Buying rock climbing shoes can be one of the most intimidating moves to make when getting into climbing. Unlike shopping for tennis shoes or hiking boots, comfort is commonly sacrificed for performance. Different shoes are great for different styles of climbing, and if you buy shoes that don’t go well with your favorite crag, you will immediately notice.
So, what shoes are good for rock climbing? The best shoes for rock climbing will have a rubber sole that is made of a unique type of rubber that is ideal for gripping a stone surface. Each brand of climbing shoe has their own (usually) patented rubber. Good shoes will be tightly fitted to your foot and ensure security as you use them to smear and step along the smallest of rock edges.
Climbers are all different, and we all come to prefer certain things that we want out of our climbing shoes. As you are just getting into rock climbing, you will likely not like your first pair of shoes. Don’t let this get you down! Climbing shoes are mostly uncomfortable and not made to be worn for hours on end. Getting comfortable with your shoes not being comfortable can be one of the hardest things when trying to have fun.
Now, we’ll dive into the most popular brands and how to make sure you get the proper fit. There’s also several FAQs at the end that should answer any additional questions you have. Let’s dive in…
5 Popular Brands You Count On To Deliver Quality
Scarpa Climbing Shoes
Scarpa is a popular climbing shoe brand and has been in the scene for a while. Scarpa is popular in the world of mountaineering as they make boots for ice climbing and some of the best ski boots.
I personally have found mixed reviews on Scarpa climbing shoes – they all mostly have something to do with sizing or the shape of the shoe. When it comes to quality, I have found nothing but great reviews about their performance and longevity.
As Cachy reviewed the famous Instinct VS shoe on Scarpa’s website…
“I had these shoes for about a year and a half before I broke through the toe. I was a rock wall manager and climbed every day; on weekend[s] I would be outdoors as much as possible. They held up really well, and I loved the grip/feeling I had with the wall.”
Scarpa’s approach shoes are also some of the best on the market. Since this company has a long history in the footwear industry, their approach shoes combine ultimate performance with comfort and protection.
La Sportiva Climbing Shoes
La Sportiva is another company that has been in the game for a while. The popular Italian brand has the support of some of the world’s best-known climbers such as Tommy Caldwell, Emily Harrington, Margo Hayes, Alex Honnold, Kyra Condie, Adam Ondra, and Pamela Shanti-Pack.
La Sportiva has some of the most classic shoes on the market. A shoe like the TC Pro has not had to change much since its creation because it is just loved that much. Sportiva’s are a bit on the pricy end of the spectrum, but the quality is certainly there.
They have a number of all-purpose shoes like the Tarantula, Finale, and Mythos mentioned before. From there, the Futura and Solutions are major sport climbing and aggressive-shoe favorites.
Evolv Climbing Shoes
Evolv is one of the more economic brands on the market and they certainly have their own devoted following because of it. Since they are more affordable, they make great beginner and all-purpose shoes.
The Evolv Addicts are highly rated slipper climbing shoes. Many crack climbers love them for their comfort and slight stiffness. On the aggressive end, the brand’s Shaman shoe is the brainchild of Evolv shoemakers and long-time ambassador Chris Sharma.
Evolv’s approach shoes bring style to the game. The Cruisers are the ultimate low-profile approach shoe that, as a guide who wore these daily, I can personally attest to their comfort and performance. They are so lightweight, sticky, and low profile that I could just climb everything in my approach shoes. My cruisers double as my street shoes the majority of the time too.
FiveTen Climbing Shoes
Along with Evolv, FiveTen has a strong loyal following. The mastermind of Stealth Rubber and FiveTen founder, Charles Cole was the epitome of the “dirtbag” climber before the days of FiveTen. His marketing strategies kept true to the climbing lifestyle, even creating an ad campaign with the words, “Quit your job.”
FiveTen has sort of realized this punk-climber-mountain biker attitude and culture. FiveTen Stealth rubber has even made its way into the Hollywood scene. Cirque Du Soleil acrobats, Hollywood Stuntmen, Madonna, Captain Kirk, and Tom Cruise have all relied on Stealth’s sticky rubber.
FiveTen’s shoes vary widely on style and price. Their Stoneland/Anasazi series is a desert climber’s dream, and the Dragons are some of the best aggressive shoes on the market. Somewhere in the FiveTen lineup, there is something for everyone.
