist, and Five Ten Savant, really rose above the rest. They are light and have aggressive tread patters for great traction. These are the only shoes we would take on an approach of four-plus miles instead of running shoes. The other top scoring shoes were the Zen, Boulder X and Camp Four. These are great for shorter hikes with big loads due to their sturdy design. However, they are not ideal for long, long approaches.

Click to enlarge
Matt Wilhelm smears his way across the The High Sierra's Evolution Traverse, a link-up of nine 13k ft. peaks, with the Hyperlite Moutain Gear Windrider pack and Them-a-Rest Z Lite Sol pad.
Credit: Max Neale
Durability
This is a big factor for any serious climber. The cost of the shoe is irrelevant if it wears out 2-3 times faster than another shoe. Here the Scarpa Zen really stood out. It is big, sturdy and has a hefty toe rand. The Camp Four also impressed us and there is a reason this is probably the popular shoe you see on El Capitan. The Boulder X also performed well. The Ganda was the most durable of the shoes that climb well. The rubber wears out much faster than the stitching, which is what you want and what is often not the case with approach shoes. More importantly, it is one of the few shoes that you can resole again and again without losing lots of performance. This helps make up for it's high initial cost. If you are using your approach shoes a ton, it is one of the best long term values.

Compactness/Lightness
Here the Five Finger KSO can't be touched. It was half the weight of the next lightest shoe. You can barely feel them when they are clipped to your harness. If you are OK with the whole "five finger concept" (and look), this would be hard to beat for multi-pitch climbs where you want to move as lightly as possible on the rock. The Sanuk Base Camp is the next lightest and is very compact when put in your pack. That said, its lack of support and durabilty keep it out of contention as a workhorse for multi-pitch climbs. The best light shoe for most people is the Five Ten DAescent Men's. It is really light but still performs well on approaches and descents.

The History
Rock climbing is full of mysterious and technical lingo that is understandably confusing to a new climber or an outsider listening in on a conversation about it. More than once, family and friends have remarked that they understood little of what I was saying other than the fact that I was rock climbing. They usually then assume this was in some far away, high up and dangerous location (I will just say here that rock climbing is actually quite safe when done properly and accidents are quite rare in the big picture). So when climbers start talking about 'approach shoes' it is easy to understand how this might be confusing; "What is an approach shoe? Why is that different from a normal shoe? What are you approaching?"

The term is actually just a fancy way to describe a minimalist hiking shoe. The name comes from the idea that this shoe is not specifically a climbing shoe but is for getting to the climb. The understanding is that when you get to the climb you will change into an actual 'climbing shoe.' However, getting to a rock climb is rarely without some aspect of scrambling and climbing, maybe across boulders or over the easier terrain that brings you to the start of the actual rock climb. So these shoes are made with some extra attention to specific details to make this much easier. These details set them apart from a normal running or walking shoe and makes them far superior, even for a casual hiker or climber.

If you have ever found yourself out for a hike in a pair of regular running shoes, perhaps somewhere with boulders and steep slabs of rock, you probably noticed that try as you might your regular shoes don't want to stick to the slick rock. Well, it turns out that this is actually not so much because of 'slick rock' as it is because of slick non-sticky rubber! The first major characteristic of these shoes is that they are made with special 'sticky rubber.' This rubber has far more 'grip' than regular shoe rubber, it is soft and pliable, yet durable and abrasion resistant. In fact, it is just a small step from magical, sticky rubber will solve your slippery feet problem when hiking on rocks and boulders, which is the exact terrain you find when 'approaching' a rock climb, hence the name!

This sticky rubber has a long history dating back to about 1935 when Italian mountaineer Vitale Bramani wanted better footwear for climbing and hiking the Alps. A tragic accident claimed the lives of six of his friends and was widely associated with the poor footwear of the era being used on technical climbing terrain. Bramani teamed with the founder of Pirelli Tires, Leopold Pirelli, to create Vibram soles, the first rubber lugged sole for boots. In many ways, these boots were the very first shoes made for approaching.

