We focus so much on the act of climbing and what gear is essential in that arena—rock shoes, harness, rope, hardware, helmet, pack—that we sometimes neglect what’s helpful for actually getting to the climb. The approach can be anything from a short scramble to the crag or a multi-day hump to a valley of granite towers and anything in between. No matter what, the best approach shoes combine the stability and support of a hiking boot with the grip and dexterity of a climbing shoe. We battle-tested 10 approach shoes, from the rocky deserts of Indian Creek and Red Rock to the granite mecca of Yosemite and eastern proving ground of Red River Gorge, to bring you these five winners. Now lace up and get outside!
Salewa Wildfire GTX ($159, salewa.com)
Weight: 1 lb. 8 oz.
Performance: After hiking up to 16 miles a day (with 12,000 feet of elevation change) in the Swiss Alps, climbing 5.easy slab in Colorado, and romping around Yosemite for a week, our testers were unanimous that the Wildfire ranks among the best approach shoes we’ve ever tested. “The EVA midsole gives running shoe comfort, especially in the heel,” says one tester. “But the forefoot still lets you feel the terrain much like a climbing shoe.” Vibram’s new EVO outsole, a combo of dot rubber, knobby tread, and a flat climbing zone, was one of the stickiest in our test, providing the most confident edging. A toe bumper protected toes during scrambles, while a beefy rand lent extra grip. Bonus: Salewa’s “multi-fit footbed” lets you adjust volume of the shoe for a customized fit. Super bonus: all Salewa shoes come with a blister-free guarantee. Get a pustule within the first two weeks of wear, and you get your money back. One tester has used four different Salewa models and never had so much as a hotspot.
Cons: Waterproofing is bomber, but breathability scores below average—testers found they sweated out quicker than in other models. Traction falters on smooth, wet rock.
Conclusion: Running shoe comfort and climbing shoe precision in a light, customizable, and blisterproof package. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Other than minor breathability beefs, testers praised the Wildfire for being one the best approach shoes they’ve worn.
The North Face Verto Approach ($110, thenorthface.com)
Weight: 1 lb. 13 oz.
Performance: “The first shoes I grab for a hairy, exposed approach,” one tester said. “Sticky soles combined with a climbing-shoe feel make for a performance-oriented rig.” Not a bad endorsement from a tester with 30-plus years of climbing experience. Credit the classic dot-rubber pattern in the Vibram outsoles. This tried-and-true design provides the flat surfaces that grip rock as a climbing shoe does in a pattern that’s optimized for varied terrain. Our tester reported solid purchase on all types of rock, even polished sandstone. A narrow toe box and to-the-toe lacing provide a snug fit, and the shoe’s “cradle” heel cup did exactly that, adding stability for walking on angled terrain. Our tester wore them for six months throughout the Front Range of Colorado, soloing the First and Third Flatirons and scampering up exposed ledges in Eldorado Canyon, and saw no fatal signs of wear on the rand or synthetic microsuede upper. Cool feature: an optional top eyelet is set low, which allows you lock down your heel.
Cons: The soft upper left feet vulnerable in talus and scree, and the thin sole allowed rocks to poke through on the trail: “These are best for shorter approaches with a light pack."
Conclusion: Light and agile, these shoes were perfect for anything off the beaten path, but consider your pack weight and length of approach. “I have complete confidence in these shoes for day and weekend trips," our tester said.
Scarpa Rapid LT ($110, scarpa.com)
Weight: 1 lb. 7 oz.
Performance: Following the minimalist trend prevalent in the running world, the Rapid LT shoes are light and flexible with a barely-there midsole that kept testers’ feet closer to the ground. We found this added stability on trails in Moab, Utah, and on rock in Colorado's Flatirons. “There was good sensitivity underfoot so I felt nimble and agile, but still enough support that it didn’t hurt to walk over scree,” said a tester. Comfort was its greatest strength thanks to a combination of breathability and zero break-in flexibility. “There was no change between the first fitting and after a few months of wear,” he said. This made them an exceptional all-day shoe and caused zero foot fatigue even after a sun-up to sun-down cragging session. A lug-only sole with no dot rubber and no front “climbing zone” means these shoes didn’t climb well on anything except easy slabs. Keep these on the trail and lower-angled scrambles, and you won’t have any complaints. Both testers commented on the slick aesthetics and on-the-town readiness, too.