Black Diamond Climbing Shoes
Black Diamond is a company that, until recently, was mainly in the climbing hardware industry. They are well-known for their trad climbing gear, quickdraws, climbing packs, and ice climbing gear.
They have branched out in the past few years and joined the climbing rope and shoe manufacturer scene.
For a brand that produces pretty pricy hardware, their climbing shoes are surprisingly an economic option. They make great beginner and all-purpose shoes such as the Momentum shoe.
Best Climbing Shoes for Beginners
Many brands will break down their shoe selection to make it easy to identify beginner shoes from not-beginner shoes. You will notice that beginner shoes are all shaped the same.
They are mostly flat, and have a harder, thicker toe-edge. Flatter shoes allow you to climb almost anything. They are great for gym climbing, and crags with slabby-vertical walls. They are great to learn footwork in because that harder edge works to give you some support. Since they are flatter, they do provide more comfort compared to more aggressive shoes.
Flatter shoes are all-purpose and will be perfect for you learning footwork on different styles of climbing. Once you find your favorite type of climbing, you’ll figure out what you truly want from your shoes. Even after purchasing a more style-specific climbing shoe, you might want to keep a flat pair around for those days when you branch out and climb outside of your comfort zone.
Best Intermediate Climbing Shoes
When you start to feel you have outgrown your beginner shoes, it might be time to upgrade. You will know it’s time when you start climbing harder routes or boulder problems and those super stiff toe-edges make it hard to smear and stick on the rock.
This is when you should start to look into softer shoes, but still take into account everything you have learned about climbing so far. You should especially consider the type of climbing you prefer. Do you like hard, overhanging routes? Crack climbing? Vertical sport days? Slab? Will you be climbing long routes like desert towers or alpine rock?
FiveTen’s Stealth Rubber is some of the best rubber for slab and crack climbing. The softer and gummier feel of the rubber, combined with a soft shoe like their Moccasym or Rogue, just swaddles your feet during a long day of climbing desert towers. On granite, crystal walls, I swear this rubber forms around the crystal, giving you the most friction and security as you put your weight onto the tiniest pieces of rock.
Along with softer rubber, you’ll want to consider the shape of the shoe. You’ll notice right away that some shoes are rounded or down-turned. These are referred to as “aggressive” shoes.
Getting The Proper Fit
Just how UN-comfortable should climbing shoes be?
The best way to describe a well-fitted climbing shoe is that it should feel like a rubber sock on your foot. While climbing, your footwork is imperative. That being said, having a shoe that is too stiff or thick can make it hard to really bare down or flex your toes on smoother and smaller features.
On the other end, a shoe that has no stiffness in the toe-edge can make it hard to stick to those tiny edges or single granite crystals. You also don’t want your shoe to be lose or have any dead space. This space can cause your foot to slip around while climbing, which can create blisters or insecurity while trusting a thin edge.
Your toes can be slightly curled, but they should not be crumpled up or in immediate pain when putting the shoes on. To test the fit and stiffness of the shoe, you can try wiggling all of your toes up and down. If the shoe moves with your toes without causing (too much) pain, this is a good fit.
Stretching over time
When trying on shoes, keep in mind that some will stretch over time. Today, most shoes are made of synthetic materials and will hardly stretch or not stretch at all. Real leather shoes will stretch over time, so do keep this in mind when buying.
The best example of this are FiveTen’s leather Moccasyms. These leather beauties will stretch, but they only stretch to form around your foot better (these are my all-time favorite shoes because of this factor).
When shopping, it is best to start online where you can read reviews or go to a store that knows a lot about their climbing products. By asking and talking to retailers or reading reviews, you can learn more about the materials used and whether or not the shoes will stretch.
One of the most common things I hear climbers telling newer climbers is that they should size down when buying climbing shoes. This is NOT (always) true. This might have been true(er) at one point, when most climbing shoes were made of leather and stretched out, but brands have turned to synthetic materials to solve this problem.
It is a myth that smaller climbing shoes will help you climb better. You do not need to bind your feet in order to climb stronger. This simply comes from developing better footwork. As mentioned before, the shoes should be just tight enough to fit like a leather sock.
