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.
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).
Related: Best Mountaineering Boots
Related: Best Hiking Boots for Men of 2020
Related: Best Hiking Shoes for Men of 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."