Best Climbing Shoes of 2020
Related: Best Climbing Shoes for Women of 2020
Best Overall Model
La Sportiva Katana Lace
Despite its considerable price tag, the La Sportiva Katana Lace is an exceedingly popular shoe, and it only took a couple of pitches for our testers to understand why. The Katana supplies astounding edging power and precision in a downturned design that doesn't require you to wholly abandon your comfort. The narrow toe profile solidifies this shoe's credentials for both steep pocket pulling and thin crack climbing. Add to this the stiff-yet-sensitive feel of its Vibram XS Edge sole, and you have a shoe that's perfectly suited for nearly any type of roped climbing. No wonder Adam Ondra donned a pair for the crux pitches during his rapid second ascent of the Dawn Wall.
Although these shoes are comfy, they're not quite "El Cap in a day" comfy, so you'll need a more comfortable shoe like the TC Pro for mega missions in the mountains. The Katana is also a narrow shoe, so folks with wider feet should consider similar designs with roomier dimensions. One possibility would be the Scarpa Instinct Lace which has a lace closure and a similar downturn and toe shape, but a wider midsole and heel. Although there are arguably better shoes for high-end bouldering, for everything else, the Katana is ready to crush.
Read review: La Sportiva Katana
Best for Edging and Sensitivity
La Sportiva Genius
From the folks that first brought you downturned shoes, the La Sportiva Genius is the culmination of multiple advancements in climbing shoe technology. More than just the evolution of the No-Edge concept, the Genius borrows the best features from the La Sportiva arsenal for its next-generation design. The result is a shoe that can edge with support and precision while offering incredible sensitivity. The Genius performs well on technical granite with small edges and barely-there nubbins, but it is also downturned for steep climbing. Most shoes designed for steep climbing are soft and sensitive but are too soft for techy on-your-feet style pitches. The Genius excels at both.
Comfort is a weak spot. Although our feet still felt happy after a few pitches at the crag, we wouldn't want to climb long multi-pitches in these shoes. It can also take time to adjust your footwork to maximize the advantages of the No-Edge technology — "No-Edge" means that the shoes arrive from the factory with rounded edges on the rubber. This design positions your toes closer to the rock for better force application, but it's incompatible with ordinary edging techniques. Instead, it requires a subtle roll of the shoe to set the rounded rubber properly on small rock edges. Some of our testers grew frustrated while trying to perfect this technique, but those that persevered were thoroughly impressed with the performance benefits.
Read review: La Sportiva Genius
Best Shoe for Trad and Crack Climbing
La Sportiva TC Pro
America's top trad climber, Tommy Caldwell, helped design these high-top beasts that now bear his initials. But don't attribute the popularity of the TC Pro shoes to Tommy's celebrity, rather they owe their ubiquitous status at American trad meccas to their outstanding ability to slay cracks. They're particularly good at doing that all day long, for what would otherwise be pitch after painful pitch in an ordinary shoe. To achieve this, they're built on a stiff P3 midsole that provides excellent support for utilizing tiny edges and a sturdy platform for enduring relentless foot jams. These shoes are also able to supply this support without totally compromising their sensitivity.
Despite their ubiquity, however, the TC Pro really should be viewed as a specialized piece of equipment. Although they offer unmatched performance in cracks that are hand-sized and wider, their large toe box is less effective for thin splitters. The flat sole that keeps your foot in a comfortable relaxed position also limits their usefulness on overhanging terrain. Nevertheless, these drawbacks do little to detract from the TC Pro's overall awesomeness, and it's our top recommendation for long multi-pitch adventures or moderate crack cragging.
Read review: La Sportiva TC Pro
Best for Less Than Vertical Terrain
Black Diamond Aspect
Black Diamond made a splash with their entry into the climbing shoe scene a few years ago. Since then, their shoes have yet to gain the same level of popularity as their beloved Camalots, but one model that might eventually get there is the Aspect. With a stiff, neutral sole, it supplies a powerful edging platform that feels somewhat similar to our favorite trad shoe, the La Sportiva TC Pro. The Aspect also employs similar laces and padded leather to keep your feet from screaming during sustained crack jamming. With its low-top design, however, we were spared the usual complaints about Achilles pain that we frequently hear as a consequence of the high ankle protection of many trad shoes.
