At first, buying climbing shoes for a kid may seem difficult, but when it comes down to it, deciding on kids shoes is fairly straightforward. Each shoe has its own strengths in a specific climbing style, and once we can figure out what type of climber the child is, we can start to thin the herd.
What type of climbing does the child plan on practicing? Is this for gym use for a five-year-old just starting to attend a weekly climbing class, or is this for a young teen on the competition circuit? You'll want to get a shoe that compliments the style of climbing they do.
First, we will break down our buying advice into different experience levels/ages. Then we will discuss other considerations for making a kid's climbing shoe purchase.
Experience Level / Age of the Climber
Youngest and Beginner Kid Crushers
For the smallest climbers, you're going to want something they find comfortable. Shoes with a flat last that don't cramp their feet are best. As a beginner, they won't be getting on anything technical enough that would require a more aggressive or precise shoe. Little kids tend to put their shoes on and leave them on all day. Since their feet are growing, we recommend a shoe that is soft and wide like the La Sportiva Gripit - Kids, or another 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, they are likely to fit this shoe a little longer.
Many parents will wonder if it's even that important to use climbing shoes at all for that easy wall at the climbing gym. Sure, the first time you set junior out on that birthday party wall at the gym, their street shoes may suffice, but after they move onto the other routes in the gym, 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. 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 work, but if you want them to enjoy and grow into the sport, climbing shoes are of utmost importance.
A shoe that is easy for the kids to use by themselves is an important feature for both the kids and the adult and a wide velcro opening like on the Mad Monkey is a nice feature that makes quickly getting in and out of the shoe hassle free.
Little climbers will also benefit from a shoe that will grow with them. Many shoes we tested have a heel strap that will tighten up and expand as they grow to allow for growing room and possibly, if they haven't been worn out yet, pass onto their younger sibling.
An older child getting into climbing is likely going to progress more rapidly. Therefore we would recommend a slightly higher performing shoe like the Black Diamond Momentum or even the Evolv Venga. Those shoes have a stiffer, flatter sole with a good toe edge that is going to be better on small footholds and allow them to feel more confident with their feet when the routes get harder, while still maintaining a level of comfort that will help them enjoy the sport.
Intermediate Kid Crusher
Those kids who find that climbing is something they really enjoy and want to start to pursue climbing, whether at the gym or outside with family, will eventually want a shoe that isn't going to limit their abilities. A climber in this category may have specific styles they are pursuing. This could be a kid who hangs out in the bouldering pit at the gym or one who goes with the family to the local trad crag every weekend.
If vertical face climbing is something they are spending a lot of time on, 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.
Kids who spend their climb time at the trad crags with family and friends may also 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 keeping by the sole from deforming under their weight. It will also have extra protection around the foot whether that is a padded tongue or an oversized rand rubber rand like that on the Evolv Venga.
Comfort, regardless of how advanced and 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 a softer shoe that you can feel 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 increase balance and teach good footwork. A good example of a sensitive shoe in the Intermediate Kid Crusher category is the Evolv Venga.
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 face climbs and when routes start to overhang. 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 kids shoe, durability is likely one of the major considerations you probably have. Children new to climbing will have poor footwork, and they tend to wear through the toe prematurely. Some beginner shoes are more durable than others and can withstand some abuse while others can't. 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 for longer periods that they don't climb too.
Sizing for climbing shoes has always been a bear, and the added complexities of figuring out what is right on a little kid can make it even harder. 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. We recommend trying them on in a local shop if possible, but we know that's a tough task in many cases since any given shop will only have one or two 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. 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 the youngest of 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 the heel is cinched, then as they grow the heel can expand to accommodate their growing feet.
As the child grows into an intermediate climber, most kids 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.
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 hurt in most cases as long as they aren't kept on all day. It's essential that their foot fills the shoe. Many downturned shoes are going to feel less comfortable due to their snug and aggressive shape.
Lace, Velcro, or Slipper
All but the most aggressive kid's shoes tested are Velcro and for good reason. Velcro is just easy to put on, adjust, and remove, while still doing a good job keeping the foot secure. The La Sportiva Maverink is a slipper, so no adjustment is needed getting in and out of the shoe. If the fit is right, it is a secure shoe, but don't try and size up because these slippers don't perform well loose. The Evolve Ashima is a downturned lace up that can slay the steeps. Having the lace allows for a perfectly snug fit for great precision and control but 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, while a shoe made for slabs may have a softer compound that will stick better on some 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 individual review.