How To Break in Climbing Shoes – Stretching and Expanding

As excited as I am to get a new pair of climbing shoes, I absolutely hate breaking them in. I’ve done plenty of research on how to break in climbing shoes, and I’ve tried plenty of different methods.

Most people use a variation on a few different methods, but because of the fit of climbing shoes, they tend to be tight and often downright painful at first. To some extent this is normal and part of acquiring a new pair of shoes.

In this article, I’ll walk you through some common methods to help lessen the break-in period and give you a better idea of what to expect when breaking in a new shoe!

How To Break in Climbing Shoes

Most shoes require a break-in period of some sort, especially shoes that are used for sports. Climbing shoes are notorious for a rather painful break-in period. Because you want a snug fit often you buy a pair of shoes that are slightly too small, knowing they will stretch.

There are three main methods used to help accelerate the break-in period. The first is by using heat from a shower or a blow dryer, by freezing them, or by simply wearing socks with the climbing shoes.

Let’s look at each of these methods in more detail and cover the good and bad of each!

Expose them to Heat

You know you’re a climber when you can tell a story about showering with your climbing shoes on. This is the last method I tried when learning how to break in climbing shoes, but it’s the one I’ve stuck with.

To do this remove all the packaging and stickers and lace or velcro your shoes snuggly, but not super tight. Jump in the shower and agitate your shoes in the water (make sure you keep them in the hot water).

I found that about five to ten minutes of wiggling my toes, doing calf raises, and simply wearing the shoes in the shower is enough.

After you get out of the shower walk around for about a half-hour in your shoes before taking them off. Many shoes will bleed color dyes so make sure you have a hardwood floor, tile, or some other surface that will not stain when you do this.

Overnight put some newspaper in the shoes to help them dry out, and if you can get a quick climbing session (or general movement if no climbing wall is convenient) in before they are fully dry.

In my experience, this is the fastest way to stretch your climbing shoes but you will likely have to do it a few times before you get the perfect fit. I wouldn’t recommend this method if you’ve bought a shoe that you feel might be just barely too small as this method may work too well.

The other heat exposure method is to use a blow dryer. Stuff your shoes with newspaper or socks and use a blow dryer to heat the uppers for a few minutes, this will start stretching them. Flex and move the shoe around and then add more fabric to the inside and repeat a few times.

I’ve only tried this method once. I did this for almost a half-hour one night and didn’t like my results so I ended up freezing the shoes to continue the break-in process. That being said, I have several friends who swear by doing it this way. It’s also one of the easier methods to try out.

Freeze Your Shoes

I’ve actually been asked why I had climbing shoes in my freezer before. True story. As odd as showering with your shoes on might sound, freezing them can sound even weirder, but it works.

Take a few soft ice packs or ziplock bags filled with water and stuff them in your shoes. Lace-up or velcro your shoes around the bags loosly to make sure the bags stay put, then toss them in the freezer overnight.

The water in the bags will expand and help stretch out your shoes. Once the shoes have thawed you can try on your shoes and repeat if necessary. This method often takes two to five freezes, so give yourself a good week to get this done.

It might be the most precise method though. Because you only get small stretches each freeze you can really precise final fit doing it this way.

Wear Socks With Them

While there are always people saying you should/shouldn’t climb with socks on. We aren’t going to argue on this point, but we will wear socks when we are breaking into new climbing shoes.

I will often actually wear a nice thick pair of hiking or snowboarding socks while climbing in a new pair of shoes. The thicker the better when breaking in shoes this way.

While you can start climbing day one using this method, I will say this is probably the fastest, least comfortable, and most painful way to do it. I will often use the shower method and then this method to finish breaking in a new pair of shoes.

How Long Does it Take to Break In Climbing Shoes?

On average, climbing shoes will start to feel more comfortable after three to five climbing sessions. If you use a freeze or shower method to start the break-in process, it could be even quicker than that.

The material will also make a difference. Leather climbing shoes will conform and change shape much quicker than synthetic materials or hybrids. Synthetics have a lot of benefits, but breaking in quickly is not one of them!

Do Climbing Shoes Expand?

Climbing shoes will expand. stretch, and change shape to match your foot as you break them in. In the first few weeks, you’ll notice a shoe is often very stiff, but over the first month, it will become much more flexible.

Leather will break in quicker and have a more lasting shape change than a hybrid material, and many synthetic upper materials will hold their shape for months if treated right. Footwear is very individual between different climbers, and as you go through a few pairs you’ll find which materials suit you best.

Can You Soften the Rubber on Climbing Shoes?

You can revitalize and soften the rubber on the bottom of a climbing shoe by gently rubbing a wire brush over the soles of your shoes. Normal wear and tear will leave a harder crust-like material on the bottom of your climbing shoes. This will build up from materials on the wall or rock, and even while they are sitting in your closet. The older the shoe, the more susceptible to this they will be.

Every few weeks it can be helpful to take a wire brush and gently brush down the soles of your shoes. This will help to clear away the crust and expose good, soft rubber underneath. Just don’t brush too aggressively as you can shorten the life of your soles that way.

Storage is important as well, I have soft-sided storage bags for my shoes that I will put them in after climbing. This helps to keep the rubber clean and protected from excess buildup. This type of storage will also delay needing to resole your climbing shoes longer.

The Final Pitch

It can be a long and rather painful process, but climbing shoes will break in just fine with a little time and effort. As long as you keep in mind a few of the methods I wrote about today and follow them, it’ll be okay!”

Also, keep in mind there is no one right way on how to break in climbing shoes. I know plenty of people who have their own methods, or combinations of methods. Experiment to find what you like best and stick with it!

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Growing up in Fresno, CA, Yosemite has always called to Robert. From camping trips as a kid, he quickly became a regular to the parks granite walls.

His favorite, and most difficult climb to date is Serenity Crack at the Royal Arches in Yosemite, rated a 5.10d. Robby spends most of his time bouldering these days, and loves the Camp 4 Boulder area.