When you go to try on shoes, always start with your street-shoe size. From there, you can always size up or size down if the size is a bit off. Sizes can vary by brand, so you should go through this process with trying on different brands or styles of shoes.
Ladies, if you are trying on unisex or men’s shoes, you should start with 1-1.5 sizes smaller than women’s sizing. While brands do make men’s and women’s specific shoes, this is only pertinent when buying more aggressive shoes.
Women’s shoes will be narrower compared to the male-specific version of the shoe. For something like a slipper or flatter shoe, the two will not vary that much. The FiveTen Moccasym and Evolv Addict Slipper are good examples of this since they are only made in men’s sizing.
To add to the sizing stress and confusion, climbing shoe brands have started to take note that people will downsize. They have essentially downsized the shoe already so that you should order your truer street-shoe size (or a size larger). For example, if I go to order an aggressive shoe and order half a size smaller than what I normally would, the shoe will be impossible to get on.
To conclude the many opinions and things to think about when finding the best fit for a shoe, I will simply suggest to TRY ON EVERYTHING. Even if there’s a sweet deal online, find an REI nearby or a gym that occasionally hosts shoe demos to try on some shoes! Trying shoes on will help you find what you like and don’t like in climbing shoes.
Demos are great too, because you can actually climb in the shoes!
Along with trying the shoes on, don’t be afraid to return them. It will certainly be worth it in the long run to return them for the right size. Otherwise you’ll notice you’ve gone a whole year trying to “break them in” and they still hurt like hell.
Socks or not
The majority of the climbing population will tell you not to wear socks. This is entirely up to you, though. Depending on the shoe, it might be near-impossible to even get the shoe on with socks.
When climbing, you want your movement to be precise. One thing I have noticed when it’s way too cold out and I just really want those socks on, is that my feet do slide around in my climbing shoes, no matter how tight they are. This isn’t a super secure feeling, and I wouldn’t recommend it if you are still dialing in your footwork game.
If you are worried about bad bacteria in your shoes, use some foot powder or spray to keep them clean.
Laces, Velcro, or nothing
All climbing shoe brands have a lace-up shoe, Velcro shoe, and maybe a slip-on/slipper climbing shoe. This option is something that is also up to preference.
- Laces are going to provide the best fit of all. Because you can adjust the fit throughout the whole foot, laces are preferred by many sport climbers and boulderers that climb overhanging or other technical routes. Having the most security and the ability to get rid of any dead space in the shoe is best in these circumstances. Lace-up shoes will usually be leather or another stiffer material.
- Velcro shoes are fast and easy to put on compared to lace-up climbing shoes. Some Velcro shoes will often have a stretchy upper to help create the tightest fit and eliminate any dead space. A great example of Velcro shoes that provide the same type of all-tight feel as lace-up shoes are the Sportiva Solutions. The Solutions have a cross-body stretchy Velcro strap that cinches across the whole top of the foot.
- Slippers are what they sound like – they slip on without any other closure like Velcro or laces. Their uppers are low profile and stretchy for you to slide your foot in. Depending on your climbing style, you may love or hate these. Many people love slippers for crack climbing because it eliminates the worry of ripping up your laces or destroying Velcro straps in wider cracks. Slippers may not be the best for super technical climbs, but they are perfect for all-day excursions since they provide the most comfort.
How To ‘break-in’ Climbing Shoes
The simple answer – climb in them. Wear them as much as possible when you first get them. It might be hard at first, and you will most likely have to take them off in between climbs. But it will get easier over time. Flatter shoes won’t feel as tight to begin with, but the rubber will be very stiff and hard to work with at first.
Flatter shoes usually have this thicker rubber edge to help with support. After a while, you’ll notice them start to loosen up and you can smear easier. If you are in a hurry, you can move the process along by leaving them in your car during a really hot day or taking a blow dryer to the soles.
Once the soles cool enough for you to wear, you’ll notice the shoe moves with your toes better and the shoes truly feel like those rubber socks I keep mentioning.
If your shoes are just too tight and breaking them in is just taking forever or is too painful, there is another weird but proven method:
- Fill your bathroom tub about halfway with warm-hot water. The water should be warm enough for you to soak your feet in without being scalding hot.
