Best Climbing Approach Shoes for Women of 2020
Best Overall Approach Shoe
La Sportiva TX2 - Women's
The TX2 from La Sportiva is, without a doubt, our favorite shoe in this review. We couldn't believe how light it is, and it entirely changed our scrambling and multi-pitch climbing strategies. This shoe climbs incredibly well, and its snug, comfortable fit make it equally as at home in the mountains as at the crag.
Our testers felt agile, light, and secure in this shoe, so we had no choice but to select it as our esteemed Editors' Choice Award winner. While other models might be a bit lighter or have a bit more durability, no other shoe that we tested has the consistency of high scores across the board like the TX2.
Read review: La Sportiva TX2 - Women's
Best Bang for Your Buck
Vasque Grand Traverse - Women's
New on our radar was the women's Vasque Grand Traverse, and boy, were we impressed! We found amazing hiking comfort and support in this shoe, which perhaps shouldn't be too surprising coming from a hiking boot company. We were impressed with the shoe's durability as well; its blend of leather and knit upper resulted in a great combination of strength and breathability.
While its technical climbing ability wasn't the greatest, we felt it was capable of getting us almost everywhere we needed to go. The weight was a bit heavy, too, but as long as we weren't wearing the shoes up a multi-pitch, this product didn't feel clunky on our feet. For a bit less than our Editors' Choice Award winner, the Grand Traverse is an excellent choice for climbers who regularly travel on-trail and are looking for all-around high performance.
Read review: Vasque Grand Traverse - Women's
Best for Alpine Endeavors
La Sportiva TX4 - Women's
After years of longing after our male colleague's shoes, the time has come for us to have our own perfect alpine partner! The La Sportiva TX4 is just that: the ideal accomplice for big missions in the mountains. It's incredibly durable with reliable comfort and support. This shoe can undoubtedly handle anything we throw its way.
This shoe does not climb technical rock with the same level of precision as some other shoes in this review, but we were impressed with its balance of support and climbing ability regardless. While heavier than we'd typically like to carry on a multi-pitch route, this shoe is significantly lighter than some of its competitors with similar support scores. Overall, the leather upper and burly heel cannot be beaten for long days in the alpine, earning this new shoe our Top Pick for Alpine Endeavors.
Read review: La Sportiva TX4 - Women's
Why You Should Trust Us
Our approach shoe testing is led by Lauren DeLaunay, a member of the elite Yosemite Valley Search and Rescue team and an accomplished alpine and big wall climber. In the more than sixty rescues she has performed, she knows the importance of the right pair of approach shoes, whether she's hiking up Yosemite's most popular trails or being dropped off by helicopter to the top of El Capitan or deep in the backcountry. She estimates that she spends at least 300 days per year in approach shoes; when she's not in Yosemite Valley, she spends as much time as possible climbing in the High Sierra.
For this review, Lauren tested shoes primarily in the Sierra, from Yosemite's big walls to the boulder fields of Bishop and the peaks of the high country. With trips to El Chalten, Argentina and Cochamo, Chile thrown in, each shoe in this review got put through the wringer, as lives did truly depend on the performance of each shoe.
Analysis and Test Results
This fact may sound obvious, but there's a lot more to climbing than the climb itself. Unless your main locale is an indoor gym, getting to the rock almost always includes some work, whether that's a short jaunt on a manicured, well-kept trail, or miles of bushwacking and talus-hopping in the alpine. Climbers' trails are often a little more rugged than popular hiking trails and can frequently involve some third, fourth, or even fifth-class scrambling. While a trail running or hiking shoe may be enough to get you to some crags, a specifically designed approach shoe includes many features not found in your everyday shoe.
We took a close look at ten 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.
Here at OutdoorGearLab, we realize that price is a big factor in your decision-making process. We consider "value" to be the combination of price and value — essentially, how much bang you get for your buck. In this review, many of the products fell in a similar range, which might make your decision a bit easier.
