Once upon a time, climbers had to aggressively size down their rock shoes to compensate for the amount of stretch a plain, unlined leather shoe would give over time (similar to breaking in a pair of leather hiking boots). With modern materials and technologies, this is no longer necessary. Even shoes made with a leather upper now do not stretch as much as the predecessors due to manufacturing and design changes.
It is important to remember that the fit of the shoe will vary greatly between models of the same brand, and even more so between different brands. I am a US9/EUR42 in my street shoes, and have been everywhere from a EUR39 to a EUR44 in my climbing shoes.
If possible, it is best to try on as many as you can to find the best fit for you. Because we are looking for such a tight fit, even slight changes between shoes can affect the feel and performance.
For a first pair, it is best to start with your street shoe size and take it from there. Don’t be surprised if you find you need to go up or down a size, but don’t start by buying an 8 when you are a 10.
Tight but not painful. The general idea is to find a shoe shape that best fits your foot with no obvious air gaps, minimal movement, and no big 'hot spots' or pressure points. Every model of shoe is slightly different so try on as many as you can!
While the shoes won’t be stretching by 1-2 sizes like a few generations ago, there will be some give or stretch over time. An uncomfortable shoe out of the box will become more comfortable as you break it in. Just how much more comfortable is the million dollar question!
Ideally, you want your toes touching the front and bunched up a bit and a little downturned (not fully scrunched but about halfway, as in the image above). This small bend is what we naturally do when standing on small holds. If your toes are flat in the shoe and then bunch on the hold, there is movement in the shoe and, therefore, you will have less stability on the holds. We want a snug fit, a stronger structure when standing on tiny holds and more of our body weight to be supported by a smaller surface area.
For the back of the shoe, most climbing shoes are made with a band wrapping around the back of the heel and anchored underfoot. This helps to push the foot forward in the shoe and hold your heel in place. A small amount of air under the heel is fine, as long as you are able to heel hook without the shoe coming off. As the shoe breaks in, this band will soften and the foot will move backwards in the shoe filling that small air pocket
If you're not sure, it is always best to err on the side of comfort for your first pair for two key reasons. Firstly (unless you are particularly gifted!) when starting out, you generally won’t be standing on the super tiny holds that require the tightest of toes. Secondly, if the shoe stretches a bit too much you can still climb in it, but if it doesn't stretch enough and is still uncomfortable, you may not want to climb in them at all!
All-round climbing shoes are best suited for beginners because they have a flatter sole and generally tougher and longer-lasting rubber. Starting out, it can be hard to adapt the foot to the downturned, asymmetrical shape of an aggressive performance shoe. These take some getting used to, even for experienced climbers!
The reason the tougher rubber is important is because precise footwork takes a while to develop. A high-end, super sticky and sensitive shoe with only 3.2mm of rubber between your toe and the rock won’t last very long if it’s not being placed with absolute precision. As a beginner, your first pair is likely to take a beating as you develop your footwork and technique, so as a general rule, cheaper is better to start out with.
We've put together another handy guide on looking after your shoes here. Here's a few tips to get you started:
Climbing rubber is different to regular rubber; it is super sticky. This means dirt and chalk will stick to the bottoms of your shoes, which will then reduce the friction between your shoe and the wall. If you find your feet are slipping off, in addition to brushing the hold, have a look at the soles of your shoes; they may need a clean too.
Pro Tip: clean chalk and dirt off the bottom of your shoes with a cloth and some white vinegar.
Walking around in your climbing shoes will wear the rubber out faster. Think of climbing rubber as a kind of sticky tape. You can only peel it off and reuse it so many times before the stick is gone. (This is also why you see holds turn black!)
This will melt the glue binding the sole of the shoe and can deform the rubber. We have seen brand new shoes come apart after being left in the boot of a car on a typical summers’ day in Australia.
Because of the desire for the skin-tight fit to avoid slippage, it is normal to not wear socks with your climbing shoes. This means the foot sweats directly into the shoe and if the shoe is living in a gym bag, it will be difficult for it to dry out and can really start to stink. If this happens to you, try using some Boot Bananas. They will absorb the sweat and kill any odour-causing bacteria.
As an outdoor enthusiast all my life, I fell into the world of gravity sports after seeing a friend's trad rack back in 2007 and thinking "what's that?!" Since then I have been climbing, skiing and slacklining around Australia and the world. My favourite styles of climbing are the adventurous multi-pitch trad routes of Arapiles, the steep sandstone cave bouldering local to the Sydney basin, and European alpine peaks that can take all day to slog up and what feels like mere minutes to descend, finished off with a cold pint in a warm pub.