My first climbing shoes squished my feet and crunched my toes in throbbing misery. I quickly learned that crushing toe pain isn’t exactly compatible with fun or motivation—and climbed a lot less as a result. My mistake? I went shopping with the misguided belief that climbing shoes should fit as tightly as possible for maximum strength and feel against the rock. Though this isn’t entirely false, most people—especially beginners—will benefit much more from a comfortable fit in a durable, all-purpose climbing shoe. Here’s what to look for.
Fit to be climbed
Climbing shoes should be sticky extensions of your body, as if the very skin of your feet were imbued with Spiderman powers. To achieve this, you must find a pair that fits properly and prevents your feet from shifting around inside the shoes. Any gaps that allow foot movement will lead to decreased stability and increased muscle fatigue, and may cause hot spots and blisters.
Shoes should fit snugly around the heel, across the instep, and along the sides of the foot. Your longest toe should at least touch the front of the shoe, though precise toe fit will depend on your climbing skills and objectives. Experienced climbers on harder routes will often look for a tighter fit that compresses the toe knuckles and bends them upwards. This increases toe power and strength but also ups the discomfort level. If you’re a novice climber, any crunched-toe performance gain will be negligible; opt instead for a “flat-toe” fit that maximizes comfort.
Keep in mind that climbing shoe sizes vary dramatically from brand to brand, and even style to style. When trying on climbing shoes, start a size down from your normal length and then go up or down accordingly.
Stiffen your resolve
Climbing shoes vary in stiffness, especially in the mid-sole area beneath the arches and balls of your feet. For most purposes—and beginning skill levels—stiffer is better, providing increased underfoot support that benefits undeveloped climbing muscles. Stiffer soles are also a plus for crack climbing; they are less likely to crumple and painfully compress your feet when jammed into narrow openings. Softer, more flexible shoes provide an advantage on difficult climbs with tiny holds, where maximum rubber contact is necessary to provide a viable grip. Softer models are also occasionally cambered, with the toes turned down slightly, a potential plus on difficult climbs and overhangs. Stiffer climbing shoes almost always feature a flat sole.
Where the rubber meets the hold
Rubber is what provides climbing shoes with their grippy, sticky powers. Each company uses its own proprietary formulations, which vary depending on the style and intended use of the shoe. On the most basic level, you can think of rubber as one of two types: soft or hard. To gauge this, flip the shoe over and press your nail into the rubber. If it sinks in easily and leaves an indentation, the rubber is on the soft end of the spectrum.
Softer rubber provides better grip but wears down quickly with use; it’s a good option for difficult routes, tiny footholds, and experienced climbers. Harder rubber lasts longer and is generally a better choice for novice climbers, who tend to create a lot of wear as they develop technique.
Rubber also varies in thickness. Thinner rubber provides advanced climbers with the ability to feel tiny nubs and crystals through the sole, an advantage on challenging routes. A thicker layer lasts longer and is generally a better all-purpose option. The rubber on some shoes wraps upward around the back of the foot to provide traction for heel hooking maneuvers.
Lace-up styles allow for maximum fit adjustment. Shoes with Velcro closures are easier to get on and off, but can’t be fine-tuned for fit; they must match your feet closely. Slip-on styles are usually meant for demanding bouldering problems and other difficult routes. Women’s climbing shoes are cut significantly narrower in width and in the heel, an advantage for anybody with lower-volume feet. With use, climbing shoes with leather uppers will stretch noticeably in width; synthetic uppers will stretch little if at all. Neither material expands in length. Finally, as legendary climber Alex Lowe once said, remember that the best climber is the one having the most fun. Climb on!