A Beginner’s Guide to Climbing Shoes
What do you need to know before you buy your first pair of climbing shoes? This article tell you everything you need to know about the different shapes and functions of climbing shoes, and makes some recommendations for a first-time pair.
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Part 1. “You just wasted a hundred bucks, dude.”
On Columbus Day Weekend, 2004, my father took me to the Eastern Mountain Sports in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, to buy my first pair of climbing shoes. I was 15 years old and was not yet a “real climber.” Having toproped outside once and spent a few hours traversing my school’s wooden wall in my sneakers, I knew I was interested in climbing, but I had never led a route, never set foot in a commercial gym, and had no idea what terms like drop knee or heel hook or crimp meant.
The result? I stood before the shoe rack, perplexed by strange names like “Muira” and “Moccasym” and “Anasazi Velcro.” Aside from simple basics like color, I couldn’t tell the shoes apart and had no idea that some were stiff while others were soft, that some were aggressively downturned while others were flat, and that these different attributes made them excel at different aspects of the sport.
Eventually a lanky young shoe-salesman with blond dreadlocks stepped up and asked me what kind of climbing I wanted to do (“The adventure kind!” I replied), then helped me into a pair of Five Ten Asyms—blue ones, upturned in the front, stiff as boards.
Not knowing any better, I sized my Asyms like sneakers: snug but with enough spare room in the toe that I wouldn’t bruise my toenails when walking downhill and loose enough so that I could wear them with a pair of wool socks when it got cold. I was happy with them. Psyched. But when I returned to school on Monday and proudly showed them to the friend who’d just introduced me to climbing, he shook his head sadly.
“You just wasted a hundred bucks, dude,” he said.
“They’re tens!” I responded defensively. “Same size as my sneakers.”
“Try climbing in them,” my friend said. “You’ll see.”
I tried. They were about six-sizes too large and designed for long days on smear-intensive big walls, not bouldering indoors and sport climbing on steep schist. After five or six weeks of grumpy denial, I returned to EMS for my second pair of climbing shoes.
As it turns out, my experience was not unusual. Beginner climbers, like beginner cyclists and beginner backpackers, are often forced to make financial decisions without the kind of background knowledge that helps them make informed purchases. In hopes of saving a few of you from the mistakes that I made, I’ve put together this in-depth primer into climbing shoes. It’ll tell you everything you need to know about the different shapes and functions of climbing shoes, and makes some recommendations for a first-time pair.Section divider
Part II. What do beginners need to know about climbing shoes?
Deciding what kind of shoe is best for you is a bit like trying to decide what kind of cake you’d choose if you could eat only one type of desert for the rest of your days. That’s because climbing shoes are generally designed for specific styles of climbing. For steep roofs and caves, you want soft, aggressive shoes; for vertical granite you want stiffer, flatter shoes with great edging support; for cracks, something supple and bendy is ideal. “All-arounders” don’t really exist in the world of performance climbing shoes, which is why most experienced cross-disciplinary climbers (climbers who trad climb, boulder, and sport climb, for instance) own multiple pairs. To complicate things, climbers also have different body types and climbing styles, both of which influence shoe decisions.
That said, you need to start somewhere. And since, as a beginner, you’re still learning (a) the basics of body position and footwork and (b) what kind of shoe will best compliment your climbing style, you’re better off going for a shoe that’ll perform adequately across disciplines and won’t break the bank. Once you’ve worked on your technique and learned to use your feet, you’ll be better able to appreciate the niche benefits of performance shoes and better equipped to make purchasing decisions.
Four things you need to know about shoe design.
1. Flat Shoes vs. downturned shoes.
Flat shoes. Designed for slabs and vertical walls, where you’re often supporting most of your body weight from tiny edges that you stand on with your big toes, flat shoes are—as they sound—flat-soled. People generally size them so that their toes aren’t totally crumpled up (as they are in aggressively downturned shoes). Most flat shoes are pretty stiff—the stiffer they are, the easier it is to stand on tiny edges—but some, like the classic Five Ten Moccasym (listed below), are very soft (flexibility allows them to torque well into cracks and smear well on slabs). Because they’re often more comfortable, flat shoes are popular with beginners and kids—but they’re not great on steeper climbs, and if you intend to do a lot of bouldering or steeper sport climbing, you might be better off going with a slightly downturned shoe.
Downturned shoes. Meant for overhanging climbs, downturned shoes have a bird-beaked shape and are often (though not always) pretty soft. Softness gives the climber more sensitivity in the toes, whereas stiffness provides support and makes it easier to generate power through the toes. Unless you exclusively climb on slabby or vertical terrain, you will eventually want a pair of downturned shoes.
