How to Choose Rock Climbing Shoes
Updated: Jan 3
There are lots of different types of climbing shoes. Some are aggressive with down turned toe boxes, and some are great for beginner climbers, like those with flat soles. Some are better for edging, while others are perfect for heel hooking!
There are thousands of online reviews and blogs explaining which is the best bouldering shoe, and which is the best pair of all around climbing shoes. But here is a secret they might not share with you: there’s no best climbing shoe or climbing shoe brand!
Does this mean that one pair of rock shoes is distinctly better than the others? Of course not! Different outdoor and indoor rock climbing shoes excel at different things. After reading this article you should be able to understand which is going to be the right pair for you!
Climbing Shoe Brands:
There are several classic shoe brands which include: La Sportiva , FiveTen, Evolv, Madrock, and Scarpa. Over the years other rock shoe brands have come onto the market including, Butora, Tenaya, Black Diamond, and Unparalleled UP.
Each of these companies carries a selection of shoes from beginner climbing shoes to advanced pairs.
It is also good to note that most, if not all, of these brands both carry kid's rock climbing shoes and climbing shoes for adults. They also carry men's shoes, along with women's climbing shoes. Women's shoes are often now being rebranded as 'low volume climbing shoes', because the reality is that a lot of men with smaller feet actually fit better into 'female' climbing shoes!
What is a low volume climbing shoe? Low volume climbing shoes are just a bit more narrow than normal climbing shoes.
What does a rock climbing shoe cost?
You can expect to pay anywhere from around $85 for an entry level shoe, to upwards of $200 for a performance climbing shoe.
Climbing Shoe Types:
There are three basic types neutral or flat, moderate, and aggressive.
Neutral Climbing Shoes:
For beginner climbers, we absolutely recommend starting out with a neutral climbing shoe like the La Sportiva Tarantulace, Evolv Defy, or the Black Diamond Momentum.
Neutral rock shoes are not only for beginner climbers though! Flat climbing shoes are great for climbing on 'vert' or vertical rock walls with no overhang, or when sticking your feet into cracks when crack climbing.
Flat shoes like the La Sportiva, TC Pros are going to be an awesome option for this type of climbing. The TC Pros are the rock shoes that Alex Honnold used in Free Solo!
Moderate Climbing Shoes:
Moderate or all-around climbing shoes are a great segway between the comfortable world of neutral shoes and the painful world of aggressive climbing shoes! These are awesome for outdoor rope climbing and indoor rope climbing.
One of our favorite all around pairs is the La Sportiva Finale.
Aggressive Climbing Shoes:
Aggressive climbing shoes are characterized by their distinct downturned front toe box. These resemble the beak of a bald eagle and can be just as ruthless on your feet. Aggressive climbing shoes are perfect for steep overhanging climbing walls, where climbers really need to dig their toes into holds to stay on the wall.
However, they can be painful to wear because of the way they curl your toes when you wear them. If you are a new climber don't feel the pressure to get a pair of aggressive shoes just because you see the 'strong' climbers wearing them. They really are a specialized tool for advanced climbers.
One of our favorite aggressive climbing shoes is the Butora Acro!
What size climbing shoe should I buy?
Climbing shoes should fit snuggly like a warm hug. There is an old-school idea that you should get the absolute smallest pair you can fit your foot into, but this really is not the case.
How should a climbing shoe fit?
Climbing shoes should fit like a glove. You want to minimize the 'dead space' in the shoe, meaning you want your foot to take up as much of the space inside the shoe as possible. That being said you need to wear these things and if you get a pair that is so small you are in so much pain you can't focus on your climbing, that is no bueno!
Note that climbing shoes are going to fit tighter when you first buy them. You may be asking yourself, "Okay, well can you stretch a rock climbing shoe?" The answer is, "Yes!" All you need to do is to wear them and they will stretch natuarlly!
How to pick a climbing shoe, a step-by-step guide!
1. What am I going to use these for?
Gym Sport Climbing
Outdoor Sport Climbing
Learning to Boulder
Gym Top Rope
Learning to Sport Climb
Shoes for Crack Climbing
Different types of climbing shoes are going to be good for different types of climbing. Once you have narrowed down the type of climbing you think you will be doing, you can figure out which is right for you!
If you are going to use them frequently for training or for regular bouldering sessions, you would not want to buy shoes with thin rubber because they will wear out very quickly. If you are picking out a pair for long top rope climbs in the climbing gym, you would not want a pair of aggressive shoes because your feet would start hurting halfway through the climb!
2. What features do I want in a climbing shoe?
Here’s a breakdown of the attributes that a climber should consider when choosing a climbing shoe!
[ MATERIAL ]
Leather: Leather climbing shoes are going to stretch a half-size to even a full size. Something to look out for is that the dyes in the leather may dye your feet for the first few wears.
Synthetic: Shoes with synthetic uppers will not stretch as much, so the break-in process is a bit easier.
[ RUBBER ]
Rubber density: Thin rubber shoes offer the climber more sensitivity while climbing. Thin rubber also creates a lighter shoe. However, one thing to keep in mind is that the thinner the rubber, the fewer uses you will get out of your shoes. Many shoes that are branded 'comp' climbing shoes, like the Scarpa Drogos, are going to have thin rubber. This is so they can flex and stick to large climbing volumes.
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. Rubber on top of the toe box will allow the climber to use the toe hook technique more effectively.
[ CLOSING APPARATUS ]
Laces: The first climbing shoes were all lace-up shoes. Laces allow the climber to customize their shoe's fit: tighter in some places or looser in others. But then you have to deal with laces. This means tying and untying between climbs 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.
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 climbing 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.
[ OTHER ATTRIBUTES ]
Downturn/Aggressiveness: The more aggressive a shoe is, the better it will perform when executing precise footwork. 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. Toe-boxes range from larger and boxier to very precise and pointy. A pointier toe-box will bring all of the force you apply to a climbing 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 climbing 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. You want to make sure that the heel cup fits nicely on the back of your foot, so that when you heel hook your heel does not slip out!
3. What kind of climbing shoes do I really need?
Avoid buying aggressive climbing shoes as a new climber because you may end up with foot cramps and shoes that are not right for you!
4. Where to try on climbing shoes!
You may be asking yourself, "where can I buy climbing shoes?" Your local gym should carry a stock, head on in and try on some shoes that have the attributes you want. REI also has a great selection and an awesome shoe return policy. You can also look at your local climbing equipment store!
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 model or a leather climbing 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 regular size and low-volume climbing shoes. These will be branded as men's and women's climbing shoes. Women's rock shoes are going to have a narrow fit, while men's are going to have a wider fit.
[ SIZING ]
Your first pair of climbing shoes should be somewhere around your street shoe size. For your next pair, you may want to think about downsizing a halfsize or even downsizing a full size from your street shoe. Unfortunately, there is no real way to know until you try some on.
You will learn how different brands and types of shoes fit you over time. Different brands have different sizing. For instance, if you wear a size 10.5 street shoe, that is going to be a size 8 for La Sportriva Miuras, and a 9 for Evolv Defys!
If you need more help picking out shoes or want a couple more tips, come to the gym and ask anyone at the front desk or even any of the climbers around the gym! We have all been through the shoe-choosing process and can offer you our take on it. Remember, though, it’s about choosing a climbing shoe that’s right for you!
Now that you understand how to choose your climbing shoes read about how to choose a climbing harness.