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).
Heavy, protective, and stiff, these boots are designed to securely accept modern crampons and keep your feet warm in frigid temperatures. They are a good choice if your objective requires a mix of train and cross-country hiking, a snowy approach, and easy to moderately difficult rock climbing terrain. However, if your route won't cross snow, we'd highly recommend ditching these heavy boots in favor of modern approach shoes. In recent years, certain models of mountaineering boots have combined the protection from water and snow of a boot with the more precise and comfortable performance of an approach shoe, and these lightweight mountaineering boots are a great choice for snow or glacier approaches to rock climbs.
Related: Best Mountaineering Boots of 2023
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: 10 Best Hiking Boots of 2023
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.
Related: Best Trail Running Shoes of 2023
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: 10 Best Hiking Shoes of 2023
Sticky rubber, a snug forefoot, precise toe box fit, durability, and the ability to climb easy to moderate technical rock are the features that make the products in this category so useful. 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, certain approach shoes excel in technical climbing, while others are more focused on providing hiking comfort, and others provide stiff support in the sole for standing in aiders while aid climbing.
Different Uses for Approach Shoes
The variety of terrain and distances we encounter approaching and descending from climbs places quite different demands on our footwear. Some climbing areas require short hikes and scrambles to the base of the cliff, where difficult, technical rock climbs await. Other climbing styles demand long and arduous approaches on rough backcountry terrain, with easy to moderate alpine rock climbing waiting at the end of the hike.
Short to Medium-length Approaches and Descents
Many climbing venues are located within an easy hour of hiking and scrambling from the trailhead, car, or tram station. While hiking comfort is somewhat important on these approaches, we actually recommend placing a higher priority on climbing ability. Often, approaches require scrambling over boulders in desert washes, scrambling up 3rd and 4th class slabs, and making easy but exposed moves to reach rappel anchors during the descent. Mountain Guides and expert recreational climbers rely upon approach shoes with great climbing ability to keep them attached to the mountain when not roped up and on belay.
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! Our testers love moving fast over easy and moderate alpine ridgelines, and good approach shoes will allow you to leave your climbing shoes behind on these long missions where shaving ounces from your pack really matters. For these missions, we prefer shoes with lots of hiking comfort and a decent amount of climbing ability. The harder the climbing, the more we prioritize climbing ability, until we reach a threshold where our climbing ability demands that we also bring climbing shoes to securely and safely climb the route. But for long alpine climbs that are well within our climbing ability, a do-it-all approach shoe with a good balance of hiking comfort and climbing ability is the best choice.
Some climbing areas have relatively short approaches, hard multi-pitch routes, and longer descents that involve steep, semi-technical terrain. 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.
Big Wall Climbing
These climbs involve long days standing in aiders while leading aid climbs and jumaring up fixed ropes, hanging out on bivy ledges, and belaying for hours. The best shoes for big wall climbing are stiff and supportive shoes that don't bend when the user is standing in aiders or slings. These shoes should also be able to climb relatively well, for the occasional use while free climbing short sections. Most big wall climbers will bring actual climbing shoes if they plan on free climbing anything serious, so approach shoes for big wall climbing don't need to prioritize climbing ability.
Hiking Oriented Approach Shoes
Many users spend most of their time hiking and scrambling on trails and over rough off-trail terrain, and very little time climbing on technical rock. These users should consider approach shoes with a maximum of hiking comfort and support. Every approach shoe on the market has the ability to climb short, easy sections of technical rock, and they do so better than hiking shoes or hiking boots, often at the same level of hiking comfort. So, if you are a hiker who plans on scrambling or peak-bagging, approach shoes with the most hiking comfort are the best choice.
Technical Climbing Approach Shoes
Approach shoes tailored towards climbing performance have soles with rubber tread patterns that are more suited to maximizing climbing ability rather than traction on the trail. Often, these soles feature large patches of flat rubber, especially near the toe, which provides excellent smearing and edging performance, but little traction. They also feature relatively stiff and lightly-padded midsoles, which maximize power transfer and feel between the foot and the rock, but this also makes hiking less comfortable. Mountain Guides often choose approach shoes with the best climbing ability, and use these shoes on easy to moderate multi-pitch climbs and alpine climbs. This helps minimize the amount of time they need to spend in tight and uncomfortable climbing shoes. Hiking comfort and support are also important considerations for anyone interested in climbing technical terrain in approach shoes, but climbing ability is what keeps the shoes, and thus the climber, attached to the mountain, and therefore this metric should be the primary consideration.
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.
Approach Shoe Care
We all want our footwear to last as long as possible. Here are a few ways to ensure you get maximum longevity out of your approach shoes.
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."