How to Choose the Best Climbing Shoes

How to Choose the Best Climbing Shoes

If you start asking around, you’ll probably hear some dubious recommendations when it comes to buying climbing shoes. Maybe you’ve been told you need a super-aggressive downturned shoe. Or that lace-ups are always better. Or that if your feet don’t hurt, the shoes aren’t tight enough—no pain, no gain. 

The good news is that these are all misconceptions. When it comes to buying your first climbing shoe, comfort is paramount. There are dozens of shoe styles available, and every climber has different needs—no matter what you hear at the gym. 

Get the right shoes with this guide to what’s available, how to properly size climbing shoes, and how to buy a pair that’s perfect for your needs. 

Types of Climbing Shoes

Climbing shoes come in a variety of styles, but shape and stiffness are the two factors you want to pay attention to most.

Shoe Shape

Neutral Climbing Shoes: These shoes have a “flat” appearance—the bottom of the shoe lies flush against the ground. They tend to require less break-in time, closely mimic street-shoe sizing, and remain comfortable over long days, especially on multi-pitch routes. They’re also great for crack climbing.

Aggressive Climbing Shoes: These shoes are more downturned, or hook-like, in appearance. They’re often better for technical climbing with small footholds and provide more purchase on overhanging routes. Aggressive shoes also tend to require more break-in time.

Moderate Climbing Shoes: This category, not surprisingly, falls somewhere in between. They’re jacks of all trades but usually, as the saying goes, masters of none. These can be a great option for intermediate climbers, or climbers who spend a lot of time in the gym or on varying terrain. 

Shoe Stiffness

Soft: These shoes have a squishy feel. To test, put your thumb along the inside edge of the forefoot of the shoe and your fingers along the outside edge. Squeeze. If the forefoot folds lengthwise into a taco, you’ve got a soft shoe. Soft, “gummy” shoes conform to your foot and mold to the rock, making them a great choice for bouldering, slab climbing, or other styles that require “pasting” your feet against the rock to produce friction.

Stiff: These shoes have a plate of rigid material, usually plastic, under the forefoot. They’re a great choice for “edging” or standing on tiny holds on vertical rock. Stiff shoes can also be a good choice for shorter climbers, as they allow the climber to stand up higher on small footholds (picture a ballerina en pointe.) Stiff shoes are often preferred for rigid, slippery rock types like limestone. 

Climbing Shoe Materials

Leather: This is generally considered a higher-quality material and tends to last longer than synthetic. The downside: It stretches more over time unless the shoe features a wide swath of rubber over the toe or a non-leather lining material to reign in stretch.

Synthetic: Shoes made with synthetic materials also break in a bit but mostly retain their out-of-the-box fit. The downside: They tend to smell worse over time.

Closure System

Many climbing shoes come in two versions: a lace-up and a hook-and-loop closure (like Velcro). Laces allow a more custom fit, but they’re harder to get on and off. Hook-and-loop tabs tend to be better for gym climbing, sport climbing, or bouldering when you’re frequently in and out of your shoes. 

How to Fit a Climbing Shoe  

While some climbers swear by painfully tight shoes, you’ll generally get the best performance from shoes that are snug without any pinching or pressure points. No surprise: It’s hard to maintain good form when you’re wincing on every foothold. Too-tight shoes can also cause painful conditions like bone spurs, bursitis, or bunions, or aggravate existing issues. 

Performance-Fit Shoes

The advice above notwithstanding, there are times you’ll want shoes that are pretty darn snug. For routes or boulders at your limit, you’ll likely want a shoe that’s one to two full sizes down from your street-shoe size. Remember that most shoes stretch about a half size during break-in (and a few all-leather models can stretch as much as two sizes). Your post-break-in shoe should require a little effort to get into, but be comfortable to wear for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. When shopping, try on shoes from many different manufacturers and across both genders. If a shoe feels like a good all-around fit but just a little snug, go down a full size. If that’s painful, then split the difference with a half size. 

All-Day Shoes

If you’re shopping for a pair of all-day or multi-pitch shoes, consider going down just a half size or a whole size from your street-shoe size. Your end goal is a shoe that is sensitive enough to feel small footholds, but that is easy to slip in and out of and comfortable for hours at a time. You may also want to select a stiffer shoe, which will provide more support and reduce end-of-day fatigue in your toes and arches. 

How to Buy Climbing Shoes on a Budget

These days, it’s not uncommon for high-end climbing shoes to top $200. They can be worth the cost for ambitious climbers, but you don’t need to spend that much to get a good pair. And if you’re new to the sport, it can be smart to spend less while you figure out what styles work best for you. Besides, climbing shoes wear down quickly, especially if you’re still getting your footwork dialed. New climbers tend to go through shoes faster than more experienced ones. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of resources for more affordable shoes. Entry-level and intermediate models are often budget-friendly. On the used-shoe front, many climbing gyms sell their rental fleets every year, and local used-gear stores and consignment shops can also be a great resource.  

Questions to Ask Yourself 

Now that you understand the various factors to consider with climbing shoes, it will be helpful to assess your individual needs and goals before shopping. Ask yourself these questions: 

  1. What fit am I looking for? Do I have particularly wide or narrow feet? 
  2. Do I have any pre-existing conditions like circulation issues, bunions, or bone spurs that might affect how tight I can safely wear my shoes? 
  3. What are my climbing goals in the next year or two? 
  4. What locations will I most likely be climbing in? 
  5. What’s the longest climbing day I plan on doing? 
  6. Will I be mostly trad climbing, sport climbing, or bouldering? 
  7. How much am I willing to spend on a shoe? 
  8. How important is comfort to my enjoyment of the sport?

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.