One of your most critical climbing decisions is determining precisely how tight your rock shoes should be. Your shoes, like your belayer and soul mate, are your bond to rock and thus life itself. Get it right and you’ll discover eternal bliss. Get it wrong, i.e. fit your shoes too tight, and you’ll burn in a hell of pain relieved only when you replace said shoes with a pair that actually fits. After that you’ll still live with the regret of having wasted over a hundred, perhaps hundreds, of dollars on a pair of shoes that not just hurt but held you back.
This begs the question: Just how tight should you fit rock shoes?
Eons ago when rock shoes were constructed to fit like dress shoes complete with pointed toes, you had to size shoes tight as torture devices to get them to seal around your feet with no wiggle room to compensate for the round-peg (your foot) square hole (your shoe) effect. Over time, as in a season or two, those shoes did somewhat shape themselves to your feet, but it was never a happy process and footwork suffered. As John Bachar once said, “You can’t have good footwork if your feet hurt.”
Bachar and other shoe designers such as Heinz Mariacher were instrumental in scrapping the shoe shapes of old and building rock shoes shaped more like your feet. Consequently, today’s models, of which there are several hundred, are more anatomically correct and available in so many shapes it’s possible for you to get a pair that seems custom made just for you. But those shoes still need to be tight.
My hunch is that many old-schoolers like me out of habit still buy shoes that are too small, and that many climbers could go up a half size without sacrificing performance—I don’t think I’ve ever fallen because of my shoes, but more than once I have ended a climbing day because my feet hurt.
Also Read: How to Choose, Fit and Break In Rock Shoes
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have a golden rule: size rock shoes a size smaller than your street shoes? But that isn’t possible. Different shoe brands use different sizing—a size nine in model X might equate to a size 10 in model Z, plus your street shoes might be a bit too large or too small and which pair of street shoes are we talking about anyway? Then, throw in the complication of width—are your feet narrow as ninja blades or wide as ping-pong paddles?—and you can see the problem.
You have to try on rock shoes. Start the process by selecting a pair that is close to your street shoe size. How does those feel? I’ll wager that those shoes are comfortable and are too large. Step down half a size and see how that goes. Keep going down until you can barely get your feet in the shoes, indicating that that size is too small. Now go back up half a size, then another half size if necessary. A new pair of rock shoes should feel like a tight pair of driving gloves, a bit uncomfortable is OK. The “uncomfortable” is subjective as comfort and pain thresholds vary. One thing for sure, if you can walk around in those shoes and not feel any discomfort then they are too large.
If you can’t find a model that fits, try a model with a different shape. The shoe for you is out there, keep trying.
Bear in mind that all shoes will stretch. Leather shoes will stretch more than synthetic shoes, and unlined shoes will stretch more than lined ones. Unlined leather rock shoes stretch the most; I’ve had them stretch a full size or more, so I fit these types painfully tight. Unlined leather stretches quickly, so you’ll only need to suffer in the shoes for one or two outings (or wear them at home to stretch them.)
The rand will also affect sizing and fit and stretch. Some rands are tensioned like slingshots to compress your feet. A compressed foot has more power than a relaxed foot, which is why a tight shoe feels more powerful and precise than a looser one—tightness equals compression. Slingshot randed shoes will still stretch, but will rebound when you take them off, and won’t stretch as much as shoes with more relaxed rands. Yet another variable to work into the fit equation.
A shoe’s support or lack of support will also affect fit and sizing. You can fit stiff shoes a bit larger than soft slipper-like shoes because the built-in stiffness (often called “board lasting”) provides support without needing the shoe to squeeze your feet. The softest shoes should fit nearly skin tight in contrast because they rely on your feet being squeezed to deliver support.
You may be tempted to fit your shoes too tight. Don’t! If you wince when you pull on your shoes then they are too snug. Pain isn’t the only issue here. Too-tight shoes can over time cause joint damage to your feet. As one example, Hallux Rigidus is a form of degenerative arthritis in the big-toe joint that can be caused by rock shoes. I know this first hand. I developed Hallux Rigidus about 20 years into my climbing career yet kept wearing shoes that were too small. Performance mattered more than anything … who cares about problems down the road? Eventually, my toe joints deteriorated to where I had to have the joints removed and replaced with synthetic ones. Here’s a gruesome video (warning, it’s very gruesome) of one of my toe joints getting replaced. Let’s not let the same happen to your happy feet.
Ultimately, you will probably need at least two pairs of shoes. A comfortable largish pair you can warm up in and wear to send your dialed lines again and again, and to wear on longer multi-pitch routes, and a much tighter, more precise pair for redpoint or flash attempts and bouldering where you usually only wear your shoes for a few minutes at at time.
If my advice seems squishy, it is. I can’t tell you exactly how tight your shoes should be because I literally can’t walk, or climb, a mile in your shoes. I can say with certainty that you need to get the sizing right.