Downturn ranges from slightly downturned to moderately downturned to aggressively downturned.
Slightly and moderately downturned shoes are workhorses—probably the closest thing to true all-arounders; stiffer ones (like the Muira VS, listed below) perform well on vertical terrain but can also toe into crimps and pockets on steeper walls; softer ones (like Tenaya’s Mastia) have the sensitivity to excel on smears while not sacrificing performance on steeper walls. Extremely downturned shoes, on the other hand, are more exclusively designed for toeing in on extreme overhangs.
2. Stiff shoes vs. soft shoes
Stiff shoes can be either flat (like the TC Pro) or downturned (like the Katana). Their rigid midsoles help support your foot, allowing you to stand on smaller holds and making it easier to generate power through your toes. There are two downsides to stiff shoes: (1) they’re harder to manipulate with your feet, (2) they lack the sensitivity (the ability to conform your shoe around what you’re standing on) of soft shoes.
Soft shoes, meanwhile, can also be either flat like the Five Ten Moccasym or downturned like Scarpa’s Furia. Soft, flat shoes are great for crack climbing, while soft downturned shoes are great for steep walls and indoor climbing, where smearing on volumes is commonly required; but neither excel on vertical edging.
3. Asymmetrical shoes
Just about all climbing shoes are a little asymmetrical, which which we mean that they skew medially, allowing you to drive more pressure (and therefor power) through the big toe. The more the tip of the shoe skews inwardly away from the center line, the more asymmetrical the shoe. Flat shoes are generally more symmetrical than downturned shoes. The purpose of the asymmetry is to keep your toes in a crimp position, which helps with digging into holds on steep routes and, with some models, help support you on small holds on vertical terrain.
4. Closure Systems
Newer climbers are often surprised to learn that closure systems—generally divided into three categories: laces, Velcro, and slippers—are more than just a preferred way of fastening a climbing shoe to the foot; they actually change the nature of that shoe’s performance.
Laceups. Laceups allow the wearer to customize the way the shoe flexes or doesn’t. But they aren’t great for toe-hooking and they take longer to put on and take off.
Slippers. These tend to be soft and conform tightly to your feet. These shoes are generally good for gym climbing and steep boulders—and if they’re flat, for cracks—but they often do less well on slabbier and vertical terrain, where supported edging is the name of the game. The drawbacks: (1) you have to size them quite small because you can’t adjust them; (2) heelhook too aggressively and it’s pretty easy to pull your shoe off. This is why many newer slippers have a single high Velcro strap near the ankle.
Velcro. The benefit of Velcro: it’s more supportive and customizable than a slipper but easier to get on and off than a laceup. The drawback? These straps tend to get in the way when you’re toehooking—which is why a more slipper-like shoe is often preferable when intense toehooks are required. As a beginner, don’t worry about this drawback too much.Section divider
Part III. Some FAQs about First-Time Shoes
What kind of shoe is right for me?
Generally speaking, A first-time shoe is doing its job if it allows you to have fun while learning the basics of footwork and body position. To maximize this learning process, find yourself a flat-ish shoe with plenty of midsole support and then size them down one or two sizes off your street shoe: you want them to feel snug, maybe even a bit too snug, but not painful. Remember that all climbing shoes—but especially leather ones—stretch with wear. Shoes that fit perfectly when first purchased will feel a bit too big after a few weeks of use. In time, as you try various disciplines and hone your technique, you may want to upgrade to a shoe that’s specifically designed for the types of climbing you do. Boulderers might get a pair of uber-aggressive slippers; sport climbers might buy some aggressive yet supportive shoes equally suited to vertical edging and steeper walls; and trad climbers might go for shoes that twist well into cracks.
Want to learn more about what type of shoe is best for you, check out pro climber Paige Claassen’s excellent flowchart on this subject.
How should I size my shoes?
Many highly aggressive climbing shoes are designed to be sized uncomfortably tight, but as a beginner, discomfort is working to your disadvantage. You’ll improve faster if you can move around on rock (or plastic) without thinking about how uncomfortable your feet feel. That said, comfort isn’t king. Your first shoes should be just a bit too tight—and incomparably tighter than your street shoes. Your big toe should reach the very end of the toebox (tip: clip your nails short), but your toes shouldn’t curl all the way up unless you’re in a hyper-downturned shoe. If your toes are super scrunched, or if the arch of your foot is cramping, or if you’re feeling pins and needles in your feet, or if you can’t get your heel all the way down in the heelcup—well, if any of that’s happening, try a half-size larger until you have a snug fit that’s also close to comfortable. Also, there should not be air pockets under your arch or around your heel. Take note of the material. Leather shoes stretch more than synthetic materials. Shoes with rubber strips over the top of the shoe stretch less than shoes without them.
