How to Choose the Best Rock Climbing Shoe

Buying Advice
By ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab - Tuesday September 23, 2014
As a first time buyer, purchasing climbing shoes can be a daunting task. Even to a veteran, the prospect can be prohibitive. Unlike your street shoes, an approximate sizing won't be good enough. Virtually every climbing shoe has a unique shape and sizing system. The task is to find a shoe that fits your foot, and then size it appropriately for the type of climbing you're going to be doing. Below we offer information you can use to narrow the list of shoes you are choosing from. If you want more description of what shoes you should be picking from, see our Climbing Shoes Review.

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Testing climbing shoes on granite multi-pitch climbs in the Needles, CA.
Credit: Lyra Pierotti

Styles of Climbing Shoes

What Type of Climbing Will You Be Doing?
Do you live in Florida, and anticipate only using using these shoes in the gym for the foreseeable future? Are you moving into Camp 4 for the summer and plan to live off Chef Boyardee and Coors Lite so you can climb full-time? You want shoes for the type (or types) of climbing you're going to be doing, and you want them to be sized appropriately.

Bouldering and Sport Climbing
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As a good rule of thumb, the steeper the climbing gets, the more important it is to have a down-turned, performance fit shoe a design which directs more power through the toe. Appropriate sizing for steep, hard climbing varies from shoe to shoe. Generally, to perform at a very high level, a shoe will be uncomfortable to wear for more than a pitch or two. Our recommendation is to size your shoes appropriately to stay psyched. If all you're focused on is pushing your grade, a tight fitting, aggressively shaped shoe will work for you. If your comfort is critical to enjoying your experience while on the rock, then size your shoes accordingly, and look for a shoe with a flatter shape. Specialized shoes in this category tend to be on the upper end of the price range.

Trad and Crack Climbing
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Traditional climbing can involve a number of techniques, and the duration of the climbs are equally variable. Typically, for crack climbs or long multi-pitch routes, you'll want a flatter, looser fitting shoe. Shoes with a stiffer sole will allow you to stand on edges even when sized larger for comfort. They will also help prevent foot fatigue on longer days. Know that many shoes stretch significantly once worn-in. Unlined uppers are comfortable, but stretch more, and may leave you with a shoe than doesn't perform as well as you would like.

Gym Climbing and Starting Out
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There are probably several schools of thought regarding how to choose your first pair of climbing shoes. Our recommendation is to do your homework and this buyer's guide is a great place to start! Know what your local crags offer, or if you'll primarily be climbing in a gym. This will help you look for a shoe that is appropriate for what you're planning to do. Often, new climbers get put off by uncomfortable shoes. This is unnecessary. Look for a solid all-arounder, something versatile enough to let you explore various types of climbing (check out the climbing shoe reviews for ideas). Often, it is wise for a new climber to purchase inexpensive shoes because bad footwork will wear them out quickly. By the time you need a replacement, you may have learned something, and will be ready to upgrade to a pricier, higher performance shoe. Typically, inexpensive, entry-level shoes won't climb as well but this is not a hard and fast rule. If you find the right shoe, forking out a little extra cash is worth it to have something that you can grow with, and that won't hold you back. Irrespective of the price, the shoe needs to be comfortable. Not grandma's slippers comfortable, but something you can easily tolerate wearing for a while.

For gym climbing, get whatever suits your climbing ambitions. Tight and aggressive for really getting after it, or a flatter, looser fit if you're new to climbing, cruising, or just getting some exercise.

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Sport climbing in a down-turned shoe in the the Owens Valley Gorge, CA.
Credit: Thomas Greene

Fit Considerations

Tightness
There is a lot of subjective information out there regarding how you should size your shoes. For sport climbing and bouldering there is a pretty strong correlation between the difficulty of the climb and your shoe size: as the number grade of the climb increases, the number of your shoe size decreases correspondingly. This inverse relationship is due to the simple fact that tighter shoes perform better. However, there is a limit to an increase in tightness increasing performance. If your feet hurt so much that you don't want to, or can't climb, you've gone too far. Tight shoes also work for sport climbs and bouldering because you tend not to be on the rock for very long.

On multi-pitch climbs, whether sport or trad, you'll want to size your shoes more loosely. Particularly for trad climbing, having a flatter-toed shoe that is a little larger will benefit you when climbing cracks. You can compensate for a slightly larger size by choosing a shoe with a stiffer sole. Even on longer multi-pitch sport climbs, a less aggressive shape (less down-turned, lower asymmetry) will keep your feet from getting thrashed, with a fairly minimal diminishment in performance.

