The Ultimate Guide to Climbing Shoes | EpicTV Gear Guide
Whether you're a beginner or advanced climber, a sport or trad enthusiast, this comprehensive guide will help you to understand every aspect of a climbing shoe so that you're able to always choose the one that's exactly right for you and your climbing discipline. A climbing shoe is the one piece of gear that directly affects how well you climb. Buy smart, climb better.
• Profile and Last Shape
• Midsole and Flexibility
• Uppers: Natural, Lined, and Synthetic
• Closure Type
• Rubber and Sensitivity
• Fitting Your Climbing Shoe
Profile and Last Shape
Flat, Moderate, or Downturned?
Flat profiled shoes are ideal for beginners as they are more forgiving on weak toes and feet, but they're also suitable for multipitch routes, big wall climbing, slab climbing and crack climbing. This all comes down to comfort: the more natural a shoe's shape is (i.e., how it aligns with the natural shape of your foot), the longer you can wear it without pain or discomfort. In terms of technical advantages, a neutral shape is able to fluidly slot into toe jams while crack climbing, and it also has the greatest contact surface area for smearing.
Downturn comes into its own on anything past the vertical. On overhanging, steep territory, its arched shape, which pre-positions the foot into a "hooking" position, allows it to cling onto steep and far-away holds with much less effort and energy than a flat-profiled shoe would. This shape is often referred to as "aggressive", for obvious reasons.
All-round performance comes from the middle ground. A moderate camber or even just a downturned toe will provide a balance of vertical and overhanging performance, comfort and power.
Last shape is usually rated between straight and asymmetrical. (You might also see shoes rated as highly asymmetrical, low asymmetry, etc.) Asymmetry directs the foot's power through the big toe, enhancing precision and stability on tiny footholds. It's ideal for any type of climbing with thin edges and micro nubbins; however, this twisted shape does lack the comfort of a low-asymmetry last. It will also make smearing and slotting into cracks more difficult.
Rigid soles are ideal for both longer climbs and edging where they minimise foot and calf fatigue and increase stability. Simply put, the extra foot support reduces the amount of energy required by you to stand and balance on a hold. Multi-pitch climbers (considering it's not on slab) will benefit from a harder midsole, as well as anyone purely climbing vertical routes where a considerable amount of weight is loaded onto the feet.
Soft soles are more ideal for short boulder routes and technical climbing as their supple design allows the shoe to bend and flex to stay hooked onto steep holds as well as perform technical toe-hooking manoeuvres. With minimum foot support, this can be quite fatiguing if you're on the vertical, but its adaptibility makes it much more versatile for technical, steep climbing. It also excels at smearing.
Medium-stiffness - when combined with the right shape - provides all-round performance: stiffness and support for edging; flexibility for technical climbing. This level of stiffness is also ideal for crack climbing, as it allows you to twist and lock the shoe within the crack.
The Miura XX is a great example of how brands play with shape and stiffness. It's downturned and aggressive, but its rigid sole provides maximum foot support, for long and technical sport climbs.
Uppers: Natural, Lined, and Synthetic
The keyword here is stretch. Shoes have three different types of uppers, all of which stretch differently.
Unlined (leather and suede) uppers can stretch up to a full size. Lined uppers only stretch about ½ a size. Synthetic uppers may become slightly softer over time and "break-in"; however, they will stretch very little, if not at all.
Another thing to bear in mind is odour. Do you have feet that cause people to evacuate the gym everytime you take your shoes off? Leather and suede uppers are naturally more breathable and also inhibit the growth of odour-causing bacteria, so they stay fresher for longer. Synthetic uppers, on the other hand, don’t do this as efficiently as natural uppers, but they do have the ability to absorb and wick moisture which can be desirable in certain settings. Some brands, such as Evolv, actually treat their synthetic uppers with an antimicrobial finish to help combat smells and bacteria in order to bring them to a similar level of freshness as their natural counterparts.
Synthetic uppers are also vegan-friendly.
The Break-In Period
Leather and suede uppers are all about pain and gain. They require an often painful break–in period that can be annoying and impact your climbing. But, their reward for your perseverence is a custom fit that’s highly responsive to your unique foot shape. If they're unlined, they're also the most breathable type of upper; they keep feet cooler in shoes that are going to be worn all-day in hot weather.
Natural uppers have another disadvantage. As they stretch, they begin to lose their original shape. This will only be after heavy use, but it can be especially detrimental in downturned shoes that rely on their shape to provide performance.
