How to Buy Approach Shoes

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Building a quality approach shoe is an art—and a science. Manufacturers take wildly different materials and delicately press, weld, glue, or sew them together into a cohesive unit that should get you from your car to your climb as efficiently as possible. To better understand each component, we’ve broken down the layers and examined how they work. Plus, we highlighted our testers’ top five picks.

Outsole Lugs, as seen on this shoe, dig into the dirt for grip on trails. Some approach shoes have a shallow dot pattern that creates more contact between the rock and rubber, so they smear better on slabby stone.

Midsole As the middle layer between the outsole and the footbed, this is the main shock absorber that decreases impact on the trail. Two common materials are polyurethane foam (PU) and ethylene vinyl acetate foam (EVA). PU is dense and strong, with a longer lifespan than EVA, but it isn’t quite as soft. EVA is lighter and cushier but less durable.

Drop This refers to the difference in “stack height” (the measurement of material between the bottom of your foot and the ground) at your heel and  forefoot. The smaller the drop, the more minimalist the shoe, and the more you’ll feel the ground beneath your feet, which helps for approaches that demand precise scrambling and technical movement. Hiking boots and traditional trail runners have a higher stack heights and drop, which provides more cushioning and support for heavy loads.

Forefoot Plate This higher-density foam or plastic piece provides additional support and protection for the ball of your foot.*

Heel Wedge This midsole component, usually a softer foam, absorbs impact during initial heel strike to provide a more comfortable ride.

Upper This is the top part of the shoe that adds support and guards your foot from outside threats. The upper can be synthetic, leather, mesh, or some combination to offer varying degrees of water resistance, breathability, and insulation.

Footbed Also called the insole, it sits directly beneath your foot. This foam insert comforts and supports, molding to your foot’s unique shape. If you really love a shoe, but need more arch support, for example, try an after-market insole.

Make Them Last

Delamination, one of the most common durability issues, is the breakdown of the glue between the outsole and the midsole. Most shoe layers are bonded with an adhesive, typically a heat-activated glue held together by strong chemical bonds. The number-one cause of delam is heat, so don’t leave your shoes baking in your car between climbing trips or in direct sunlight. And as tempting as it is, don’t put your feet up right next to the campfire or leave your shoes next to it to dry. The same goes for your rock shoes: As soon as you take them off, put them in the shade or in your pack at the crag. Otherwise, the glue can weaken, disfigure, and eventually delaminate. However, if you experience a wagging rubber tongue coming off the toe soon after purchasing or without much wear, it could be due to ineffective contact between the glue and rubber, which is an error that occurs during manufacturing (usually from not having the two surfaces perfectly clean when gluing). Contact the company directly to get them repaired or replaced.