Cons: Because of the minimalist midsole, lower-than-average cut, and ultra-flexible upper, these didn’t score high for off-trail use: “Not much protection from rocky terrain.”
Conclusion: Perfect for light-and-fast outings, cragging, or anyone who prefers a more tactile, "barefoot" feel. Sport climbers and boulderers will love these for easy trail approaches or rocking around town.
Five Ten Aescent ($120, fiveten.com)
Weight: 1lb. 10oz.
Performance: Sturdy. Sticky. These were the most-uttered words from our testers, after they talushopped in Rocky Mountain National Park and scaled low-angled ramps in Eldorado Canyon. The Stealth Mystique rubber, the same stuff used on Five Ten’s ultra-high-performance climbing shoes, tied for the stickiest in the review, even after getting wet from 100 yards of snow in the alpine. The sturdiness comes from an injected EVA midsole and outsole that wraps up the backside of the shoe, and a stiff suede upper, which gave ample protection off-trail but felt like overkill on straightforward trails and dampered technical climbing footwork. However, one weak-ankled tester said it guarded from ankle-rolling and would be a shoe that could withstand season after season of abuse. Through months of testing, the Aescent showed little breakdown in the outsole or upper. But what about comfort? Said one tester after a sevenmile approach in Poudre Canyon, Colorado: “Comfortable to the extreme.”
Cons: Some testers found them a bit “clunky” thanks to a wide last and beefy uppers. These run small for the size, so consider going up a half or full size.
Conclusion: With the stout design and sticky rubber, these shoes are ready to go to war with any type of terrain, and they will undoubtedly win. Best for steep, slabby approaches or hikes through slickrock country.
Millet Rock Hopper ($130, milletusa.com)
Weight: 2 lbs.
Performance: When faced with lengthy approaches to trad or alpine routes (read: big mileage and heavy loads), a pair of minimalist trail runners won’t do your feet any favors. Neither will a pair of too-burly hikers. The former tire your dogs before you even get to the climb, and the latter require moving more weight, thus draining energy, with every step. A great compromise? This suede low-top which delivers big-boot stability in a svelte alpine-centric package. The secret: dense layers of EVA foam stiffen the sole, providing stability over uneven terrain, while a pronounced rocker propels your foot forward. The rocker is a detectible curve—like a rocking chair base—incorporated into the forefoot to give stiff boots a comfortable trekking motion. “The Rock Hopper has a surprisingly cushy heel strike, too,” said one tester after a six-mile roundtrip approach in Lumpy Ridge in RMNP. Subtle lugs in the center and flat areas around the toe and heel also proved grippy on granite.
Cons: Testers slipped on wet rock and gravelly downhills due to a lack of aggressive heel tread (traction was fine on dry slabs and talus). A bit heavy for a low-top with no waterproofing.
Conclusion: Killer for dry, rocky approaches to objectives requiring a lot of gear. The stiffer-than-average sole provides the support needed for long, heavy hikes without any sacrifice in comfort.
Anatomy of an approach shoe
An approach shoe is a hybrid—part hiking boot, part climbing shoe—intended to take you from trailhead to climbing objective, be it an alpine summit or crag not far off trail. (See our five favorites on the following pages.) They are generally snug and narrow for increased agility for varied, up-to-near-vertical terrain. But what really sets them apart from dedicated hiking or trail running shoes is the outsole. Here’s what to look for.
Climbing zone A flat area of sticky rubber at the toe and inside edge of the sole to maximize contact with rock for better edging.
Dot rubber A pattern of sticky rubber designed to give rock-shoe performance on slabs and hiking-sole traction on trails. Some shoes use this pattern exclusively (our testers like this best for climbing), while others use it only on portion of the sole.
Knobby tread Usually located in the center of the outsole and at times around the perimeter, these aggressive lugs help maintain grip through debris and mud and on burlier descents.
Rand A sheet of sticky rubber over the toecap that provides protection as well as enhanced edging ability.
Protective plate A rigid plate (usually plastic) in the midsole that provides stability for hiking long miles as well as protection from sharp rocks.