Rock climbing is all about footwork, so choosing a pair of climbing shoes may be the most important move you make. They should be a supportive, sticky second skin. Wearing rock shoes, your feet are able to gain purchase on the very smallest edges, or smear to grip the rock even where there are no edges at all. A good pair of climbing shoes will help you climb to the maximum of your ability or ambition while leaving you free to enjoy every second on the rock.
The vast majority of modern rock shoes are slip lasted. This means they are built around a foot shaped mould which creates a more natural and ergonomic shoe. Slip lasted shoes are lighter and more sensitive than the more traditional board-lasted models. Manufacturers put an enormous amount of time and resources into getting the right last for a particular shoe and many brands have an array of different lasts available from flat, straight profiles up to very downturned and asymmetric models. For easier climbs a straight profile (like that of the Boreal Joker) will be the most comfortable option while cutting edge boulder problems and sport routes demand more extreme models like the La Sportiva Solution.
Materials and Stretch
The kind of material used to make a climbing shoe is key in determining how it performs. As you climb and exert force through the shoes (particularly with hot and sweaty feet) some materials will be stretched. This is common with leather uppers which can grow by around a size. Some shoes employ a lining inside the leather to help retain the original fit but even then you may get an overall softening effect that can move the apparent fit up by half a size. To solve this some manufacturers use non-stretch materials, particularly Lorica. This won't stretch at all so you can rely on the original fit staying throughout the lifetime of the shoes. Hybrid designs like the Scarpa Vapour V just use Lorica over the toes to prevent stretch in that crucial area.
In the same way that brands make careful choices on the last and materials used to create a shoe for a particular purpose, they may choose different rubbers to achieve different performance characteristics. As a general rule it is a compromise between durability and friction. Beginners' shoes usually prioritise durability, so that the rubber lasts a long time even when it may be scuffed regularly. Some beginners' models will even have an extra millimetre or two of rubber at the toe to give extra longevity. These harder compounds will tend to provide superior edging power, retaining their shape under pressure. Stickier rubber will smear really well but is more prone to wear and thinning around the toe.
Good examples would be between the Boreal Joker and Luna which use durable FS Quattro rubber versus the Boreal Lynx which has high friction Zenith rubber; the more subtle difference between Five Ten Stealth C4 for friction versus Onyxx for edging; or Vibram XS Edge versus XS Grip 2.
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Ankle to toe lacing gives you fine-tuned control, with the ability to tighten or loosen along the whole length of the shoe and therefore to achieve the most comfortable and supportive fit.
Hook-and-loop (eg. Velcro®)
A hook-and-loop system gives fast, efficient closure and opening. It's particularly useful for bouldering, allowing you to get a good tight fit in use and then to remove them quickly when resting.
Elastic gussets make it super quick and easy to get slippers on and off. Provided the slipper fits well you can get excellent performance with none of the faff associated with laces or hook-and-loop.
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Fitting Climbing Shoes
When starting out it's important not to be seduced into getting a tight ‘technical' fit. At this stage the best way to improve your climbing is simply to climb. Very tight shoes (the kind that make you wince when you stand up in them) are simply going to put you off climbing and make you regret splashing the cash on them! Therefore go easy on your feet; choose an all-round style and fit it so that your toes touch the end, perhaps slightly curled but definitely not crammed in. You will climb better and longer with a comfortable fit.
As time goes on and the routes ticklist gets longer you may wish to move on to a more technical rock shoe and perhaps a more precise fit. This is a good time to think about the kind of routes you climb. If it's all multipitch trad routes then stick with a stiffer, supportive shoe and a reasonably comfortable fit. If you're specialising in bouldering it may be worth considering a tighter fitting, Velcro closure shoe. Intermediates will appreciate the extra precision and edging power you get from snug fitting shoes and a slightly crimped toe position.
At the top end, rock shoes tend to be designed for specialist performance in certain disciplines. Some are very downturned and intended for prehensile sensitivity on bouldering roofs and overhanging sport routes. Others may be stiffer and skinnier for precision on technical walls where accurate edging is called for. The heel will usually be aggressively angled, a design that locks your foot in the shoe and forces toes into the toe box. It is common to go for a tight and precise fit that allows maximum power to be exerted on minimal holds.
Women and Kids
Female-specific models have reduced volume down the length of the shoe. They may also be lower at the ankle and slimmer in the heel. The overall feel is generally less roomy and these models can be just as good for men with low volume feet. Kids don't have to miss out either! Junior models are designed with one simple hook-and-loop strap. They also have a heel adjuster which can be used to change the length of the shoe, a practical touch that extends use for growing feet.
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Tips For Trying On Climbing Shoes
A badly fitting pair of rock shoes can really put you off climbing but getting the right fit is very difficult to do on the internet! Therefore we recommend you visit a store and try a range of different models to get the right shoe and size for your needs.
If you haven't worn rock shoes before, come with realistic expectations of what climbing shoes should feel like. The likelihood is they will not be the comfiest things you have ever worn! However they should also not be crazily tight, especially for beginners. Make sure your toes are at least touching the end (and ideally are slightly curved) so that you will be as close as possible to the rock.
Different manufacturers have radically different sizing structures. You could be a size 9 in one, an 8.5 in another, a 7.5 in another. It is very common to size down when fitting rock shoes, especially since your toes will be right at the end – it's definitely not a trainer fit! Therefore go in with an open mind, start at your shoe size but be prepared to go down (or up) to get the fit you need. It's a very subjective process and it's not the final number that matters but how the shoe feels and performs.
Feet swell slightly through the day and this can be exacerbated in warm weather. Therefore you will get a better 'worst case scenario' fit if you try shoes in the afternoon or after a walk.
Many shops will have a selection of climbing holds or edges that you can use to test shoes. Stand on the holds using different parts of your foot – the big toe, inside forefoot and outside forefoot. Check that you feel stable. When edging check that the shoe isn't rotating around your foot (as this can indicate the shoe is slightly too wide or that it isn't fastened correctly).
We hope that with the tips above you can get a great fit and really enjoy your climbing.
See our full range of climbing shoes here.