How To Buy Climbing Shoes

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.