How to Choose Rock Climbing Shoes
Updated: Sep 20
If you scour the hundreds of thousands of online reviews and blogs, you will find, time and time again, that advanced climbers will tell you which climbing shoes are best for what. But there’s a trade secret they don’t want me to share with you: there’s no best climbing shoe or climbing shoe brand.
Does this mean that no pair is better than the others? Of course not! Different outdoor and indoor rock climbing shoes excel at different things. And I will teach you how to find the right shoe for you!
Let’s break this down. There are about 8 BIG climbing shoe brands: La Sportiva, FiveTen, Evolv, Scarpa, Butora, Mad Rock, and Tenaya. Heck, even Black Diamond is in the game now. It is also good to note that most, if not all, of these brands also carry kids' rock climbing shoes. Each of these brands boasts a selection of shoes, from beginner climbing shoes to advanced ones, ranging in price from around $50 to around $170—some more, some less.
Many companies advertise their shoes in one of three categories: Aggressive, Moderate, or Flat. As such, we see that, to use Yelp-speak, Aggressive=$$$, Moderate=$$, and Flat=$.
That is not always the case, but for the most part, this is what you will find when shopping for climbing shoes.
Now, what do these words mean?
You would think that Flat=Beginner, Moderate=Intermediate, Aggressive=Advanced. And this, for the most part, is true! But choosing a shoe that’s right for you is more complicated than picking from Flat, Moderate, or Aggressive. Why?
Have you ever noticed in climbing videos when climbers wear two different shoes? Apart from being a bold fashion statement, they are actually utilizing the best, most optimal features of each footwear for specific pieces of footwork. In other words, some shoes are suitable for heel hooking but might not be the best for edging.
Around the gym, we often see the same popular shoes flashed around: La Sportiva Solutions, Butora Acro, FiveTen Hiangles, Evolv Shamans, Scarpa Origin. Try not to fall into the trap of buying shoes because they are trendy for gym climbing. That happens more often than you’d think. I remember walking into the gym once in college and seeing the strongest guy in there wearing Scarpa Instinct VS’s. Two weeks later? Boom! Orange feet everywhere!
Let’s get into it. Here are my tips for choosing climbing shoes:
1. The first thing that I do when picking out a pair of climbing shoes is to identify what I am going to use the shoes for.
Gym Sport Climbing
Outdoor Sport Climbing
Learning to Boulder
Gym Top Rope
Learning to Sport Climb
Shoes for Crack Climbing
From here, I have already vastly narrowed my search down. How? Different attributes of shoes are beneficial for doing different things. If I am going to use climbing shoes frequently, for training or regular bouldering sessions, for instance, I will not want to buy shoes with thin rubber because they will wear out very quickly. How about if I am picking out shoes for long sessions of top rope in the gym? I will not want a pair of aggressive shoes because my feet will hurt halfway through every session.
2. After deciding what I will use the shoes for, I use this info to build a list of attributes I’d like my shoes to have.
Here’s a breakdown of the different attributes of climbing shoes that you can use to create your list when you are choosing shoes! There’s no formula for building this list. We’re trying to choose shoes that are right for you. What we can do is take a look at these attributes and talk about why you may or may not want to take advantage of them:
[ MATERIAL ]
Leather: Shoes with leather uppers will stretch. This is an advantage for most climbers because the stretching creates a shoe that is the tightest and most form-fitting. This may be a disadvantage because breaking in leather shoes can be a bit of a pain, and the dyes in the leather may dye your feet for the first few wears.
Synthetic: Shoes with synthetic uppers will not stretch, so the break-in process is a bit easier. They do not breathe well and are by and large the smelliest shoes, but if that doesn’t bother you, they are more durable than leather shoes and will last you longer through wear and tear.
[ RUBBER ]
Rubber density: Thin rubber shoes offer the climber more sensitivity while climbing. While this will hurt your toes if you are not used to it, thinner rubber offers the climber better edging and smearing abilities. Thin rubber also creates a lighter shoe that performs better on overhangs. However, one thing to keep in mind is that the thinner the rubber, the fewer uses you will get out of your shoes. This effect is multiplied outdoors.