What sets the Aspect apart is the price. At full retail, it offers some savings compared to the premium models, and it's also not uncommon to find it on sale. Keep in mind, however, that you might have to accept some drawbacks to receive these savings. Our testers found it was surprisingly uncomfortable during the break-in period. It's also more of a specialty shoe, ideal for long romps on less-than-vertical stone, but poorly suited when things get steep.
Read review: Black Diamond Aspect
Best for Beginners and Tight Budgets
La Sportiva Tarantulace
If you're just starting out climbing, it's hard to beat the La Sportiva Tarantulalace. Few cheaper shoes provide the same level of quality and versatility. Meanwhile, more advanced shoes usually put your foot in a curled position that can be painful and unnecessary when you're beginning your climbing career. More advanced shoes also cost significantly more. We don't advise spending that extra dough until you've developed some footwork and can avoid wearing through your rubber too rapidly.
Although the Tarantulace doesn't have the impeccable design of the other award winners, it's comfortable and precise enough to serve as a good tool for improving your technique. Best of all, this shoe climbs well just about everywhere: the gym, cracks, boulders, and multi-pitch routes with an easy lacing system to help you dial in the fit.
Read review: La Sportiva Tarantulace
Best Bargain for Moderate Performance
La Sportiva Finale
Rock climbing shoes are one category of gear where performance closely corresponds to price. Bargain hunters rejoice, however, because the La Sportiva Finale is a fortunate exception to this rule. These affordable lace-ups come fitted with the same Vibram XS Edge rubber as the premium, top-rated Katana Lace. And there's also a whopping 5 millimeters of it to improve durability. We particularly like these shoes for beginners and casual climbers that are searching for some decent footwear that won't break the bank.
Although we like the performance of the Finale on less-than-vertical cliffs or moderate multi-pitch routes, they disappoint when the angle steepens. The neutral sole is certainly comfortable, but it's ill-suited for pulling your body in on overhanging terrain. At the same time, the thick rubber that enhances durability, unfortunately, compromises sensitivity. We consider these faults relatively minor, and we hope they won't serve as a deal-breaker for any shopper seeking acceptable performance at a great price.
Read review: La Sportiva Finale
Best for Wide Feet
The Butora Acro is a high performing, comfortable shoe that offers some modest savings compared to the ultra-premium models. Our testers loved the fit out-of-the-box, with many commenting that they felt similar to La Sportiva Solution. Butora's proprietary Neo Fuse rubber sticks to granite slabs and micro features with the best of them, and there is a generous helping of it slathered on the uppers, making toe hooking a breeze.
The only problem our testers found with the Acro is a little unwanted space in the heel. This shoe also isn't as sensitive as some of the softer shoes out there, but its stiff sole provides a powerful edging platform. In the wide fitting model, our testers could even climb cracks without pain, and we can't say that for many other aggressive shoes out there. All this at a price that still leaves a little dough leftover to gas up the car for a marathon drive to the Red River Gorge.
Read review: Butora Acro
Best for Narrow Feet
Designed in the limestone mecca of Spain, the Tenaya Tarifa is the master of technical terrain and a perfect balance of sensitivity and edging power. They are substantially narrower than most other models, and while our wider footed testers could appreciate their edging prowess and high-quality construction, wearing them on longer pitches brought on whining and discomfort.
These shoes have a high volume toe that's not great for crack climbing, especially if your foot is wide. Our slender footed testers fought over who got to wear the Tarifas and felt they were the raddest climbing footwear. So, if your feet are more like skis and less like flippers, pick up a pair, tie-in, and send.
Read review: Tenaya Tarifa
Why You Should Trust Us
Authors Matt Bento and Jack Cramer are devoted rock climbers who've spent the last decade pursuing the sport through a string of jobs and a habit of continuous travel. In real ways, performing this review is not outside the norm for their lifestyles, with the exception that they often carry a few extra pairs of rock climbing shoes to the crag. Matt and Jack are both former members of Yosemite Search and Rescue — the best high-angle rescue team on earth. Jack is also a National Outdoor Leadership School Alumnus who's established more than a dozen alpine first ascents.
