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How to Choose Climbing Shoes

Perhaps the most important pieces of climbing gear are your shoes, which is why you want to be sure you get the best pair. But with more than 40 styles of rock climbing shoes to choose from at Eastern Mountain Sports alone, it can be a daunting task to select a shoe that will fit well and perform the way you want it to. To help you choose the right climbing shoe, here are some tips from our in-house climbing experts.

Rock Climbing Shoes

WHAT TYPE OF CLIMBING ARE YOU INTO?

The first step in determining which climbing shoe is best for you is to narrow down the type of climbing you do most. Do you prefer sport climbing, bouldering, trad, or alpine climbing? Face climbs, crack climbs, or slab climbs?

Just as the many different types of rock climbing require different sets of climbing equipment, they also require different properties in shoes. For example, sport climbers and boulderers often wear tighter shoes that they can pull off quickly between climbs, whereas trad and alpine climbers need a pair of shoes they can wear all day in comfort.

If this is your first pair of climbing shoes, or if you like to dabble in all types of climbing, look for an all-around shoe that’s snug, but comfortable enough to keep on for a few hours at a time.

WHICH UPPERS ARE BEST?

When you start browsing through climbing shoes, you’ll quickly notice that there are three main types of upper materials: unlined leather, lined leather, and synthetic leather. Each material has advantages and disadvantages, but which one is best is largely a matter of personal preference.

Here’s a brief rundown of each type to help get you one step closer to buying a pair of shoes you’ll love:


Upper MaterialProsConsPros/Cons
Unlined Leather Most breathable

Conforms to the shape of your foot as you break it in

Least stinky
Less next-to-skin comfort than lined leather shoes

The dyes will stain your feet for the first few wears
Stretches the most
Lined Leather More next-to-skin comfort than unlined leather shoes

More breathable than synthetic shoes

Less stinky than synthetic shoes
Less breathable than unlined leather shoes

Stinkier than unlined leather shoes
Stretches a little bit
Synthetic Durable

Animal-friendly
Least breathable

Stinkiest
Doesn't stretch

Stretchy climbing shoe uppers may be considered a good thing by some climbers but a bad thing by others. Regardless, it’s important to know how much stretch to anticipate.

i) Unlined leather uppers can stretch up to a full size after about a dozen pitches. When trying on climbing shoes, keep in mind that if you buy an unlined leather shoe that fits perfectly out of the box, it’ll end up being too big after a few climbing trips.

ii) Lined leather uppers will stretch 1/3 to 1/2 of a size as you break them in. If you’re trying to decide between a size 9 and 9 1/2 in a lined leather shoe, it’s probably best to go with the smaller one.
iii) Synthetic shoes are best at maintaining their shape and won’t stretch, so if you decide to go with a synthetic model, make sure it fits well right out of the box.

CLIMBING SHOE CLOSURES

Once you have a better idea of which climbing shoe you want based on upper material, you also need to consider which closure will be best for you. Again, there are three types to choose from: lace-up, Velcro, and slipper.

The obvious benefits of Velcro or slipper shoes are that they’re easy to put on and quick to take off, and don’t require much fuss. Lace-up shoes, on the other hand, provide a more customizable fit, letting you ease tension over any pressure points you may have on your instep or cinch down more on a low-volume foot.

As previously mentioned, gym climbers, sport climbers, and boulderers typically prefer a shoe that’s easy to take off between climbs, which is why you’ll most often see these climbers wearing slippers or Velcro shoes.

Lace-up climbing shoes are ideal for trad or alpine climbers who don’t have the option to frequently remove them anyway, and who need to be sure that a shoe won’t come off on its own in the middle of a multipitch route (which, while rare, is a possibility associated with an unlaced shoe).

DOES LAST SHAPE REALLY MATTER?

While climbing shoe size is obviously the most important factor—it’s hard to climb well if your shoes are so big that you can’t feel that tiny edge, or so small that you can’t feel anything at all anymore—climbing shoe shape also plays a big role in which one you choose.

