September 28, 2018
So your adventurous urges have led you to take that first step into a new endeavor, or perhaps you’ve finally busted your big toe through those street-shoe-sized starters, or maybe you’ve already graduated to cooking quinoa outta the car and are merely looking for that precise tool to enhance your climbing style; regardless of what stage of climbing you are in, we all face that crucial and sometimes tedious task of committing to a new pair of climbing shoes. Flat, banana-shape, screaming euro colors, the sea of choices can seem overwhelming for new climbers and a challenging decision for seasoned veterans as well. Fortunately, we enjoy sweating the details about this kinda stuff, and will break the process down into some key points to consider when searching for that metaphorical glass slipper, hopefully cutting down your exposure time with those aromatic rental shoes.
For most of us, a pair of climbing shoes is the first piece of equipment we will ever purchase, as well as the most important in a climber’s toolbox (unless you’re Sylvester Stallone) . You should consider the type of climbing you are looking to do; bouldering, sport, or multi-pitch trad all have their own nuances for which shoes have been designed. For instance, boulderers typically prefer shoes with more aggressive downturn and softer rubber, while that salty old crack climber wants a hard flat shoe for twisting in those toe locks. The different disciplines will also vary in the duration of time you’ll be spending in a shoe, which plays into the type of closure system you might choose. A final point to consider is your experience level. New comers are generally better suited to a flatter shoe with harder rubber while they get a feel for the game and develope that ballerina-like strength in their feet.
Flat shaped or neutral shoes are the most comfortable in that they let toes be themselves. Typically they sport thicker rubber soles, and because of this additional support along with their comfortability, they make a good a companion for those long multi-pitch outings. Flat shoes climb most anything but work best when on slab, vertical rock, or prodding cracks. Due to their versatility and natural shape they make a great option for those new to climbing.
The Ol’all-rounder (aka slightly cambered) shoe is considered a step up in performance as its subtle arch focuses more power to the toe of the shoe. Its increased precision makes it hungry for steep faces and cracks, while it is also capable of tangoing with the overhangs. You will usually see softer and thinner rubber soles accompanying this style of shoe, resulting in better rock sensitivity but quicker wear.
Looking more like raptor talons than shoes, the aggressively downturned style brings a lot of heel tension while also driving the power of the foot to the point of the toe. The dramatic hook shape specializes in wratcheding off the tiniest of divots while your forearms burn from your contest with gravity. This design is intended for steep vertical faces and sustained overhanging climbing, making them the ideal tool for bouldering and hard sport-climbing. Their contorted shape do make them less comfortable however, and they are best used in single-pitch climbing rather than long days in the mountains. Typically this style will be made with the thinnest and softest rubber to enhance performance.
While this feature often comes down to personal preference, the type of climbing of you engage in will also factor into the decision. Sport, bouldering, or gym climbing usually consists of shorter stints on the wall with breaks in between; while in the case of multi-pitch trad, a climber may want to keep their shoes on for the better part of the day.
Laced shoes offer the best in adjustability and can be worn for long periods due to this. They give you the ability to relieve swollen feet during the midday heat, or cinch them down tight for those upcoming crux pitches. Because of their longer dismount time however, they are better suited for longer climbs.
Velcro seems to be the moderator between custom fit and ease of entry. While not as adjustable as lace-ups, they can be taken on and off very quickly, therefore make great shoes for bouldering, sport, and gym climbing.
Slip-ons are a name and the instructions all in one. They feature an elastic closure that make switching back to sandals a breeze. Generally constructed with softer soles, their greater sensitivity is good for precision and strengthening feet. While they are the most comfortable closure system, be careful to fit them tight because they will stretch more than other types of shoes.
