It’s no easy feat to build a shoe that offers support for long hikes, precision and “feel” for technical scrambling, and comfort to keep feet happy. This year, we thought outside the box to see what we were missing in the realm of approach shoes. What we found was a host of light hikers that not only competed with our favorite approach-specific kicks, but a few that also offered more comfort and climber-friendly details at a lower price. After approaching climbs in Canada, Utah, Colorado, California, Wyoming, Kentucky, West Virginia, and a few other locales, our testers were sold on each model’s individual performance. Whatever your environment, discipline, or budget, we’ve got a shoe for you.
Salewa Capsico $110; 11.4 oz.; salewa.com
Performance: None of our testers wanted to like this shoe. “Is this a Croc?” one quipped. But after the first use, every tester was hooked. “You can tell the product designers are rock climbers and understand exactly what we need in an approach shoe for cragging,” one tester said. With sticky rubber, a tread pattern that gripped trail and rock equally well, and a stable ride, these were excellent for scrambling up loose gravel and dirt-covered trails to the Optimator Wall in Indian Creek, Utah. At the crag, testers flipped the rubber heel band to the front and folded down the mesh back to slip them on, giving their feet a break between routes. “It’s an approach shoe turned comfy slip-on turned lightweight descent shoe,” said another tester who clipped the stealthy package to her harness for multi-pitch routes in Yosemite. “They’re perfect for cragging, bouldering, and even long routes.” With a wide forefoot, tortured toes and feet have room to expand and spread out. A combination mesh and leather upper proved highly breathable, and a sturdy toe bumper wrapped up and around the front of the foot for added protection
Cons: Tightened all the way down, the simple pull-and-cinch laces provided a suitable fit for technical scrambling, but narrow feet may still swim. Some smaller-footed testers felt unstable on sidehills and the super steeps.
Conclusion: Get over the looks, and you’ll find a comfortable, versatile, and highly trail-worthy shoe designed for what every climber needs. It’s an ideal quiver of one for short approaches.
Patagonia Rover $125; 8.8 oz.; patagonia.com
Performance: They’re so light and low-profile that it seems these shoes couldn’t possibly handle a strenuous approach that gains 1,500 feet over rock-strewn desert washes and slabs. But that’s where they shined for our Castleton Tower tester on her hike to the base of Kor-Ingalls (5.9). The climbing-friendly outsole gripped a sandy trail, dirty slabs, loose ball bearings, and rock edges with aplomb, and Patagonia’s proprietary rubber even clung to wet granite while boulder-hopping in Guanella Pass, Colorado. Testers lauded the barely-there feeling from the four-millimeter drop in the midsole. The thin sole also boosted confidence during technical scrambling: “It felt closer to my rock shoes in performance than my other approach shoes,” one tester said after the tricky East Ledges descent from the East Buttress (5.10b) of El Capitan, Yosemite. A combo of mesh, synthetic leather, and a beefy toe rand offers protection and breathability. To-the-toe lacing allowed testers to cinch the shoes all the way down for security when scrambling, and this system made them perfect for low- to mid-volume feet.
Cons: The mostly mesh uppers limit practical use to summer and shoulder seasons in arid climates. Long approaches and multi-day loads may overwhelm the shoe’s svelte undercarriage.
Conclusion: An impressive level of grip, stability, and protection for such a minimalist package. The supreme breathability and technical-scrambling prowess made this an instant winner.
Ahnu Moraga Mesh $120; 15.7 oz. (size 10); ahnu.com
Performance: Dirty secret: Traditional approach shoes with stickier (read: softer) rubber compounds, shallow lugs, and thinner, flexible midsoles generally don’t make stable, comfortable trail shoes when you’re hiking through mud or snow or carrying weighty loads. However, it’s these conditions where the Moraga excels. Our testers experienced instant comfort at first wear with these light hiking boots. One tester donned them for the three-plus-mile hike through a rocky streambed to a fourth-class scramble to get to Reese Mountain in Wyoming and immediately touted the “plush” and “cozy” feel. “It’s like combining a house slipper and a combat boot, with the weight of a trail runner,” he said. “I never worried about the rocks rolling over my feet on the loose trail.” But the comfy ride isn’t limited to hiking. This pair also stuck to rock “just as well as my dedicated approach shoes,” one tester said. The Moraga got the job done on granite slabs at Reese and sandstone blocks around Moab, Utah. Plus, deep lugs had traction on varied terrain, from hard-packed snow to oatmeal-like mud and everything in between.
Cons: Despite a mesh upper, testers found breathability lacking in conditions that were sunny and 60°F. The slightly “clunky” feel made them less than ideal for technical scrambling.
Conclusion: If you want ultimate stability without the weight of a full-on, over-the-ankle hiking boot, these are comfortable while offering maximum support and protection from rolling rocks and sliding scree.
Merrell Proterra Sport Gore-Tex $140; 13.5 oz.; merrell.com
Performance: For minimalist-shoe fans who also go off-trail, the Proterra Sport is a perfect fit. Our testers used them as a trail runner and approach shoe, praising the pair in both venues. Our barefoot-runner, hippie tester was smitten: “I had a more natural gait on trails,” he said. “Plus, they stuck on my feet like glue while I was bumbling around the talus in the West Gully of Mt. Evans. I wouldn’t classify them as purely minimalist due to a stiff upper and sturdier sole, but they do outperform their size.” The Gore-Tex upper offers full waterproofing, and the burly bottom is a 10-millimeter PU midsole (more rigid than other EVA-midsoled minimalists). These shoes performed especially well through wet weather. They kept testers’ feet dry during a very moist fall and winter in Colorado, and the M-Select Grip rubber on the outsole stuck to slimy rock during some fifth-class scrambling around Boulder. The shoe is designed with pathways of smaller lugs to funnel the water out from under the foot. Hint: Get the non-GTX version for a more flexible upper and a smaller price tag ($100).
Cons: The utility cord–style laces tend to come untied easily. A bit pricey for a shoe without sticky rubber, but you do get Gore-Tex waterproofing.
Conclusion: Great for long days on rough terrain where you want a nearly ideal combo of comfort, stability, and agility to navigate tricky scrambles and short climbing sections. Perfect for damp climates, too.
La Sportiva Mix $100; 10.3 oz.; sportiva.com
Performance: When a tester chooses a shoe for alpine bouldering areas in Colorado and loose climber trails in Indian Creek and Moab, Utah, we know we have a candidate for a do-it-all approach shoe. “It’s great for nearly every type of climbing I do, whether my objective is big or small,” one tester said. A huge wow factor for the Mix: Testers found the Frixion XF rubber was just as sticky as their favorite rock shoes. “After my climb, I took off my rock shoes and put on my approach kicks. When I started the slabby descent, I realized I hadn’t sacrificed any stickiness,” another tester said. Plus, an area of flat (non-lugged) rubber on the outsole in the toe (front and outer edge) provided a larger “climbing zone” for edging and precision on scrambling approaches. A low-profile design gave these shoes a nimble feel when navigating boulderfields and treading lightly up a crumbling cone of scree toward Washerwoman Tower in Canyonlands, Utah. The wide forefoot and narrow heel gave testers’ feet the comfort they needed after long days of climbing with the snug fit and security they needed for tricky descents.
Cons: One plank-footed tester felt pinched on steep downhill descents. Some testers experienced more pebbles sneaking in the top of the shoe on scree-covered hikes than with other shoes in the test.
Conclusion: Sturdy, light, versatile, sticky, and durable: The Mix is your pick if you want a shoe that has struck a great balance between being technical and easy to wear all day.