Other than the rope and harness, shoes might be the most important piece of gear a climber has. Because of it’s importance, it’s vital you know how to choose climbing shoes that fit, will perform, and match the style of climbing you prefer!
Asking for a new pair of shoes to be your “ideal climbing shoe” is like asking for the best performing engine in a car… your not going to get a V8! To get the most out of your shoes, you need to understand how they work.
Because they’re designed to perform, there’s important features you want to look for in climbing shoes. So, let’s begin with understanding the different parts and climbing shoe features that are important to it’s performance!
Parts of a Climbing Shoe
There are three types of closures on climbing shoes, Lace-up, strap, and slip on.
Lace-up – Just like a regular shoe, the lace-up climbing shoes are versatile and allow you to adjust the fit to a degree. The downside is it takes time and patience to put on and remove the shoe. With that being said, it’s a great choice for those who want something relaxed for walking that can be tightened down and more fitted while climbing.
Strap – These are the compromise between lace-ups and slip ons. They are easier and quicker to get on than a lace-up, but can be tightened down and fit more snug then a slip on shoe.
Slip-on – With their elastic closure system, they’re easy to get on and off, however they may not provide the best fit as a lace-up or strap closure shoe. Many prefer these for bouldering or indoor climbing, and often we recommend them to beginners. Slippers don’t have a stiff sole or midsole, so they help a new climber strengthen their feet.
The upper material of the shoe has more to do with the performance of a shoe than you’d expect. The material used here can effect the shoe’s durability, stretch and breathability as well as overall fit.
Unlined Leather – After being broken in unlined leather uppers are like having a custom molded shoe on your foot. The problem is the breaking in part. These shoes can stretch up to a full size, so it’s best to buy it slightly smaller than your regular shoe size. This is also the most weather and water resistant material used in climbing shoes.
Lined Leather – Lined leather shoes limit the stretching of a climbing shoe. This helps a shoe last longer and reduce water and weather damage. The fit is much like unlined leather, but the material is stiffer and less breathable.
Synthetic – Synthetic materials are lightweight, breathable and durable. The downside is they can become slippery in wet weather. Synthetic shoes stretch significantly less than leather shoes, but will still require some breaking in before they are comfortable. Synthetics tend to not breath as well as leather shoes do, so the also are notorious for stinking!
Many companies are starting to try to combine, or mix the materials on the upper of a shoe to get stretch in the toe box and not in the upper foot, or add anti-microbial treatments to synthetics to help fight the odor buildup.
Climbing shoes outsoles are the rubber part of the shoe. Even here though, you’ll find a lot of differences in the shoe.
While all climbing shoes use rubber outsoles, the type and compound varies greatly. Harder rubbers are going to last longer while softer rubbers are stickier, meaning better grip on the rock.
Many shoes will use either the Vibram XS Edge or the XS Grip 2. Both of these are tried and tested and great options for a beginner to start with.
Sole thickness is important as it effects the durability, stiffness, and feel of the rock in a shoe.
Most beginners will want a thicker sole. Not only will this shoe last longer, but the rock will feel better and your foot won’t slip out from under you like it could with a thinner sole.
The thicker the sole, the more durable it is. A thicker sole also tends to make a shoe stiffer. The trade off of course is that sometimes the stiffness may make it harder to move your feet in certain directions or make your foot feel like they’re stuck in place.
For this reason, advanced climbers tend to look for a sole around 3mm in thickness. This gives them the ability to “feel” the wall under their feet and perform at the highest level possible.
The type of midsole a climbing shoe has plays a significant role in how stiff a shoe will be. The three types are Full Sole, Partial Split sole, and Split Sole.
The Full sole – is the stiffest platform for a shoe and usually reserved for climbing shoes designed for overhangs and big walls.
Partial Split sole – These shoes are great all around performers with stiffer toe areas and a softer heel and mid-foot. This gives the climber a stiff toe without being too restrictive, or a soft and flexible heel without being mushy or unstable.
Split Sole – Split sole shoes are the most dynamic of all climbing shoe midsoles. With the ability to “feel” the rock, these shoes require little breaking in and are great for advanced climbers who perform better when they have a “barefoot” feel when on the wall.
The Rand of a shoe wraps around the outside of the shoe, extending the rubber from the sole to meet with the upper.
