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How to Choose Approach Shoes for Climbing

How to Choose Approach Shoes for Climbing
Choosing your next pair of approach shoes can be a tough road. We want to help make the process and decision a painless one. Save the pain for your next crack project.
Credit: Sean Haverstock
By Matt Bento ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Tuesday May 12, 2020
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Here in our Buying Advice article, we want to help you understand why climbers use many types of footwear at the crags and in the mountains. We also discuss choosing between approach shoes with soles that give excellent traction on steep dirt vs. ones more focused on creating significant friction on smooth rock. In the end, we offer some tips on the care and maintenance of this extraordinary footwear.

Do I Need an Approach Shoe?

This is an excellent question to ask right from the start. To answer it, let's start by talking about what makes this type of footwear so special. These shoes earned their name because they are designed to wear on the "approach" to a rock climb, even though their uses extend far beyond! As such, they have two essential features that distinguish them from other types of outdoor footwear.

First, these shoes have a sticky rubber sole. These rubber formulations are softer than the ones used on most hiking and running footwear, creating more friction on smooth rock slabs. Also, the soles usually do a great job standing on small rock edges. Climbing approaches often have exposed, do-not-fall rocky terrain. Sticky rubber gives you more confidence that your feet will stay put where you place them, during those times when taking a tumble is not an option.

approach shoes - durable uppers, extended rubber toe rands, and super sticky outsoles...
Durable uppers, extended rubber toe rands, and super sticky outsoles -- the crucial elements of an approach shoe.
Credit: Matt Bento

Second, they have uppers that are more durable when used in rough, rocky terrain. This usually means full leather uppers reinforced by a protective toe rand also made of sticky rubber. The most durable models have a rubber rand that extends entirely around the upper material of the shoe. A durable approach shoe can stand up to months of mountain-related activities such as climbing, hiking through talus and scree, and smearing up and down approach slabs that could destroy a lightweight trail runner in just a few days.

Types of Footwear to Get You To and From Climbs

Spending time at the crags or in the mountains, you notice climbers wear all kinds of footwear to get them to and from their playgrounds. Taking a look at a few of these categories of footwear will shed some light on why folks choose different footwear for the same activities. Our discussion of these classes moves from big, burly boots (the least appropriate for most climbers) down to approach shoes (the best choice for most climbers).

Mountaineering Boots

Credit: Ls Sportiva
Chances are, if mountaineering boots are what you need to get to and from what you want to climb, you know this already. Big, burly, and super stiff, these boots are designed to securely accept modern crampons and keep your feet warm in frigid temperatures. So why do we mention mountaineering boots here, in a discussion of choosing approach shoes? A few high-profile ascents in recent years have been pulled off by professional climbers wearing mid-cut approach shoes on gnarly mixed terrain. For all but a few very experienced climbers, snow and ice that require the use of crampons for extended periods also require the use of mountaineering boots for security and safety.

Related: Best Mountaineering Boots of 2022

Hiking Boots

Credit: Salomon
Hiking boots provide better foot support and much more ankle stability and protection than low-cut approach shoes. One of our lead tester's regular climbing partners has a history of ankle injuries, complete with multiple surgeries. He needs the foot and ankle support provided by a burly hiking boot to cover the rough terrain on climbing approaches and descents safely. Most will find hiking boots too bulky, heavy, and warm for our approach and scrambling needs.

Related: Best Hiking Boots of 2022

Trail Runners

Credit: Nike
Many climbers use trail running shoes to get to and from their climbing destinations. Whether at the sport crag or in the backcountry of Rocky Mountain National Park, you'll likely see many experienced climbers approaching in trail runners as approach shoes. Why? Trail runners can be cheaper, lighter, and more comfortable than approach shoes, and most folks already own a pair. But make no mistake, if you end up in a situation requiring technical climbing you'll be wishing you had the sticky rubber of an approach shoe. Further, trail runners provide little protection to the toes when crack climbing or moving through loose terrain. The Arctery'x Konseal is a trail runner like approach shoe that is light and streamlined should one want to turn their hike into a run.

Related: Best Trail Running Shoes of 2022

Hiking Shoes

Credit: The North Face
Hiking shoes are the closest cousin to the products in this review. While midsole and upper construction are often similar to an approach shoe, very few hiking shoes have sticky rubber outsoles and 'climbing zones' suited for technical climbing. Hiking shoe design for the vertical, and are far less suited to stand on edges, smear on featureless stone, and jam in cracks. While the harder rubber compounds found on the soles of hiking shoes will usually last longer, they do not provide good friction on rock surfaces. One of the downsides of the burly, durable uppers often found on the models in this review is a general lack of breathability. The uppers of quality hiking shoes tend to be more breathable.