(Note that things are different with many performance shoes, which can take some wrangling to get into. Your foot may not drop all the way into the heelcup during initial break-in phase. And you might not be able to get them on without feeling like you’re about to bust a tendon yanking on the pull tabs. These shoes are not great for beginners and often require an extended break in period, often involving chilling on the couch in your shoes trying to stretch them out.)
How much money should I spend?
The shoes listed below range in price from $85 to $185—which is relatively cheap as far as climbing shoes go. But when thinking about how much you want to spend on your first pair of climbing shoes, here are a few things to consider:
You don’t need a sports car. Giving a pair of hyper-aggressive $200 bouldering slippers to a beginner is a bit like giving a Ferrari to newly licensed 16-year-old: You’re likely to climb holes into your soles long before you accrue the skills required to fully take advantage of the shoes.
Your first shoe might not last you very long. The longevity of your climbing shoes largely reflects the quality of your footwork and the type of climbing you’re doing. Real rock is more abrasive than plastic; sharply striated schist is more abrasive than glacially polished granite; etc. For this reason, most beginners are better off starting out with a cheaper shoe that they can learn on without worrying too much about the price tag.
You will progress beyond your first shoe. Most beginners don’t stay beginners, and this means that many climbers advance beyond the functionality of their first climbing shoes long before those shoes break down. For this reason, if you think that climbing might become a consistent part of your weekly schedule, it’s not a bad idea to do one of two things: (a) either shop sales and buy a cheap (or even used) first pair of shoes with the knowledge that you’ll probably want to buy a sleeker shoe in the near future; or (b) spend a little bit more money and get a pair of shoes that you can progress into.
What are the five most common mistakes beginners make when purchasing their first climbing shoes?
- Wearing socks. Climbing shoes aren’t meant to be worn with socks. The shoes should be far too tight for that.
- Sizing for comfort. Though foot discomfort is not a virtuous end-unto-itself (as some climbers believe), comfort isn’t the chief metric with which you should purchase climbing shoes. Instead, think about what kind of climbing you want to do and what type of body and foot type you have.
- Buying the cheapest shoe. If you’re a beginner and don’t know how much climbing you’ll actually do, it makes sense to buy a cheaper shoe. But if you’ve climbed enough to know that climbing might become an important part of your life, you’re probably better off taking the time to find a more intermediate pair of climbing shoes that you can grow into—and this will require spending some money.
- Buying the most expensive shoe. When you first start climbing, your footwork is (alas) going to be terrible. And terrible footwork (double alas) often decreases the lifetime of your shoe. Beginners can plan on wearing through their first pair of shoes far faster than more advanced climbers, so you’re better off getting a cheaper shoe and working on your technique before forking over $200+.
- Listening to the store clerk who does not climb. Remember my sorry tale from 2004? Well, it’s a common one. While your random outdoor gear store employee in 2022 is far more likely to have rock climbed than they were in 2004, it’s still probably prudent to ask the salesperson how much climbing they’ve done, and what kind, when purchasing shoes. If they don’t have much experience, don’t treat their word as bible. (Chances are that your local climbing gym sells shoes; they’re a great resource.)
Check out this article, “The Rock Shoe Bible” by Climbing’s Editor-in-Chief, Matt Samet, to learn more about shoe terminology, sizing, and history.Section divider
Part IV. The Best Shoes for Beginners
Black Diamond Momentum
An excellent shoe for those wanting an all-around, comfortable, quality shoe, at a good price point, with sound construction. Our reviewer: “For a beginner climber, the Momentum is excellent, and with a tag of $89.95, the price is right. The shoes have enough performance to take you from 5.6 to 5.11 on any type of route, and, for a soft, slipper-like flat last, they edge decently, mainly due to the rather straight profile on the inside of the shoe, which lets your big toe do all the work. Because of a nice long arch on the outside rand, the backstepping ability of the shoe is generous.”
Fit: our reviewer fit the Momentum in his street-shoe size and it was spot on.
Price: $89.95 (often on sale)
Buy the women’s Momentum on Backcountry.com
Buy the men’s Momentum on backcountry.com
As the one-stop shop of Butora’s shoe line, the Endeavor is a durable, medium-stiff, medium-flex, sticky-rubber kick that is at home on vertical, slabby, and even slightly overhanging terrain. The Endeavor provides great performance without requiring downsizing (i.e. pain). The dirtbag-friendly price makes this an excellent option for a gym or mileage shoe. Although, as with most shoes on this list, our reviewer noted that “Although it’s good at everything, it doesn’t particularly excel at anything.”
