Of all the things climbers accumulate, the rock shoe is one of the few that actually improves performance. Nearly everything else is designed primarily to keep you alive and relatively comfortable. When you find a perfect match for your feet, climbing shoes will encourage good footwork and make you a better climber. Wouldn’t it be great if every piece of gear could do that?
Dozens of well-made shoes line the shelves of climbing stores, divided into categories such as beginner, high-performance, all-day, and crack climbing. Thinking of shoes this way can help narrow your search. However, keep in mind that climbers’ shoe preferences vary drastically. One person’s favorite shoe for long traditional routes is another’s perfect shoe for indoor bouldering. By far the most important factor— no matter what kind of shoe you’re looking for—is the fit.
Anatomy of a Rock Shoe
1. Midsole: Located between the footbed and the sticky-rubber outsole, the midsole helps determine the shoe’s stiffness. Materials and dimensions vary from fulllength leather to ultra-thin composites that reinforce the toe box.
2. Uppers: The material above the rubber rand: leather, synthetic, or a combination of the two. Leather is comfortable but tends to stretch. Synthetic tends to keep its shape—a benefit for precision footwork, but not necessarily for comfort.
3. Heel Cup: Most heel cups are rubber-coated for improved heel hooking.
4. Rand: A strip of rubber that surrounds the shoe between the outsole and the upper. It folds underneath the shoe to provide a surface to which the outsole is glued.
5. Toe Box: Most toe boxes are designed to focus the climber’s weight onto the big toe.
6. Outsole: Often simply called the sole, it’s comprised of sticky rubber, generally covering from toe to heel.
When you’re first learning to climb, a snug, but comfortable fit should be a priority. As you progress in the sport, comfort may take a back seat to shoes that feel like they’re shrinkwrapped onto your foot, at least in those designed for difficult bouldering or sport climbing. But even a foot condom needs to fit your foot well—tight but not painful, no dead air space or pressure points, and good forefoot mobility.
The only way to find such a fit is by trying on a bunch of shoes. Try on climbing shoes without socks—that’s usually how they’re designed to be worn. Most specialty shops have a wall with plastic holds where you can preview how the shoes will feel while climbing. In general, you’ll want a tighter fit for soft shoes, and a more relaxed fit for stiff, thicker-soled shoes. Before you buy, and regardless of your experience level, try both comfort-oriented and high-end models—don’t be intimidated by “experts only” jargon.
Keep in mind that sizing varies widely between shoe companies—even between different models from the same manufacturer—so don’t rely on what size you “usually” wear. Slender-footed folks—irrespective of gender— should look for additional shoe options, often labeled “women’s shoes.”
The last, a 3-D mold around which a shoe is constructed, determines the shape, fit, and feel of the shoe. There are two categories of lasts—slip last and board last—but contrary to what many climbers believe, the type of last does not dictate how stiff or sensitive the shoe will be. It’s more important to consider its shape.
There are three basic last shapes: straight (or flat), asymmetric, and down-turned.
A straight last has a flat sole and puts the foot in a relaxed position, like a street shoe. Straight lasts tend to produce more comfortable shoes, primarily designed for long climbs and cracks.
An asymmetric last bends the foot into a banana shape, with the forefoot pointed slightly inward. This last is used in shoes designed for precise and powerful footwork on small holds, where the big toe is often the only point of contact with the rock.
A downturned last, usually combined with an asymmetric last, creates a shoe that grabs footholds like a claw. This design is best for overhanging terrain, whether in the gym or outside.
The midsole is a layer of natural or synthetic material between the sole and the upper, which helps determine the stiffness of a shoe. A thin, partial, or split midsole adds little to a shoe’s stiffness and is designed for sensitivity. A cured or cupped midsole is often used with asymmetric, down-turned lasts, and will force power to the big toe. A rigid, full-foot midsole offers comfort and support, and is used in shoes designed for all-day wear.
This is a fancy name for the rubber on the bottom of the shoe. The outsole is usually combined with a high rubber rand girdling the shoe, a rubber-coated heel cup, and sometimes a rubberized toe box. Climbers are almost superstitious when it comes to shoe rubber, sticking to their favorite brand like it sticks to the rock. The truth is, nearly all modern outsole rubbers are ridiculously sticky. Differences between shoe rubber are most obvious in their hardness (thus, durability) and thickness. Harder, thicker rubber is superior for edging and durability, while softer, thinner rubber excels at overhanging rock and sensitivity.
The material on the upper half of the shoe, above the rand, is typically leather, synthetic leather, or a combination of the two. Leather uppers stretch and conform to your foot over time, and tend to be more durable and comfortable than other materials. Synthetic uppers tend to maintain their shape and stretch very little. A combo upper stretches strategically in some places while maintaining fit in others.
Another important factor in a shoe’s upper is the lining—or lack thereof. A lined shoe has fabric (cotton, synthetic, hemp, etc.) sewn into the interior of the upper material, offering comfort, fit maintenance, and less breathability. Unlined shoes breathe well and conform to your foot shape, but they can feel rough on the skin (especially unlined synthetics) and may stretch more than you want. Most technical edging shoes are lined, while softer, high sensitivity models tend to go unlined.
Shoes come with three types of closures: laces, Velcro, and slipper design.
Laces allow you to tighten the shoe along its full length, adjusting the fit where needed. They also tend to offer a bit more support than the alternatives.
Velcro closures offer a quick on-off transition, which is particularly convenient while bouldering or gym climbing. The trade-off is that you can’t dial the fit of Velcros the way you can with lace-ups.
Climbing slippers, like their bedroom brethren, have no closure system at all. Rather, their performance relies on elastic and a vacuum fit. Slippers are best for training, bouldering, and thin cracks.
There’s no need to toss your rock shoes in the dump just because the tips of the soles are worn out. Resoling your rock shoes can keep them out of the landfill for months—even years—and save you hundreds of dollars in new shoe purchases. The key to a perfect resole is to have it done before the outsole wears through to the underlying rand. If you start to see another layer of rubber, stitching, or the shoe’s upper fabric through the sole or rand, you likely will need rand repair as well as new soles, which adds expense and compromises the resole. In the rare case that you have a damaged rand but don’t yet need a resole, you can do temporary spot repairs with Aquaseal, Shoe Goo, or Freesole. A typical resole job costs about $28 per pair to replace the front half of the sole, plus another $18 to $20 to repair the toe cap or rand, plus shipping for mail orders. Allow one to two weeks for a mail-in resole. Top Two Resolers (Most recommended at Climbing’s Facebook and Twitter pages.) Rock & Resole Boulder, CO rockandresole.com (303) 440-0414 Yosemite Bum Buena Park, CA yosemitebum.com (714) 522-5556">
There’s no need to toss your rock shoes in the dump just because the tips of the soles are worn out. Resoling your rock shoes can keep them out of the landfill for months—even years—and save you hundreds of dollars in new shoe purchases.
The key to a perfect resole is to have it done before the outsole wears through to the underlying rand. If you start to see another layer of rubber, stitching, or the shoe’s upper fabric through the sole or rand, you likely will need rand repair as well as new soles, which adds expense and compromises the resole. In the rare case that you have a damaged rand but don’t yet need a resole, you can do temporary spot repairs with Aquaseal, Shoe Goo, or Freesole.
A typical resole job costs about $28 per pair to replace the front half of the sole, plus another $18 to $20 to repair the toe cap or rand, plus shipping for mail orders. Allow one to two weeks for a mail-in resole.
Top Two Resolers (Most recommended at Climbing’s Facebook and Twitter pages.)