Selecting the best shoe for your foot and for your climbing interests can be a challenge. We take the guesswork out of the process.
By Joseph Legotte
A 12-foot fall while bouldering, trusting a friend to belay you for the first time, or hanging 20 pitches off the ground on El Cap are all scary elements of climbing, but perhaps the most daunting task of all is selecting and buying a pair of shoes! There seem to be endless options considering how niche the sport still is. Sure, we might not have quite the selection as, say, basketball shoes or baseball cleats, but standing in front of the shoe display at your local gym or outfitter is dizzying, especially if you’re new to the sport.
Lucky for us, manufacturers build climbing shoes with consistent foundational elements that allow anyone to meet the sport’s demands. Once you learn about these details, you’ll be able to make an informed decision on which shoes are best for your climbing needs.
The first thing to note about selecting a climbing shoe is that everyone’s foot is unique. This, alongside the fact that every climbing shoe company uses different lasts—or molds—for their shoes, can make finding the perfect fit a quest. Some companies even use different lasts among their various shoe models.
For example, you’ll find shoes with wide or narrow toe boxes, higher- or lower-volume heel cups, and different degrees of symmetrical to asymmetrical shapes. These factors all dictate how well your foot fits in the shoe.
I cannot stress enough that there is a shoe out there for everyone based on fit.
The most common misconception for the fit of climbing shoes involves tightness. I’m sure almost everyone that enters the climbing realm is told by friends it’s imperative shoes fit as tight as possible. This may work for some people, but for your first pair of shoes, tightness is the last thing to worry about.
If your shoes are so tight and uncomfortable that they reduce your desire to visit the gym, something is wrong.
There may come a point in your climbing career when tightness is a factor that matters to you, but I’ve witnessed plenty of climbers send double-digit boulder problems and 5.13s in loose-fitting, flat shoes. Remember, shoes can incrementally help push our climbing ability, but they are not a substitute or quick-fix for sending harder.
For how tight your shoes should fit, prepare for initial slight discomfort that will diminish as they form to your feet and stretch.
Climbing shoes are constructed with either synthetic materials or leather in the uppers; this will determine how much they stretch. Leather can stretch up to a full size, and anyone who has worn a pair of La Sportiva Mythos has been witness to such. Synthetic materials on the other hand have very little stretch over the lifetime of the shoe, so can you mostly expect the same fit from when you purchase them to when they are retired.
Another important factor to consider is the rubber. Each company uses a variety of different rubbers; they all perform on a similar foundational level, but people have preferences.
The rubber’s thickness, type, and where it is on the shoe are all important elements to consider.
Companies like La Sportiva and Scarpa—both Italian shoemakers—use Vibram rubber on their shoes. You will see Vibram XS Edge and XS Grip 2, which have varying rubber compositions.
XS Edge is their firmest rubber, pretty insensitive, and ideal for shoes like the TC Pro that are meant for lots of traffic on big granite walls like El Cap, where both technical edging and smearing are required. A firmer rubber can be expected to last longer, and is oftentimes ideal for frequent climbers like me who don’t want to blow through a pair of shoes every three months.
A rubber compound like the XS Grip 2 and Five Ten’s Stealth Rubber is softer and contacts the rock in a different way. They are more sensitive and allow the climber to feel precisely what their feet are contacting on the rock. To achieve this level of sensitivity, these rubbers are sometimes applied one half millimeter thinner, which can equate to quicker wear time if the climber is not gentle and precise with their footwork.
One last important thing to know about rubber is that some companies will use their own compound on their lower-end shoes instead of the more expensive Vibram, so be wary of that.
It’s also important to consider is the shape of the shoe. The next time you’re at the gym, take a look around and you will notice that everyone is wearing different variations of the same shoe concept. Some climbers have flat shoes that don’t look too odd or out of place, while others have shoved their feet into shoes that camber their toes downward and arch the foot drastically. The reason for these differences is that we climb on all sorts of terrain and some shoes are more effective at tackling certain types of terrain than others.
For example, there are shoes that perform best on slab that might not provide the climber similar advantages in a cave or roof, and vice versa. Put simply, flat shoes are typically great for comfort, tend to do well on slab and vertical terrain, and excel in smearing and edging. Examples of these shoes are the La Sportiva Mythos and TC Pro, and the Five Ten Anasazi and Moccasyms.
A mid-level downturned shoe is oftentimes referred to as a quiver shoe; they perform well on all terrains, but perhaps don’t excel in any one category. A great example of these shoes are the La Sportiva Katana, the Scarpa Instinct, and the La Sportiva Miura.
Highly downturned and asymmetrical shoes are fantastic for steep terrain, caves and roofs where technical heel hooking, toe hooking, and generating core tension through smaller roof holds is required. Shoes in this category are the Five Ten Hiangle, the Scarpa Drago, and the Butora Acro.
To determine the right shape for you, take into consideration the type of climbing you’ll engage in mostly and work from there. If you’ve climbed long enough like me, you’ll probably have at least a dozen pairs to choose from, so you can just grab what you need for whatever the day’s terrain may require: the gym, a long easy sandstone route, a technical granite route, an overhung limestone route with pockets, or a bullet basalt route with small knobs.
We’re lucky to have dedicated people in the climbing shoe world, like Heinz Mariacher, the design pioneer of not only the best shoes to ever come out, but the modern climbing shoe itself. He still climbs and builds products for all of our needs.
Every shoe out there will fit someone well, but not every shoe will work for your foot’s specific needs.
Take time to select a shoe and do not be discouraged if it takes a few tries to find the perfect match because once you find the shoe for you, it’s as easy as reordering it in your size. Also, all of these companies have great online resources that offer more info about rubber compounds, shape, materials, tension randing and everything you could imagine that goes into the making of a climbing shoe should you want to do more research.
Experts in your gym’s pro shop can also help point you in the right direction.
The last thing to remember is that the right shoe is only a tool to showcase your technical abilities as a climber. Though a shoe will stay on during a heinous heel hook where another may not, do not expect a simple shoe change to drastically impact your climbing! Keep working hard, training, having fun, and crushing.