The Best Climbing Approach Shoes for Women
What are the best women's climbing approach shoes available? As always, here at OutdoorGearlab we took a group of the best selling models out there to directly compare them and put them through the toughest trials and tribulations so we can report how they stack up. From the High Sierra to the Tetons, we hiked in them, we carried heavy packs for miles, we climbed up in them, we climbed down in them, and we got them wet and muddy. We rated five pairs on their performance in five categories — climbing ability, comfort, support, weight, and durability. So if you're in the market for women's shoes, read and explore our review and find out how these shoes really perform.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Women's Climbing Approach Shoes
Five Ten Guide Tennie - Women's
Best Bang for the Buck
La Sportiva Boulder X - Women's
Top Pick for Light Weight
Evolv Cruzer - Women's
Analysis and Test Results
It might be stating the obvious, but to go climbing you've got to first get to the climb. And of course, when you're finished climbing, you have to get back to the car. On both ends of the climbing route this can mean multiple miles on trails (oftentimes on trails that are not well built or maintained), bushwacking off trail, and scrambling over talus and boulder fields and loose rock gullies. Sometimes this also means 4th and 5th class climbing moves over rock slabs and clifty zones. Even if your main climbing preference is cragging or bouldering, this can still take you through plenty of rugged terrain to get to your objective. The shoes on your feet can help keep you safe in some sketchy situations and help you reach your destination more efficiently. Even if you're just sticking to trails, the shoes you wear for the approach and descent of your adventure can be crucial to your success and enjoyment.
We took a close-up look at five of the top women's models to see how they measure up on several metrics that are critical to this type of footwear. As always here at OutdoorGearlab, we walk you through all the things you need to know about choosing the right product for your preferences and give you the inside info on how the gear truly stacks up. To go further in-depth and learn more about what defines an approach shoe, check out our Buying Advice article.
Types of Approach Shoes
Climbing approach shoes are essentially a hybrid between a hiking shoe and a climbing shoe. Within this broader category there are often models designed to be focused more on either the hiking part of the approach or the climbing part of the approach. Some excel at hiking and carrying heavy loads, some excel at climbing. With these different leanings in performance, it is helpful to first decide in what type of terrain you are most likely to want to wear your shoes.
Hiking Oriented Approach Shoes
Some climbing objectives require more extensive hiking, which might also mean that you are carrying equipment to spend several days and nights in the mountains in addition to your climbing gear. But even if you don't require overnight gear, if you're trying to be prepared for whatever might happen in a day, its easy for your pack to get heavy. If long days or overnight journeys are the kind of climbing adventures you dream about, then you'll want a shoe with better hiking ability. Shoes such as that have a somewhat aggressive tread which will help with traction in dirt. You'll also want a stiffer, stable midsole to support your feet and arches with the long miles and heavy cargo.
Climbing Oriented Approach Shoes
On the other side of that coin are the climbers who would prefer a shoe that has superb climbing ability over its hiking ability. Maybe this is because you are climbing something that is close to a road, so ensuring you have the ultimate in support isn't as imperative. Or a climber might prefer a climbing-focused shoe because their goal is a route that is well below their ability and they don't want to bring or change into climbing shoes. If these types of quests are what floats your boat, then you will want to look for shoes with tread that has very sticky rubber combined with low profile lugs in the tread. The flatter tread allows for more of the shoe surface to contact the rock, which gives you greater traction. You'll also want a shoe that has either a snug fit overall, or laces that run down to your toes so you can make the toe box tighter when you begin the more difficult sections of climbing moves. If you are climbing on a type of rock that has cracks which you'll be using to climb, you will also want to look for a shoe that has a low profile, flexible toe box for greater ease in getting your shoes inside the cracks.
Shoes in our test that are climbing oriented are the Five Ten Guide Tennie - Women's, the La Sportiva Boulder X - Women's, and the Scarpa Crux - Women's.
A third category, which is really more of a sub-category of the climbing oriented shoes, is the descent shoe. These are shoes that you may or may not wear on the hike to the base of a climb, but that you clip to your harness to carry up on route. At the summit, you will switch from your climbing shoes to these shoes to wear for the walk-off back to the base and your backpack. Shoes that are ideal for descent shoes are low profile and lightweight, yet fairly sticky for walking down potentially slick rock surfaces. The pair that we tested that best fits the bill for a descent shoe is the Evolv Cruzer - Women's.
