Climbing shoes should not feel painful, first and foremost. But they should fit snugly too, with their size varying significantly depending on the type of material. Some rock climbers doing longer, multi-pitch ascents will have a couple of shoes for the different types of routes or problems.
Regardless, you want the climbing shoe to fit tightly enough, so your feet don’t move around in them, potentially destabilizing your position while climbing. The foot and shoe should be one solid, moveable instrument.
The toes should be pressed together, particularly in aggressive climbing shoes, which will also turn the toes down.
But no matter if you’re a beginner in the climbing gym or an intermediate doing a less challenging grade, there should be no dead space around your toes.
If you feel confident enough after reading this article to buy a pair of climbing shoes online, order at least two in sizes that start at your foot size and move downward. As long as you don’t go around wearing them, you can return the pairs that don’t fit.
If buying leather shoes, be aware that they will give a bit. They can stretch as much as a size and a half, so bear that in mind.
Wearing climbing shoes should feel different from wearing regular shoes. For new climbers, your feet may feel discomfort at first. A manageable amount is usually a good thing because effective climbing shoes push your toes together with a curve down.
There are three types of climbing shoes in the way they affect the curvature of the toes. They are: neutral, moderate and aggressive.
Beginner climbers should have a more neutral shoe, which is more straight with a fairly symmetric toe. The toes should be firmly pressed to the ends and slightly turned downward.
Having your toes occupy a more central space means that you gain improved power and stability in less space–critical on routes that have small footholds.
That improved foot power is also helpful because it effectively allows climbers to use their feet as hands, grabbing onto a surface with their toes, something much harder to do when the toes are all spread out in a normal shoe.
Neutral shoes are more comfortable and can be worn for longer periods of time.
Moderate shoes will have more downward-turned toes to use on smaller toe holds.
Aggressive climbing shoes, often called cambered shoes, have a distinct arch that further assists climbers’ in performing these toe grabs and other maneuvers with their toes. This allows the foot to crimp small ledges effectively.
The material of the climbing shoe also assists with the climbing process. Typical climbing shoe materials are leather, rubber, and/or other synthetic materials. These materials allow climbers to get excellent traction when climbing and then release that traction in powerful movements without tearing or compromising the shoe’s integrity.
To lace or not to lace
Climbing shoes also include enclosure systems that keep the foot secure and the shoe from slipping off during climbing. These systems vary in style, strengths, and weaknesses.
Climbing shoes typically fall into two categories of enclosure: laces and velcro. Both types have strengths and weaknesses, influenced significantly by personal preference and the type of climbing being done.
The main strength of velcro is convenience and speed. Climbers can slip these shoes on and off much faster than lace-enclosed climbing shoes. This user-friendly feature makes them excellent shoes for kids and beginning climbers.
Successful brands design velcro shoes well, meaning that the convenience doesn’t compromise security for many types of climbing, particularly bouldering and indoor climbing.
Good velcro climbing shoes also last longer than laces under the same conditions.
Aggressive shoes with velcro may be less comfortable over long periods of time, and even though they are designed well, velcro climbing shoes are more vulnerable to becoming undone for crack climbers since their routes often involve shoving the whole shoe in and out of a crevice
Climbing shoes with laces typically offer the opposite strengths and weaknesses as velcro climbing shoes. They are harder and slower to get on and off, but they can be more comfortable for long climbing sessions and they are more secure than velcro in crack climbing.
What is my climbing shoe size?
Unfortunately, climbing shoe sizes will vary relative to your street shoe size depending on the brand. Some brands run sizes smaller than street shoe sizes. Others stay about the same. Before purchasing a climbing shoe, check the size and reviews of that brand to see if people recommend sizing up or down based on their experience.
Some websites offer comparison tables of major rock climbing shoe brands, allowing you to see any conversions you may want to consider before purchasing that brand’s shoe. But, as noted in the beginning of this article, leather shoes will always yield to the pressure of your foot and should be sized down at least a half notch.
Remember that comfort is always key, but a certain amount of wearing in might be needed where it seems like the size needs to be corrected. If this is the case with synthetic shoes, chances are that the size is, in fact wrong. So, go for comfort.
Do climbing shoes have to curl my toes down?
Not necessarily. Shoes with a big curve in the toe are very aggressive, giving climbers extra “oomph” for push offs and pulling up the body with a toe hook. Remember the goal of a climbing shoe is to give you as much power as possible in as small a space as possible in the front of your foot. That isn’t going to happen if your toes are all flat and spread out over a wide shoe front.
Bottom line: if the shoe is a little more uncomfortable than street shoes, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But there should NOT be any pain.
Prolonging climbing shoe life
Climbing shoes take a lot of abuse. Over time, the shoe will wear. With proper usage, you can prolong the life of your climbing shoe.
These Shoes Were Made for Climbing
Climbing shoes are for climbing. Not walking. The more you walk in your climbing shoe, the faster it will wear down. This is especially true for cambered shoes or shoes with distinctive or exaggerated arches.
To travel between climbing routes, especially ones requiring significant walking, it’s best to switch from climbing shoes to hiking or other walking shoes, so you don’t wear the climbing shoe more than you need to.
There are also some approach shoes sold by the big brands that tend to be neutral and more comfortable for walking.
Your shoes need a rest too
Just like climbers need to rest between routes, shoes can use a rest too. If you’ve finished a particularly taxing route and need to rest for several minutes, take your shoes off. Not only will this give your feet a break, but it will also give your shoes a break.
Even professional climbers that compete in championships will take remove their climbing shoes in between ascents.
Remember that while the climbing shoes are pushing your toes together, your toes are pushing the shoe out, causing the material to wear down over time. Giving the shoe a break from that force can help prolong its life.
Of course, if you’re constantly taking your shoes off and on, that motion can wear the shoe down too. If you’re only resting for a few minutes, it might be worth keeping your shoes on, provided you’re not walking around during that rest.
Climbing Shoe Size Summary
- Should fit comfortably
- There are 3 types of shoes: neutral, moderate and aggressive
- Leather shoes will give, so go a half-size or 1 down
- If ordering online, find a pair for your climbing and get 2-3 pairs