Again, doing some research will go a long way for you. Before you buy, decide what type of climbing you'll mostly be doing with the shoe, and size them accordingly. A few things to consider: unlined shoes stretch more over the lifetime of the shoe, and can lose performance. Half sizes matter, particularly in climbing shoes. A slightly larger shoe won't impact your climbing very much at all, and can make a world of difference in terms of comfort.

Aggressive Shape
Down-turned toes are everywhere these days. The more down-turned a shoe, the more your toes bunch up in the front. Sizing down-turned shoes loosely will mean that you have extra material on top of your foot where your arched toes should be. When you climb in an over-sized shoe, that excess material can bunch up, both getting in the way and making the shoe less comfortable. If you're in the market for down-turned shoes, remember to keep them snug. That doesn't mean they have to hurt, but they should be tight enough to perform for you.

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Climbing at the Goat Wall, Mazama, WA.
Credit: Thomas Greene

Stretch
The shoe that you take out of the box the first day you climb with it will not be the same after wearing it for a while. All shoes stretch, some more than others, so it is important to size your shoes to account for how they will feel after wearing in.

Leather shoes stretch more than synthetic shoes, so take that into account when making a purchase. However, leather shoes that are lined stretch very little, but will mold themselves to your feet to some extent. How much do you size leather shoes down to accommodate for stretch? That depends a lot on the brand and model, and there will be a little trial and error here. In general, to get the right fit from your unlined leather shoe, size them a little tighter, and expect them to be mildly uncomfortable, with the discomfort decreasing as they wear in. The end result should produce a comfortable shoe. Synthetic shoes don't stretch out much at all, so make sure they are fairly true to size when you buy.

Gathering a little information on the shoe you are going to buy will help you make this decision. What does the manufacturer say about the shoe? What materials were used to construct the shoe? What is the design of the shoe? For example: a lot of shoes feature rubber on top of the toe for hooking, which prevents the shoe from stretching as much. These are all good questions to ask, and will help guarantee you stay stoked with your decision.

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South Early Winters Spire, Washington Pass, WA, where a shoe that is comfortable all day is best.
Credit: Lyra Pierotti

Brand and Sizing
Go out and try on various brands and sizes before you buy, if you can. Evolv and Five Ten both run small, now making it possible to size your rock shoes the same as your street shoes. La Sportiva and Scarpa are very consistent, but require a little figuring to learn what their sizing means. For us, it means we buy these European brands one size down from our street shoe size.

Laces, Velcro, and Slipper
There are three main types of tightening system: Velcro strap(s), lace-ups, and slippers (usually elastic). Lace-up shoes are the most adjustable, and typically provide the most uniform, customizable fit for your rock shoes. All those strings make them a little slower to put on and take off. Because of this, we tend to choose lace-ups as all-around/multi-pitch shoes, where we put them on at the start of the climb, and take them off at the end. Velcro shoes go on and off easier, and some tighten almost as well as lace-ups. For sport, bouldering, or gym climbing, velcro shoes are great because of the number of transitions between street shoes and rock shoes that you make in a day. They work well on multi-pitch days too, if you want to pop the velcro for a little relief at the belay. Slippers are usually the most sensitive and comfortable shoes out there. They are usually unlined, which means they stretch out more. This makes them more comfortable, but also decreases their performance. They are very easy to take off, and make great gym or bouldering shoes.

Laces wear out, get torn up by cracks, and get turned into rappel anchors (don't really do that). Just be ready to replace them when they start to look worked. Velcro will get mucked up if you leave it open when you're storing the shoes. Keeping the velcro closed when you're not using your shoes will also help keep the shape of the shoe longer. Tip: your friend's toothbrush (or the one you use to clean holds) can be used to brush out the velcro if it's starting to look gummy.

Rubber Stickiness
Difference in rubber preference stratifies opinion more than any other aspect of climbing. As a rule, rubber that is stickier is usually softer and less durable, and less sticky rubber is typically harder and more durable. Really soft rubber that is ultra-sticky will wear out fast. It also gets pocked or fish-scaled quickly, and tends to slide off edges. Harder rubber holds an edge longer, but doesn't function as well when you paste your foot on the rock. Consequently, we tend to use the different rubber types for different applications. Softer rubber for high performance sport and bouldering shoes will typically work better for everything other than steep edges. When just starting out as a climber, or if you're looking for an all day shoe, harder, more durable rubber will work better.
Thomas Greene
About the Author
Originally from Maine, Thomas has recently been splitting his time guiding in the mountains of California, Washington, and Alaska. Living in the Eastern Sierra and in a tiny town outside Mt. Rainier National Park has provided plenty of opportunity to read a ton of books, watch some bad movies, run, and maintain an awesome sunburn. Thomas has had the good fortune to guide in New Zealand, South America, Mexico, California, Washington, and Alaska. He has received training and certifications from NZMGA, AMGA, MSC, and AIARE.

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