Synthetic uppers, on the other hand, provide out-of-the-box performance that's permanent. This means less pain, but it also means less gain: they may never feel as comfortable or as customised as a shoe that has been allowed to stretch and mould to your foot's unique shape; however, they will survive much longer.
Lined shoes offer a balance between the two, minimising stretch in certain areas but still allowing enough for a decent degree of moulding. Lined shoes (specifically ones with lined toe-boxes) decrease sensitivity - i.e., your foot's ability to "feel" minute features and holds on the rock. This is because the extra material between your toes and the shoe's rubber acts as a desensitiser, numbing your toes and preventing you from detecting useable features. This can be especially hindering on rocks like granite that regularly feature imperceptible footholds.
Shoes come with full or partial linings, so check its tech specs to know exactly what you're getting.
One more thing - don’t worry if your shoes are taking a while to break-in and feel comfortable; this is completely normal! Five Ten estimate around ten pitches for a lined leather shoe to break in.
Laces provide the most precise fit of all the closure types, which is useful if you have feet with irregular dimensions and find it hard to fit climbing shoes perfectly. They are also often found on more comfortable shoes that don't need to be repeatedly removed between short climbs.
A lace closure sytem has another effect on a climbing shoe: it makes it stiffer. By restricting the movement of the shoe's materials and creating a firmer base on which to stand on (i.e., anchoring the sole to the shoe's upper), laced shoes tend to feel more secure on microholds where rigidity is key. (Side note: the same applies for rubbers designed for edging. These rubbers use a harder compound that deforms less when weight is loaded on them.)
Slip-on shoes can be very easily “slipped” on and off, making them ideal for more aggressive shoes. They’re also, generally, much more supple, as their materials provide no barriers that would otherwise hinder suppleness and flexibility. They are also easier to perform technical manouevres with. (Side note: you should always fit slippers as snugly as possible, with no dead spaces.)
Velcro closures are highly popular options as they provide the best of both worlds: a more customised fit than a slipper, with quicker on-offs than laces. Not too stiff, not too flexible; just all-round. Some shoes feature one Velcro strap, others feature three, and some have their own specialised closure systems, like the Tenaya Mundaka featured below. Click the gif to see it in action!
Rubber and Sensitivity
Sensitivity is how easily your feet are able to "feel" subtle features in the rock's surface.
It's particularly important on rocks like granite boulders that require standing on micro crystals and paper-thin edges. A foot surrounded by thick rubber would simply not allow you to find them. Whilst you can always try to rely on your sight, depending on the climb, this isn't always an option. It's much more effective to trust the more attuned sensations of your foot against the rock.
Thickness is the main decider when it comes to sensitivity, but it also affects how durable the shoe is. The thinner the rubber, the more sensitive the shoe is; the thicker the rubber, the more durable the shoe is. Thicker rubber also provides added cushioning and protects and supports the toes on longer climbs.
What do you need a shoe for? If you need a gym climbing shoe, for example, you won't need much sensitivity; all the holds are layed out for you. Around 4mm of outsole rubber tends to be the average for climbing shoes. 3mm gives you high sensitivity; 5mm provides durability.
How to Correctly Fit Your Climbing Shoe
Why can't a prince simply present us with a shoe that fits perfectly? Unfortunately, prince charming won't help us here, so we've provided a few tips to help you find the perfect fit.
Here is a list of things to consider when trying on climbing shoes:
1. Size doesn’t matter. Street shoe size, that is. You may find that you have to size up or down - by a fair bit in some cases - to find the perfect fit. Remember to try on a range of sizes, and also keep in mind that all brands use different sizing systems; one brand's shoe may fit completely differently to another of the same size.
2. Does the shoe have a lined, unlined, or synthetic upper? Unlined uppers tend to be leather or suede and can stretch up to a full size; lined uppers only stretch about ½ a size; and synthetic uppers, whilst they may become slightly softer over time, will stretch very little if not at all. Always find out what type of upper the shoe has so that you can size correctly.
3. Feet swell between ½ a size and a full size during the day. Five Ten make a very important point overlooked by most: try on shoes in the afternoon or getting the blood flowing to your feet in order to fit a shoe to your true climbing size.
4. Pain isn’t gain. Climbing shoes should eliminate dead space, but they should not create painful hotspots. Check for empty space in the toes, heel, and forefoot which could hinder performance. Empty space is not your friend.
5. Snug or loose? Performance shoes and slippers tend to require a snugger, performance fit. All-day shoes can be worn looser for comfort. Brands like La Sportiva provide a handy sizing recommendation for all their shoes to help you out with this.