We have tested 45 unique models over the past 10 years. For our 2020 iteration, we compare 13 of the best approach shoes we bought and tested. These top competitors must be versatile enough for all your climbing journeys, near and far. From the Sierra Nevada alpine backcountry to the metamorphic desert sport crags of California, we used the shoes to monkey up fixed lines, hike with heavy packs, and traverse knife-edge ridges. All the while, our experienced testers took careful notes and compared performance. We scored and ranked the varying qualities of each model against our tried-and-true metrics to help you pick the right shoe with the qualities you need.Related: Best Climbing Approach Shoes for Women of 2020
Best Climbing Approach Shoes for Men of 2020
Best Overall Approach Shoes
La Sportiva TX2
Our favorite approach shoe is the La Sportiva TX2. It's very similar to the burlier TX4, and after some hands-on testing, we discovered that this shoe is much more than just a lighter version of the TX4. These shoes weigh a mere 20 ounces per pair, plus they have a unique elastic cord system to secure the shoes together into a compact package when clipped to a climbing harness. The breathable knit uppers kept our feet cool on long hikes, and the precise lacing system allows us to crank down the laces to the end of the toe for a snug and secure fit when the going gets technical. The toe has a low profile, and we could even use them in red camalot-sized cracks.
These shoes aren't as supportive as the TX4s, so you'll want a more supportive model for multi-day expedition-sized trips. Our testers also observed the elastic band that holds the shoes together while clipped to your harness coming undone while climbing a chimney feature and lost a shoe. Lesson? Clip both shoes individually to your harness when climbing chimneys and offwidths so that you don't lose the most well-rounded approach shoes on the market.
Read review: La Sportiva TX2
Best Bang for Your Buck
La Sportiva Boulder X
The La Sportiva Boulder X delivers for yet another season, letting you play long and hard in the mountains for the least amount of cash. This affordable shoe climbs well, offers support for miles of hiking and scrambling, and features durable leather uppers that stay with you for the long haul. Additionally, the Boulder X has a lacing system similar to the La Sportiva Mythos climbing shoe. The lace extends around the ankle collar, assuring secure footing for miles of hiking or pitch after pitch of jugging.
This shoe is heavy and bulky, so it's far from our first choice for climbing while clipped to our harness. But beyond that, this approach shoe has wide appeal at a lower price point, making us big fans!
Read review: La Sportiva Boulder X
Best for Climbing
Five Ten Guide Tennie
Sensitive for smearing, stiff enough for edges, and a great performer in hand cracks, the Five Ten Guide Tennie takes the cake for climbing. If the terrain warrants some easy slab climbing and mellow splitters, but not full-on foot binding climbing shoes, the Guide Tennie reigns supreme, edging out all competitors, and edging on granite holds pretty well too.
The Guide Tennie is plenty supportive for front-country fun, but we find the La Sportiva TX4 a better option for longer slogs. There are also a few lighter models we'd choose if we're climbing a multi-pitch with a pair of approach shoes clipped to our harness. For easy scrambles in Joshua Tree or the Buttermilks or climbing easy warm-ups, the Stealth C4 is ideal and still boasts the stickiest rubber in the game.
Read review: Five Ten Guide Tennie
Best for Heavy Loads and Big Walls
La Sportiva TX4
The La Sportiva TX4 was our top scorer until we got our hands on the TX2s, but they're still a fantastic choice for big wall climbing or when you need to carry big loads. The leather uppers are up to the task of scraping up thousands of feet of granite, while the stiff and supportive midsoles can take you to your dream wall, whether it be roadside or deep in the backcountry.
These shoes have a good balance of hiking and climbing ability. The TX4 is the shoe we want on our feet while humping loads to the base of El Cap, standing in aiders, busting free moves, and carrying the whole kit back down to the meadow. Are long approaches to remote backcountry objectives in your future? The TX4 has the support and comfort to take you there, heavy pack and all.
Read review: La Sportiva TX4
Why You Should Trust Us
Matt Bento brings you this fine review. As a seasoned dirtbag traveling around the country in his van, he's spent countless hours hiking to the base of many crags. Over the last ten years, he's dedicated his life to climbing and living in many world-class climbing areas. Spending most of his time on the granite faces between Tuolumne Meadows and Bishop, California, he knows what's required in a shoe that will stick to numerous surfaces from slabs to steeps.
Also contributing to this review, Sean Haverstock is a non-discriminatory free climber who has made climbing and life in the outdoors a priority. He's worn and tested approach shoes in all imaginable scenarios and conditions, from fast-and-light ropeless ascents in the Sierra to heavy-and-slow slogs to far-off basecamps in the Himalaya and over one hundred descents off Yosemite Big Walls. He has spent the better part of the last 12 years in an approach shoe.