One of the best values we found is in the Vasque Grand Traverse. This shoe is a bit less than the Editors' Choice Award winner, the La Sportiva TX2, and has fantastic hiking comfort and support. If you're mostly hiking on established trails, this is an excellent pick for a reasonable price. That said, the TX2 is also less expensive than several models we tested and is a great all-around purchase for any climbing mission. We also tested the Evolv Cruzer Psyche, which is the least expensive shoe in this review. It doesn't have a high overall score, but if you're looking for a lightweight budget shoe with sticky rubber primarily for descents, this shoe is ideal while keeping cash in your pocket for new quickdraws or even a sale on cams.
The Sweet Middle Ground
We have to admit it: most of our testers have more than one pair of approach shoes. We have our go-to products for long hikes and our favorite models for scrambling. Some days we care about weight, and some days we don't. If you're looking for something specific, we'd suggest identifying the one or two metrics that are most important to you and looking at the highest scorers in those categories. However, we recognize that many of you may want just one pair to get you to and from all of your adventures. In this case, we'd highly suggest looking at our Editors' Choice Award, the TX2, which earned its place at the top by having the best blend of every metric that we tested.
Sticky rubber and the ability to travel over technical climbing terrain is the main feature that separates an approach shoe from a hiking shoe. Many approaches, especially in alpine terrain, require scrambling on third or fourth-class terrain, and it is crucial that your approach shoe keep you safe and secure no matter what you encounter. With this in mind, we decided that climbing ability would account for 35% of each shoe's overall score, the highest percentage of any of the four metrics in this review. To test the climbing ability of each shoe, we took them out on all our climbing adventures, from the sport cliff to the alpine.
Many climbers are asking more of their approach shoes than ever, trekking far into the backcountry or even climbing moderate fifth-class routes in them. It's a nice way to protect your toes from grueling hours in tight climbing shoes, especially if the temperatures are dropping and socks are required. If this sounds like you, then pay particular attention to this metric. If, however, you spend most of your time hiking to climbing areas on well-maintained trails and do little scrambling, this parameter may not be as important. In that case, you may even want to look at women's hiking shoes for products that excel in on-trail comfort.
Related: Best Hiking Shoes for Women of 2020
Several different components go into the overall climbing ability of a shoe. To thoroughly evaluate the shoe's climbing performance, we individually tested each pair while executing three different techniques: edging, smearing, and crack climbing. Edging, as far as this review is concerned, is a shoe's ability to help you stand on tiny footholds, 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 steep surface that doesn't have any features on which to edge or step. Smearing ability has a lot to do with rubber quality and stickiness, as well as the tread design. We find this particularly important in places like Tuolumne, where descent routes often involve trudging down steep slabs. Tread design with flatter lugs and therefore more significant surface area that can come in contact with the rock will typically perform better when you need to smear. The last type of climbing technique we evaluate is crack climbing. We wanted to know how the shoe performed when fitting inside, twisting, and locking your toes into vertical cracks to climb upwards. Often, shoes that have a lower toe box height and a toe box made of more flexible rubber and upper materials are more natural to jam inside a crack.
The Arc'teryx Konseal FL and La Sportiva TX2 scored the highest out of any of the shoes we tested in this metric. The Konseal's snug fit, slim toe box, and definite edge made for some of the best climbing performance we've ever seen. The TX2's extensive lacing system made for a precise fit, and the narrow toe resulted in excellent technical performance on both slabs and cracks. Other solid performers include the Sportiva TX4 and the Black Diamond Technician. If you're looking for a shoe that balances climbing ability with hiking comfort, the Scarpa models proved to strike a balance between these two counter-balancing performance metrics consistently.
As with any product (though perhaps especially crucial for footwear), it is essential that you stay comfortable when you're using the gear. You're likely going to be spending many hours and miles hiking in these shoes, so it is certainly not okay to get blisters or hot spots or have aching feet. Comfort is a crucial factor, so we weighed it at 25% of the total score.
And it's not just about the hike. If you've just walked miles in an uncomfortable pair of shoes, you're not going to be psyched to stuff your toes into rock climbing shoes. In this way, the success of your whole mission can depend on getting to your objective with comfort and ease.
A typical feature on shoes designed for technical climbing is to have laces that go further down the top of your foot than a regular hiking shoe or boot. When climbing, precision in the toe is critical, so you want to be able to tighten down the laces for a snug fit. When hiking, however, you want a roomier toe box that doesn't constrict your forefoot or rub your toes. Therefore, many models feature 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. We awarded higher comfort scores to shoes with more versatile lacing designs.
We also looked at things that aid in a shoe's all-day comfort. We liked shoes that had plush tongues and heels, and the interior fabric was important, too. While most of these shoes are not that breathable, ones with mesh uppers are much better at this than leather ones. The Crux Air is more breathable than most of the shoes in this lineup, which is a great comfort-based trait if you're often in hot locations.
The shoe that scored the highest marks for comfort was the La Sportiva Boulder X. The plush tongue, heel, and inner materials made for exceptional all-day comfort, making this shoe our go-to choice for long approaches. Other high scorers in this category were the Vasque Grand Traverse, TX2, and Scarpa Gecko.
If you expect to be carrying a full backpack or haul bag with rope, rack, and other daily or overnight gear, the support metric will be important. While most of this metric is hiking related, aspects of support can also affect a shoe's 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 shoe's smearing ability if it doesn't allow as much of the rubber to contact the rock. If you expect to encounter any snowfields on your approach, a stiff midsole is very valuable to help with kicking steps to cross lower-angle snow patches safely. Each shoe's support score accounted for 20% of its overall numerical score.
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, you want a shoe that doesn't feel sloppy. A good approach shoe is secure enough to stay with you on uneven terrain.
The last aspect of the support metric is how well the shoe protects your feet. Our favorite shoes have a robust upper and midsole to shield the sides and bottoms your feet from sharp and abrasive rock edges. Bonus points go to waterproof shoes and products that protect your feet when crossing creeks or snowfields. We take all of these things combined into consideration for the support category.
Three shoes tied for the highest score in this category: the Boulder X, TX4, and Grand Traverse. All three of these shoes had the perfect balance of stiff yet flexible soles that made for secure, comfortable hiking on rugged terrain and established trails alike. Their leather uppers and lateral reinforcements facilitated protection from the elements.
Weight and Packability
Weight should always be a consideration when you are talking about gear that is involved in physical endeavors. It's a no-brainer that if all things are otherwise equal, you should choose the lightest gear. Well, of course, it's not that simple. That's why we at GearLab are here to help you figure it out. This metric made up 20% of each shoe's total score.
Weight is less critical if the climbing areas you frequent typically have short approaches. However, when you have a difficult or long approach, weight is usually a significant factor when choosing which gear to use. Unfortunately, low weight is typically a trade-off for other desirable traits. Durability is one of the most significant trade-offs because, often, the most durable materials are heavier (mesh uppers, for example, are lighter but less durable than solid leather). Additionally, it's usually inevitable that a comfortable, supportive shoe's features will be more cumbersome as well. To determine how important the weight metric is for you, look at your regular climbing routine.
Other considerations that influenced the weight scores for each shoe were its packability and compactness. The highest scorers in this category were products that could easily be stuffed in your backpack or clipped on your harness while you climb a route. All these we evaluated for the weight scores. When multi-pitch climbing, it's crucial to find a shoe with the right balance for you.
If the approach is short, but the route is long, a shoe like the Evolv Cruzer Psyche may be perfect for you. Lacking in support but excelling in low weight, this canvas approach shoe is barely noticeable when clipped to your harness. If you're hiking deep into the alpine and need something that strikes a better balance between weight and support, the TX2 is an obvious choice.
Finally, we often need to clip our shoes to our harness for descents off multi-pitch terrain. Every shoe we tested had this clip loop, but some were much more confidence-inspiring than others. The TX2 has additional elastic to bundle the shoes together, which means they take up considerably less room on our harness or in our pack.
A Note on Durability
Since none of the shoes we tested showed significant wear and tear during our testing period, we didn't score these approach shoes for their expected durability. However, after years of testing approach shoes, it should go without saying that shoes with leather uppers will predictably be more durable than those with mesh uppers. Mesh is great for saving weight and staying breathable, but if you're wanting to get extended life out of your shoes, or if you know you'll be spending a lot of time in rough terrain (or standing in aid ladders), leather is the definite way to go. In this review, the shoes we tested with leather uppers were the La Sportiva Boulder X, La Sportiva TX4, Vasque Grand Traverse, Scarpa Gecko, and Five Ten Guide Tennie.