Criteria for Evaluation
The climbing ability is one of the most important characteristics that defines an approach shoe as different from a regular hiking shoe. For some situations and objectives, it is crucial that a shoe performs well while climbing. Therefore, we wanted to ensure that this metric was one of the most important, and the climbing ability metric accounted for the largest amount (35%) of the overall score. To test the climbing ability of each shoe, we took them out while scrambling, bouldering, and climbing.
If your regular climbing routine brings you to a crag or climbing area on a well-maintained trail and you don't plan to do much actual climbing in your shoes, then how your shoes rate for this metric might not be as important as for someone hiking several miles into the backcountry over talus and slabby terrain just to get to the base of a climb or for someone who plans to climb whole routes in their approach shoes.
There are several different components that go into the overall climbing ability of a shoe. To thoroughly evaluate the shoe's climbing performance, we specifically tested each pair while executing three different techniques: edging, smearing, and crack climbing. Edging is a shoe's ability to stick and help you stand on tiny foothold ledges — from just a few millimeters thick to a few inches. Generally, how well a shoe does this seems to be a function of both the stickiness of the rubber and the shape or design of the toe box. Smearing is what you do when you use traction alone to stick to a vertical rock surface that doesn't have any features to edges or step on. Smearing ability has a lot to do with rubber quality and stickiness, as well as the tread design. A tread design with flatter lugs and therefore greater surface area that is able to come in contact with the rock will typically perform better when you need to smear. The last type of climbing technique we evaluated was crack climbing. We wanted to know how the shoe performed when fitting inside, twisting, and locking your toes into vertical cracks to climb upwards. Generally, shoes that have a lower toe box height and a toe box made of more flexible rubber and upper materials are easier to fit inside a crack.
The Five Ten Guide Tennie ranked the best for this metric when compared to all the other shoes we tested. The "Smedge Zone" toe design makes them superior edgers and the super sticky Stealth rubber, along with the flat dot tread design, makes them great at smearing as well. The Evolv Cruzer also rated highly for the climbing metric. The lightweight, snug fit of the Cruzer allows it great sensitivity and perception while on the rock. The low profile and flexible toe box also make the Cruzer the best of all the shoes tested for crack climbing.
As with any product (though perhaps especially important for footwear), it is essential that you stay comfortable when you're using the gear. It's likely that you're going to be spending many hours and miles hiking in these shoes, so it is certainly not okay to get blisters, hot spots, or just have really uncomfortable feet. Therefore, we also feel that comfort is an exceptionally important factor, so we weighted comfort at 20% of the total score for each shoe. While extra cushiony and luxurious-feeling shoes might make for less achy feet at the end of an epically long day, they can also decrease your sensitivity while climbing — so keep in mind that balance when you are looking at different models. Also, every person and every foot is shaped differently, so comfort can sometimes be a very individual and personal thing and this is an important point to take into consideration. We highly recommend that regardless of how comfy we (or anyone else) say a shoe is, make sure you try on and test footwear yourself as much as possible before you take them out on a long adventure. That being said, there are several shoes that have features that can still give overall added comfort and can allow a more customized fit, which is more irrespective of individual foot shape. To help give you an idea of what might work for you and your foot, within the comfort metric we discuss general fit observations. An example of this would be whether our testers thought the shoe seemed to run large or small, or whether it might be better suited for those with a narrow forefoot versus a wider forefoot. This includes the type of material used for the footbed or midsole (whether its stiff or flexible, has arch support or not). We also consider the breathability of the shoe, as well as the lace system and design.
A common feature on shoes designed for some climbing is to have laces that go further down the top of your foot than a regular hiking shoe or boot. They often have this feature because when climbing, you want a shoe to be very snug on your foot, especially in the toe area, to give better support for the toe and forefoot area which is the part of your foot used the most while climbing. However, when hiking, you want a roomier toe box that doesn't constrict your forefoot or rub your toes. Therefore, many models have been designed with laces that go all the way to the toe area to help make this tightness more adjustable depending on your activity of the moment. Of course, this can also help give a more customized fit for people with high or low arches or wider or narrower forefeet.