Our testing took place on extended road trips across many of the most iconic climbing destinations of the American West. These shoes saw everything from steep, pocketed limestone near Lander, WY to the smooth granite cracks of Yosemite National Park. Rest assured that we've edged and smeared on rock that's something like your next destination or home crag. In addition to rock types, we've tested the shoes on a variety of foot shapes as well, intentionally selecting testers that represent the broad variety of human foot designs. This is in recognition of the fact that a great shoe for one climber might be unbearable to wear for another, purely based on fit.
Related: How We Tested Climbing Shoes
Analysis and Test Results
When it comes to rock climbing, there's a strong case that the single most important piece of gear goes on our feet. You can't place too much emphasis on having the right shoes because they're often the difference between sending and whipping. And the harder the climbing gets, the narrower this margin becomes. The manic devotion climbers develop toward a brand or model of shoe is arguably warranted — once you find a shoe that fits and functions for you, it's like the skies open up, and you can leave the performance plateau you've been stranded on. The longer you climb, the rarer it becomes to have one of these epiphanic moments. Progressing takes a lot of devotion, rigorous training, and time spent on the rock. Doing all that in shoes that make you miserable, or that underperform, will drain your psyche faster than any climbing story could restore it. The critical task is to find rock climbing shoes that fit and match them to your own goals.
Related: Buying Advice for Climbing Shoes
Our favorite shoes are the ones that have a good balance of strengths. Manufacturers seem to always be trying to design a shoe that can do it all, but the reality is that all design involves trade-offs, and different styles of climbing require different performance characteristics. Over the years, some of us have narrowed our shoe quiver down to 3 pairs. One for pure Indian Creek-style splitter cracks, another for hard sport climbing and bouldering, and a comfy third pair for all-day romps up long multi-pitch climbs. If popularity is any judge, TC Pros might come the closest to an all-around ideal, while others argue these high volume clunkers are insensitive and a terrible choice for anything overhanging. Some climbers will never climb a crack in their lives, wearing the cheapest shoe they can find, and spending all their time in the hollers of Kentucky paddling up steep jug hauls. We're envious of these climbers and their single-minded obsessions, but for the majority who share diverse palettes, one shoe will never be enough.
Rock climbing shoes offer a wide range of performance across a broad spectrum of prices. We've selected several premium models to receive awards for outstanding performance for different applications. Most of these top-rated models, however, come with top-shelf prices. These prices can be well worth the cost if the shoes are the difference between whipping again or clipping the chains on your project.
On the other hand, top-shelf prices are probably not worth it for climbers that have yet to experience the joy and anguish of a long-term project. We're talking about beginners or anyone who chooses to take a less obsessive approach to the sport. In the case of beginners, the process of developing precise footwork will quickly wear through the rubber of any shoe, regardless of the price. We, therefore, suggest that new climbers select a cheaper model, such as the La Sportiva, Tarantulace Evolv Defy, or La Sportiva Finale.
The ability to make use of tiny edges is paramount to climbing shoe performance. The more weight you can get on your feet, the less you will burden your throbbing forearms, and the more likely you are to send. Some of the top edgers are the La Sportiva Genius, La Sportiva Katana, and the slender Tenaya Tarifa. All of these models offer an excellent balance of support and sensitivity.
With its "No-Edge" technology, the Genius positions your toes even further into the front of the shoe, while supporting your forefoot with its Permanent Power Platform (P3), yet remaining flexible due to its soft mid-sole. The velcro and lace versions of the Scarpa Instinct, are also edging champs, but lack the sensitivity of the top contenders. Keep in mind that the best shoe for you is going to be the one that fits the best and provides the comfort and performance you deem necessary. For many of us, the Katana delivered just that. However, our wide-footed testers generally opted for the Instinct.
