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How We Tested Approach Shoes

Tuesday October 18, 2022

Nearly everyone here at GearLab spends a lot of time climbing, from big wall routes to sport climbing and bouldering, and everything in between. We've burned through countless pairs of approach shoes over the years, and we are happy to share our collective experience with you.

approach shoes - just another day at the office, testing approach shoes.
Just another day at the office, testing approach shoes.
Credit: Matt Bento

Our lead testers assessed these approach shoes scrambling in the High Sierra, bouldering, and trad and sport climbing in Bishop, Lake Tahoe, Boulder, and numerous other California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado climbing adventures.

We devised an updated set of evaluation metrics that balance climbing ability with hiking ability. We independently weighed each of the models we tested. We probably looked a little strange bouldering in Bishop and trekking up to Indian Creek crags wearing one Scarpa shoe and one La Sportiva shoe, but that's how we test: side-by-side.

approach shoes - testing approach shoes side-by-side on a smeary granite route in...
Testing approach shoes side-by-side on a smeary granite route in Boulder Canyon, Colorado.
Credit: Jeff Dobronyi

Climbing Ability


We climbed slab routes, edging routes, splitter cracks, and offwidths. We also bouldered, scrambled, and ran around the mountains to get a good feel for each shoe's performance and security. Some of our favorite routes to test approach shoes are Northwest Books on Lembert Dome in Tuolumne Meadows and the East Face of the Third Flatiron in Boulder, Colorado. Easy to moderate rock climbing routes are the best places to wear approach shoes, and in some cases, our testers free soloed these routes when they were confident that the shoes had the necessary performance to keep us safe. Other shoes gave us very little confidence when free soloing, or even lead climbing, and we took these assessments into consideration when scoring.

Other times, we tied in for top-rope and lead laps on pitches up to 5.11 to really test the limits of the performance of each shoe. We repeat the climb for each pair of shoes to highlight the strength and weaknesses of each.

approach shoes - we climb everything from sport climbs to scrambling routes to alpine...
We climb everything from sport climbs to scrambling routes to alpine rock climbs in each shoe.
Credit: Jeff Dobronyi

Hiking Comfort


We walked, hiked, and slogged to crags and through alpine valleys with light packs for climbing or heavy packs for search and rescue missions. We made careful note of instability, sore arches, and rocks entering around the cuff. If your feet already hurt before you get to the climb, putting them in climbing shoes isn't going to make them feel any better.

approach shoes - hiking long distances to alpine rock climbs is one of our favorite...
Hiking long distances to alpine rock climbs is one of our favorite ways to assess the comfort of each approach shoe.
Credit: Jeff Dobronyi

Support


Standing in aiders isn't comfortable. That's why aid climbers spend most of their time in supportive approach shoes and only occasionally dawn a pair of actual climbing shoes. To assess support, we stood in aiders, jumared up fixed ropes, and stood around in slings at the crag. Generally, a stiffer shoe is more supportive and comfortable for standing in slings.

Testing the La Sportiva TX Guide for support by standing in a sling...
Testing the La Sportiva TX Guide for support by standing in a sling clipped to a cam to pull through a difficult move, otherwise known as "french-freeing."
Standing in a narrow sling to test the support of the Arc'teryx...
Standing in a narrow sling to test the support of the Arc'teryx Konseal AR.

Weight & Packability


The easiest and most objective of our metrics is determined by first weighing each pair of shoes and then climbing around with them clipped to our harnesses. Models with an easy attachment for a carabiner scored more points in this field, and lighter pairs scored better than heavier pairs. We also measure how small each shoe packs down for carrying inside a pack.

approach shoes - we test packability side-by-side to rank how much space each pair of...
We test packability side-by-side to rank how much space each pair of shoes occupies in a pack.
Credit: Sam Willits

Construction Quality


After spending weeks and sometimes months in each pair of shoes, we assessed how normal wear and tear affected different components of each shoe. We look for sole rubber wearing thin or delaminating from the midsole, upper fabric developing tears or holes, and lace eyelets blowing out from repeated tension. We speak with other users and look for common durability problems, and try to replicate these issues with the products we test.

approach shoes - we constantly assess each product for construction quality concerns...
We constantly assess each product for construction quality concerns that arise during our lengthy testing period.
Credit: Jeff Dobronyi

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GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.

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