Before any epic alpine rock route, redpoint burn, or warm-up boulder, there sits the climber: slipping on, lacing up, or strapping down a pair of rock shoes. We know the bond between a climber and sticky rubber is nothing to make light of, so we called in 12 pairs of brand-new kicks for this fall to find the top models for every kind of adventure. Our team took shoes from the seaside crags of Railay Beach, Thailand, to the traditional terrain of Québec, Canada, and came back with five champions on every kind of surface, including slick granite, glassy limestone, and grainy sandstone. Whether you’re just starting out or a seasoned vet, here are five rock shoes as unique as your personal climbing style.
Five Ten Team VXi $170; fiveten.com
Performance: As the softest and most sensitive shoe our testers have ever put on their feet, the new Team VXi excelled at high-end bouldering and sport climbing in the gym and on a variety of rock types. Testers toed in on tiny edges in Rifle, Colorado, and the new Stealth MI6 rubber glued itself to everything, despite the slippery, polished limestone. “Try to make it slip off,” said one tester. “It just won’t.” It’s much softer than other rubber, allowing the user to wrap his toes around the smallest nubs. When aiming for mono-digit pockets, a second-skin feel called Elite Fit allowed for precision and confidence. The Team VXi also excelled in a surprising arena: slabby multi-pitch. “I could easily smear my foot on a micro-bump and know it was going to hold in places like Boulder Canyon and Yosemite,” another tester said. Caveat: These shoes are about as supportive as a pair of socks, so if you’re used to a hard midsole creating power on overhanging routes, these will take some getting used to. “You feel more rock features,” said a tester, “and you use the strength of your toes and feet to climb, rather than a stiff sole or radical downturn.”
Cons: The top-level performance and quality rubber comes with a lofty price. Two months of testing showed no fatal signs of wear, but the rubber is so soft that testers feared quicker-than-average deterioration.
Conclusion: Minimalist fans and barefoot climbers rejoice! Geared for high performance, this new iteration of the Team shoe has a ballet slipper–like feel with ultra-sticky rubber that’s great for hard gym, bouldering, and sport.
Lowa Red Eagle $165; lowaboots.com
Performance: “Holy crap! If there were a dime glued to a wall, I could edge on that,” one Southern tester said after her first experience with these shoes on sandstone at Foster Falls, Tennessee. “I have never felt edging power like this before.” An aggressive downturn, stiff midsole, and right-angled toe box spread power throughout the foot; whether testers were on their tiptoes, heel-hooking, or back-stepping on the outside edge, they were able to engage strength from the whole foot. The Red Eagle stood out for anything vertical and overhanging, although its stiffness reduced sensitivity and made it more difficult for testers to know what they were stepping on when they couldn’t see the holds. The Vibram XS Grip rubber was just as sticky as others in our test, with a high level of durability and no signs of wear after three months. An anti-microbial lining and perforations in the upper were effective at keeping stink at bay, even during the hot and humid Southern summer. They’re not for slabs or all-day routes, and even climbers used to toe-crunching pain should consider going up a half-size.
Cons: Low volume, so medium-sized and larger feet will have a tough time getting a good fit. Break-in period was about two weeks of wearing at least three times a week, and testers still removed the shoe between burns.
Conclusion: The Red Eagle is now in the mix of excellent high-performance shoes, and climbers (especially women) with an extremely low-volume foot now have a shoe option that provides a vacuum fit.
TenayaTatanka $150; trango.com
Performance: “The Tatanka competes with my favorite shoe of all time—La Sportiva’s Testarossa,” one tester said. “I wore these for hard bouldering, sport projects, and even long routes because they’re so versatile.” A moderate downturn and asymmetric toe gave testers precision on overhanging power-fests and techy vertical routes, but it had just enough flex to allow for smearing and smedging on slabbier pitches. “I packed this shoe for trips to Ten Sleep, Wyoming, daily gym sessions, and multi-pitch adventures in Lumpy Ridge, Colorado,” one tester said. A standout feature is the inner sock lining (in lieu of a standard tongue) that wraps around the top of the foot and under the laces, which padded bonier feet. It also allowed testers to crank the shoe all the way down to create a vacuum fit. It shined for heel- and toe-hooking because it never shifted on the foot or budged on the rock, even in tenuous positions, thanks to sticky Vibram XS Grip rubber. Synthetic uppers don’t stretch, but testers found the Tatanka fit well and molded to the foot almost right out of the box.