Fit: Available in both wide and narrow fits.
Buy the women’s wide fit Endeavor on backcountry.com
Buy the women’s narrow fit Endeavor on backcountry.com
Buy the men’s tight fit Endeavor on Backcountry.com
The Defy (and its women’s version, the Elektra) is a remarkably comfortable shoe that performs well for jamming, smearing, and edging. With a perforated, synthetic upper, nylon lining, and padded tongue, it almost feels like you’re wearing socks. The flat, slightly asymmetric last is soft and sensitive, yet a half-midsole provides some edging power. Like most all-day shoes, the Defy doesn’t excel at anything, but at the end of a long day, your feet will be thankful for the comfort. They also perform well on bouldering.
Buy the Evolve Defy on Backcountry.com
Buy the Evolve Elektra on Backcountry.com
Five Ten Niad Moccasym
For decades, the Five Ten Moccasym has been the shoe of choice for elite crack climbers, but it’s also a great beginner shoe. It’s got a soft flat rand and is great for smearing and torquing into cracks. Recent updates to the shoe (rubber over the big toe) make it more functional for beginners likely to climb in the gym. Note: these shoes stretch a lot once you start breaking them in, so make sure you size them tight.
Buy the Five Ten Moccasym on Backcountry.com
La sportive Mythos Eco
Since 1991, the Mythos has been a genre-bending climbing shoe. In those 15 years, climbers have used the comfortable shoe for every style of climbing from boulders to plastic. Several years ago, it got a green upgrade, becoming the Mythos Eco. It uses 95% recycled components—the rubber is basically made from rubber floor scraps—but, aside from earthy colors, its performance is indistinguishable from the original shoe.
How does it perform? The Mythos is stiff at first, but that first impression is misleading. Climb in the shoe and it softens, eventually reaching a stasis where it still has enough stability to edge but is soft and sensitive enough to feel out micro bumps. A former editor here did the first ascents of numerous 5.14s wearing the Mythos, pushing off insecure nothings as if they were ladder rungs. (Read our review.)
Buy the Men’s Mythos Eco on Backcountry.com
Buy the Women’s Mythos Eco on Backcountry.com
La Sportiva Tarantulace
One of the cheapest shoes on this list and, consequently, one of the best-selling climbing shoes in the U.S., the Tarantulace is a comfort first shoe with an unlined leather upper, a mildly asymmetric shape, a stiff last, and a relatively roomy toe-box. The uppers are leather, so they’ll stretch with time, and the soles are thick (5mm of FriXion rubber), which increases the chance that you’ll learn good footwork before burning all the way through the rubber. If you’re buying shoes to go up big walls, prioritizing all-day comfort and durability makes sense. But it does come at the direct expense of performance. The stiff toebox is famously insensitive, making it hard to feel the things you’re standing on, and the stiff, flat last hurts its performance on steeper walls. So if you’re looking to sport climb or boulder (either in the gym or outside) it might be worth going for something a bit more performance oriented.
Buy the Women’s Tarantulace on Backcountry.com
Buy the Men’s Tarantulace on Backcountry.com
La Sportiva Kubo
Moderately asymmetrical and moderately downturned, the Kubo is an intermediate shoe whose comfort and versatility might be particularly attractive to beginners. They’re one of the few shoes on this list with top-of-the-toe rubber—which helps for toe-hooking. The cons? First, it’s a bit pricier than most beginner models. Second, versatility comes at the expense of specialization: this shoe is great if you’re interested in doing it all, but if you’re specializing in a discipline, you might be better off getting a more focused shoe. Third, the thinner rubber (4mm) gives the shoe more sensitivity but means that it’ll wear down faster—unless you’ve already got good footwork. Comes in men’s and women’s models.
Buy the women’s Kubo on Backcountry.com
Buy the men’s Kubo on Backcountry.com
Red Chili Circuit VCR
Named for the bouldering circuits in Fontainebleau, where climbers move through the boulders doing numerous (often moderate) problems, the Circuit VCR takes a fresh tack when it comes to beginners shoes: while still emphasizing all-day comfort common for beginner shoes, they’ve built a shoe designed for boulders. It’s got double-velcro closure system and is particularly suitable for beginners who anticipate spending most of their first few months or years in the gym. Oh, and the hemp footbed is both antibacterial and odor-blocking: so sweat all you want.
