How to Choose Approach Shoes

How To Choose the Best Approach Shoes

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. 

Upper Materials 

Leather 

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 

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.

Features

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.  

Fit

If you’re planning to use your approach shoes more for low fifth-class climbing than for hiking, choose stiffer, narrower-fitting shoes that are closer to your climbing shoe size—maybe a half-size up from what you wear as a comfortable gym shoe or all-day multi-pitch rock shoe. That snug fit will give you better precision on the rock. If you plan to use your shoes for longer approaches and hikes, treat them like a hiking shoe: Choose a shoe with a wider toe box and size them as you would your hiking shoes. That “hiker-friendly” sizing will also be welcome if you plan to wear your approach shoes for long days of belaying at the crag.

Key Questions
Before you shop for a new pair of approach shoes, ask yourself these questions.

Terrain

  1. Do I plan to use my approach shoes more for hiking or climbing? Should I prioritize comfort or precision? 
  2. Do I need a stiffer shoe that can handle edging and technical footwork? 
  3. Do I need heel brakes or deep lugs for traction in loose terrain? 
  4. Do I need a stiffer shoe that can kick steps in snow or scree? 

Comfort 

  1. How much weight am I carrying? Do I need a shoe with a cushioned midsole?
  2. What will the temperatures be like? Do I need a warmer shoe or a more breathable one? 
  3. Will I encounter shallow water crossings? Am I willing to sacrifice breathability for waterproofing?

Durability

  1. Do I need a sturdier leather upper that can withstand lots of scree or gravel?
  2. Do I need a thick upper that can protect my feet from thorns or cactus spines? 
  3. How often do I plan to use my approach shoes? Should I get a heavier shoe that might last longer?

Weight and Packability

  1. Do I usually prefer nimble trail runners to hiking boots? Do I want lightweight approach shoes that are similarly agile, or something heavier with more support? 
  2. Will I be using these for multi-pitch climbing? Will I need collapsible approach shoes that I can stash in my pack or clip to my harness, so I can wear them on the hike down?

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.