Cons: The fitted sock can get hot and sweaty. A deep heel cup might leave flat feet unhappy with the overall fit, and high-volume feet might not be able to cinch down the Tatanka for maximum power.
Conclusion: For easily distracted climbers who boulder one day and tie into a rope the next, this shoe will serve well for every climb. The Tatanka offers high performance but is easy to wear for long periods.
Five Ten Rogue VCS $100; fiveten.com
Performance: Every climber needs a go-to gym shoe that doubles as an outside pair when hopping on every pitch in sight; the Rogue VCS fills that void and then some. “I wore this shoe for a few pitches in Boulder Canyon that turned into a late-night gym session after we got rained out,” one tester said. “I never thought twice about needing another shoe.” With a redesigned slingshot heel, the Rogue now fits most foot types. Before, medium- and low-volume feet swam and twisted in heel-hooks; now, testers could sink and stick with no problems. This mid-performance shoe has a flat last for comfort but an asymmetric toe for piercing pockets and finding small edges. The Stealth C4 rubber stuck to mucked-up gym holds, and it took a beating day in and day out, climbing up to 10 pitches a few times a week. Instead of metal loops for the Velcro that are attached to the outside of the upper, there are eyelets built into the upper. Not only does this create a more snug fit, but it’s also much more durable, especially when you’re constantly donning and doffing in the gym.
Cons: It did well on vertical to slightly overhanging, but was too aggressive for slab climbing and not aggressive enough for the really steep. The synthetic upper stretched a half-size, so size down for improved performance.
Conclusion: These mileage masters have enough performance to get on difficult routes, with plenty of comfort to keep your feet happy—even after a mega gym session. A new heel and redesigned upper fit more foot types.
Cypher Code $80; libertymountainclimbing.com
Performance: Designed as an entry-level shoe, the Code found a home on long routes and crack climbs (hand-sized or wider). Our seasoned testers were skeptical of this new, unfamiliar brand and its proprietary Enigma rubber, but on the Durrance Route (5.7+) on Devils Tower, Wyoming, the Code pleasantly surprised one climber. “I’ve never worn a climbing shoe—even my ultra-comfy, flat-lasted favorites—for an entire day without pain, but the Code kept me going even after seven hours of climbing, walking on fourth-class terrain, and then scrambling some more,” she said. “My feet were tired, but I didn’t need to take these off.” The Code performed solidly at all types of movement: smearing, jamming, edging, and even heel-hooking. They’re not very precise, so for finger cracks, dime edges, and small pockets, look elsewhere. Five millimeters of rubber and a stiff sole created a fortress for the foot, which prevented fatigue and added to the life of the shoe. “I dragged these through chimneys, offwidths, scrambles, and countless cracks, and they still look new,” one tester said. Bonus: They’re only 80 clams.
Cons: Not a high level of performance, and the last is built too wide to get a snug fit, leaving the Code to be a one-trick pony; it's ideal for trad climbers or beginners looking for a pure comfort shoe.
Conclusion: If you want a pleasant-feeling shoe for easy and moderate routes in the gym or outside, the Code is your answer (while sacrificing minor performance). Climbers with wide feet will love it, too.
How does sticky rubber work?
Look at the quiver of shoes in your closet, and you not only see radical designs for different uses, but also many unique formulas of rubber. “Sticky rubber” on climbing shoes is soft and porous to conform to the tiniest of edges, compressions, and bumps on the wall. Jason Jackman, Stealth Rubber specialist for Five Ten, says climbing rubber is sticky because of viscoelasticity (the ability to resist change and return back to original shape), interlock (doesn’t rebound out of the smallest surface imperfections), and creep (moves slowly and deforms around bumps). “We believe there is no such thing as an ‘all-in-one formula,’ which is why we have several,” Jackman says of the Five Ten rubber lineup. “Some are soft, some hard. Each has a different interlock and varying rates of ‘creep’ into bumpy surfaces.”