(last edited Feb 5th, 2021)
It may seem like an impossible task choosing the right climbing shoe from the endless selection of shoes that are around these days. Especially if you are buying your first pair. So, how to choose a climbing shoe? Read this guide and it is likely to get a bit easier.
Please take your time when choosing your shoe, because together with your fingertips, it is the only thing in direct contact with the rock while climbing. And with the fingertips, it is the only thing keeping you ON the rock.
Back in the day
Choosing a pair of climbing kicks was way easier in the 50s through 70s. During that era, there were virtually one or two different shoes to choose from. In the 1930s a french climber called Pierre Allain developed one of the first rubber-soled shoes that were specifically designed for rock climbing. By the end of the 50s the ”PA”-shoes were used worldwide by climbers.
The next innovation came from Pierre’s fellow-countryman Eduard Bourdineau who started using a softer rubber in his ”EB” shoe. The softer rubber had better friction and aided in climbing harder routes. The EBs were the number one brand in the 60s and 70s until in 1982 Boreal came up with the world’s first ”sticky rubber” shoe that went by the name of ”Fire”. New innovations get copied fast and after a while, new brands started hitting the scene.
Nowadays there are loads of different brands. And each one of them has several different climbing shoe models. I’m sure there is a perfect climbing shoe for every foot as long you have the perseverance to try on as many models as possible until you find the one that suits your foot the best.
Choosing your first pair of shoes from the bunch may seem difficult but gets remarkably easier once you answer these three questions: How experienced are you as a climber? What kind of climbing are you mostly going to do? How long do you continuously want to wear your shoes?
How to choose a climbing shoe
Styles of climbing shoes
Essentially all climbing shoes can be categorized in one of these three basic shoe types: a straight last, asymmetrical last, and aggressive last. Basically, the category defines how curled or bunched up your toes are in the rock shoe.
In a shoe that has a straight or flat last your foot is more or less flat. (Who would have guessed…) The position of the foot is pretty natural and comfortable or just slightly uncomfortable. Shoes of this category usually have a slightly thicker sole which supports the foot better while climbing. The thicker sole makes for a shoe that you can wear all day long and still be comfortable. The advantages of these shoes are comfort and all-round performance. If you want to climb a bit of everything or don’t know what you want to climb, then these are a good option.
Shoes with an asymmetrical or slightly downturned last are designed to push the toes, especially the big toe, forward. When the toes are pushed forward, they can generate a bit more power on smaller footholds. This means that you can stand on smaller edges and still be able to push yourself up. These are made for shorter climbs after which, you can take your shoes off and let the feet rest. Asymmetrical shoes are the best choice for vertical to slightly overhanging routes. Especially the slightly negative routes are more comfortable with this shoe type. These shoes are typically slightly uncomfortable to uncomfortable.
Aggressive shoes are the most downturned of the bunch. A good rule of thumb is that the steeper the route, the more downturned the shoe. These shoes are made for the steepest of routes and boulders. In aggressively downturned shoes the toes are forced forward more aggressively too. This means that most of the time, these are the most uncomfortable shoe type.
Aggressive shoes generate the most power for the toes to utilize. These excel on steep routes and the smallest of footholds. Aggressively downturned shoes are commonly taken off after each attempt or at least several times a session.
I have climbed in a pair of Scarpa Booster S shoes for several years now and can wear them for long periods of time, despite being a fairly aggressively downturned shoe. Bear in mind, that your feet get used to wearing climbing shoes if the fit is good. Another good example of an aggressive shoe is the Scarpa Instinct Vs.
So how about the sizing?
The sizing of your climbing shoes really comes down to the comfort question. How comfortable do you want your shoes to be? The trend nowadays seems to be that the harder you want to climb, the smaller the shoe has to be. Sure, it’s true that tighter shoes stay on small footholds a bit better than more comfortable shoes. A tight fit doesn’t have any baggy parts inside, so they more likely won’t pop off the foothold if your footwork is on par.
How small is too small?
It is important that your climbing shoes are not too small. If your feet are in pain after you finally get the shoes wrestled on, do you think you want to stand on small footholds with them? Most likely not. On the contrary, you will probably start avoiding the small footholds the shoes were originally designed for. If this is the case, I’d probably go for a shoe that is a half-size bigger. With them, the climbing is much more enjoyable. There are also several articles written on the negative impact to your feet when wearing shoes that are too small. An excellent article is found on the BMC site: https://www.thebmc.co.uk/climbing-shoes-is-pain-insane. Unless you are a pro climber, the reason, for not being able to send a route or boulder, is not likely going to be that you chose a shoe that was half a size bigger. The reason is more likely going to be something else. Like your footwork for instance.