Climbing shoes built around flat lasts provide a more relaxed, comfortable fit and generally perform best on less-steep routes and slabs. Flat shoes are superversatile, so if you’re looking for an all-around shoe that you can use to flash V4s at the gym on Thursday night and then drag up to Rumney or out to the Gunks on Saturday, you may want to start your search here.

Slightly downturned shoes are great for vertical face routes, allowing you to edge better than in a flat shoe. These shoes also perform very well in steep cracks and make slightly overhung routes more enjoyable than flat-lasted shoes.

Aggressively downturned shoes offer the best performance on sustained overhangs and let you throw the best heel- and toe-hooks. If you’re shopping for your first pair of climbing shoes, you probably don’t want an aggressive downturn, since it forces your foot into an arched position. But once you’ve been climbing for a while and your feet are stronger, this type of shoe will help take your climbing to the next level (which is convenient, because you’ll have most likely worn out your first pair of shoes by then).

CLIMBING SHOE RUBBER

Why Are There So Many Types?

If you dig a little deeper into your climbing shoe research, you’ll notice that there are many different types of rubber used on the soles. While all climbing shoe rubbers have one thing in common—they’re all “sticky rubber,” which provide better friction on the rock than regular rubber—each type of rubber performs slightly differently.

Climbing shoes that use Vibram rubber outsoles use one of three types: XS Grip, XS Grip2, or XS Edge. Most La Sportiva and Scarpa shoes use Vibram rubber in varying thicknesses.

i) XS Grip is Vibram’s classic high-performance climbing rubber. It offers excellent grip on smooth rock and versatile performance, and works well in both hot and cold conditions.

ii) XS Grip2 was a natural evolution of XS Grip rubber, built for maximum friction and more consistent performance. This rubber is a bit firmer than XS Grip, which is good for moderate edging, and it provides outstanding precision.

iii) XS Edge rubber is the firmest Vibram climbing rubber, which allows for maximum edging support and better durability.

Five Ten climbing shoes use Stealth rubber on their outsoles. There are many varieties of Stealth rubber, but the most common types are C4, Hf, Onyxx, and Mystique.

i) Stealth C4 is one of the most popular sticky rubbers on the market and a favorite among many top climbers. It offers incredible friction and excellent edging.

ii) Hf rubber is supersticky and soft enough to conform to tiny edges and crystals. Shoes using Stealth Hf let the climber pull in with their feet on steep, overhanging routes and boulder problems.

iii) Stealth’s Onyxx formula has become the new standard for high-friction rubbers. This extra-sticky rubber provides amazing friction and unbeatable hardness for more precise edging, and is incredibly durable.

iv) One of the most lightweight Stealth formulas, Mystique rubber is also highly abrasion resistant and built to last twice as long as other rubbers.

Another type of rubber you’ll see on some of the climbing shoes we carry is Trax rubber. Evolv uses either Trax XT or eco-Trax on their shoes.

i) Trax XT, designed to be one of the highest-performing sticky rubbers available, provides an excellent balance of high friction and edging power on different rock types and across a wide range of temperatures.

ii) Eco-Trax was created in 2008 to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Using 30-50% recycled rubber content, eco-Trax rubber still provides the friction and edging climbers need while minimizing environmental impact.

Why Are There Different Thicknesses?

It may seem trivial, but the thickness of the sticky rubber on your climbing shoes will definitely affect the way you climb.

Thinner rubber (3-4 mm) is softer and more sensitive, which allows you to get a better feel for the rock underfoot. This is ideal for shorter routes, bouldering, and smearing your way up slab routes. The only drawback to having a thinner rubber sole is that it’ll wear out more quickly, especially if you climb frequently.

Thicker rubber (up to 5.5 mm) holds up longer and provides extra support on long routes so your feet won’t get fatigued prematurely. You won’t get the same level of sensitivity, but if you climb mostly long, vertical, technical face routes, you’ll want the edging power and durability of climbing shoes with thicker rubber.

For your first pair of climbing shoes, try to find some with thicker rubber. Until you’ve built up strength in your feet, softer/thinner rubber soles will only make your feet tired and sore. Thicker rubber, on the other hand, will give your feet a bit of a break—and last a little longer—while you fine-tune your footwork.