We evaluated each shoe's edging capability by climbing vertical routes at Wild Iris where the ability to stand on tiny edges and points is crucial. We paid particular attention to how difficult it was to stand on small holds and how well we could feel the holds under our feet. Stiffer shoes like the Scarpa Vapor V tended to be less sensitive but were more supportive on longer pitches while our testers unlocked techy edging sequences during 20-minute efforts or more. Soft slippers without a high tension rand like the Five Ten Moccasyms are the worst edgers unless you size them super tight. The super-sensitive Scarpa Drago are awesome on steep routes, but our testers feel they are way too soft for tiny edges unless you size them down considerably, sacrificing comfort.
An ideal shoe for crack climbing would be wide in the midsole, so your feet aren't crushed in hand cracks, but low volume in the toe so they can squeeze in narrower cracks from thin hands down to fingers. Tight or aggressive shoes can cause your toes to curl and make it harder to wiggle them into small cracks. Therefore, the ideal crack shoe would also be sized comfortably with a neutral sole to ensure the toes lay flat.
We tested crack climbing performance in Idaho's City of Rocks and Yosemite National Park, where cracks often vary in size throughout the same pitch. While crack climbing in each shoe, we took note of how much pain and fatigue we felt as we twisted and torqued our feet. Narrow shoes like the Tenaya Tarifa hurt the most, while wider shoes like the Scarpa Vapor V can help reduce foot pain from lateral compression. Beyond shoe width, softer shoes will usually hurt more than their stiffer counterparts. For example, the La Sportiva TC Pro and Five Ten Grandstone both have similar high-top designs, but our testers noticed less pain and foot fatigue with the stiffer TC Pro. When it comes to shoe closures, laces generally feel more comfortable and fare better on long crack climbs. Velcro straps, in contrast, can create uncomfortable pressure points in certain areas, and the buckles can come undone when moving your feet in or out of a crack.
Despite our desire to find the perfect crack shoe, we have yet to find one model that is ideal for all types of cracks. There is simply too much variation in cracks for one model to hope to excel at all sizes or rock types. For most people climbing moderate cracks (ie. 5.10 and under), we recommend a high-top design. Moderate cracks are generally wide and/or less-than-vertical. For these cracks, high-top shoes guard your ankles during any jams hand-size or wider, while their stiffness and flat soles enhance comfort and reduce foot fatigue. Our testers' favorite design in this style is the La Sportiva TC Pro, but there is plenty to like about similar models, such as the softer Five Ten Grandstone, the wider Scarpa Maestro Eco, or the burlier Butora Altura. High-tops shoes, however, can cause Achilles pain for some. If that's the case, we recommend the Black Diamond Aspect, which is a low-top, trad-oriented design that could also save you some money.
As the grades rise, some climbers swear by slipper style shoes like the Five Ten Moccasym, especially for thin cracks. If you size them up from their normal sizing to allow your toes to lay flat, you can create an extremely narrow toe profile that will let you cram extra rubber into slim openings. Our testers agree that the hard cracks of the future will likely be climbed in shoes that can squeeze into thinner (sub-0.75") cracks, but argue whether slipper designs can supply enough edging performance for all rock types. Hard granite cracks, for example, often involve difficult, bouldery cruxes where shoes also need to be able to utilize small edges or face holds. The La Sportiva Katana is perfectly equipped for this kind of test piece. The Katana is more supportive than a soft slipper in cracks, while the lace closure locks your foot in place.
The La Sportiva Skwama is another of our favorite crack climbing shoes because it's shaped perfectly for fitting in all sizes of cracks. The thin layer of rubber on the upper also offers a little extra protection for sore feet, and the single velcro closure remains out of the way while jamming your feet into cracks hand-sized and up. This shoe is ideal for Indian Creek or Zion, where the thin cracks on cutting edge free climbs are often too small to accept higher volume shoes like the La Sportiva TC Pro. Barbara Zangerl and Jacobo Larcher used the Skwamas to make the 3rd and 4th free ascents of Zodiac on El Cap - a further testament to the versatility of this shoe.
