What Are Approach Shoes?
And do I need a pair? This is a good place to start. With so many types of footwear, many of them serving a versatile range of uses, something this specialized might not be what you are looking for. Then again, finding the perfect tool might help you achieve your objectives. When you decide that this style of shoe is what you are looking for, check out our detailed review of eight of the best models for women to choose which pair will suit you best.
Climbing approach shoes are essentially a hybrid of a climbing shoe and a hiking shoe. The need for having this kind of a shoe stems from the fact that many climbs have steeper sections of 3rd and 4th class moves in the approach that can be downright unsafe if attempted while wearing regular slippery tennis shoes or hiking boots. Before these specialized shoes, a climber's options were to either rope up early or change into their climbing shoes. Both of those options are time consuming and inefficient. While wearing an approach shoe, climbers can just keep moving along toward the base of the climb without wasting precious time. Shoes for approaching are generally meant to be comfortable and supportive while hiking but also give extra friction, sensitivity, and durability for the parts of an approach when you are scrambling over boulder fields, low angle slabs, and 3rd, 4th, or easy 5th class sections of rock. Some climbers may even choose to climb whole easy 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 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.
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 (which is the rubber part that extends partway up the uppers 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 hike, 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. It helps give extra traction in some situations when climbing, and also helps to protect your shoe from getting holes so it lasts longer.
The other key aspect that is different than a hiking or running shoe is that shoes for approaching are usually more durable to endure the typical rough, rocky terrain and off-trail hiking that is often required to get to climbing areas or routes. This usually translates to ultra tough leather uppers.
Different Types of Footwear for an Approach
Approaching a climbing route is essentially just hiking. To hike, there are many types of footwear 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 might 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.
If your approach is very short or if the majority of it is on a well-maintained trail and the approach does not require travel over rocky slabs, talus and scree fields, or 4th class rock, 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.
Shoes of this style can also generally be split into a few categories based on the way they are used.
The primary use for any approach shoe is just to get to the base of the climb. 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, maybe you have a heavy pack to carry for 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.
Easy Alpine Climbing
Another category of use is for climbing easy alpine routes without changing your footwear. 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.
The third category of use is shoes that are used only for the descent portion of a climb. Some climbing areas are located where it is easy to drive very close to the base and essentially start by wearing climbing shoes to climb up the route, or you could walk to the base in any type of hiking shoe. However, when you finish the route you then have a walk-off descent to get back down to your backpack and your car. For these scenarios, an ideal shoe would be one that has some support but is extremely lightweight and compressible so that they take up the least amount of room possible, either hanging from your harness or stuffed inside your backpack. They should also provide a balance of suitable traction on the descent. While you would want some support for your feet, it is not a very important factor in this situation.
Big Wall/Aid Climbing
The last common use category is for big wall or aid climbing scenarios. Aid climbing can be notorious for quickly thrashing a climber's shoes. Therefore, shoes with this goal in mind should be extra durable, particularly in the toe area since that is the part of the foot that is often touching or dragging along the wall when jugging in aid ladders. Since aid climbing involves little-to-no technical free climbing moves, its not as important for a shoe in this use category to have exceptional climbing ability. Instead, you want durability, protection, and a raised heel for easy gripping of aid ladder steps. You'll also want shoes with a stiffer sole to both help carry loaded haul bags and also protect your foot from constantly standing on a piece of ladder webbing for days at a time. For big walls with a mix of aid and free climbing, like the Nose of El Capitan, a supportive shoe with good climbing ability may be your ticket for quick and easy success.