When you climb, only your hands and feet come into contact with the rock – your hands are excellent at changing shape to fit different holds, and with the right climbing shoes, your feet will be able to as well.
Rock climbing shoes are incredibly specialized pieces of equipment. Whether you’re climbing boulder problems, sport routes or never-ending cracks, you can find a shoe engineered for the task. With the vast variety of models filling shelves at climbing shops, it can be tough to decide what you need.
Here is the best way to choose the right climbing shoes for the job.
Find The Right Fit
The ballerina-like footwear used in this sport is notoriously uncomfortable. Although that has changed in recent years, as companies improve designs, there is ample reason for the climbing shoes standard form: to work well, climbing shoes need to hug your feet and squeeze your toes together to maximize power on small holds.
To find the right fit, keep a couple things in mind. The shoes should be snug, but not tight. If it takes all your strength just to slip one on, try a bigger size. Don’t go too big, however, as the shoes will stretch. For bouldering and sport climbing, your toes should be bent, not curled, inside the toe box. For crack climbing, your toes should be flat so you can slide them into cracks. Find a shoe that feels like it was made for your foot, but not something that causes discomfort after only a few moments. When you’re trying them on, don’t think about actual shoe sizes – try on various climbing shoes and make decisions based on fit and feeling.
In this video, notice the severely downturned toes on boulder Dave Graham’s shoes.
The downturned toe on a bouldering shoe offers unparalleled traction on steep rocks and small holds. They’re shaped like eagle talons because they need to be: you want the shoe to claw into tiny edges and in-cuts.
Most modern bouldering shoes also have a piece of rubber covering the top of the toes. A development that arose because climbers were increasingly doing “toe scums,” a move where you drag your toe or press it against the rock for extra grip. Bouldering shoes must also have well-constructed heels for heel hooking. The last thing you want during a hard move is for your heel to pop out of your shoe (fit is everything!). Some designers create ridges or bumps on the heel for extra friction, a feature that is not as important as having a properly fitting shoe.
Understand that even a well-made, relatively comfortable bouldering shoe will be uncomfortable if worn for long periods of time. They are meant to be worn only while climbing, not sitting or walking around your problem. For this reason, a lot of bouldering shoes are slip-ons.
Sport Climbing Shoes
Sport climbing shoes are engineered to work well on moderately overhanging rock, and are made to be comfortable enough that you can wear them for longer than a few minutes, if need be. Sometimes, you might spend 45 minutes or an hour figuring out the moves on a long pitch. You want a shoe that doesn’t distract from that process or take away from the enjoyment. For this reason, they are a bit more comfortable than your average bouldering shoe. Most designs stress versatility on a range of rock types, from dead vertical with flat edges to mildly overhanging with small pockets. Take a careful look at the toe – some designs have a pointy toe box, made to slip into small cavities, while others have a slightly wider, stubbier look for flat edges. You can choose one design or the other depending on the type of rock you will be climbing, or find something that blends both styles.
For crack climbing, soloist Dean Potter chooses a shoe with a slim profile that fits nicely into thin crevices.
If you’ll be encountering cracks on your climb, look for shoes with a slim profile to easily slide into narrow crevices. Some shoes boast a thin profile for cracks, but a technical toe for face climbing – a combination that is highly valuable on the granite of Yosemite. In fact, most granite climbing areas will demand a shoe that is at home on cracks, but scrunches your toes somewhat to readily transition to faces. If, however, you’re climbing pure cracks, like on the Martian-red sandstone of Southern Utah, you’ll want something ultra-thin to slide deep inside cracks. Each design sacrifices some performance on one type of rock, so consider your climbing destination.
The length of the route is a huge indicator of which climbing shoe is the best pick. All-day climbs demand comfortable footwear – shoes designed for this type of endeavor leave your toes flat as a pancake, and most possess a molded sole, much like a normal sneaker. These shoes have other features of street shoes, too, like slightly padded tongues and more rigidity than you find in a high performance rock shoe. All of these features support the foot.