Children are natural-born climbers. Who hasn’t seen a kid climb up a tree, a big rock or a jungle gym at a play ground? I have three kids and it feels that they are constantly trying to climb on things. It wasn’t one or two times that I was scratching my head (after having a small heart-attack), trying to figure out how the hell did one of my one year old twin sons get himself up to sit in the bathroom sink, because he could hardly walk. Natural climbers I say. That’s why climbing is a suitable sport for young children to elderly folks.
And what’s more fun to the parents (not the pre-teen who can’t bear the thought of someone seeing them doing stuff with their parents) than to have a mutual hobby with their kids? Hardly any parent regrets spending too much time with their kids. Mostly it’s the other way around.
Many sports can be quite expensive to start. This not at all the case with climbing. When starting climbing, you can practically go to the nearest indoor climbing gym, rent a pair of climbing shoes, pay a few bucks and start climbing. A smaller kid can usually start out with common indoor shoes if you don’t want to rent a pair of children’s climbing shoes.
Most indoor gyms have rental shoes starting from even then smallest sizes and I recommend renting a pair first instead of buying. Who knows, maybe the kid doesn’t like climbing at all and you’ve just wasted fifty bucks. At least for my kids, climbing with real climbing shoes just like daddy, makes the event even more special.
When starting out, kids use big holds for the hands and feet, so the type of shoe they are using doesn’t have a big impact on the climbing itself. As soon as your child gets better and starts to climb harder and harder routes and the footholds are getting smaller, it’s the right time to buy the first ”real” pair of climbing shoes.
At first, climbing is like playing in the park. Having fun with you, the parent, is the most important thing. A child doesn’t understand why a climbing shoe should be snug and uncomfortable.
The number one most important aspect to take in consideration when buying climbing shoes for kids, is comfort. If the shoe is too snug and hurts, the child will not want to put it on. No matter how good the shoe is on small footholds.
Secondly, a child doesn’t have the same control or precision in their footwork as an adult will have, so using a tight-fitting shoe will not make a huge difference in the climbing itself. If the shoe is too tight, climbing will not be an enjoyable experience. Would you like to be playing at a park wearing shoes that are too small and hurt your feet? I think not. Comfort first, performance second.
Better too big than too small
Not only will wearing a shoe that is too small be uncomfortable, but it might interfere with the natural development of a small, growing foot. This can cause problems that could last a life time. A child’s foot can grow up to three sizes in only one year, so it’s really important not to buy climbing shoes that are too small to begin with.
Take notice how your kid acts while climbing. Taking off ones climbing shoes right after climbing a route might be copying behaviour from the adult, but it also may be a sign of having too small or ill-fitting shoes. It is also a good idea to check the childs feet from time to time. If there are visible blisters or even red spots on the feet, the shoes are likely to be too small. On the other hand, if the shoe is too big, the foot will roll around in the shoe, also causing redness and possibly even blisters.
Finding the right size can be a challenge. It is a good compromise to choose a climbing shoe that has a narrow last, but is slightly longer than needed. At first the child can wear a thick sock in the shoe. And when the foot has grown enough to accommodate the empty space, leave the sock out of the shoe.
This is also a good way to keep using the shoe for slightly longer. Feet tend to grow more length than width so it is better to pick a shoe that is slightly longer than necessary. The child should be able to wiggle their toes in the shoe, but sideways movement of the foot should be restricted to a minimum.
Easy on and off
The climbing shoe should also be easy to put on and take off, so that frustration doesn’t creep in before the child has even made their way to the climbing wall. Velcros tend to work better than laces. Just like in sneakers. They are easy to open and close, and the child can do it for themselves.
Many climbing shoe manufactures have even thought of putting a velcro or similar fastening system on the heel of the shoe for even easier access. This is also a clever way to regulate the length of the shoe. When the child grows, just leave the velcro or such a little looser to accommodate the growing foot. This also prolongs the usability of the shoe.
Because of the rapid growth of the child feet, it is best to accept, that you need to buy a new pair of climbing shoes every year. Buying used shoes is a great option. Climbing shoes for children are normally made of thicker rubber so that they support the growing foot. This also helps the shoe hold up better when taking a beating on the wall.
Climbing shoes for older kids
Choosing a climbing shoe for bigger kids or teens is no different from choosing a shoe for adults. The same general rules apply. The biggest difference is the sizing. In most cases it is best to size the shoe a bit too big.
Also keep in mind, that many younger climbers might have been climbing for quite a while already and are looking for different things in a climbing shoe than a beginner. Try shoes that are aimed for the advanced climber, but in a smaller size if available.
Almost all climbing shoes stretch during the break-in period. Up to two sizes in some cases. But the foot of a youngster tend to grow even more rapidly. This means buying more shoes during a season of climbing. If an adult uses one pair a year, kids can outgrow two or even three pairs a year.
By the age of 16, the soft tissues and supportive structures have strengthened to match the foot of an adult, and the foot growth slows down drastically.
Small shoes can damage the foot
Repeatedly restricting the normal growth of a growing foot by e.g. wearing shoes that are too small, can lead to several chronic foot problems and health issues. Toe deformity, nerve compression syndromes and bunions are just to name a few.
Especially in bouldering, the foot takes repeated impacts when jumping or falling down to the mat. When the foot is cramped in to a space that is too small (climbing shoe) it cannot absorb the impact naturally. Over time this can severally strain the ankle.
Problem with the feet are quite common amongst climbers. A majority of the problems are caused by climbing with shoes that are simply too small. Pay attention when choosing a climbing shoe for a child. Better too big than too small and comfort over anything else. Being smart when sizing shoes will contribute in keeping your (and your childs) feet healthy and problem free for upcoming years of climbing.