Rubber coverage: Different shoes have varying amounts of rubber wrapped around them. Having lots of rubber creates a dense, sometimes less form-fitting shoe, but also one that is adaptable to different footwork techniques and will likely last longer. These shoes require less precise footwork to be effective. Low rubber coverage shoes need more precise footwork to be effective but give the climber a lighter, tighter-fitting shoe.
[ CLOSING APPARATUS ]
Laces: Lace-up shoes used to be the dominant shoe type back in the day, but as velcro straps have come into play, lace-ups have fallen behind. Laces allow the climber to customize the shoe's fit: tighter in some places or looser in others. But then you have to deal with laces. This means tying and untying for breaks and having the laces dangle while you climb.
Velcro: Velcro straps allow the climber to easily get in and out of their shoes but do not offer the customizable fit that laces do. You are stuck with the fit that the strap provides.
Straps: However, straps have gotten better. So remember that the more straps you have, the more customizable the fit. Also, you lose that rubber coverage. Three-strap shoes will be inferior toe-hooking shoes, while 1-strap shoes will excel at toe-hooking.
Slip-on: Slip-on shoes give the climber easy access in and out of the shoe. Some climbers love this and do 'not care about the customizable fit and tightening. There are zero additional with slip-ons, which may be a considerable disadvantage.
[ OTHER ATTRIBUTES ]
Downturn/Aggressiveness: The more aggressive a shoe is, the better it will perform when executing precise footwork. This works inversely, however. The more aggressive a shoe is, the worse it will perform when executing poor footwork. The more downturned a shoe, the more uncomfortable it will be for extended periods.
Toe-Box: The toe-box is the portion of the shoe surrounding your toes, specifically your big toe, as most climbing shoes come to some point there. Toe-boxes range from larger and boxier to very precise and pointy. A pointier toe-box is designed to bring all of the force you apply to a hold to a single point. Wider toe-boxes are built for comfort and extended use but offer less precision. Toe-box size often coincides with the downturn of the shoe; more aggressive shoes have pointier toe boxes.
Heel-cup: Heel-cups vary from rounded to boxy. The most important part of the heel cup is how it fits you. Try on some shoes and find out which types fit better.
3. Once you’ve chosen the attributes of your climbing shoes, you need to evaluate yourself honestly.
This part is difficult. All too often, you see climbers that do not know how to take advantage of the attributes of their shoes. That is poor shoe selection right there.
So, how is your footwork? If you are a beginner climber, don’t grab a pair of aggressive shoes. Instead, go for a pair of flat/moderate or beginner bouldering shoes that help introduce you to advanced techniques.
Aggressive shoes require a concrete understanding of footwork to use the shoes properly. The strengths of these shoes are the ability to focus the weight of the foot onto pinpoint positions and the ability to pull off of holds using the downturn. If you are not familiar with these techniques, that’s okay! Lots of shoes are designed to teach you them, and you will certainly pick them up as you continue to climb. But avoid falling into the trap because you may end up with foot cramps and shoes that are not right for you!
If you have identified what you are going to use your shoes for, use this to create a list of attributes you’d like your pair to have and make an honest evaluation of your climbing abilities.
4. You’re ready to start trying on shoes!
If your local gym carries climbing shoes, head on in and try on some shoes that have the attributes you want. Other climbing shoe carriers like REI are also great but have a limited selection. So do not feel pigeonholed into buying shoes that they carry. I will order a couple of pairs of shoes on Amazon, try them on, and return them if they aren’t for me.
5. Finally, let’s talk briefly about fitting and sizing.
[ FITTING ]
Your climbing shoes should be snug. If you are going for a more aggressive and/or leather shoe, they may even hurt for a time. Remember that if your leather shoes fit perfectly on day one, they definitely won’t fit perfectly after a month of climbing. Most brands also carry men's and women's versions of their shoes or, more specifically, have narrow and wide-fit models.
[ SIZING ]