There are many things to take into consideration when fitting and purchasing a pair of climbing shoes. Shoes will be one of the first pieces of climbing equipment you purchase. They are extremely helpful, therefore picking the right pair is important. The type of climbing you do will impact the shoes you need. Ultimately as your climbing skills and goals evolve, so will your shoe collection. Having multiple pairs of shoes to complete the individual demands of different climbs is quite common among experienced climbers.
The first thing that needs to be addressed is the type of climbing you intend to do. Are you going to be spending a majority of your time at the gym? Do you like to go bouldering or do big wall climbing? Are you climbing sport or trad? Do you climb off-width cracks? From here we can take a more detailed look at the different materials, stiffness, and profile, all of which influence the performance.
There are a few main components to the construction of a climbing shoe to be taken into consideration. The rubber on the bottom of the shoe is the interface between you and the rock. The rubber bottoms range in degrees of softness or hardness, with different pros and cons associated with each. The other component is an upper material, coming in the form of leather (either lined or un-lined) or a synthetic material. The closure systems can come as a lace-up, hook-and-loop (Velcro), or a slip on. Lets take a deeper look at the pros and cons related to the different materials used in construction.
Leather - A leather shoe is going to breathe much better than its leather lined or synthetic counterpart. Because it breathes better, your foot will sweat less and dry more. This contributes to leather shoes retaining fewer odors, smelling better over time, also being easier to care for. One thing to keep in mind when buying a leather climbing shoe is they can stretch quite a bit, as much as 1 full size, with use.
Lined Leather - This type of shoes is not as breathable as a regular leather climbing shoe (still better than synthetic). It will pick up some odor as time goes on but again, not as smelly as synthetic. The lining will reduce the amount of stretching down to about ½ or ¾ of a shoe size. Some shoes have strategically placed lining to limit stretch in certain areas of the shoe.
Synthetic - This is the least breathable of your shoe options. Having a shoe that doesn’t breathe well is going to make your foot hot, sweaty, and stinky on those long days. The major benefit associated with synthetics is they stretch the least, less then ½ a shoe size. This feature takes some of the guessing associated with properly sizing leather shoes out of the equation.
Rubber Types - A softer stickier rubber will give you superior grip and sensitivity. This is suited for friction slab climbing and bouldering. The soft rubber will wear faster than a harder rubber and also leads to foot fatigue on longer routes. Dense rubber is better suited for vertical faces with a lot of edging involved, crack climbing, and longer routes. Dense rubber will last longer and provide better support on longer routes. These are just general guidelines to point you in the right directions as every brand creates its own unique formulas they say are ideal for a certain type of climbing.
The stiffness and profile of a climbing shoe play a huge role in determining the type of climbing it is intended for. This is quite important when picking out a pair of shoes. For example, if you are doing a majority of slab climbing, you don’t want an aggressive hooked-toe shoe. Below we break down the different options for stiffness and profile, explaining the specific usage for each style.
Stiffness - Much like the difference between a soft and hard rubber, the stiffness of a climbing shoe affects what kind of climbing it will perform best at. A soft shoe tends to be more sensitive – great for those precise foot placements on difficult boulder problems or feeling out that subtle dimple on a slab route. However, they do not offer much support so edging and jamming will be fairly painful. A stiff climbing shoe is great for toeing in on dime edges and jamming cracks all day long because of their support. The thicker rubber on these shoes makes them more durable but much less sensitive.
Profile - The profile of a climbing shoe helps determine what kind of terrain that particular shoe is best suited for. Generally speaking, one can separate climbing shoe profiles into three groups:
Cambered-last shoes - are for slightly higher performance climbing – allowing one to transmit more power to smaller footholds. Fit them fairly snug. Cambered shoes are intended for use on steep cracks, face terrain, and some overhanging terrain.
Hooked-toe shoes - are designed for high performance climbing on vertical face or sustained overhanging terrain. The downturned last, combined with a beak-like toe allow one to push and pull on the smallest, steepest footholds. The hook-like design allows you to generate for power from your foot by forcing it into an arched position.
Lace-ups - This style is great because it allows you the most customization with how tight the shoe fits. For long days out, when your feet begin to get hot and swell a bit, you have the option to loosen those laces. Releasing pressure on swelled feet reduces discomfort one might be feeling. On the more technical and demanding climbs, you have the option to really tighten these bad-boys up for a snug fit, increasing performance. The only downside to a lace-up climbing shoe is the time required to sit down and actually tie them, a minor inconvenience.
Hook-and-Loop (Velcro) - These offer the ease of slipping them on and strapping them up. Simple to put on and take off. They do allow you to adjust the fit, just not quite as much as the lace-up system.
Slip-ons - It’s as simple as the name implies, slip them on then slip them off. In terms of adjusting how snug they fit your feet, what you see is what you get. Traditionally these shoes have a less-stiff sole, meaning your feet will work harder, getting stronger faster.