When you first try rock climbing the shoes you use will be the rentals from the gym which are designed more for durability than performance. But once you’ve decided you want to keep climbing you will need to get your own shoes. The question is which one is going to be right for you.
Regardless of what types of rock climbing you do, you will need specialty climbing shoes. But the specific type will vary depending on the terrain you climb and your experience level. A flatter, stiffer shoe for hand cracks or a softer downturned shoe for overhanging boulders.
All climbing shoes share some common traits:
- Sticky rubber with no tread
- Very form fitted
- Kind of look like ballet slippers
But beyond those similarities, there are variations that make a shoe better for some types of climbing. Besides picking your favorite colors, here are some tips to pick the right shoe.
If you are new to climbing or climb long routes outside, generally a flat shoe is good due to the all-day comfort as long as you don’t get them too tight. Shoes with a flat profile are often stiffer which is good as a beginner as you haven’t developed the foot strength to stand on tiny holds. As well a flat, stiff shoe is more comfortable to long days of multi-pitch outdoor climbing that is mostly edges and cracks. Shoes such as the Scarpa Force V, La Sportiva Taratula or Black Diamond Momentum are great all-around shoes for comfort and performance.
While still flattish, performance trad shoes such as the La Sportiva TC Pro aren’t aimed at the beginner. Think of Alex Honnold on Free Rider. He used the TC Pro. Stiff, comfortable and a high top to protect the ankles in cracks.
If you are climbing trad you need a place to put gear which often means following cracks. Crack climbing is assisted by a stiff flat shoe that helps with foot jams. This stiffness also excels at edging while still having enough friction for slab climbing. And the shoes need to be comfortable enough to wear all day, as taking your shoes off after every pitch slows you down and is asking for you to drop a shoe hundreds of feet off the ground.
If you are starting to climb intermediate grades in the gym or want a shoe that is pretty good at everything then consider a shoe with a slight downturn, which will work to put more weight over the toes. As well these shoes will have more rubber on the heel and toes for hook moves. And depending on how tight you fit them, they can be comfortable all day shoes for longer routes. From slabs to slightly overhanging routes shoes like the Scarpa Vapor V, La Sportiva Kataki and Black Diamond Zone.
If you need these you probably already know it but I’ll cover it anyway. From the side, the shoes will have a radical downturn and from above they will be very asymmetrical with the aim of getting as much weight over the big toe as possible. The rubber and midsole are usually softer as well so you can use your toes to pull yourself into the wall on overhanging routes or boulder problems.
This style of shoe is much more sensitive allowing you to feel subtle features in the rock. From Alex Puccio’s fav, Scarpa Instinct VS to the La Sportive Solution, if you are looking for a weapon to help you climb hard then a super aggressive shoe can help you when it gets steep.
Hard vs Soft
Here is the trade-off: Stiff shoes with hard rubber support the foot better and allow you to stand on smaller edges but it’s harder to feel the rock. Stiffer shoes usually also have harder rubber making for better edging and crack climbing but will give up a bit of friction. When it is vertical stiffer shoes are a benefit.
Soft shoes give you great sensitivity but require more foot strength and the softer rubber tends to wear quicker. The softer rubber on a softer shoe will give more friction when smearing but will be more likely to roll on tiny edges. The softer rubber and aggressive downturn are a great combination for indoor bouldering. The footwork tends to require more friction than pure edging power.
If you are new get a stiffer shoe as your feet won’t be strong enough to benefit from the feel of a soft shoe and will last longer as the rubber is generally thicker.
Fitting your shoes
Climbing shoes should fit snug with no space around your foot but you don’t need to cram your feet into shoes two sizes too small. Start with your normal shoe size and size down until you have a snug fit with your toes at the end. A good fitting climbing shoe should be tight without being overly painful. If the shoe is unlined leather then consider downsizing a half size as they will stretch.
Each brand and model fit differently so try on a bunch until you find the shape that fits your foot. I tend to go with Scarpa Vapor V or Maestro as the wider toe box fits my foot well. On the other hand, I find Five Ten shoes fit in the front but don’t fit me in the heel. Don’t just go on reviews. Try on the shoes to find the model and size that feels like it was custom shaped for your foot.
If you are looking for the most powerful position then consider sizing down until your toes are slightly curled but bear in mind that you probably won’t find them comfortable for long periods. Try on a number of shoes as the toe box and heal shape will vary. Each brand fits different so you may find you are a 41 in La Sportiva and a 42 in Scarpa. Go by fit, not the number on the box.