- Put the shoes on, then plop them into the tub. Relax (as much as you can with tight shoes) and sit back for a while.
- After soaking for a sufficient amount of time (40-60 minutes), take your feet out of the water and keep the shoes on. This is important! If you take the shoes off after soaking them to form to your foot, they will shrink back up to how they were.
- Let them dry a little bit with your feet still in them. I know sitting around with soggy shoes isn’t the most fun, but this has been an effective and well-known trick for quite some time.
The hot water will help move things along and loosen up the leather soles and synthetic upper a bit to stretch everything out. I know earlier I said synthetic shoes won’t stretch, and even with this soaking technique, they don’t stretch that much. This simply loosens everything up by just a hair so that your feet can be in them.
This method will not help you if your shoes are just too small.
So, if your shoes are insanely painful when you buy them, and after a few times trying to put them on in the gym, don’t soak them! Just take them back for the next size or two up. If you soak them, you will have a hard time returning them.
What are ‘aggressive’ climbing shoes?
Aggressive shoes are down-turned, or ballerina shaped. The arches are extremely aggressive for a shoe, and you can definitely feel the difference from flat shoes. Aggressive shoes are harder to size right because it’s harder to judge just how cramped your toes are. These shoes focus entirely on performance and have thrown comfort out the window.
However, if you are climbing really dynamic or technical routes that require heel-hooking, toe-hooking, or are overhanging, aggressive shoes will make doing any of this a dream. Their aggressive edge and tight heel boxes will ensure there’s no slippage when you rock onto that gnarly heel hook. The rubber on the top of the shoe will leave you jumping into bat-hangs any chance you get.
Are Vibrams good for rock climbing?
Vibrams seem like they’d be a good option to climb in, since Vibram rubber is actually used for Scarpa and La Sportiva climbing shoes. However, the same rubber isn’t used for the Vibram alternative/minimalist shoes as what’s used for climbing shoes. Climbing shoes are not made to be worn everywhere – whereas Vibrams are and require a much more durable rubber that would slide around on rock faces.
Are toe shoes good for rock climbing?
Along with Vibrams, toe shoes have the same issue. They do not have the same type of rubber, and thus slide around a lot on rock faces. Toe shoes also don’t give you any support when bearing down on sharp holds and will often hurt your toes or leave you exerting way more effort than you usually would to stay on a smaller edge.
What’s the difference between approach shoes and climbing shoes?
Approach shoes are made for the approach, for the hike-in, and the scramble up to a rock face. Climber trails are usually not as groomed or as flat as your typical hiking trail. And if you need to scramble up a low-incline rock face in order to reach your destination, it is best to have a shoe built for climbing and hiking.
They have the upper shoe of a low-profile hiking shoe, and a climbing shoe-rubber sole for ultimate traction on rock. In many cases, this is what you’ll see climbing guides wearing. With approach shoes, they can just climb the route they’re taking you up in their approach shoes. They are the best of both worlds.
Are Converse good for rock climbing?
Can you climb in Converse sneakers? Sure. Should you climb in Converse sneakers? Probably not. If you just got to the gym and realized you left your climbing shoes at home, Converse sneakers will not help you work on your hardest project in the gym, but you will still be able to get up some pretty easy stuff.
The shoes have large toe-boxes that make it hard to feel and stick on edges, and their soles are not anything close to climbing shoe rubber.
Are Vans good for rock climbing?
Vans are going to give you similar results as Converse. Vans are not form-fitting or sticky enough to help you climb. In sneakers, you’ll notice you are over-gripping or having to power-through every climb you get on because you cannot put weight on your feet.
Are used climbing shoes a good option?
Used climbing shoes can be good depending on just how used they are. Finding used climbing shoes can certainly save you a buck or two. They will also likely already be broken in. Sometimes you can get really lucky and find a pair that has barely been used. This is because that person probably just bought the wrong size and couldn’t return the shoes for whatever reason.
When browsing for used climbing shoes, try looking at consignment gear shops in the area that have a good reputation, or buying directly from the seller only after seeing and inspecting the shoes in person.
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Daniell is a certified outdoor climbing guide with professional experience climbing throughout Colorado’s Western Slope region. She is based out of Fort Collins, CO and enjoys trail running, desert climbing and overnight canoe trips.