Today we’re going to look at one of the most useful (and confusing) pieces of gear in a climber’s bag. I’m talking about shoes. Whether you’re thinking about buying your first pair or you’d just like to learn a bit more before you look for your next one, we’ll cover all the basics about climbing shoes. Different shoes are designed for different applications, so we’ll dive into each of the facets of the climbing shoe before taking a look at some of our favorites.
The rubber on our climbing shoes is what gives us friction against footholds. Rubber can be hard or soft, thick or thin. Each type of rubber has advantages and disadvantages, which makes a shoe more suitable for one type of climbing than another. The rubber spectrum has two axes: softness and thickness. We’ll take a look at each of these aspects of climbing rubber.
You might hear climbers say that a pair of shoes is really “sticky”. Soft rubber has a higher coefficient of friction and can let you apply more of the shoe to your foothold or smear. There are a few downsides to soft, sticky rubber, though. Since the rubber is softer, they tend to be less durable than stiffer shoes. It also takes Herculean toe and calf strength to climb in soft shoes all day, particularly on footwork-heavy routes. Softer shoes are well-suited to for climbing gyms and rock with bigger, more frictiony footholds. I’m told sensitive slippers are great for sandstone cracks, as well.
Soft rubber is typically laid on a bit thinner to make sensitive shoes. This means we can feel exactly what is beneath our feet, which can be a lifesaver on boulder problems or climbs with small footholds. There is a downside, though. The thinner rubber will abrade quicker, so be conscious of your footwork.
Stiffer rubber can make the smallest footholds seem like huge ledges. Stiff shoes are great at edging. Although they may give you less friction than their softer counterparts, the ability to edge on little crystals can allow you to take advantage of feet that are unusable in softer shoes. Stiff shoes also tend to last much longer, as long as you’ve been practicing your footwork. Another advantage to stiff shoes is the ability to take take some stress off your toes and calves. The stiffness of the shoes allows you to use less muscle power to keep your feet in position on longer, more vertical climbs. As with sensitive shoes, the design of your climbing shoe will also be a factor in stiffness.
Stiffer shoes tend to have a thicker layer of rubber than their softer counterparts. This helps to keep the shoe stable when edging on footholds. The added thickness will make your shoes a bit more durable, as well.
There are two types of materials used for a shoe’s upper (the part that touches your foot). Uppers come in both leather and synthetic varieties. They have their advantages and disadvantages, but all-in-all, the material is less important than shape, fit, and rubber type.
First, we’ll look at leather. Leather shoes will stretch, so keep this in mind when you’re buying a pair. You don’t want leather shoes to be comfortable when they’re new. If you buy them big, they’ll turn into shopping bags by the time you’ve broken them in. That said, the stretch is what lots of people love about leather shoes. If you buy your leather shoes at an appropriate size, they will mold to your feet as you break them in. Leather uppers are also notorious for leeching dye into your feet. Colored feet are pretty much inevitable while breaking-in leather shoes.
The alternative to leather is a synthetic upper. Synthetic uppers are less prone to stretching, though they will over time. Synthetic shoes tend to be more comfortable out of the box. Synthetic materials lend themselves to sewing in a way that leather can’t match, but lack the stretch and durability (which is why you don’t tend to see synthetic slippers). You’ll find that the tongue and the softness of the shoe on your foot will be the main differences between synthetic and leather shoes.
Climbing shoes come in all kinds of shapes. If you’re intimidated, you’re not alone. There are two main shapes to climbing shoes, though they all vary to one degree or another. Shoes are designed around what cobblers call a “last.” A last is a foot-shaped mold that the shoe’s final shape depends upon. There are two main last designs, which are best used in different situations.
The traditional, or relaxed, last results in a standard, flat shoe. It’s the shape of your foot when you’re standing normally. Shoes with a relaxed fit are still meant to be worn tight, but the foot in is in a more comfortable position. These shoes shine on vertical and slabby surfaces because you can adjust your foot to get the most rubber onto your foothold.
The alternative is the more aggressive, cambered last. Aggressive shoes are curved in order to deliver the most power to small footholds. Aggressive shoes shine on overhanging routes and boulder problems, but lack of friction can cause real problems on slab climbs.
There are three types of closure systems in climbing shoes. They each have their advantages and disadvantages, which I’ll detail below.
Lace-up shoes provide the the most customizable fit. You can adjust the laces all the way down the shoe to perfectly fit your foot shape. The adjustability also makes them the ideal choice for long, multi-pitch routes where you’d do anything for comfortable feet. They can also be the most annoying thing in the world after a long day of climbing. I’ll set the scene for you…
Your fingers are sore. You’ve been climbing all day and you’re closer than ever to finishing your project. But you have one problem. Your toes are starting to slide inside your shoe. It takes a second, but the realization hits you like a truck. You have to unlace your shoes and tighten them up to stick that last move. So with a heavy head, you spend the next two minutes whimpering as you tighten each pair of laces. If only there was another way to tighten your shoes…
Velcro closures solve the problem of sad fingers. They take no effort to readjust, but they come with a downside. Velcro closures don’t offer much help in the toe of the shoe. So when buying velcro shoes, make sure the shoe fits snugly before closing the velcro. Velcro shoes are generally preferred for bouldering because they’re easy to put on and take off.
Slippers are no-frills climbing shoes. They need to be tight to stay on your feet. Since slippers don’t have a strap or laces to hold your foot in place, they will stretch more than shoes with other closure methods. Slippers shine in the gym, because of their easy removal, and in huge splitter cracks, where laces can often get cut from repeated, odd foot movements.
Climbing shoes are meant to be worn tight. If you’re buying your first pair of shoes, you may not know how tight you really want them. This is totally subjective, so I’ll do my best.
After your shoes have broken in, there should be no extra space in your shoe. This means they should be tight at the store. But don’t go too small. If you’re crying when you put your shoes on, they’re too tight! If you’re thinking about your feet, you’re not thinking about climbing. Climbers don’t tend to wear socks with their climbing shoes, so if you’ve been wearing socks with your shoes, give it a try without them on your next visit to the gym. You’ll probably find you can size your shoes down another half-size.
Here are a few things to think about when you’re trying on new shoes.
Make sure your foot is in an active position when you put the shoes on. Your toes should be scrunched together into one big toe and they should be pressed against the front of the shoe. There shouldn’t be any air between the heel cup and your foot. Wiggle the shoe around on your foot. If it slides, it’s too big. If you can slide it off while it’s closed (excluding slippers), it’s way too big. Remember, leather shoes will stretch more than synthetics. If you’re in doubt, ask the person at the outfitter store how much a shoe will stretch.
So What Should I Buy?
If you’re looking for your first pair of shoes, here are a few that we recommend.
Evolve Defy (or Elektra, for our female climbers)
Mad Rock Flash 2.0
Five Ten Anasazi Moccasym
Other Great Choices
La Sportiva Solution – Bouldering
Scarpa Vapor V – Bouldering and Sport
Tenaya Masai – Slab
Five Ten Anasazi VCS – All-Around
La Sportiva Python – Personal Favorite