Related: Best Hiking Shoes of 2022

Approach Shoes

Credit: Five Ten
Sticky rubber, a snug forefoot, and toe fit, durability, the ability to climb easy to moderate technical rock… These are the features that make the products in this category so awesome. The most important attribute - and the main reason to choose this type of footwear - is security when scrambling on talus or traversing rocks slabs where a slip and fall is not an option. While all of the models we tested use sticky rubber, the lug patterns on the soles are quite different.

Best Uses for Approach Shoes

The variety of terrain and distances we encounter approaching and descending from climbs places quite different demands on our footwear. Below, you will find recommendations for specific climbing areas and types of terrain.

Approaching Rock Climbs

The multi-pitch climbs in Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas present a grueling approach and descent scenario. Long, with steep terrain on loose rock and dirt, the approaches demand a shoe that hikes well, has excellent traction on steep dirt, and can still bust out 4th class terrain. For tricky approaches like the slabs that lead up to Levitation 29, you'll need a shoe that climbs 4th class, has enough support for a long hike, /and/ is light on your harness. Models that focus more on support and comfort for hiking are also well suited.

In Joshua Tree National Park, most of the climbs are within a mile of the parking areas, and the "long" approaches are a few miles at the most. The unique feature here is lots of scrambling over rough granite. Smearing up and down steep slabs, and jamming your foot in flared cracks is part of most of the "to and from." Since its introduction in 1985, the Five Ten Guide Tennie has been the shoe of choice for many Josh climbers. It smears better than any other model we tested, and the new version extended toe rand provides additional protection for the leather upper when jamming those flared cracks. The Editors' Choice Award-winning La Sportiva TX2 is a great option too. It doesn't climb quite as well as the Guide Tennie (pretty close though) but it hikes better.

approach shoes - boulders and talus are typical obstacles on the way to many of our...
Boulders and talus are typical obstacles on the way to many of our favorite climbing areas.
Credit: Matt Bento

These famous "follow-the-sun-in-the-winter" areas are just two example scenarios - be sure to consider the climbing you typically do and the terrain of your favorite areas. If you do a lot of scrambling, look for shoes that scored well in our climbing ability metric. If you only occasionally need to cross talus or rock slabs but are mostly on trail, then comfort and support will likely be top priorities for you.

Easy Alpine Rock Climbs

Ten or more miles round trip, a few pitches of easy 5th class climbing, and piles of 3rd and 4th class scrambling? Yes, please! The Matthes Crest and Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne Meadows, Royal Arches in Yosemite Valley, and Mount Emerson outside of Bishop are a few of our lead tester's favorite days out. These adventures are long so many will decide to travel as light and fast as possible, and forgo a pair of actual shoes for the technical climbing. The La Sportiva TX2is a great shoe for these routes if you want substantial support for your foot during the long trail miles and want a shoe that climbs well. And still, others will opt for even more protection, comfort, and support offered from heavier models. The super-light minimal approach shoes can end up causing more foot and knee pain than the weight savings is worth. We prefer these types of shoes for the excellent roadside scrambling found in Joshua Tree National Park.

sticky rubber approach shoes keep us feeling secure on alpine ridge...
Sticky rubber approach shoes keep us feeling secure on alpine ridge scrambles in the Sierra.
Credit: Matt Bento

Do not hesitate to carry a pair of real climbing shoes with you to routes like these; the confidence gained on more challenging pitches can be more important than saving a pound on the approach.

Descent Shoes

Some climbing areas have relatively short approaches but longer descents that involve steep, semi-technical terrain, such as Yosemite Valley. In this case, most climbers are willing to sacrifice comfort and support, to carry as little weight as possible when climbing. A very light, sticky approach shoe fits the bill perfectly, like the Evolv Cruzer Psyche.

the weight and packed size of a pair of shoes are the biggest...
The weight and packed size of a pair of shoes are the biggest factors when selecting a model for hiking back out after a climb.
Credit: Sean Haverstock

Big Wall Climbing

Mere mortals will want a comfortable, supportive shoe for standing in aiders for days and humping big loads up to the base, and a separate pair of actual climbing shoes for the pitches they plan to free climb. The La Sportiva Boulder X, one of the most supportive models we evaluated, is an excellent choice.

ammon mcneely making the first move on a 23+ hour single push ascent...
Ammon McNeely making the first move on a 23+ hour single push ascent of Rodeo Queen. A supportive approach shoe is key if you'll be spending the day in your aiders.
Credit: Chris McNamara

Hiking Oriented Approach Shoes

Most users will spend far more time hiking and scrambling on trails and over rough off-trail terrain than climbing on technical rock. These shoes climb much better than trail runners or hiking boots, but still prioritize hiking comfort and good traction on dirt.