So how big is too big. Having a shoe that is too big and comfortable is not a good thing either. Good footwork is hard to learn if the shoe is not fitting properly. Worst case scenario, you will pick up bad habits because the shoes are slipping and popping off of footholds. A shoe that is too big might be uncomfortable as well because the shoe is not supporting the foot properly. When choosing your first pair of climbing shoes a good rule is: painful is too small, comfortable is too big, uncomfortable is just right.
Choosing the right size is often a compromise
If you like a really snuggly fitting heel, it usually means choosing a smaller shoe. Then again if you don’t want your toes to be forced to the front of the shoe and all curled up, choose a size slightly bigger, though most of the time this means that the fit of the heel isn’t as good.
Stretching of the climbing shoe
It is also good to keep in mind that climbing shoes stretch. Depending on the material of the shoe, it can stretch up to one whole size. Shoes made of real leather typically stretch more than shoes made of synthetic materials. A shoe that you climb with the first time may feel like an entirely different shoe the next time you pull it on.
Different manufacturers have different sizes
Most shoe manufacturers size their shoes differently. Some make roomier models and some make lower-volume models. For instance, my street shoe size is about EU 41-42 (US 8-8,5). But the Scarpa Instinct lace that I use is an EU 38,5 (US 6 1/3). When climbing with Five Ten shoes I typically wear a size EU 40-41 (US 7-7,5). If possible, try as many brands and models as possible to find the one that fits your foot.
My advice is to always, and I mean ALWAYS try the shoe on before buying (or ordering). At least try them at home by standing on the edge of stairs or something mimicking a small foothold to get an understanding of what they feel like when climbing. If you buy your shoes from a local indoor climbing venue, they will probably let climb with the shoes before making the decision. And because the staff are climbers, they probably have experience with the shoe you are buying. So ask around. They are more than happy to help.
Does experience play a part in all of this?
The short answer is Yes. It is relevant how experienced you are as a climber. If you are buying your first pair of climbing shoes I recommend you buy a shoe with a flat last. An inexperienced climber doesn’t necessarily know what type of climbing he or she wants to do. Flat lasted shoes are going to be ok whether you’re doing bouldering or sport climbing, inside or out. You’ll do fine. And the price is going to be more affordable also. Usually, I don’t recommend buying the most expensive shoe on the market because they can wear out faster than a flat last shoe. Once you have a bit better foot technique and stop kicking and slipping off the footholds then a new pair for a more advanced climber might be in order.
Thinner soles, stronger feet
As the power and technique of your feet evolve, you might want to buy a shoe that is a bit more aggressive and has a slightly thinner sole. With these shoes, the foot has to work more and not rely on the support of the shoe itself. The biggest advance of a thinner shoe is that you can feel a whole lot better what is happening under the rubber. And you will learn to apply pressure to the footholds more subtly and efficiently. In other words, your foot technique gets better. As you advance as a climber, you’ll know what you want from a shoe, and the decision-making gets much easier.
Different shoes for different problems
I remember telling someone who a climber should have climbing shoes like a golfer has golf clubs. Different shoes have different advantages. Sometimes you might even see a climber wearing a different shoe on each foot. If it helps you send a route then why not. And if you are doing a lot of different types of climbing (sport, bouldering, trad,..) it is justified to own several different pairs.
But I have to say that I get along quite nicely with two different pairs. One for sport climbing and one for bouldering. And when the bouldering shoes are worn or stretched out, I tend to throw them in my indoor bouldering pack. Inside it has less of a significance if the edges are a bit rounded out. I also tend to use softer shoes for indoor climbing and more aggressive and precise shoes climbing outside on smaller footholds.
A matter of preference
I like switching up the shoes I climb with. I’ve tried several different manufacturers and models. Could it be that you pay attention to your feet more when climbing with an unfamiliar pair of shoes? Does this lead to your foot technique getting better and better? I hope so. Well, at least that’s how I rationalize to my wife, why I’m buying yet another pair of climbing shoes 😉
At the end of the day, it isn’t the most important decision in your life that you have to make. So just get a pair that feels ok and start climbing. Because you know what? Climbing is awesome. It just is.