The Scarpa Instinct VS is a wide shoe and felt comfortable to our wide-footed lead tester in hand cracks, but the high volume toe doesn't fit well in smaller cracks. The Butora Acro isn't comfortable enough for all-day jamming at Indian Creek but performed well on single pitch granite cracks, where a low volume toe can fit into small pods and where you still need some edging power to take advantage of micro footholds outside the cracks. The sporty La Sportiva Solution can be a secret weapon for long finger cracks due to their pointy toe and excellent edging performance — it's Alex Honnold's choice for hard desert finger splitters. For demanding offwidths and chimneys, we prefer stiff, high-top shoes that provide extra ankle protection, such as the TC Pro or the Butora Altura.
A shoe's performance in pockets is influenced by the shape of the toe in both the vertical and horizontal direction, the angle of its downturn, along with other factors like edging performance, sensitivity, and stiffness. Our testers spent a month in Lander WY, home to Sinks Canyon and Wild Iris, two of the premier pocket crags in the US. Many of the climbs here feature only small pockets for hand and footholds.
The pointy-toed, narrow-fitting Tenaya Tarifa and the La Sportiva Solution came up as the top performers in this metric. When wearing the Tarifa, our testers were able to gain a little purchase, even in mono pockets. The Solution and its cousin, the Solution Comp, feature a distinctly downturned toe that improved traction on steep terrain. Meanwhile, the extended downturn on the forefoot of the Evolv Shaman came in handy for pulling on larger pockets to keep our bodies closer to the wall.
The Butora Acro and the Scarpa Instinct Lace come in slightly behind the top performers in this metric. The Acro lost some points because of its blunt toe shape, which doesn't fit into small pockets as well as the models with narrower toes. The lace-up Instincts are pointier in the toe than the Acro, but they don't edge on the lips of pockets as well. The La Sportiva Katana is no slouch when it comes to pockets and the La Sportiva Skwama, performed surprisingly well, despite its softness, because we could wiggle lots of rubber into shallow pockets. The Scarpa Vapor V fared poorly with pockets, due to its thick rubber and round toe shape. More symmetrically shaped, relaxed fitting shoes like the Five Ten Moccasyms are not the best choice for steep pocketed climbs.
A sensitive shoe allows you to feel the rock while you stand on a hold or smear, so you can press down and move upwards with more confidence. We tested shoes for sensitivity by lapping nearly featureless slabs in Tuolumne Meadows and scaling the gritty, technical granite of Pine Creek Canyon, CA. The most sensitive shoes tend to be the softest, but the top scorers also have some built-in support. Again, our favorite shoes are the ones that have a balance of strengths.
The Scarpa Drago, Chimera, and Veloce have a fit like a rubber sock that makes them slightly more sensitive than the "no-edge" La Sportiva Genius. We could feel every bump and dimple with these supple masterpieces, and on steep terrain, it felt like we could pull ourselves into the wall as if we had sticky rubber monkey hands on our feet. Unfortunately, these ultra-soft shoes are so soft that they don't perform as well as on vertical or low-angle cliffs stiffer shoes, like the La Sportiva Katana. The La Sportiva Genius, with its no-edge technology, is still one of the most sensitive shoes we tested. The no-edge concept puts less rubber between your toe and the rock, allowing you, in theory, to feel and stand on smaller edges or ripples. These shoes took some getting used to. Initially, our testers missed the crisp edge they've come to expect in a brand new shoe. After a handful of pitches, however, we got used to our toes being farther forward in the shoe and could take advantage of the Genius' unique sensitivity and edging power combination.
The Tenaya Tarifa is also particularly sensitive, with soft Vibram XS Grip rubber and a bi-tension rand system that offers a surprising amount of support for such a soft shoe. The La Sportiva Katana isn't a slouch either when it comes to sensitivity, but less so than the Tarifa or the Genius. The softer La Sportiva Skwama is also a sensitive shoe, but it doesn't edge quite as well as the Genius or the Katana.
Despite being relatively stiff, the Butora Acro proved to be a surprisingly sensitive shoe, and our testers appreciated them on the delicate crystals of the Buttermilks boulders. Stiff shoes with thicker rubber, like the Evolv Shaman, scored lower in this metric. Although the Shamans are excellent for steep climbing, it's difficult to feel small footholds with 4.2 mm of rubber between you and the rock. Both the Scarpa Instinct VS and the Scarpa Vapor V fail to match the out-the-box sensitivity levels of the top-rated models, but after a more extended break-in and adjustment period, they soften up, and their techy climbing performance improves.
