It only takes one slickrock scramble or gravel-filled gully to understand why so many climbers opt for approach shoes: Getting to the climb can be half the battle, and a sticky, purpose-made shoe can make a massive difference in your stability in tricky terrain. They’re called approach shoes because of this purpose—helping climbers reach backcountry routes—but approach shoes are also great for hikers who need good traction and agility for scrambling.
Approach shoes are a hybrid between climbing shoes and hiking shoes. They’re stiff enough to support your foot during sections of easy technical climbing or scrambling, have a defined edge for gripping small footholds, and sport a low-profile rubber sole for superior friction on rock slabs. As a hybrid shoe, they exist on a spectrum: Some are more comfortable and supportive for hiking, while others are designed for legit fifth-class climbing. Use this guide to common materials, features, and sizing considerations to help you choose the best approach shoes for your goals.
Leather approach shoes tend to be more durable, more water-resistant, and more protective against rocks, thorns, and cactus spines. They also tend to be warmer. Those qualities make them ideal for hard three-season use, technical climbing, and kicking steps in snow. However, they tend to be heavier and less breathable than synthetic options, and once they’re wet they take a long time to dry.
Synthetic knit or mesh uppers are lighter-weight, more breathable, and faster-drying than leather. They’re ideal for hiking in hot weather or moving quickly over easy terrain. However, they’re less insulative, which could mean cold toes during long shoulder-season belays. They also tend to be less durable than leather.
Different approach shoes have different tread patterns and constructions. Here are some common features to consider.
Climbing Zone: If you plan to stand on smaller footholds or do any technical edging, look for an approach shoe with a smooth rubber “climbing zone” at the front of the sole, just under the toes. A sharp edge at the lip of the rand and a flat surface under your toes will give you maximum contact when pressing into tiny rock steps.
Dot Rubber: Many climbing shoes have a pattern of shallow, circular lugs, which spread out when weighted, giving you maximum contact with the rock underfoot. The only downside: they’re often too shallow to grip loose or sandy terrain.
Heel Brakes: Approach shoes designed for hiking often have deeper lugs under the forefoot and more angular lugs under the heel. Those lugs dig in when you’re descending trails, preventing slips.
Rand: The rand is the swath of rubber that wraps the shoe between the upper and the sole. If you plan to do a lot of crack climbing, look for a rubber rand that rises higher over the toes to protect your foot. If you’re hiking in hot weather, a lower rand will be more breathable.
Cushioning: Approach shoes with a cushioned midsole tend to be more comfortable for long approaches or hikes with a heavy pack. However, shoes with minimal cushioning offer better sensitivity for climbing in technical terrain.
Waterproofing: Waterproof approach shoes have obvious benefits for wet conditions and shallow water crossings. However, the waterproof membrane reduces breathability, so they can get sweaty in warm weather.