What are approach shoes, and do I need them? If you're not sure what kind of footwear is best for your adventures, you're in the right place. There are so many kinds of shoes out there, from hiking shoes to trail runners, lightweight approach shoes to burly hybrids. Approach shoes are a highly specialized product, but finding the perfect tool for the job just might be the ticket to unlocking your biggest objectives.
Approach Shoes 101
Approach shoes are, simply, a blend of a technical rock climbing shoe and a hiking shoe. They are designed to help climbers access their routes, often involving steep sections of third- and fourth-class scrambling. To reach some of these peaks or routes, climbers recognized that they needed a comfortable, supportive shoe that also had the sticky rubber precision of the shoes they'd be wearing on the route.
Without a specialized approach shoe, you may find yourself stuck. It's impractical to carry a heap of different shoes with you, so approach shoes aim to be one product that can do it all. You can strap crampons to them, climb technical rock in them, and even hike on nice established trails with them. If you're going into the mountains, this may be all you need.
Many modern climbers may even choose to climb whole fifth-class routes in their approach shoes. While in some ways this footwear is a specialty item for climbers, it can also have multiple uses and be a great footwear option even if you aren't a rock climber or planning to be on technical terrain. In this article, we go over the various functions shoes of this type can serve, as well as discuss all the things you will need to know and consider if you're in the market to buy a pair for yourself.
A Note from the Author
Our author, an accomplished big wall and alpine climber who works for the Yosemite Search and Rescue team, admits to having a quiver of approach shoes. In this review, we outline which shoes are best for different types of applications, from alpine climbing to cragging and beyond. That being said, it's fairly common for dedicated climbers who travel in many different types of terrain to have a few pairs on hand. What does she have in her closet right now? One pair for big walls, one for the mountains, one for light missions in Yosemite… Okay, we have too many shoes. But keep in mind that our Editors' Choice Award-winner is the one shoe that we believe can do it all. If you're looking to add some specialized shoes to your quiver, our Top Pick Award-winners are made with certain dedicated missions in mind.
What Make These Shoes Different?
One way an approach shoe is different from a basic hiking boot or shoe is the sticky rubber on the tread and rand (the rubber part that extends partway up the top of the shoes). This sticky rubber is the climbing shoe part of the hybrid. It is a big part of why approach shoes are safer and more beneficial when you have to cross boulder or talus fields on the approach or when part of the approach requires you to climb over easy rock sections that require extra traction and precision than what a typical hiking shoe would deliver. This sticky rubber extends upward from the outsole tread and wraps around the toe box and sometimes up and around the heels.
Different Types of Footwear for an Approach
Approaching a climbing route is, often, just hiking. To hike, there are many types of shoes you could wear, and sometimes a different style may work better. Some climbers prefer to use regular hiking shoes or boots, trail running shoes, or mountaineering boots for their hike into the climb instead.
If you will be traveling over mostly snow or ice, especially if you think it could be cold enough to stay frozen solid, then you might want or need crampons. In that case, mountaineering boots would be preferred over any other footwear. Some of these approach shoes are capable of accepting a strap-on, lightweight (usually aluminum) crampon, but if the snow or ice is steep enough to force you onto the front points of your crampons, this is not your best or safest option.
If your approach is very short or if the majority of it is on a well-maintained trail, then regular hiking or trail running shoes could also be viable, comfortable, and more cushioned options. The situations when an approach shoe is ideal are when your hike is long enough that you need the comfort and support that a hiking shoe would provide, but you also need some of the dexterity and traction that a climbing shoe offers due to more difficult terrain on at least some sections of the approach or actual climbing route. If your approach doesn't have any talus or low-angle rock, however, you may not need all the bells and whistles of an approach shoe.
Let's Talk About Fabric
There are two main fabric types used in approach shoe uppers: leather and knit mesh. We'll describe the pros and cons of each to help you decide which is the best for your adventures.Knit & Mesh
The knit upper, used in the La Sportiva TX2, is one of the reasons this shoe took home the top spot in this review. It's lightweight, which is a great feature when you're looking to clip your shoes to your harness or stuff them in a backpacker for a multi-pitch climb. This material is flexible and low-profile, aiding in its packability and crack climbing skills. And most importantly it's breathable. Other shoes we tested with mesh uppers are the Scarpa Crux Air and Black Diamond Technician.
But with all things, there's a downside. This material is not that durable. After one season of big wall climbing in Yosemite, our TX2's were kind of toast. To be fair, they really are not made for that environment, but we couldn't resist using them on walls when they're so light! Additionally, they have no water-resistant properties whatsoever. They dry surprisingly quickly, but if you plan on traveling in wet or snowy environments, this is not the material for you.
The majority of approach shoes in this review have leather (or suede) uppers, and likely for good reason. This material is much more durable than knit and therefore is much better suited for alpine environments. It's also water-resistant, in some cases even waterproof, which is great when stream crossings or glacier travel is included in the approach. If you plan on crack climbing or big wall climbing, leather will keep the sides of the shoes intact much longer. Leather also provides a bit more support which is really helpful when traveling on uneven terrain.
On the downside, leather is much heavier, adding to a shoe's overall weight and diminishing the likelihood that we'd ever carry it on a big route. It's also not as breathable, which can be a downside to hiking many miles in hot or humid weather.