The La Sportiva Boulder X rated highly for comfort. The MythosŪ lacing system on these shoes allows you to adjust the fit to be more or less snug depending on what segment of the adventure you are on, maximizing the comfort of your feet all day long. Another top performer for comfort is the Scarpa Crux - Women's - its midsole is the cushiest of all the shoes we tested.
If you expect to be carrying a full backpack or haul bag with rope and/or rack and other daily or overnight gear, the support metric will be an important one to consider. While most of this metric is hiking related, aspects of support can also affect the shoes' climbing ability. If a shoe has a stiffer midsole, it will provide more arch support which helps prevent foot fatigue. When climbing, a stiffer midsole will be beneficial when edging or crack climbing if the shoe fits snugly on your foot, but a stiffer midsole could also hamper a shoes' smearing ability if it doesn't allow as much of the rubber to contact the rock. If you expect to encounter any snow fields on your approach, a stiff midsole is very valuable to help with kicking steps to safely cross lower-angle snow patches.
Another important aspect of this category looks at how stable the shoe feels when traveling over uneven terrain. If you are rock hopping across a boulder or talus field, does the shoe feel sloppy as you adjust the angle of your foot to each rock you step on or does it feel like the shoe is moving securely right along with your foot?
The last aspect of the support metric is how well the shoe protects your feet. Does it have a robust upper and midsole that will shield the sides and bottoms your feet from sharp and abrasive rock edges? Is the shoe waterproof, or how well does the shoe protect your feet when crossing creeks or snow fields? All of these things combined are taken into consideration for the support metric category.
The La Sportiva Boulder X and the Five Ten Camp 4 - Women's come in at the top for the support metric. Both of these shoes have stiff midsoles that provide great arch support for long hikes and a stable platform for uneven terrain. We think the Camp Four is ideal for aid climbing because it offers so much protection and is supportive and comfortable for standing in aid ladders all day.
Weight should always be a consideration when you are talking about gear that is involved with physical endeavors. It's basically a no-brainer that if all things are otherwise equal, you should just choose the lightest gear. Well of course it's not that simple, and most often all things are not equal. But that's why we at OutdoorGearLab are here to help you figure it out. Of course, weight is less important if the climbing areas you frequent typically have short approaches. However, when you have a strenuous or long approach (or both!), weight is usually a significant factor for most people in choosing which gear to use. Unfortunately, low weight is typically a trade-off for other things desirable in approach shoes. Durability is one of the biggest trade-offs because often the most durable materials are ones that are heavier (for example mesh uppers are lighter but less durable than solid leather). Additionally, it's usually inevitable that a shoe which offers added support and comfort features will be heavier as well. So to determine how important the weight metric might be for you, it really depends on what your average climbing routine looks like.
Other considerations that influenced the weight scores for each shoe were its packability and compactness. How easy is it to stuff the shoe in your backpack or clip it on your harness while you climb a route? These are all aspects that were evaluated for the weight scores.
The Evolv Cruzer easily scores the best for the weight metric. These shoes only weigh 7.5 oz per pair and are extremely compact. However, if you're goals include longer days or rugged terrain, the Scarpa Crux are the next lightest of the bunch.
We all like to have the things we buy last a long time so we can get the most for our hard-earned dollars. Due to the rugged nature of climbing, durability is an especially important quality when we are talking approach shoes. Most of the shoes in this review are highly durable when compared to a standard hiking or running shoe. The one general exception to this is found with the rubber tread of approach shoes. The standard and established trade-off for a stickier grip is that the rubber doesn't last as long as the less grippy tread that is found on your ordinary hiking shoe or boot. And it is largely the case that the stickier the rubber, the lower the durability. However, just like climbing shoes, many of the shoes in this review can be sent to a re-sole shop to have a fresh layer of rubber applied when you've worn through the first layer.
The Five Ten Camp 4 rated as the most durable. These shoes are designed for withstanding the thrashing that goes with big wall climbing. They have several features, including extra thick rubber that is higher and covers more of the uppers than on any of the other shoes we tested, giving better protection in the areas that often get worn through the fastest. The least durable were the thin canvas Evolv Cruzer.
The shoes in this review are meant to help you approach a climb when you are met with un-groomed and rugged conditions. It is important to consider the support and climbing ability of these shoes, along with other details tailored to meet your needs. Check out our Buying Advice article for detailed information on the different types of shoes available and whether or not you need such a product.
— Sarah Hegg
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