You might think researching and buying climbing shoes for a child may seem difficult, but when it comes down to it, deciding on kid's shoes doesn't have to be an intimidating process. Each shoe has its strengths and weaknesses, and once you figure out what type of climber the kid is, you can then start to narrow things down.
What type of climbing do they plan on practicing? Are they mostly going to be using them indoors at the local climbing gym to attend a weekly climbing class, or is this for a young teen on the youth competition circuit? You'll want to get a shoe that compliments the genera of climbing they do.
We will start by breaking down our buying advice into different experience levels/ages. Then we will discuss other considerations to consider when making a children's climbing shoe purchase.
Experience Level / Age of the Climber
Youngest and Beginner Kid Crushers
For the little tykes, you're going to want something they find comfortable. Shoes with a flat last that doesn't cramp their growing feet are ideal. As a new climber, they won't likely be climbing anything too technical, which would require a more aggressive or precise shoe. Once a young climber puts his/her shoes on, they tend to leave them on all day long. Since their feet are growing, we recommend a shoe that is soft and wide, or a shoe sized up to allow the foot to remain completely flat. Another benefit of sizing up is that as your little climber progresses and grows into the sport, they are likely to get more use out of the shoe.
Some parents may wonder if climbing shoes are even that important at all. For the birthday party wall at the gym, junior may have no problem in his street shoes, but after they move onto the other routes, those old kicks just won't fly. Most kids have some extra room in their shoes that will end up making their footwork extra sloppy. Regular tennis shoes do not have the friction that even the most basic climbing shoes have. Footholds that should feel extra secure will feel small and slick. If this is a one-time thing for the youngest of climbers, tennis shoes will suffice, but if you want them to enjoy and grow into the sport, climbing shoes are crucial.
A shoe that is easy for the kids to put on by themselves is an important feature for both the child and the parents, and a wide hook and loop opening like the one featured on the Mad Monkey is a nice characteristic.
Young climbers will also love a shoe that will expand with them as they grow. Many of the shoes in our test have an adjustable heel strap that will tighten up or expand as they grow to allow for growing room and possibly, if they haven't been completely worn out yet, pass onto their younger sibling.
A slightly older child getting into the sport is more likely to progress more rapidly. Therefore we recommend a shoe with slightly better performance like the Black Diamond Momentum or even the Evolv Venga. Those shoes have stiffer, flatter soles with a good front edge that performs better on small footholds and allow them to feel more confident with their feet when routes get steeper or more technical, while still maintaining a good level of comfort that will help them continue to enjoy the sport.
Intermediate Kid Crusher
Children who find a passion for climbing, and want to pursue their new past time, whether at the gym or outside with family, will eventually want a shoe that isn't going to limit their abilities. These climbers may have a specific style they are seeking out. For instance, this could be a kid who hangs out in the bouldering pit at the local climbing gym or one who goes outdoor climbing with the family at the local trad crag every weekend.
If techy face climbing is something they are drawn to, a good edging shoe will be a godsend. A super-soft, flexible shoe like the Butora Brava or La Sportiva Gripit, will struggle on foot jibs, requiring their feet to work extra hard. A slightly stiffer shoe with an excellent front edge will perform better on dead vertical climbing when holds would be less than ideal otherwise.
Those who spend their climb time at a traditional crag with family and friends may want to seek out a shoe that performs well in cracks. A good crack climbing shoe is one that has a stiffer sole that will protect their feet by keeping the sole from deforming under their weight. It will also have extra protection around the foot, whether that is a padded tongue or a rubber rand like that on the Evolv Venga.
Comfort, regardless of how aggressive or snug the shoes are, should be a major consideration. It is important to find a shoe that has the right shape and volume. If the shoe is wedge-shaped with the point at the middle toe and the child has more of a boxy foot, not only is that going to be an unhealthy choice, it won't feel good or perform well.
Many moderate climbs that up and coming climbers will get on will feature a few pockets here and there. In this case, having a shoe with a pointy front will allow their shoe to get further into the pocket. However, unless the shoe has some degree of stiffness, it's going to be hard to use, similar to a good edging shoe.