The comfort of your climbing shoe typically depends on a few things: the shape of your foot, the size of the shoe, and the shoe's upper material. Generally speaking, the tighter your shoe, the better it will perform. However, tight shoes are usually painful, so any climber without an infinite pain tolerance will be forced to balance comfort and performance in their shoe sizing. Fortunately, modern designers have been shifting the paradigm and creating shoes that perform well while fitting properly to minimize pain. "Love bumps", "reverse bi-tension rands", "P3 Platforms", and "S-heels" may sound like a list of fancy terms invented to sell more shoes, but they actually represent a significant leap forward in climbing shoe design.
Comfort is pretty subjective, and everyone's foot is unique. The Tenaya Tarifa, for example, feels like a torture device to our broad-footed testers, but it climbs like a dream for our testers with narrow feet. Comfort can be evaluated somewhat objectively, however, by considering the downturn angle of a shoe — flat shoes are generally more comfortable during a big day than an aggressive downturned shoe that forces your foot into a curled position. We tested comfort by assessing rubbing and pressure in problem spots like the back of the heel and the toes. Additionally, we noted how the shoe feels after a reasonable break-in period of ten to fifteen pitches.
Leather slipper style shoes score great for comfort. The Five Ten Moccasyms feature a flat sole in a model made from stretchable leather with a relaxed fit. Together these features achieve considerable comfort but the design undermines edging performance too much for many of our testers. The soft Scarpa Dragos are covered in rubber and ready for miles of steep limestone, ensuring that your forearms will succumb to soreness long before your feet.
The Scarpa Vapor V comes in behind some of the top shoes when it comes to comfort. It has a medium-full fit and only the slightest downturn, leaving the foot in a comfortable, neutral position. It loses a point because the velcro buckles hurt some testers' feet in hand cracks. The Butora Acro also has a wide fit, and the elastic on the upper part of the shoe is looser than the Instinct VS or the Skwamas, making it a comfortable option for sport climbers with wide, high-volume feet.
Sizing climbing shoes can be a nightmare. Some companies intentionally calibrate a performance climbing fit to correspond with normal street shoe sizes, so they run very small. Others run true to size, and climbers have to select a size or two smaller since their comfortable street shoe size would be too loose for a performance climbing shoe. Still other manufacturers seem to vary their sizing from model to model, making buying shoes online a maddening task. Here is our subjective and hotly debated brand-sizing summary:La Sportiva runs true to size, so you'll want to size down up to 1.5 sizes from your street shoe. Scarpa shoes are sized a little smaller than Sportiva — we found ourselves sizing down just a half size from our street shoes. Tenaya shoes run small and are especially narrow. We suggest starting with half a size down from your street shoe. Buturas run smaller still so we recommend buying your street shoe size. If you wear a 10 in your street shoes, you'll want a size 10 in Butoras. Good luck with Evolv's sizing, our lead tester had to go up a whole size just to get his feet into a pair of Evolv Oracles, while the Shamans fit his street shoe size. Five Ten seems to change their sizing a lot. If you're looking for a pair of Moccasyms, you'll likely want to size down two whole sizes. For the Grandstones, in contrast, try your street shoe size.
The selection of our award winners comes with a disclaimer: product reviews are inherently subjective, and rock climbing shoe reviews are particularly so. Our assessment of each shoe is largely contingent on the shape of our testers' feet, what type of rock we climbed, and how tight we sized them. Our wide-footed testers had few good things to say about the Tenaya Tarifa, while their narrow footed colleagues had nothing but praise. However, we meticulously researched these shoes and tried to talk to as many industry professionals as possible to get informed opinions about design and construction. There are a bunch of great shoes out there, and in an ever-expanding market, more are appearing each year. We hope we've helped you find the perfect pair, no matter your climbing goals.
— Matt Bento and Jack Cramer