After researching the best products, we choose the best and discern important differences with an unbiased motive. From the High Sierra mountains to the Utah desert's perfect cracks, we've worn these shoes in all kinds of outdoor settings. In this pilgrimage, we determined which products work best and which aren't as good. Our testing methods involve long hikes with a pack loaded with the day's trad gear and fruit snacks, weighing each model ourselves, and strapping each to a harness for a climb. We also climb in them, testing them on the same cracks, slabs, and edges to elicit finer, comparative performance differences, and just plain wore them on multiple climbs up to 5.10+ to assess how their climbing performance affects the overall experience. We know these shoes, and we're passing everything we learned on to you.
Related: How We Tested Approach Shoes
Analysis and Test Results
We compare and contrast each model to the most similar products to help you make an informed decision. For each shoe, we identify strengths and weaknesses and share the activities that suit it best. Our climbing ability metric takes into consideration how well each shoe edges, smears, and crack climbs. You'll find detailed descriptions of our evaluation metrics and the top scorers in each.
Related: Buying Advice for Approach Shoes
Climbing approach shoes are a specialty product. Rock climbers place unique demands on the footwear we use to get to and from the boulders, cliffs, and mountains where we practice our art. Two chief attributes define this category of footwear:Durable Upper Materials
Approach shoes usually feature a stick rubber toe rand that comes up high on the front of the shoe to protect them while you edge, smear, or ascend a fixed-line. We often "improve" the uppers with a healthy smattering of seam seal or shoe goo, especially if the upper isn't fully leather.Sticky Rubber Soles
All products included in this review utilize a rubber sole that prioritizes 'stickiness' on the rock. In most cases, the rubber is similar to what's found on our climbing shoes. The rubber compounds are softer than the ones used for hiking boots and shoes, generating more friction on rock. These sticky rubber soles give us confidence that our feet will stay put on steep rock slabs, the tradeoff being they wear down faster than harder formulations.
As with any purchase, choosing one approach shoe over its competition usually means accepting certain tradeoffs in features, such as swapping climbing ability for hiking comfort. We've compiled all of the metrics that we believe are most important in a well-rounded approach shoe. That said, we think the La Sportiva Boulder X takes the cake in terms of value. The Boulder X is also a durable and versatile shoe, though it doesn't knock it out of the park in any particular metric.
We tested each shoe in three sub-metrics here: Edging — the ability to stand on small rock ledges ranging from a matchbook's width up to an inch. Smearing — the ability to stick to steep rock that is devoid of any features. And crack climbing — the ability to stick your toe into vertical fissures in the rock and twist your foot to lock it in place. These are all important attributes for exposed scrambling, but consider which is most applicable to where you climb. Be safe. It's up to you to consider your abilities and make good choices based on sound risk assessment. Climbing ability contributes 35% of each model's overall score.
Earning the highest score for climbing ability, we found the Five Ten Guide Tennie to be the best shoe for smearing, and it received a high edging rating as well. The Black Diamond Technician comes in right behind, sharing many of Tennie's same design features. Unfortunately, BD's Black Label rubber is noticeably less sticky than Five Ten's Stealth and Vibram's Megagrip rubbers. The La Sportiva TX2 performs on the rock as well. It has better sensitivity than the Tennie and Technician but loses a point because they aren't as stiff. The Tennie and Technician feature the best sticky rubber toe rand construction for protection, friction, and durability in cracks. Also faring well in climbing ability are the La Sportiva Boulder X and Evolv Cruzer Psyche. The Scarpa Crux features the same Vibram Mega-Grip rubber as the TX2 and climbs at a very similar level.
The Salewa Wildfire proved to be excellent hikers but didn't climb anywhere near as well as the Guide Tennies or the La Sportiva TX series.
Arriving at your climbing objective comfortably will be most important for many. We recommend prioritizing comfort and support for those who primarily stay on the trail and don't anticipate scrambling and easy technical climbing in approach shoes. These two metrics focus on how each model handles high mileage days. Our rating for comfort contributes 25% to each product's overall score and focuses on features and comfort when carrying minimal loads.
Comfort is determined in large part by how well a particular brand or last fits your foot, as well as an appropriate fit. We recommend trying on several models to evaluate which fits your foot best while assessing if it's appropriate for your technical needs. It's important to note that there is a compromise when you choose your size. Size down a half or full size from your street shoe, and you'll get better climbing performance, but this can become uncomfortable on long approaches. Beyond selecting a proper fit, and especially if you only plan to buy a single pair, be sure to choose a shoe that's tailored toward how you will use them.