Sensitivity is another consideration. A sensitive shoe is generally going to be soft and flexible, and one with a thin, mid/outsole so that you can feel the nuances of the hold through the sole. This will allow you to fine-tune where your toe is in relation to the sweet spot on a hold. Those steep slab climbs with small indiscriminate holds would benefit from a shoe that has a lot of sensitivity. A sensitive shoe will also increase balance and teach good footwork.
Advanced Kid Crushers
Older kids and youth who start crushing and working steeper routes and boulders fall into this category. These shoes feature a downturned, more aggressive shape and an accentuated rubber heel cup for heel hooking. These downturned shoes shine on steep technical face climbs and routes that are overhung. The downturned toes help the climber to stay on those burly overhangs. Many aggressive shoes will also perform well in cracks, especially thin cracks when getting toes into the crack is so crucial.
When shopping for a kid's shoe, durability will likely be a significant consideration. Children new to climbing have poor footwork and tend to wear through the toe prematurely. Some beginner shoes are more durable than others and can withstand some abuse, while others don't fare as well. When shopping for the most durable shoe possible, we recommend finding a shoe that has reinforcements in the areas that will see the most abuse. However, a good tip to keep shoes from being worn out prematurely is to take them off between climbs. This is easy for older kids, but the younger kids are the ones who will wear them out more quickly, so try to have them remove them when not climbing.
Sizing for climbing shoes has always been an issue, and the added complexities of figuring out what is right on a little kid can make things even more difficult. Be prepared to return a pair or two before getting the right fit if ordering online; we'd recommend ordering the sizes you're torn between and returning the one that doesn't fit. Trying them on in a local shop is best, if possible, but we know that's a big ask since in many cases, any given shop will only have one or two kid's models, if you're lucky.
Here is a rough place to start: our lead tester went up a half to full size in most shoes, including Five Ten, Butora, and Mad Rock. The La Sportiva shoes are a bit different; the Maverink comes in Euro sizing, and we needed our standard street shoe size while with the Stickit and Gripit, we went up a full size. The Scarpa Piki runs over an entire size large. In the Evolv Ashima, we sized up a size and a half, and with the Venga, we went up a half size. So as you can see, even shoes by the same manufacturer vary in size.
For young climbers, we recommend sizing their shoes for comfort. These shoes are meant to fit well, and the foot should fill the shoe without crunching the toes. In many cases, the best approach would be to get a shoe with a heel adjustment and fit it, so that the heel adjustment is cinched tight, then as they grow, the heel can expand to accommodate the growing feet.
As the child becomes an intermediate climber, most will want to start to fit their shoes a bit tighter to get better precision. However, for kids wearing shoes a bit tighter, it is important to remove shoes more often. Keeping tight shoes on all day is only going to cause foot pain and potential foot health issues in the future.
Advanced climbers will usually fit their shoes even more on the snug side. Again, removing shoes between climbs at this point becomes even more critical, but a snug shoe will give the most precision and control on small holds. Snug shoes should not be painful in most cases as long as they aren't worn for long periods. For best performance, it's best if their foot fills the shoe. Many downturned shoes are going to feel less comfortable than all-around kids shoes, due to their snug and aggressive shape.
Lace, Velcro, or Slipper
Every shoe in our test, with the exception being the aggressive kid's shoes, is Velcro and for good reason. Velcro is easy to put on, adjust, and remove while still doing a great job of keeping the foot in place. The La Sportiva Maverink is a slipper with no adjustment. If the fit is right, it's a super precise shoe, but don't try and size up because these slippers get sloppy fast and don't perform well when loose. The Evolve Ashima is another downturned (lace-up) shoe that can slay the steeps. Having that lace allows for a perfectly adjusted fit for great precision and control, but it does make the shoe more of a burden to take off between climbs.
Climbing shoe companies use different types of rubber compounds in their shoes. A shoe that is designed for edging may have a harder, more dense rubber to help it keep its edge fresh, while a shoe made for slabs may have a softer compound that will stick better on nuanced holds but may wear faster. With kids' shoes, there isn't as much of a choice when it comes to rubber type. We recommend finding a shoe that works for their climbing type. The rubber isn't likely to be a limiting factor in the performance of the shoe, but if there is a shoe with rubber that performs poorly, it will be discussed in its review.