Buy the Circuit VCR on Backcountry.com
Scarpa Reflex V
The Reflex V is a flat-lasted Velcro designed for all day wear. A sturdy, well-made shoe with two Velcro straps, the Reflex V has leather uppers that conform to your foot plus a solid, symmetric footbed that ensures a relaxed feel. The Reflex V doesn’t perform remarkably well on tiny holds or overhangs; nor do they have a much sensitivity or edging power; so beginners who aspire to progress quickly through the grades would do well to pick a more aggressive shoe to start with. But if value and comfort are your priorities, these kicks are a great choice.
Buy the men’s Reflex on Backcountry.com
Buy the women’s Reflex on Backcountry.com
Expressively designed to be a climber’s second shoe purchase, the Tanta is a subtly downturned shoe that’ll help introduce you to a more aggressive shoe while not breaking your feet or forcing you to specialize too much. It’s moderately sensitive and very comfortable, ideal for all-day wear or traditional multi-pitch routes with their varied terrain.
Buy the Tanta on Backcountry.comSection divider
Part V. Leveling up
The following shoes are examples of more intermediate / advanced models that could also prove suitable for first-time shoe buyers. This is, as above, far from a complete list.
La Sportiva Muira VS
This Velcro version of the classic Muria has become a classic of its own: A “high performance” shoe that excels across disciplines, the Muria VS has become a go-to for beginners and experts alike. (Watch this video of elite British tradster Hazel Findlay styling a dangerous 5.13c in her Muiras.) As one of our early reviewers noted, the Muira VS is an all-around tool that will “improve every climber’s performance, no matter what discipline they are into… [it] just works well in all climbing applications. Who wouldn’t want that?” It excels on dime-edges, heel hooks, and finger cracks—but is also downturned and soft enough to do well on steeper terrain. The shoe does stretch (it’s a leather upper) but not excessively. Size it tight—but not insanely so.
Features: It has La Sportival’s patented P3 midsole, an asymmetric and downturned last, Dentex lining (no lining underfoot), leather upper, and 4mm Vibram XS Grip2 rubber, and three Velcro straps that attach in opposite directions, wrapping the shoe to the shape of your foot. Also available in a low-volume / women’s version.
Buy the men’s Muira VS on Backcountry.com
Buy the women’s Muira V on Backcountry.com
La Sportiva Skwama
Winner of the editor’s choice award in 2017, our editors described the Skwama thus: “These shoes are sort of the paradox of the high-end shoe world: elite performance but comfortable to wear; easy to get on in a slipper design, stiff for toeing-in but soft and sensitive for smearing.” A true all-arounder that (depending on how you size them) can excel on boulders and sport routes, edgy face climbs, crack climbs, comp boulders, or lazy jaunts up the big walls, the Skwama is a high-performance slipper hybrid that truly delivers as a sensitive and powerful shoe with a slightly lower price tag and higher comfort factor than many in its class.
The only complaint? These are performance shoes: they require two or three sessions (at minimum) to break in. (Read the full review here.)
Buy the men’s Skwama on Backcountry.com
Buy the women’s Skwama on Backcountry.com
The Quantic is “a medium/high-end all-arounder that does everything laudably well, is comfy and light (13.4 ounces, size 40.5), and given its softness (epic smearing!) does almost better in the gym than on rock.” The last is relaxed but pointy and precise—and the shoes are sensitive and excel on slightly overhanging terrain. For vertical or slabby micro-edging in, you might want something stiffer. These were built by legendary Scarpa shoe designer Heinz Mariacher with the intention of offering “a multi-purpose performance shoe, a mix of lightness, sensitivity, and good precision,” representing a step up into more advanced footwear for newer or intermediate climbers. [Read our Review]
Buy the men’s Quantic on Backcountry.com
Buy the women’s Quantic on Backcountry.com
Once upon a time, beginners started climbing on ropes, toproping outside or in the gym where stiffer, flatter shoes made sense. Today, however, most climbers start inside, and most emphasize bouldering—which means, perhaps, that it’s time to re-evaluate what actually makes a good beginners shoe. That’s the line of thinking with Scarpa’s Veloce, a soft gym shoe geared toward intermediate climbers wanting sensitivity and advanced climbers who want their shoes to be comfortable enough that they can wear them for long sessions. The mildly downturned Veloce is a soft flexible training friend. Comfort is off the charts, and the Veloces smear/hook/glom like demons, though you may crave greater support on jibs. Read the full review. It was one of our top gear picks of 2020.
Buy the men’s Veloce on backcountry.com