Buying Climbing Shoes
Climbing shoe buying guides are essential these days with the huge variety of shoe on offer, There’s no escaping the fact that buying climbing shoes is one of the most challenging experiences for any climber, regardless of experience. For beginners climbing indoors finding the balance between comfort, support and longevity is key, whereas someone climbing steep, hard boulder problems will be looking to get the most power out of a downturned climbing shoe, usually at the sacrifice of comfort. These are two ends of a very broad spectrum though, and there’s all sorts in between.
There are many variables involved in getting a great climbing shoe fit that’s fit for your needs, so we put together this brief guide to try and ease the process. This is just an overview of quite a tricky subject, so if you need any more help or having any questions just give us a call or drop us an email.
First things first
First of all, you can narrow down your options quite a bit by thinking about the type of climbing you usually do.
Climbing shoes with a downturned shape are usually designed purely for steep and overhanging terrain, generally hard sport climbing and bouldering. Buying technical climbing shoes won’t do you any favours if you climb in the lower grades or mostly on the friendly side of vertical. On overhanging ground, downturned climbing shoes hold your toes in such a way that more of the force you apply with your legs gets through to the foothold. This power comes at a price, though, as technical climbing shoes are often much less comfortable and sacrifice smearing ability and edging support.
If the majority of your climbing is on vertical ground, then a pair of more comfortable climbing shoes with a flatter profile will be your best option. You still need to fit these shoes snug, with as little empty or ‘dead’ space as possible, but there’s really no need to crush your toes. There’s some climbing shoes that fit the middle ground perfectly, and provide great technical capability without an extreme downturned shape
From left to right: The Boreal Joker, a comfy, flat shoe; the Red Chili Corona, a great middle ground; The Evolv Talon, a serious downturn for serious overhangs
Foot shape is one of the most important factors to consider when buying climbing shoes. A poorly fitting pair of climbing shoes can totally ruin your day, week or even climbing career. It literally be make-or-break for new climbers; if your first pair of shoes is so badly fitted and uncomfortable, it will put you off heading to the wall or crag. This obviously means less climbing, which in turn means less progression, leading to frustration and giving up altogether.
Here we’ll try to give you some understanding of foot shapes, and give you some examples of climbing shoes that fit these shapes.
From left to right: the Evolv Bandit, a fairly high volume climbing shoe; the Evolv Valor, a mid-volume climbing shoe; the Evolv Geshido, a low volume climbing shoe
The volume of a foot is essentially how deep it is. This diagram shows the difference between the two. If you have a low volume foot, a high volume shoe will give you a baggy fit, a lot of dead-space above your toes and bad power-transfer from your foot to the wall. Wearing a low volume shoe with high volume feet will cause discomfort, (especially with a technical fit, where the knuckle of your toe will be pushed too hard into the ‘roof’ of the shoe), and foot cramping. Volume is something that is usually overlooked when buying day-to-day shoes, so it’s important to try on climbing shoes with varying volumes to find out what works best for you.
Climbing Shoe Width
From left to right: The Boreal Joker Plus, a wide fitting shoe; the La Sportive Katana, a mid-width shoe; the Red Chili Spirit, a narrow climbing shoe
Width is a more commonly understood variable, and a good width-wise fit is more obvious when trying climbing shoes on. Too narrow, and your toes will be pushed into uncomfortable and ineffective positions, too wide and the shoe will roll around your foot when edging. The most obvious place to feel whether the width of a shoe suits you is obviously around the widest part of your foot, at the first knuckle of your toes. If it is too tight here and causes immediate discomfort, you probably need something wider and conversely if there’s any space here you need a narrower climbing shoe.
From left to right: The Five Ten Stonelands have a deep heel cup; the Scarpa Vapour V have an average heel depth; the Evolv Valor has a fairly shallow heel
The heel is probably the trickiest part to get right when choosing new climbing shoes. If the heel is too baggy then the shoe may be inclined to slide off your foot when pressure is applied to the toe. That said, it is very rare to find a perfectly fitting heel, so don’t be put off an otherwise perfect shoe by a small amount of space under your heel. Keep an eye out for too much pressure on your Achilles tendon, as this is a hotspot for blisters and causing immediate discomfort.
Climbing shoe variables
So you’ve worked out what shoes fit your feet, but now there’s a whole group of variables within each shoes design that tailor it towards certain climbing styles.
Velcro Vs. Lace
The Evolv Bandit is available in both lace and Velcro versions
“So which is better?” is a question we hear quite frequently while doing shoe fittings, and the answer tends never to be that simple on this occasion it is just down to personal preference and the fit of each individual climbing shoe. Both have their merits: Velcro is simple, quick and means you can whip your shoes on and off in an instant. Laces can give a more precise fit, and are generally better for an all day shoe or a narrow foot.
The issue of Velcro versus laces really comes down to comfort and preference, don’t be put off buying a pair of climbing shoes just based on their closure type. A lot of shoes are available in both a lace and Velcro version these days any way.
From left to right: the Five Ten Blackwing, a super soft climbing shoe; the Evolv Geshido, a semi stuff shoe; the Five Ten Anasazi Lace, which is stiff and supportive
Climbing shoes vary a lot in stiffness, providing different levels of support, sensitivity and smearing ability. A soft climbing shoe will be more sensitive, allowing the climber to feel minute footholds and precisely place their foot, which is great for overhanging routes and problems, but not so helpful on vertical or slabby terrain. For climbing slabs and vertical walls, the best climbing shoes are stiffer to provide support for the toes when edging and using small holds.
From left to right: the Boreal Joker Plus Velcro comes with hard wearing rubber; the Evolv Shaman comes with with rubber that balances friction and durability; the Five Ten Anasazi comes with Stealth rubber, regarded by many as the stickiest around
Climbing rubber varies from brand to brand, with each manufacturer coming up with their own compound to balance stickyness with durability. The stickiest climbing shoes are great for smearing and tiny holds but tend to wear out faster, particularly on the feet of new climbers who have sloppy footwork. Beginners are better off with more durable climbing shoes because they’ll last longer and on easier climbs, you probably wont feel the benefit of sticky rubber on larger holds.
Tips for Buying Climbing Shoes
- Pain is insane! Always buy a pair of shoes that’s comfortable, otherwise you wont want to wear them and your climbing will suffer. When the time comes to sacrifice comfort for performance, you’ll know.
- Real leather shoes will stretch around half a size over time, whereas shoes with a synthetic element won’t really stretch much at all. All shoes will usually soften up a bit and get slightly more comfortable after a break in period of 10-15 routes or so.
- Check out this article on the dangers of fitting climbing shoes too tight.
- If you need any more help, head over to our climbing shoes page and get in touch using our live chat feature!
- Make sure you buy them from a reputable retailer like Boulders for piece of mind and if buying on line make sure they do returns just in case you get the wrong size!