Lace 'Em Up!
Another quality that makes approach shoes different than an average hiking shoe is the lacing. In a typical hiking or running shoe, the laces start at the top of the shoe and stop about mid-foot. This provides plenty of security for traveling on established trails and mild terrain. But approach shoes take a note from climbing shoes here and extend their laces further down toward the toe. This adds to increased precision for traveling on technical terrain. These extended lacing systems allow the user to really cinch up the shoe to provide a snug fit and better sensitivity in the toe. If you plan on traveling extensively in technical, fifth-class terrain, you'll want to look for a shoe with laces that extend far down toward the toe, as most of the shoes in this review do.
A Note on Sizing
If you're new to the approach shoe game, you may be wondering how the sizing works. In general, we size our approach shoes just like we size our hiking or running shoes. Because we primarily hike in our approach shoes, we want enough room in the front of shoe for our feet to swell a bit without becoming cramped. That being said, we don't want our shoes to be too big, since that could cut down dramatically on technical climbing precision. As always, we recommend trying on a variety of pairs to figure out which companies and sizes work best for you. Finding a great fit will add tremendously to your comfort while logging miles, and scrambling in semi-technical terrain. Typically, if the terrain is technical enough that we want a more precise fit, we'll just put our climbing shoes on anyway.
You're still with us! If you've decided that yes, indeed, you do need an approach shoe, that's great! In this next section, we'll describe a couple more nuanced situations in which having the right approach shoe is key.
The primary use of any approach shoe is to get to the base of the climb, hence the name. This type of shoe combines the best features of both a hiking shoe and a climbing shoe but can be either more climbing oriented or more hiking oriented. For example, you might have a heavy pack to carry to a remote peak but will also be traveling over large sections of boulder and scree fields to get to the base of your chosen route. The ideal shoe for this scenario would be more hiking oriented and focus more on having good support for a long hike with a heavy pack, but also have strategically placed sticky rubber.
Similarly, if you're hiking out to a crag for a day of single-pitch climbing, chances are you'll be staying on a fairly established trail the whole time. While you may prefer the security of a sticky rubber sole, if this is the type of climbing you partake in the most, you may want to reconsider your footwear options.A Note on High-Tops
Sometimes we need something with a bit more ankle security and a bit more support without compromising the precision of sticky rubber designed for technical terrain. Currently, there are a few shoes on the market that are high-top versions of approach shoes, like the TX4 Mid GTX from La Sportiva and the Scarpa Mescalito Mid GTX. Both of these shoes are Gore-tex, mid-cut versions of their popular low-cut approach shoes. These are excellent shoes for big alpine expeditions, like our recent trip to Argentine Patagonia. But there's a catch: neither are manufactured in women's-specific models. The La Sportiva model starts at a size 38, and the Scarpa starts at a 36. These sizes may work for you, and we encourage you to try them out to make sure they fit properly. Because women's models are still less ample than men's, you may also want to check out the men's approach shoes review to see if there's anything else that suits your fancy. (Note: before the TX4 was manufactured in a women's fit, we knew plenty of women who wore the men's version as their go-to alpine shoe. Don't be shy!)
Moderate Alpine Climbing and Scrambling
Another category of approach shoe use is for climbing easy alpine routes while forgoing the rock shoes altogether. This could be described as hiking several miles to the base of the climb in your shoes and then simply continuing the rest of the route without switching to climbing shoes. In this scenario, it is particularly important for the shoe to be well rounded and have both good foot support for the hike but also good climbing ability. When the route is long and moderate, wearing approach shoes for the climb itself can save your feet from pain, keeping you happy and confident all day. Also, if temperatures are on the lower end, climbing in your approach shoes lets you keep your socks on, a bonus point for having warm toes all day.
That being said, you don't have to be in the alpine to enjoy a nice scramble. Our testers loved romping around our favorite moderate routes in Yosemite without having to put tight, not-very-comfortable technical climbing shoes on. We were impressed with how well some of the slimmer models performed on moderate fifth-class rock.
Big Wall Climbing
Big walls are their own arena, and one not many climbers jump into, but it's worth noting that such objectives could require a different type of shoe. For aid climbing, a super-stiff sole is key for foot comfort, while weight is less important. Depending on your objective, you may just want something cozy to be in all day, or for multiple days in a row, or you may need something that performs well on the rock as well.
Another potential use for climbing shoes is for descending semi-technical terrain. Often (especially in places like Yosemite and Squamish), the approach is fairly straight-forward and could easily be done in hiking or trail running shoes-- sometimes even sandals! But the crux lies ahead. Many of our favorite multi-pitch routes have walk-off descents that require wandering around on slabs, talus, and scree. For these routes, we want a shoe that is light enough to clip to our harness so we can pop them on at the top of the route.
The most important thing to keep in mind when starting your approach shoe shopping is what types of adventures you'll be partaking in most frequently. While a wide variety of shoes can get you to a crag via an established trail, more niche shoes might be needed for niche climbing like big walls and alpine scrambles. Deciding what purpose you want your shoes to serve will be the first step in helping you decide what fabric to look for and which metrics will be of the utmost importance. As always, our Editors' Choice Award winner is our go-to pick for the best all-around shoe and is a great choice if you enjoy many different types of climbing.