Sticky Rubber Maintenance

No matter how thick your climbing shoe soles are, they’re still a whole lot thinner than the soles of your regular shoes and require a little more TLC. Here are some helpful tips on how to extend the life of your climbing shoes:

i) Wear approach shoes or hiking shoes right up to the climb, and carry them with you as you climb if there’s a long walk-off from the top.

ii) Avoid stepping in mud or puddles while wearing your climbing shoes.

iii) Before climbing, give the sole a quick brush with your hand to make sure there’s no dirt, sand, or pine needles stuck to the bottom.iv) Take off your climbing shoes when you’re between climbs or belaying.

v) Every once in a while, lightly scrub the soles with a wire brush to get rid of the layer of built-up dirt. (Make sure you don’t start to brush away the rubber, though!)

vi) Avoid leaving your climbing shoes in your car, especially during the summer. Too much heat will not only melt the glue, it’ll also deform the rubber and dry it out.

If the sticky rubber wears out before the rest of the shoe does, many places will resole climbing shoes at a fraction of what you would pay for a whole new pair. As long as you take good care of the uppers, the life of your climbing shoes can be extended a great deal by resoling them a couple of times.

GETTING THE RIGHT FIT

It’s a common mistake for first-timers to buy climbing shoes that are way too tight. Old-school wisdom and advice was to cram your little piggies into the smallest pair possible in an effort to help you climb better. But the truth is, when you’re just starting out, you have so much to learn in technique that it won’t really benefit you to be in a tight shoe.

Sizing

Once you’ve narrowed down your selection to a handful of models, try each of them on, starting with your street shoe size. They most likely won’t fit properly, but you’ll get a quick idea of how much you need to size up or down. Make sure the climbing shoes are snug on your feet—whether they’re lace-ups, Velcro, or slippers—and stand in them for a few minutes. Your toes should touch the front of the shoe, but not be curled. Well-fitting climbing shoes may feel a little tight on the sides, but only because your feet are not used to wearing something designed to be so snug. A little discomfort is normal, but if the shoes are causing any pain, then you’ll need to try a different size.

Here are a few quick tips to keep in mind while trying on climbing shoes:

i) As with any shoe, do your shopping later in the day so you can be sure that your new climbing shoes will still fit well after your feet swell from climbing all day.

ii) Even though you’ve probably been wearing socks with the rental shoes at the gym, most climbers ditch the socks as soon as they have their own climbing shoes. When trying on shoes, wear the thinnest socks you have. If possible, try them on without socks.

iii) Many of our stores have small climbing walls so you can get a better feel for how the shoes will perform. Be sure to spend a few minutes in each style you try and really put them to the test. If there’s no climbing wall, try to put your feet in different positions (stand on your toes, throw your heel up on the bench and weight it, etc.) to get a better idea of how the shoes will feel while climbing.

iv) Remember that unlined leather shoes will stretch up to a full size, lined leather shoes will stretch 1/3 to 1/2 of a size, and synthetic shoes won’t stretch at all.

v) If you’re shopping for climbing shoes online, consider ordering a few pairs (the size you think you want and a half size in either direction). You’ll have a better chance of getting a climbing shoe that fits well, and you can easily return the shoes that don’t fit.

Men’s vs. Women’s Climbing Shoes

Many climbing shoes come in a unisex/men’s version and a women-specific version. As with any shoe, the biggest differences between men’s and women’s climbing shoes are volume and width. Women-specific shoes typically have a lower volume, a smaller toe box, and a narrower heel.

DO SOME RESEARCH

Now that you’ve read this article, you should have a good idea of how to go about your search for the perfect climbing shoe. But be sure to do a little extra research, too; after all, climbing shoes can be a big investment. Look around at your local crag and gym. Ask your climbing partners what they’re wearing and why they like them. Read reviews (many of the climbing shoes we carry have customer reviews right on our website) for the styles you’re considering.

Shopping for climbing shoes can be a little time consuming, but it’ll all be worth it once you find the perfect pair.


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