The Rand serves two purposes, The first is to add structure to the shoe , making it nicer to stand in or hang on to when not performing a technical move. The second is added rubber for grip, making more of the shoe useful for gripping the rock.
The rand can take a lot of abuse and still perform well, making it one of the more important features of the shoe for many climbers.
Climbing Shoe Last
The “last” of a climbing shoe refers to the mold that is used when the shoe is built. This gives a shoe features like instep height, volume, heel and toe space, and width.
The most common last is a slip-last, but you will also find broad lasted shoes. Slip-lasted shoes are flexible and responsive, getting their stiffness almost completely from the midsole. Broad-lasted shoes are stiffer and focus more on supporting the foot for high-end performance.
Climbing Shoe Shape
The shape of a climbing shoe is determined by both the midsole and upper. The shoe will have either a downturned toe box, for crack climbing and overhanging walls, or a flat “pinky toed” shape, better for performing vertical movements and edging on small footholds.
The last shape is an asymmetric one. An Asymmetric last is used for more aggressive shoe shapes and allow a long big toe point to increase the power on the inner edge of a shoe.
Climbing Shoe Type
Now that you know the different parts of a shoe and how they effect performance, it’s time to talk about the different types of shoes. Rock climbing shoes fall into one of three categories, neutral, moderate, or aggressive.
Our first climbing shoe type is neutral. These shoes allow the toes to sit flat and provide a fairly comfortable fit. Beginners enjoy these shoes because of the ease of use and the ability to wear them all day without a lot of foot fatigue.
Most neutral shoes will also provide a medium to stiff midsole and thick bottoms, making them a perfect choice for a first climbing shoe.
The next type is moderate. These shoes sit slightly higher on the foot, with the toes slightly pointed. This pointed shape is also referred to as a downturn shape. This makes for a better performance during vertical climbing, but you still retain comfort for long wears.
You’ll normally find these shoes to be equipped with a softer rubber than a neutral shoe, yet stiffer than aggressive ones.
Moderate shoes, as the name would suggest, is the jack of all trades type of climbing shoe. They are suitable for all climbing styles and will perform well for both beginner and advanced climbers alike.
Our final type of shoe, aggressive, is based on a downturn shape with the toes pointed and close together. This allows the shoes to be stiffer than moderate shoes and stand up to very challenging routes.
Aggressive shoes normally have an asymmetric shape (like bouldering shoes) and are made for the pinnacle of performance in the world of rock climbing.
We really don’t recommend aggressive shoes for beginners. They use thin soles with soft rubber that will wear quickly, and if you are not already acclimated to the fit of a climbing shoe these can be downright uncomfortable to wear. That being said, if performance is what you’re after, and aggressive type shoe is where you’ll find it!
Fitting tips for Climbing Shoes
Fit is even more important in a climbing shoe that in other sports or for casual wear because so much depends on foot placement while climbing. A poor fitting shoe will make it extremely difficult to climb any moderately challenging problem.
Try Them On
We have a ton of buying guides on this site for climbing shoes where we select the best options for you, but we always recommend trying a shoe on before buying. A climbing store should have a show wall where you can try on different styles of your size and narrow it down.
Don’t Go Off Of Your Shoe Size
If you wear a 9 in one brand of running shoe, chances are you’ll be a 9 in most other brands too. Not so in rock climbing. Sizes vary greatly depending on the shape, style, brand and type of a climbing shoe.
Many climbers wear a size or two smaller than street shoes for performance reasons. Also, remember that a rock shoe will feel tighter than street shoes and will stretch quite a bit depending on material.
Shop in the Afternoon
Your feet swell during the day as you walk, so we recommend trying on your shoes in the afternoon to get the most accurate fit. This will also help find a shoe that will fit perfectly after the break in period.
Know What Type Shoe You Want
Go into a store knowing that you want either a neutral, moderate or aggressive shoe. Or at least rule one of the three options out. For beginners, we recommend sticking with the neutral or moderate options.
Also take into account things like sole thickness, last, rand, upper material, and closures. The more specific you can be with what you want, the better you’ll be able to narrow down your options!
The Final Pitch
You should now have a good idea of how to choose climbing shoes for your next climbing session. As mentioned earlier, we recommend using a combination of reviews, careful consideration and trying on shoes to find the perfect fit.
We hope this article has helped you feel confident in selecting the right style of shoe for your next climbing adventure!