Climbing shoes have the distinction of being the only piece of gear that can actually help you climb better. But what to get? There are close to 200 climbing shoes on the market, billed for all different types of climbing, from gym to sport to trad to alpine rock, with lots of crossover. In some cases, the distinctions are appropriate, while in other cases it’s just marketing hype. In reality, shoes are to rock climbers what lenses are to photographers—no shoe will be appropriate for every situation, and most experienced climbers have at least three pairs of shoes for the myriad vertical problems out there. Here’s a quick guide of what to look for when choosing climbing shoes.
Beginner Shoes: Beginners are often told to buy “beginner” or “all-around” shoes—climbing footwear that’s typically flat, stiff and roomy in the toe box. At best, “beginner” shoes are the cheapest; however, they are often stiff, too roomy and sized poorly. Right off the bat, consider getting a “high-precision” shoe—something that fits snugly and has a slight downturn to the toe—no matter what your abilities are. The benefit of wearing a high-performance shoe is that you will become more aware of how you place your toes on footholds.
Trad Shoes: Trad climbing often involves crack climbing and multi-pitch routes. Therefore, a good trad-climbing shoe will be fairly stiff and not cram the toes. There’s nothing more painful than crack climbing in a tight-fitting shoe. For finger-sized crack climbing, however, most climbers opt for something softer, like a slipper, in order to better use your toes in the thin seams. For climbing in colder alpine conditions, size your shoe so that you can wear them with a thin pair of socks. Some trad shoes are high-tops, which are almost mandatory for helping to protect ankles in wide cracks. Most good trad shoes will have laces.
Sport/Bouldering Shoes: These shoes will be less stiff (but still supportive) and will range from models with a flatter last, to those with a radically down-turned toe for steep climbing. Sport climbing shoes may come in laces, Velcro or be slippers. Laces aren’t ideal for bouldering, where you take your shoes on and off more frequently.
The Quiver: I suggest owning a quiver of two or even three different pairs of shoes—I bring two pairs to every crag or bouldering area I visit. One pair should be down-turned, or “aggressive,” for use on steep routes. The second pair should be a good “edging” shoe: flatter and more supportive for standing on edges. I keep a third pair for use in the gym: usually a cheap slipper that I don’ t mind wearing down on plastic holds. Or, when one of the first two pairs in my quiver loses their edge, they get demoted to the pair I bring to the gym. This triad of footwear prolongs shoe life, and keeps toes from getting too worked or deformed by the repetitiveness of wearing one model for everything.
Rubber: Sticky-rubber hit the climbing market in the U.S. in the early 1980s when the late, great John Bachar began importing Fires from Spain—some of the first shoes to utilize the new technology. Sticky rubber was a breakthrough that instantly skyrocketed climbing standards. In fact, it worked so well that people had to wonder whether it was cheating to use it. While there are differences in rubber in terms of how long it lasts, and how hard or soft it is, in general all sticky rubber on the market tends to be more than sticky enough.
Velcro, Laces, Slippers: Climbing shoes come in these three different styles. Laces are the most adjustable—they can be loosened or tightened down for various fits. Velcro is a great compromise between security and convenience; they are easy to get on and off. Slippers are the easiest to get on, but they tend to be not as secure—if the slipper doesn’t fit perfectly, it may slide off on heel hooks.
Stiffness: A shoe’s stiffness is relative to the person wearing them—a heavier person will need a stiffer model for more support. If a shoe is too stiff, its performance will be compromised. Too soft, and your toes will pump out on longer routes. However, soft shoes may be just the ticket for steep pockets, where you really need to pull and hook on a hold with your toes.
Last: The last is the shape of the shoe. Shoes come in straight, toe-down and asymmetrical lasts, and depending on how your foot is shaped and what type of routes you want to climb, one of these lasts will work.
Women’s Fit: Many companies make models for women, and they are usually nothing more than a lower-volume version of another shoe in their line. If you have a narrow foot, even if you are a dude, check out the women’s line.
How to Find the Perfect Fit: Always try shoes on first—check out different models and different companies. Size them snugly: not too tight, but with no room to wiggle your toes. Most people don’t wear socks with their climbing shoes. How’s the heel? Dead space in the heel is an obvious red flag that the shoe doesn’t fit well. If you can remove the heel while the laces are tied, try going down a half size. Stand around in the pair for at least five minutes—if you’re in serious pain, go up a half size. Most shoes will break in. If you go up a half size and there’s now too much room in the heel, switch to a different brand or model.
When to Retire: Shoes lose their edge under the big toe—the edge becomes more rounded, and eventually a hole in the rubber appears. It’s most ideal to get your shoes resoled before that hole appears. Resoling can cost 1/3 of the original price tag, and a good cobbler can make your shoe like new.
If your climbing shoes just sit around in your garage for six months or more, the rubber will begin to oxidize—making it harder, less sticky, and leading to a drastic reduction in performance. If you only climb a few times a year, and you notice that you have trouble with your footwork, it may not just be that you’re out of practice; your shoes could be hosing you. Taking a file to the rubber and grinding down that outer, oxidized layer will give your shoes some more life. A good tip is to store your shoes in an airtight Ziploc bag, which will help with the oxidization.