The rock climbing shoe review began like any other review at OutdoorGearLab, with extensive online research. We examined sales at online retailers, perused customer comments, and read formal reviews from our competitors to select the top 30+ models that are currently available. Unlike many other review sites, we then purchased the top shoes we selected to undergo full hands-on testing. As far as we're concerned, the best way to test a climbing shoe is to go climbing, so that's exactly what we did. We made sure to do so on a variety of rock types—limestone, sandstone, volcanic tuff, granite—and with testers of a variety of foot types—narrow feet, wide feet, high arches, flat arches, and every kind of feet in between. Below are brief descriptions of how we tried to evaluate our specific performance metrics.
Edging comes into play the most for face climbing on walls that range from less than vertical to slightly overhanging. To test performance, we sought out routes within this range whose primary features were edges rather than pockets, cracks, smears, or jugs. Bolted routes in granite zones like Pine Creek Canyon and Yosemite, along with volcanic crimpfests in the Owens River Gorge, fit these criteria nicely. We then lapped pitch after pitch while recording how well each shoe supported our feet and gripped progressively tinier edges. Some shoes performed excellently. Others not so much. Common problems were shoes that let our feet slide around inside or pliable rubber that bent and skittered off edges.
To test crack climbing performance, we looked for featureless walls with sustained cracks of differing sizes. These cracks ranged from the perfect sandstone splitters of Indian Creek to the painful granite flares of Yosemite Valley, with an enormous variety in between. Interestingly, the same shoe is often not great for both wide and thin cracks—wide cracks necessitate padding while thin cracks reward slimmer toe boxes. For this reason, we tried to give all the shoes we tested the benefit of the doubt, meaning we scored them based off whether they performed well for any size crack. We then discuss each shoe's ideal crack size, if they have one, in the individual product reviews.
Generally, as climbing difficulty increases, the size of the holds decreases. Jugs big enough to accommodate a whole hand disappear, and you're left with smaller pockets that you're lucky to squeeze a few digits inside. These smaller handholds also require special shoe designs. We tested these designs on the limestone crags near Lander, WY and the pocketed volcanic boulders of the Owens Valley, CA. Shoes were evaluated based on how well they fit into small pockets and if they enabled us to "pull with our feet." Downturned shoes usually performed better in the latter regard, while pointier toe boxes fit into the smallest spaces.
Being able to sense the footholds increases your awareness and allows you to tactilely detect when you've placed your feet improperly or when they begin to slip unexpectedly. We evaluated sensitivity by trying multiple pairs of shoes one after another on the same marginal footholds. These tests were repeated at multiple bouldering areas and in the climbing gym to gather as much data as possible. When conclusions were difficult to draw, our testers even resorted to wearing different shoes on their left and right feet to effectively compare sensitivity. All observations were recorded and discussed at length before we came to the final numerical scores.
Of all our performance metrics, comfort may be the most subjective. Everybody's feet are different, and a comfy pair for one tester was occasionally excruciating to wear for another. To try to make it more objective, we recruited several testers with the same shoe size but different foot types. They were all asked to independently evaluate each model and report on their comfort. Some shoes generated polarizing contradictory reports. Where this occurred, we've tried to explain the differing opinions in our product reviews. Other shoes, however, generated near-universal acknowledgment of their superior comfort. Generally, these are less aggressive, high volume, designs that also feature lots of padding. These widely admired models received top comfort scores, while those with mixed or negative reports scored lower.