A Guide to Climbing Shoes
By David Hallen
There’s something magical about lacing up a pair of perfectly fitted climbing shoes. Like a knight buckling the straps of his armor in preparation for battle, the mental act of cinching laces readies a climber for the send. But how does one find this perfect shoe? As the market for climbing shoes populates, manufacturers advertise talk about performance lasts, high asymmetry, and linings without bothering to define what these terms even mean, let alone how to choose between them. In the paragraphs below, you’ll be introduced to the terms and concepts of climbing shoes while also learning how to make an informed choice regarding the best shoe for you.
Last and Asymmetry
The last is the physical shape of the shoe. When viewing a shoe, there are two key features of a last: the degree of downturn and asymmetry. When it comes to downturn, there are three main levels: flat, arched, and downturned. The more downturned the last, the more load is pushed to the toe of the shoe. Flat, or comfort, are normally seen in shoes with the goal of support and comfort. Downturned, or performance, lasts are the most aggressive. These are generally seen in shoes created for bouldering or steep terrain, such as the La Sportiva Solution. Arched, or tech, lasts fall in the middle. These lasts are frequently seen on shoes meant for all day, or big-wall, usage like the La Sportiva TC Pro.
The asymmetry of the shoe also plays a major role in comfort and performance. Asymmetry is determined by the degree of angle between the toe and heel of a shoe. Generally, shoes are divided into low, medium, high, and very high asymmetry. As with the degree of downturn, the more asymmetric a shoe is, the more load falls onto the toes. This leads to greater discomfort, but more ability to “toe in” on steep holds.
The rand of a shoe is any rubber section that isn’t a part of the sole. While the rand is variable depending on the shoe, two major sections to look at are the toe and the tensioned heel rand. Many shoes have an extensive rand on the toe to aid in toe hooks. Heel rands serve a variety of purposes, including maintaining arch shape and pushing the toe into the front of the shoe. A stronger tensioned heel rand is more uncomfortable, but will load one’s toes more heavily towards the front.
Most modern shoes have one of three types of closure: lace, velcro, and slipper. Lace shoes provide the most customizable fit, allowing the user to tighten different sections of the upper in such a way that conforms perfectly to the user’s foot. This can be especially useful as counter to sore feet at the end of a long day at the crag. As a counter to this benefit, lace shoes take longer to put on than the other two forms of closure. Slipper shoes, on the other hand, are the quickest to take on and off, as the stretchy material conforms to one’s foot without a formal closure. This speed comes at a price: when climbing aggressively, slippers may slide or slip in an inopportune way. Velcro shoes hit a middle-ground between the two other options. Though not as fast to take on and off as a slipper, velcro shoes allow a user to prepare for a climb significantly faster than a lace closure. Velcro shoes do have less customization than a lace shoe, which may lead to issues for climbers with abnormally shaped feet.
The degree of structure, or rigidity, of the midsole helps determine whether a shoe will be more flexible, and therefore better on steeper holds, or more supportive, and therefore better on longer routes. Fully rigid soles can be identified by a full-rubber bottom. The rigidity of these soles create a platform for the climber to stand on, making them more comfortable on longer routes or routes where weight is consistently placed on the feet. Split soles can be identified by a split between two sections of rubber. These shoes are the softest and, therefore, provide the least amount of support to the climber. This flexibility allows for precise, technical movement on steep, overhung holds. Despite this benefit, the lack of support can cause fatigue on longer routes. Partial-split shoes hold the middle ground between these two extremes. While not as good as either split or fully rigid soles at their respective benefit, partial-split shoes provide for solid, all-round performance.
The volume of a shoe is very variant depending on the shoe at hand. Generally, the taller or wider your foot, the more comfortable you’ll be in a higher volume shoe. Due to this, manufacturers tend to make “men’s” shoes higher volume (and generally wider) than “women’s” shoes. Therefore, it’s best to ignore the gender assigned to a shoe and instead focus on what shoe fits your fit best. Try on both the “men’s” and “women’s” version of a shoe and go with the one that feels like a snugger, but not uncomfortable, fit.
Material and Lining
When choosing a climbing shoe, one consideration you’ll have to make is the material that the upper is crafted from. Generally, shoes come in leather, synthetic material, or a blend. Unlined leather shoes tend to be the most breathable and customizable shoes on the market. These shoes stretch .5-1 sizes over the course of their wear-in period, meaning that, as long as you make sure to start with a shoe that’s a little too small, you’ll end up with a shoe that conforms perfectly to your foot. Synthetic uppers generally don’t stretch, making sizing much simpler than the classic leather option. This lack of stretch comes with upsides and downsides. On one hand, the shoe will never provide the custom fit of a well-sized leather shoe. On the other, the comfort and fit out of the box is permanent. It is also worth noting that synthetic shoes tend to be vegan, something that can’t be said for their leather counterparts. In between these two options, one can purchase a blended shoe. These shoes have a mixture of synthetic and leather upper in order to keep fit relatively permanent while allowing customization in certain sections of the shoe. Some blend shoes are “lined”, meaning that they have a synthetic lining within certain parts of the upper. As this adds more material between your foot and the rock, it can lead to a loss of sensitivity in comparison to unlined shoes.
A final consideration to take into account when purchasing shoes is the type of rubber used. When judging rubber, look to both the compound and thickness of the material. A lesser degree of thickness leads to greater sensitivity, but also means the shoe will wear more quickly. Depending on how you climb, this added sensitivity may be a trade-off you’re willing to make. Compounds tend to range in stiffness. A softer rubber will grip the wall better, making it especially beneficial for smearing and jamming. A firmer rubber will edge better, allowing you to place more weight on a small edge. Heavier climbers or climbers who climb longer, more vertical routes may be served best by firmer rubber, while lighter climbers and boulderers may find a softer compound to their liking.
Finding the Right Shoe
Now that you’ve learned all about the parts that make up a climbing shoe, it’s time to figure out the right shoe for you.
When trying on a pair of climbing shoes, look for the following traits:
- Your toes should be snug at the front of the shoe without added space. You should not be able to move or wiggle your toes.
- There should not be any “dead-space” in the shoe, as this can lead to pain or slippage.
- When moving around in the shoe, there shouldn’t be any “hot points”. This can lead to cramping or pain while climbing
- While tight, climbing shoes shouldn’t be excruciatingly painful. If you aren’t able to create power off of the toe without pain, you won’t be able to climb at your limit.
Remember that, depending on the material, the shoe is likely to stretch. Take this into account when sizing a shoe for yourself. It’s also always best to test out a pair of shoes as much as possible prior to buying. The best option is to climb in your new pair prior to the warranty ending, but if this, for some reason, is not a possibility, try standing on your toes or on the edge of a shelf or bench. Make sure that you’re able to create power off of the toes and that, when you pull on the heel, the shoe doesn’t begin to slide off. I’ll see you, and your new shoes, at the crag!