Rock climbing shoes are one of the most important pieces of rock climbing gear you will buy. A good pair of climbing shoes can make a real and instant improvement to your climbing, giving you better grip and making tiny footholds more accessible.
When buying climbing shoes it's important to have a clear idea of the sort of climbing you are likely to do and your level of experience. Climbing shoes come in a variety of styles and materials all packed with different features, so it's good to know what you need before you buy.
Having the right shoe on your foot while you're on the mountain can be the difference between a good day and a bad day of climbing, so it pays to make sure you've got the right gear on your feet before you head out to your favourite climbing spot.
Climbing Shoe Features
Climbing shoe styles vary from brand to brand but are usually built from the same basic elements so there's some key terms you should know:
Heel Loop: Small loops at the back of the climbing shoe, used to pull the shoe onto your foot.
Upper: This is the soft, upper part of the climbing shoe where your foot enters. It's usually made of leather, lined leather or synthetic material.
Rand: A piece of rubber that runs around the shoe between the sole and the upper. Used to provide extra grip for toe hooks and while your foot is in cracks.
Slingshot / Heel Rand: This is the band of rubber that runs around your heel. Slingshots are used for heel hooking and the shape and tightness of this feature will also affect the overall shape of the climbing shoe
Toe Box: The front of the climbing shoe where your toes live. These have a variety of different shapes including symmetrical, asymmetrical and pointed with each suited to a different type of climbing
Footbed: The inside part of the shoe that your foot rests on.
Midsole: Found between the footbed and the sole of the shoe, the midsole provides stiffening and support for your foot.
Climbing Shoe Styles
The style of climbing shoe you choose will usually reflect the type of climbing you're interested in, starting with the flexibility and shape of the sole.
Very flexible midsoles are good for smearing and getting to grips with slippery and sloping climbing holds and they allow you to move your foot more freely, matching the shape of the rock better. Stiffer, more rigid soles give you less feeling on the rock but also better ability to stand on small, positive holds and to edge, using the very side of your sole on tiny spots.
The sole of climbing shoes usually comes in two shapes. Traditional shoes have a relatively flat sole while cambered climbing shoes have more of a banana shape with the toe and heel pointing downwards and the foot arched up in between.
Traditional style soles are normally more comfortable if you're going to be climbing for a long time and they're also easier to fit into tight cracks. Cambered shoes take a little bit of getting used to but provide great traction for heel and toe hooks and perform really well on overhangs.
Climbing shoes also come in smaller sizes for women that are lower profile than men's, which makes them great at fitting into smaller holds. As a result, many male climbers who want to climb routes that involve tight cracks and spaces often end up buying women's climbing shoes too.
Stylewise, the next thing on your climbing shoe shopping list should be the type of fastening you go for.
Lace shoes are still probably the most popular form of fastening, offering adjustability across the whole shoe to ensure the most tailored fit.
Velcro fasteners, also known as rip and stick or eye and hook, provide some adjustabililty with the added bonus of being fast to take off and put on if your feet need a quick break during a long day of climbing.
Finally, slipper style shoes have no fasteners at all and stay on your feet because of their elasticated fit. These climbing shoes are easy to slip on and off and normally have the most flexible soles so you need strong feet to climb in them because they offer much less support. These are often shoes for more experienced climbers whose feet are already conditioned by plenty of climbing.
Climbing Shoe Materials
Climbing shoe uppers are usually made from leather, lined leather or synthetic materials.
Leather is tough and wears in well, often stretching by as much as an entire size over a shoe's lifetime. Watch out for brightly coloured models those as unlined leather often spreads dye onto your foot when you sweat in them, leaving you with interestingly coloured toes!
Lined leather offers the durability of leather but with a little less stretch. You might be down to about half a size difference after a lined shoe wears in and better yet, you feet should be the same colour coming out as they were going in.
Synthetic materials stretch the least of any of the climbing shoe uppers, around quarter of a size at most. Though this means they're usually less forgiving than leather models, synthetic uppers offer other bonuses like breathability and wicking to help keep your feet smelling as sweet as possible.
The rubber that a climbing shoe is made from can also effect your climb. Soft rubber provides greater grip and traction on difficult surfaces while harder rubber gives more support, allowing you to edge and use power more precisely.
Climbing Shoe Fit
When buying your first pair of climbing shoes you should always go to try them on at a store before you part with your cash. You can have the best climbing shoes in the world but if they don't fit properly, they're no used to you. Climbing shoe sizes don't match regular shoe sizes and even the same size in different brands of shoe can fit completely differently. The added bonus of going to a store is that you can try on a whole load of different pairs and get some top advice from staff about the best models they have for the type of climbing you want to do.
No matter what style or model of shoe you go for, climbing shoes should fit properly without damaging your feet. Well fitted climbing shoes are snug without any big gaps or sags as you move your foot. The tongue of the climbing shoe should also sit flat without buckling because this will rub against your foot as you climb, causing discomfort.
Although snug, the climbing shoe shouldn't cut into your ankle or contort your foot into a painful position and make sure the heel of your climbing shoe doesn't slip when you point your toes. The shoe should provide support constantly, whatever your foot is doing.
Many people will buy climbing shoes that are smaller than their regular shoes, causing their toes to fold at the knuckle and bunch up. This pinched shape makes your toes crimp, creating a strong base to climb from.
Crimped feet can seem uncomfortable at first and you should never buy shoes that cause you pain in this position, but it is a style you might want to explore as your climbing progresses. Still, there are plenty of great climbers out there who climb with their toes flat so it really comes down to personal preference.
You can climb in any style of shoe that you find comfortable but certain types of shoe are better suited to individual climbing styles than others.
All Round Climbing: For general climbing, a traditional style, relatively firm sole with laces or velcro is probably your best bet. This will give you support on the wall without tiring out your feet too quickly, while the ability to adjust your fit during climbing sessions means you'll stay comfortable.
Bouldering And Developing Climbers: For power and precision a cambered, stiff sole is a good start. Also look out for big, strong rands that will help you to really nail those toe and heel hooks and pointed toe boxes for sticking those tiny pockets. Fastening wise velcro or lace is probably the way to go if you're getting into bouldering.
Crack Climbing: For crack climbing a lower profile shoe with a traditional style, flexible midsole is a good bet. This should allow you to slip into tiny cracks and give you good purchase on the rock. A slipper would be a good fit here, but velcro and laces would be fine too, and for any guys out there don't be afraid to try out some women's models for an extra low profile advantage.