For covering many miles, the La Sportiva TX2, TX4, and the Scarpa Mescalito are the most comfortable shoes and have excellent traction in dirt. The TX2 is a lightweight shoe that is more agile and less fatiguing to all-day wear and is the best choice for weight-conscious comfort seekers. The Mescalito are better options if you're looking for comfort more similar to a hiking shoe or boot. They offer more comfortable midsoles and organic uppers than lightweight options. If you routinely log high miles on your feet, they may be better suited to your needs. For those anticipating more variety in their approach shoe use, the TX4 is an excellent compromise between the two spectrums.
Another great option for the comfort-seeking, weight-conscious crowd is the Arc'teryx Konseal. This pair feels like a hybrid model that contains aspects of approach, hiking, and even trail running shoes altogether. The La Sportiva TX2 is the most comfortable shoe to hike in that climbs well, with the Five Ten Guide Tennie close behind. The TX2 has a synthetic knit upper that felt cool and breathable compared to heavier leather models like the TX4, the Scarpa Mescalito, and the Boulder X.
The lacing system on a pair of shoes can significantly affect their ability to hike, as well as climb too. Many of these shoes have lacing that extends closer to the toe of the shoe than hiking and running shoes, allowing you to lock down the forefoot and toe in the shoe for climbing performance or loosen it for increased hiking comfort.
The support metric contributes 20% of the total scores. Foot support is most important when carrying heavy loads, but even a "rope, rack, and the shirt on your back" weigh a fair bit. Climbers are accustomed to being hard on their feet. Nonetheless, a more supportive shoe means less pain when the approaches get long and your pack gets heavy. Support is also important for a shoe's edging and crack climbing performance. It's also important in aid climbing when standing in slings — you'll want a stiff and supportive outsole to prevent the sling from pinching your feet all day. All else being equal, a more supportive shoe will edge and crack climb better, especially when carrying a heavy pack. You don't want to be all wobbly-footed in the backcountry, where a sprained ankle can be a real problem.
The stiffest, most supportive products we tested are the La Sportiva Boulder X and the Scarpa Mescalito. They are designed for carrying heavy loads into the mountains and offer the most protection to your toes from shifting talus and stubbed toes common in uneven and loose mountain terrain. The La Sportiva TX4, Scarpa Crux, and Five Ten Guide Tennie are all good but less supportive midweight options. The TX2 is the best lightweight option for support, with the Arc'teryx Konseal as the next best option. If you need support for long walks with a heavy pack, we suggest avoiding the lightweight Evolv Cruzer Psyche.
A shoe that fits well and supports your feet and ankles over long, exposed terrain with confidence is more important than trying to save weight with a lighter pair of shoes like the Evolv Cruzers or Rebels. As tempting as it is to go with a light and breathable shoe, remember how much of a pain it'll be hobbling out several miles after your backcountry objective. These models are also not our recommendation for aid climbing due to their lack of support.
Weight & Packability
Weight is always an important consideration for us here at OutdoorGearLab. If we are choosing between two products with similar performance qualities across other metrics, we favor the lighter of the two. Weight is a primary concern when you clip them to your harness or stow them in your climbing pack on multi-pitch routes. Our lead tester prefers to have each climber in a multi-pitch party carry their shoes, water, and extra clothes on a multi-pitch route. Other folks prefer to give the leader the luxury of climbing without a small pack or their shoes clipped to their harness. In practice, this means the second climber is often carrying a "second's pack" with food, water, clothing, and TWO pairs of shoes.
The Evolv Cruzer Psyche, the Evolv Rebel, the La Sportiva TX2, the Black Diamond Technician, and the Arc'teryx Konseal are the lightest models we tested and are compact in comparison to the competition. The tradeoff here is obvious; these models do not support the foot and hike as well as heavier ones. What makes the TX2 so uniquely great is its high comfort and support ratings despite its low weight. The Konseal is the next great option for lightweight weight comfort and support. The lightest shoes we tested, the Cruzer Psyche, were also the least comfortable and supportive.
The heaviest products we tested, the La Sportiva Boulder X, the Scarpa Mescalito, and the Five Ten Guide Tennie, are comfortable and supportive for hiking. Unfortunately, these shoes are at least a half a pound heavier than lighter-weight approach shoes. Combined with their increased bulk, they're poor options for clipping to the harness or shoving in a pack while climbing. The Evolv Cruzer Psyche is on the other end of the spectrum, earning top scores in weight but lower scores in support and hiking comfort. In the middle lies the La Sportiva TX2.
These shoes are designed to wear approaching a rock climb. They are made with a sticky rubber sole and sturdy uppers for protection against abrasive terrain. They can take you to places that your tennis shoes cannot go. There are plenty of crags out there that require the occasional exposed move or two to access, and a good pair of approach shoes will keep you more secure and ultimately have more fun. We hope that this review has helped you to determine whether you are looking for a pair for comfortable hiking with better traction or if you need a pair known for climbing ability and protection.
— Matt Bento & Sean Haverstock