2020 Climbing Shoe Review: The Year of the Comp Shoe

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Alex Johnson competing in the Evolv X1s at the 2020 Bouldering National Championships at Deschutes County Fairgrounds in Redmond, Oregon, where she earned a spot on the 2020 US National Team. 

Alex Johnson competing in the Evolv X1s at the 2020 Bouldering National Championships at Deschutes County Fairgrounds in Redmond, Oregon, where she earned a spot on the 2020 US National Team. 

Once upon a time in the competition world, there was but one style of setting: steep, with small holds. You only needed one pair of shoes to compete—a soft, downturned shoe that was good for grabbing the footholds. In recent years, however, setters looking to give audiences a more engaging experience and to test competitors in new, more creative ways began to vary the terrain—especially with bouldering—adding slabs, vertical climbs, volumes, and parkour coordination climbing.

Competitors began hitting the mats with different footwear. “For years, I’d bring out multiple pairs of shoes—flat[-lasted] for slabs and volumes, downturned for the steeps,” says Alex Johnson, an Evolv athlete, pro climber, and coach based out of Minnesota—and a dominant comp climber since the early 2000s. “I know plenty of other athletes who did this, too—switch shoes mid-round.” But with time as a factor (e.g., you get four minutes per problem in the World Cup), this wasn’t efficient. Soon, both athletes and designers saw a need for high-performance competition shoes that could do everything: edge, grab, heel-hook, toe-scum, and smear. In other words, one shoe to rule them all: the “comp shoe.”

With Olympic buzz in the air in 2019 and 2020 (and now into 2021, with the Games’ postponement), manufacturers began to market comp shoes, sometimes building on existing shoes and sometimes creating new boots. In other cases, they simply continued producing performance all-arounders that athletes had adopted for competitions. This synergy between athletes and designers has yielded cutting-edge shoes that will also appeal to consumers—for the gym and even outdoors.

Dave Kassel, the rock-climbing category manager at Five Ten, first began having conversations about comp shoes with athletes at the Innsbruck World Championships in summer 2019. He brought prototypes of the new Hiangle for Five Ten climbers to check out. As the Slovenian comp stars Janja Garnbret and Domen Škofic demo’ed the Hiangles, they offered feedback. As Kassel recalls, Škofic said, “Because we climb on volumes so much, I wish I didn’t have this point on the toe—when I rock over, it pushes me away from the wall.” Later that day, as Kassel discussed the issue with Five Ten athlete Carlo Traversi at a bar, Traversi said, “Why not wrap up the outsole [on the inside edge] to turn it into a seamless rand, but keep the regular toe [on the front and outside edge] where it is so you can still edge?” Traversi drew his idea on a napkin, and Five Ten began designing the Hiangle Pro.

Butora has followed a similar arc, creating the Acro Comp—a softer, midsole-free version of their popular bouldering shoe, the Acro—after their athletes said it was tricky to stand on volumes in the Acro. Mack Maier, the director of product development at HMH Outdoors, which imports Butora shoes from Korea, said the athletes wanted a shoe that deformed to stand on volumes yet still retained edging capabilities. Meanwhile, at Mad Rock, the company had for years wanted to create an entirely compression-molded shoe that let you use your feet like hands, but the technology only recently evolved to support it. According to Mad Rock’s manager Kenny Suh, this idea was the brainchild of the company’s owner and principal designer Young Chu, who’s been designing climbing shoes for 34 years. “What we’ve figured out is how to fully compress/mold an entire shoe, which no one else [ … ] has done before,” says Suh. “Imagine that every curve [and] every design feature on the shoe must be compressed evenly for it to work—and be climbing-grade rubber.”

This year, La Sportiva is coming out with three new shoes—the Solution Comp (lead/bouldering), the Theory (bouldering), and the Cobra 4.99 (speed)—each loosely centered on an Olympic discipline. However, according to Pietro Dalprá, the climbing-shoe product specialist at La Sportiva, “The idea was not to produce specific shoes for competitions,” but also to create new shoes to meet those and other needs. “These models have some features that make them more suitable for these new indoor disciplines,” says Dalprá, “but they also climb well outside.” For example, the Solution Comp has a thinner, more precise heel that makes the shoe’s rear structure lighter and softer than the original Solution—hence the forefoot becomes softer, too, and more adapted to volumes. But the Comps are also beasts on the rock (I sent my hardest boulder problem in them). As Dalprá puts it, much indoor climbing has become dynamic, usually on overhanging walls with volumes: “So the two most important skills of the shoes must be: elasticity (the shoe has to be reactive) and adaptability on the different big surfaces of the volumes and footholds.” The Solution Comp and the softer Theory meet these needs, while the Cobra 4.99 represents La Sportiva’s lightest, most agile slipper possible—its heel, which is never used in speed climbing, is minimal.

Scarpa has taken a different approach: While they don’t sell a shoe explicitly for comps, their softer, downturned performance boots have become go-tos for their athlete team. “The main choice of our athletes is definitely the Drago,” says Heinz Mariacher, the climbing product manager at Scarpa and a shoe designer since 1982, starting with the La Sportiva Mariacher, the iconic purple-and-yellow hightop. Mariacher didn’t originally design the Drago as a comp or even a gym shoe: “It was a selfish project,” he says. “I had a shoe in mind for myself that would be softer and more sensitive than any other shoe in our line.” While Mariacher viewed the Drago as an experiment, its lightness and flexibility made it a hit. (The low-volume Drago LV comes out this May.) Its stiffer lace-up counterpart, the Chimera, better suited for lead climbing, soon followed.

Mariacher says we shouldn’t view comp shoes as being for competitions or professional climbers only, especially as comp-style setting infuses our local gyms. “The everyday indoor climber is pulling and smearing on big volumes as well, and expects exactly the same performance and characteristics from a climbing shoe as a comp climber,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense to offer less performance for non-competition climbing.”

Here, we offer a roundup of six shoes in the comp category, some already on sale and some soon to be. (Also, see sidebar below for defining characteristics of the genre.)

Our Top Comp Climbing Shoes of 2020

Butora Acro Comp

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"Their performance on heel hooks and toe scums is nearly perfect—the toe-scumming patch is one of the biggest I’ve seen and is über-grippy." Read the full review. 

Evolv X1

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“The X1 is soft enough that I can trust my feet on volumes, but not so soft that the mold of the shoe falters,” explains Alex Johnson, who has been wearing the X1s for competitions since 2018. Read the full review. 

Five Ten Hiangle Pro

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The Hiangle Pro marries the marked downturn and precision toe of the regular Hiangle with an innovative inside/medial “edge” that is, in fact, not an edge at all. Read the full review. 

La Sportiva Theory

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The Theory is softer than the Solution Comp for more of a bouldering focus. It also has volume-friendly features like Sportiva’s No-Edge technology. Read the full review. 

Mad Rock Vision

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The Mad Rock Vision is the first entirely compression-molded climbing shoe, and it uses interchangeable liners vary midsole stiffness. Read the full review. 

Scarpa Drago LV (& Drago)

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The Drago has a precise, downturned toe for edging and jibs, but plenty of softness for flex on volumes, and this year it gets a low-volume version. Read the full review. 

Comp Shoes 101

Comp shoes all share some fundamental characteristics: 

  • Single Velcro closure for quick on/off
  • Strap high on the shoe so as not to interfere with toe-hooking
  • Large toe patch for scums and coordination moves
  • Precision toe for edging and jibs
  • Downturn for steep climbing
  • Soft-rubber outsole versus an edging compound
  • Minimal or no midsole, so shoe can flex for smearing
  • Squishy/low-volume heel to deform onto large features