Types and Uses
Hiking Oriented Approach Shoes
Some climbing objectives require extensive hiking, which could mean carrying loads of equipment for several days and nights in the mountains. Even if you don't require overnight gear, it's easy for your pack to get heavy if you're trying to stay prepared for whatever might happen. If long days or overnight journeys are in the works, you'll want a shoe with better hiking ability. Shoes like that have a somewhat aggressive tread to help with traction in the dirt. You'll also want a stiffer, stable midsole to support your feet and arches. The following shores are hiking-oriented: La Boulder X, La Sportiva Guide Tennie, La Sportiva TX4, Scarpa Gecko, Scarpa Crux Air, and Vasque Grand Traverse.
Climbing Oriented Approach Shoes
On the other side of the approach shoe spectrum are models with excellent technical climbing performance. Comfort and support may not be as important if you frequent crags with short approaches, for instance. Or perhaps you're looking to do some scrambling or very moderate climbing where a full-fledged technical climbing shoe is a bit excessive. Or you may know that your objectives often include talus-hopping or rocky scrambling to reach. If any of this sounds like you, look into this category for your perfect pair of tennies.
The flatter tread lets more of the shoe surface contact the rock, giving you more traction. You'll also want either a snug fit overall or laces that run down to your toes so you can make the toe box tighter when you begin more difficult climbing moves. If you are climbing on rock with cracks you'll be using to climb, look for a shoe with a low profile, flexible toe box for getting your shoes inside the cracks. In this category, the Arc'teryx Konseal FL, Evolv Cruzer, TX2, Black Diamond Technician, and Scarpa Gecko stand out.
A third category, a blend of the two above categories, is descent-specific shoes. You may or may not wear them to the base of a climb, but you do clip them to your harness to carry up the route. At the summit, you switch from your climbing shoes to these shoes to wear for the walk-off back to the base. Ideal shoes for descent are low profile and lightweight, yet fairly sticky for slick rock surfaces. Two pairs we tested best fit the bill; the Evolv Cruzer Psyche's 7.8-ounce weight makes for an easy multi-pitch companion, while the TX2's 8.4-ounce weight is incredibly light without sacrificing as much structure.
Snow and Ice
Sometimes getting to the base of the route is a crux in and of itself. Crossing snowfields and glaciers would have not long ago called for a full-on mountaineering boot. But with today's lightweight strap-on crampons and improved technology, more and more climbers are venturing into mixed terrain in their approach shoes. Some of these shoes are burly enough for quick sections of snow without crampons. For this, we'd recommend the TX4, Boulder X, Gecko, or Guide Tennie. These three are burly enough to handle kicking steps and traversing glaciers by themselves, but also accept cramps well due to their wide heels and reinforced toes.
Big Wall Climbing
Anyone who has stood for hours in aid ladders can tell you that the right footwear is of utmost importance. Having a stiff midsole is key to keeping your feet happy while aid climbing and jumaring. We tested a few of these shoes on Yosemite's most famous big wall, El Capitan, and while the Terrex Solo was comfortable on our toes, the midsole was too flexible for all-day aid comfort. We much preferred the stiffer TX4 and if not doing any free climbing, the Boulder X. The TX2, while rigid on the bottom, did not provide enough lateral support. On big walls weight usually isn't a significant factor as we're generally hauling dozens of pounds of gear already. Look at our top-scorers for "support" and "comfort" before considering weight.
In this review, we take ten of the top women's approach shoes and put them through the wringer. In the mountains, on the big walls and in the boulder field, we tested each product side-by-side with its competitors. We gathered data and reported on our findings, marking each model on its performance in climbing, comfort, support, weight, and durability. Our expert testers spent months compiling this research and are proud to bring you the most comprehensive review of women's approach shoes you can find.
— Lauren DeLaunay