However, these original rubber compounds were hard, stiff and heavy. While they provided superior traction to a hobnailed boot (a leather soled boot with metal studs pounded into the sole) these Vibram soled boots were far from 'sticky' by todays standards. That magical rubber didn't hit the streets for nearly another 50 years when in 1980 two Spaniards developed a special rubber that was meant just for rock climbing shoes. This rubber was first marketed on a revolutionary pair of climbing shoes by Boreal, The Fires. The Fires (often pronounced with a Spanish accent, Fee-Rays) changed the climbing shoe game and revolutionized the sport of rock climbing.

By the mid 1980's there wasn't a climbing shoe available that didn't use the new 'sticky rubber' and soon after the climbing shoes had it, companies were making different lug patterns and putting it on regular hiking shoes. The heart and sole of the Vibram brand still remains in the mountains and the rubber that the company produces is present on many of the top outdoor shoes on the market. Keep in mind that the Vibram rubber comes in many different tread patterns and even different 'stickinesses.' The stuff used on actual climbing shoes is the stickiest (it actually wouldn't do well as a normal shoe sole). The next best stuff is what goes onto the shoes, this stuff is a littler more firm and durable, this is the stuff you want. They also make heavier lug patterns that gets used on hiking shoes, this is good stuff, but not quite the same as that used by brands like Scarpa, La Sportiva or Five Ten.

The rubber is not the only aspect of the shoe that makes it special and unique. The construction is also a key component as these shoes need to excel at both hiking and scrambling around on rocks, since this is so often the case when hiking to a rock climb. So these shoes are often made to be both a hiking and climbing shoe by having a blend of a stiff lateral forefoot yet still maintaining the flexibility at the arch.

These shoes are also constructed with stronger materials for the body of the shoe so that they can withstand the abrasion of the constant abuse of jamming feet into cracks or moving over coarse rock day in and day out. You won't find any lightweight mesh here, at least not in the sides of the shoe where it may often come in contact with the rock. Often these shoes will have a 'toe rand' or a black rubber strip that protects the front of the toes and wraps around the side of the shoes to protect that part of the shoe right by the pinky toe. This is because that spot is particularly susceptible to wear and tear when scrambling and hiking on your way to a climb.

So remember, even if you aren't hiking to the base of a big rock climb, these are just a much improved hiking shoe with a fancy name. They are more durable, often lighter weight (that way they won't weigh you down when stuffed into a bag while climbing), and have far superior traction than your average runner or hiker. You don't have to be approaching anything to enjoy the benefits of these awesome shoes, they still work great when out on a normal hike, and then if you decide to climb to the top of a mountain, you probably won't have to change shoes to get there.

The Bottom Line
The Editors' Choice award goes to the La Sportiva Ganda. It is the only shoe that climbs almost as well as a regular climbing shoe. Its price will scare away many, but its long term durabilty and performance will reward those willing to shell out the cash.

The Best Buy award goes to the Five Ten Guide Tennie. It is less than half the cost of the Ganda and scored second highest. Any shoe that cost less did not score nearly as well. This what most climbers should get who want solid scrambling performance. Even some of our testers who are guides, who get pro deals or free gear, mostly go with the Guide Tennie because they are just too afraid to trash their expensive Gandas while guiding.

Two shoes win a Recommended award. The Five Ten Camp Four is the best shoe for big walls and for short but rugged approaches. If you don't care a ton about how well your shoe edges, then this might be the shoe to get. It is comfortable and burly.

A special mention goes to the Vibram Five Finger KSO and the Sanuk Base Camp. Neither scored that well. However, the Sanuk is the shoe that we most often wear just because it doubles as an urban shoe. For mellow outings, we often find its easier to keep the Sanuks on then to brint an extra pair of approach shoes. The KSO is hard to compare to others. You are a believer in Five Finger concept or you are not. If you are a convert, these "shoes" might just be the ultimate climbing approach shoe they weigh next to nothing when put away in your pack and climb surprisingly well (except in cracks).

Best Shoe for Each Application
Climbing 5th class terrain: Ganda or Guide Tennie
Big Walls: Camp Four
Long Approaches: Exum Guide
Hanging out: Sanuk Base Camp
Most multi-pitch climbs: Five Ten Daescent or Vibram Five Fingers KSO

Chris McNamara
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