How to Choose Rock Climbing Shoes
Updated: May 17, 2021
The one thing every rock climber needs is climbing shoes. Unless you're that barefoot boulderer in Fontainebleau of course. But for the rest of us, a specialized climbing shoe is the single piece of gear that will make the biggest difference to our climbing. But if you check out your local climbing shop or reviews on the internet, there are so many options that it's hard to figure out where to start.
What is a Climbing Shoe?
If you are new to climbing, a climbing shoe is form-fitted like a ballet slipper only they are covered with smooth grippy rubber for maximum grip on the rock. They may be lace-up, velcro, or even pull-on slippers. Climbing shoes aren't for walking around in but once the ground turns vertical, they are your secret weapon for sending your climb. Each of the disciplines of climbing has unique needs as far as shoes are concerned which I will cover below but climbers need shoes with sticky rubber and shoes that don't flop around on your feet.
When you see the shoe recommendations below keep in mind that while a shoe might be best suited for one type of climbing, it doesn't mean you can't use it for other climbs. I use an all-around shoe, the Scarpa Vapor V, for bouldering, sport, and trad climbing. Once you get to higher-grade climbs you may find having multiple pairs of shoes for different terrain suits you. Someday you may even wear a different model on each foot like Adam Ondra when he sent Silence (5.15d).
I've made three recommendations for each category based on my own experience and various shoe tests but there are countless options in each category. Don't buy a shoe if it doesn't fit no matter how good the reviews are. There are so many options because feet vary so much.
If a shoe is an unlined leather, buy them a half size small as they will stretch with wear. For synthetic or lined leather shoes, get the fit right in the store as they won't stretch much. For long sessions in the gym, a synthetic engineered knit fabric is nice as it breathes better than leather making for cooler feet.
The rubber on the bottom shoes generally comes in two varieties. Soft for smearing and bouldery routes and hard for edging and crack climbing. The softer the rubber the quicker it will wear so keep this in mind. Unless you climb fairly high-level routes or boulders, I suggest a harder rubber as it will give your feet more support and last longer.
After your first few times in the climbing gym wearing rental shoes, it's time to consider picking up a pair of your own. When you are new to climbing you don't need an aggressive shoe. Look for a flat shoe that is comfortable right out of the gate. The fit should be snug with no extra room in the toes or heel. Regardless of what anyone tells you, don't get them so tight your toes are curled. The shoe should be comfortable enough to wear for a whole session after a couple of weeks of a break-in period. Part of this will the shoe shaping to your feet and part will be you getting used to the shoes.
These shoes tend to have thicker rubber for both durability and stiffness. When you first start climbing your feet aren't strong enough to make use of a softer shoe. As well, when you start you will tend to drag your toes and the extra rubber will help your shoes last until you develop better footwork. Beginner shoes have gotten a lot better over the last few years so you will be able to work up fairly far in the grades with your first shoes.
Great Beginner Shoes:
La Sportiva Tarantula
Short, hard, and steep. This generally sums up what bouldering is. Routes are often less than 15 feet high, the beta is complicated and the problems are usually overhanging. So to excel at this type of climbing, shoe benefits from being downturned. When seen from the side, the shoe looks like a banana. The downturn puts the weight on your toes. Shoes good for bouldering also have extra rubber on the top of the toe and up the back of the heel to facilitate toe and heel hooks. You aren't so much standing on the holds as you are using your toes to propel yourself up the wall and almost grip the holds to pull yourself in like a second set of hands. When fitting bouldering shoes, a slight curl of the toes can be of benefit but I would only suggest this if you are already climbing fairly hard problems.
Great Bouldering Shoes:
La Sportiva Solution
Scarpa Instinct VS
This gets a little tricky as it depends on the grade of climbs. Sport climbing used to be steep overhanging routes that mere mortals couldn't get off the ground, but now you can find bolted routes ranging from 5.5 slabs right up to the hardest routes on the planet. Since sport routes are much longer than boulder problems and may have anything for footholds, you need a shoe that is more versatile. Depending on your grade, a moderate to an extreme downturn will aid your foot placements. A balance of sensitivity and support will give an optimal mix of feeling the hold and being stiff enough to stand on it. Like bouldering shoes, a rubber toe patch and grippy heel will help with hooking techniques. The shoes should be tight enough that you can get all your weight over your big toe but you shouldn't be in pain. It's hard to pull hard when your feet feel like you are getting sharp spikes jammed in your toes.
Great Sport Climbing Shoes:
Five Ten Anasazi Pro
La Sportiva Genius
Scarpa Vapor V
Trad means placing your own protection which often means following cracks. Cracks mean jamming. Jamming means your downturned sport or bouldering shoes will get trashed along with your feet. While there are a few downturned options that happen to also be pretty good crack climbing, generally a flat stiff shoe is easier on your feet. Due to the stiffer nature and flat profile, they also excel on edges and slab climbing. Trad shoes also come in hightop which can save your ankles when you are sticking your whole foot in fist cracks or scraping your whole body up an offwidth.
If the trad routes you are doing are multi-pitch, then the comfort that will come from wearing a trad-specific shoe will be appreciated later in the day. I recently took my Scarpa Vapor V on an 8 pitch adventure, and halfway through the day, my toes wear killing me. I will be getting a specific pair of shoes just for long trad routes for this season.
Great Trad Shoes:
La Sportiva TC Pro'
Go to any climbing gym and you will see more kids than at Chuck E. Cheese. Since the climbing legends of today almost all started as little kids in the gym, we have a need for good but affordable shoes for kids. Since they grow so quickly expect to be getting a new pair at least every year. Don't try to get them into a bigger shoe so it will last longer as it will make it really hard for them to climb well in a floppy shoe. There are a few kid's shoes that are adjustable so you can get a bit of extra time out of them.
Great Kids Climbing Shoes:
Evolv Venga Kids
La Sportiva Maverink
The Wrap Up
Getting well-fitted climbing shoes will do a lot to improve your rock climbing. Get the appropriate style for your type of climbing and focus on a snug but not painful fit. Expect your climbing shoes will take some time to break in.
Cover Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard