When climbers traded in their hobnail boots for sticky rubber, the entire universe opened up. This shift could easily be noted as the most important technological advancement in climbing history. Today, these specialized shoes have come a long way from the original styles, and help mere mortals climb more like Spider Man. With a slew of specialized designs for any climbing application, this guide should help to get you started on the right track.
Climbing shoe rubber: Rubber is now being made exclusively for climbing shoes, with some manufacturers using as many as 5 or six different formulations for different uses. Hard rubbers excel at edging but aren’t as sticky for smearing or cold weather. Soft rubbers are very sticky but can roll on small edges, and they wear out faster. For this reason, even with all the differentiation, most companies are making rubber within a small range of hardness, elasticity, and strength. What matters more is the thickness of the rubber on the bottom of your shoe. Thin soles are sensitive but short-lasting, while thick soles need time to break in and thin out, but last a long time. For extremely hard projects, a thin sole can be a great choice, whereas for gym beater shoes or beginner shoes, a thick sole is easier on the wallet.
Upper material: Climbing shoe uppers are generally made out of either a synthetic or leather and are available both lined and unlined. Some shoes use a combination of leather and synthetic, or natural and man-made materials for the benefits of both.
Leather: Leather is a great material for making a climbing shoe upper, as it is breathable, strong, odor-resistant, and will stretch and conform to your feet. For absolute comfort, unlined leather will break in exactly to your foot. However, leather will continue to stretch, so if you’re looking for performance, a non-stretching liner material must be used. Unlined leather can stretch as much as a size or a size and a half, which you must consider when purchasing shoes. Lined leather usually will stretch at most a half size, and if sufficiently reinforced may not stretch at all.
Synthetic uppers: Synthetics are used when a company wants to limit the stretch of their footwear, either to maintain performance or to protect the integrity of the fit throughout its lifespan. Synthetic uppers are easy to wash (throw them in the washing machine), but are often not as breathable, and can retain odors. Generally speaking, most synthetics won’t stretch much at all, but some specific materials like Lorica do allow for some stretch.
Closure Type: Rock shoes are made as slippers, with Velcro straps, or with laces. There are personal preferences for each, but also some specific advantages.
Slippers: Slippers rely on elastic bands to hold your foot in place. They are usually mated to a thin midsole or have no midsole at all, and tend to feel minimalist and sensitive on your feet. Slippers are great for training as well as for people who like minimalist shoes. They tend to work very well on slab routes and thin cracks if they’re not radically downturned, and are usually easy to slip on and off. There can be some drawbacks, however. An unlined leather slipper will stretch considerably, so they can feel a bit painful at first if you accomodate for stretch. They can’t be tightened, so if you have low volume or skinny feet, they may never offer enough support. And in some cases, fitting them tight enough means they’re hard to get on. Depending on fit, they may not heel-hook very well.
Velcro shoes: Velcro shoes are a popular closure system because they allow for a decent amount of support and range of fit, and are the easiest to put on and take off. However, Velcro shoes don’t allow for toe adjustment, so they can be problematic for narrow feet. They also may not work for people who have exceptionally wide or high volume feet, as the Velcro may not stay closed. The biggest complaint about Velcro shoes tends to be that they endure lots of wear and tear or get in the way when used them in cracks.
Lace-up: Lace-up shoes offer the widest range of fit and the most amount of support, but they are also the slowest on and off your feet, and a broken lace means going home early.
Last types: The “last” of a shoe is the mold around which you shape the shoe. It plays an incredibly important role in performance. While there are huge variations across rock shoes, it’s possible to make some generic categorizations about the shapes of different shoes. There are exceptions to each of these and some might argue about the categories, but for the most part, these distinctions are useful guidelines.
For the sake of definition, flat-lasted means the shoe lays flat on the ground across the entirety of the sole. Cambered means the shoe is bent downwards at the middle of the foot, and the center of the shoe raises up off the ground. Downturned forefoot means the whole forefoot curls down, but not necessarily the rest of the shoe. Symmetrical refers to the shoe being fairly rounded in the toe, with the tip of the shoe being closer to the second toe than the big toe. Asymmetrical means the shoe is longest at the big toe or somewhat pointy.
Flat lasted, symmetrical: Designed for ultimate comfort and for the widest range of feet. Great for beginners indoors and out, and great for easy to moderate traditional climbs. Fit tight, these can offer decent performance on moderate routes. They fit folks with Morton’s toe (second toe is longer than the big toe) easily. Examples: Evolv Royale, LaSportiva Mythos.
Flat lasted, asymmetrical: A very versatile design, time-tested and popular for performance all-around footwear. Can be fit and designed for comfort or for extreme edging. Best for vertical or less than vertical routes and is also great for cracks. Examples: Five Ten Anasazi, Evolv Pontas.
Dowturned forefoot, symmetrical: A lightly aggressive shoe for steeper sport climbs, but still versatile enough for cracks. Reduced edging means power sacrificed for better toe hooking and pulling. Not great for slabs. Good for bouldering and indoor climbing. Fits Morton’s toe well. Examples: Mad Rock Demon
Downturned forefoot, asymmetrical: A lightly aggressive shoe for hard traditional climbs, and sport. Not great for slabs. Great for cracks. Another very versatile last for harder climbs. Usually offers excellent edging for steeper routes. Examples: La Sportiva Miura, Evolv Geshido
Cambered, symmetrical: Moderately aggressive shoe with steep routes in mind. Good for bouldering, sport climbing, and indoor climbing but not great for slabs, and often loses a bit of edging capability as trade-off for better steep climbing ability. Fit’s Morton’s toe well. Examples: Evolv Prime, Anasazi Arrowhead.
Cambered, asymmetrical: Moderately aggressive shoe with steep routes in mind, specifically pockets. Better edging sometimes than the symmetrical variety, but similar performance otherwise. Great for bouldering, sport climbing, and indoor climbing. Examples: Evolv Talon, LaSportiva Miura VS
Downturned forefoot, cambered, asymmetrical: The most aggressive design for exceptionally steep and difficult routes. Designed primarily for face climbing rather than cracks. Excels at steep sport and bouldering and exceptionally hard traditional climbs. Examples: SCARPA Boostic, Evolv Shaman, LaSportiva Solution. Some models fit Morton’s toe better than others.
Fit: When shopping climbing shoes online, always be sure to check the manufacturer guidelines for best fit. With European shoes the general rule is to expect to downsize as much as 2 full sizes from your street shoes. With American shoes, you’ll probably fit within a half size of your street shoe size.