Finding the Right Fit
It’s best to do your shoe shopping later in the day after having been on your feet for some time, when they are naturally swollen. Your street shoe size is a good starting point, from here you will more than likely downsize. Toes should be pressed up against the end of the shoe, either lying flat or slightly curled. Make sure other parts such as the heel and midfoot don’t have any loose spots. You want a fit that is snug but not too painful. However, they should feel a little uncomfortable at first, given they will stretch out over time with use. Remember, not all lasts are created equal, and you are in a sense searching for your long lost foot twin; a combination of size, shape, and volume must be met, so not every model on the market will be for your foot type. Be sure to try out a number of different models and sizes.
The material used for a shoe’s upper will play a role in its stretch, stench, and durability. Of the three main materials used, each present an up and downside, making personal preference the ultimate deciding factor.
Leather shoes will stretch most, as much as a full size (possibly more), but this malleability will also produce a customized fit for your foot. The most breathable of the three materials, they rank lowest in the offensive smell category. One potential drawback however, is the chance your feet may emerge the same color as your shoe the first couple of wears due to the dye used on them.
Lined leather has the addition of a synthetic liner which helps reduce stretch after purchase to about ⅓ to ½ size difference. Shoes can come partially or fully lined. In the case of a fully lined shoe, the extra material in the area of the toe is a disadvantage for climbing sensitivity. Lined shoes rate in the middle of the pack for breathability and effervescence.
Synthetic uppers have the upside that they are ready to go out of the box, maintaining their shape with very minimal stretch; the trade off being they will not mould to your feet in the same way a shoe that stretches can. Notoriously the smelliest of the bunch, but notably the most durable, synthetic shoes are a yin & yang of attributes.
When it comes to climbing shoe soles, all of them are the same in that they are made of sticky rubber, beyond that it can become a dizzying array of the different types of rubber, and edge or no-edge technology. For clarity’s sake, you will usually see brands such as Vibram, Stealth, and Trax rubber. One of the main factors to pay attention to is whether the shoe has the futuristic “no-edge” technology or the traditional edge technology.
Just how pants can come pre-worn with rips, tears, and fades, climbing shoes now can come without an edge, however, in the case of climbing shoes, this is not a fashion statement. The main idea behind no edge technology is sensitivity. Thinner rubber sans edge, means the climber’s toes are closer to the foothold, giving the climber more sensitivity and surface contact between the rubber and the rock.
When it comes to precision edging the traditional edge technology remains unparalleled in performance. For those starting out, the simplicity of an edge and the durability of a thick sole could save you from holes as you scuff your way towards better technique, while the extra support gives you the longer sessions to get there.
Shoe Care & Storage
- Let’s start by saying you’ll need to curb any involuntary habit of baking your shoes in the trunk of your car following a sweaty climbing session. Not only will it melt glue and delaminate the rand, the heat causes the shoe’s rubber to deform. Be sure to air out shoes in a cool, dry place when finished climbing.
- Rock shoes are meant for vertical travel not horizontal, refrain from wearing them on approaches and take them off in between climbs to avoid unnecessary wear and tear. Many shoes, especially downturned models have molded shapes that can be ruined by walking around in them.
- After climbing use a damp rag to wipe the soles clean, then wipe them dry. If you notice a loss of grip over time, using coarse sandpaper or a wire brush, and lightly scrub the bottoms of the sole.
- Spot clean dirty uppers with rubbing alcohol or a little water, don’t use too much water as it can prematurely break down leather shoes.
- Hey, focus on that footwork. Good footwork leads to less dragging over rough rock surfaces and prolongs the life of your purchase.
Try Them on in Person!
There is no better way of knowing what’s a good shoe for you than getting your feet into a variety of them. A good first step is finding a store with a climbing wall (Ahem… Like the GC), so you can test out the real scenario and get a good feel for how a shoe responds for you. If possible try shoes on with no socks on, most climbers go barefooted after they’ve moved on from the rentals. Put pressure on the different parts of the shoe to see how the all-around fit is for you. And ask lots of questions, most people are pretty psyched that they work in a climbing store, and will gladly spray you with the beta.