The La Sportiva Boulder X is the most versatile product of this bunch. It edges, smears, and crack climbs reasonably well; as a result, it earned the highest climbing ability score among these shoes that provide good hiking traction.

Climbing Oriented Approach Shoes

Approach shoes tailored towards climbing performance have soles that are more suited to maximizing climbing ability rather than traction on the trail. The low profile dot lugs provide the most contact with the rock for smearing ability. Their uppers are usually durable enough to handle crack after crack. Leather is a great choice for the uppers on the best climbing-oriented approach shoes. As a result, they don't provide the most breathability on the hike before the talus fields. Despite approach shoes' ability to climb technical rock, it's important to keep their ability in perspective. The difference in performance between the shoes we tested pales in comparison to the increase in performance you'd get from wearing an actual climbing shoe. If your climbing abilities will be tested and there's a risk for injury, wear a climbing shoe.

an approach shoe's climbing ability is important to consider, but be...
An approach shoe's climbing ability is important to consider, but be sure to leverage that against the hiking ability. Most people spend much more time hiking and scrambling through talus in these shoes than actually climbing.
Credit: Matt Bento


There is always a compromise when choosing the size of this type of footwear. Size them to fit nice and snug, and they will climb better. Size them to fit like a hiking shoe, with a bit of room for your toes to move around, and you'll be more comfortable while hiking, especially over long distances. If you size too small and they become too uncomfortable to hike in, you're left with a pair of not so good climbing shoes. Only you know what your priorities are, but we recommend sizing these shoes with a little room to make them comfortable when hiking.

this shoe features lacing that extends all the way down to the toe...
This shoe features lacing that extends all the way down to the toe, much like a climbing shoe.
Credit: Matt Bento

Should I Consider a Mid-Cut Approach Shoe?

Two of the products we tested are available in a mid-cut version, the La Sportiva TX4 and the Five Ten Guide Tennie. While lots of climbers are comfortable carrying a heavy pack over rough terrain in a low-cut shoe, some folks want a bit more ankle stability and protection. A mid-cut model will give you the climbing benefits of sticky rubber, along with the ankle support of a light hiking boot. Easy alpine rock climbs and ridge traverses are an excellent setting for these mid-cut products. Carrying an overnight pack into the mountains over rough trails and talus fields provides many opportunities to twist your ankle. The mid-cut version of the Five Ten Guide Tennie is an excellent choice for multi-day trips to 4th class routes in the mountains.

A mid-cut model is also an excellent choice for many El Cap climbers. They provide more support when standing in aiders for days and better ankle stability when humping heavy haul bags up the talus to the base and down the long, steep trail below the East Ledges rappels. Although not necessarily recommended, if you want to use an approach shoe with crampons in the mountains, a mid-cut version is the way to go.

Care and Feeding

We all want our footwear to last as long as possible. The products in this review are the durable choice for talus hopping and climbing easy, technical rock, and there are a few ways to ensure you get maximum longevity.

First, keep them as clean as possible, inside and out. Little bits of sand and dirt that work their way into your shoes cause abrasive wear and tear. When you get debris inside your shoe, stop and shake it out as soon as possible. Most climbers change into and out of their approach shoes several times during a climbing day - use this as an opportunity to remove the insole and shake out any debris that has gotten inside. Removing the insole will also allow any accumulated sweat to evaporate. If you are hiking through mud or traversing wet scree fields, do your best to clean as much as possible from the outside of your shoe as soon as you can. Don't put your dirty shoes away at the end of a trip until you clean 'em up. A soft bristle brush and warm water is the best way to remove caked-on mud and dirt.

Second, consider treating the upper with a leather conditioning product. Both suede and nubuck leather will benefit from treatment. This is especially important if you often get your shoes wet when approaching a climb. Untreated leather absorbs more water and is more prone to shrinking or becoming brittle after multiple wetting and drying cycles. Nikwax offers an extensive line of leather conditioners that work well.

Third, if you plan to use your shoes for a lot of technical climbing - especially jamming them in cracks or standing in aiders while big walling - reinforcing critical parts of the upper is a great idea. The rough, flared cracks found in Joshua Tree, Vedauwoo, and other areas can quickly chew up even full leather uppers. Seam Grip generously applied over wear-prone regions, will increase the lifetime of the upper.

Shoes used for big wall climbing can wear very quickly. Some folks tend to wear the toe of the shoe quickly while standing in aiders or jugging fixed lines. In addition to reinforcing key wear areas with a seam sealer, applying a coating of ShoeGoo or Barge Cement to the front of the toe is an essential trick for "toe draggers."

la sportiva boulder x approach shoes getting ready for the east...
La Sportiva Boulder X approach shoes getting ready for the East Ledges Descent, El Capitan.
Credit: Chris McNamara

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