Choosing your first pair of rock climbing shoes is not an easy feat (get it?). Climbing shoes are different from walking shoes. In this guide, you'll find answers about types, fit, size and stretch to help narrow down the shoe that’s right for you.
When choosing your first rock climbing shoe, there are three main considerations:
At Climbing Anchors, rock climbing shoes are split into three main categories: All-Rounder, Performance and Aggressive Performance. Also, we have a Vegan section for shoes that contain no animal products.
All-rounder climbing shoes are flat, comfortable and durable. Featuring soles with hard-wearing rubber, these shoes are the go-to workhorse for the gym and outdoors.
Performance climbing shoes are slightly downturned for technical climbing. Trading comfort for performance, the downturn shape places your foot in a powerful position. Each shoe has different features for specific climbing styles (boulders, sport, trad etc.).
Aggressive Performance climbing shoes are highly sensitive, downturned shoes made with thin, sticky rubber for technical climbing on hard boulders and overhung routes.
You may come across great reviews or see friend’s wear them, but they're not designed for starting out. Trading support for sensitivity, a newer climber will find that these types of shoes may strain the toes and wear out quickly. If you’re not convinced, read on!
All-round climbing shoes are best suited for beginners because they have a flatter sole and generally tougher and longer-lasting rubber. When you're starting out, you want to choose this type of shoes because:
They don't put your toes under lots of pressure.
It can be hard to adapt your foot to the downturned shape of a performance shoe. Upgrading shoes is a gradual process because your toes need time to strengthen and adapt to being curled tightly. Even for experienced climbers like myself, I moved into performance shoes after two years.
Your shoes will take a beating as your climbing technique and footwork develops. Unlike clothing or electronics, price does not reflect the durability of the rubber.
They're cheap to maintain.
A climbing shoe does not last forever. The rubber on the sole is designed to wear down and the shoe can only be resoled a number of times before it needs to be retired. Costs can add up quickly. While, an all rounder with hard rubber can get you through 6 - 12 months of climbing before a resole is required.
Upgrading shoes is all part of the process. The more you climb, the more you will notice how your shoes have stretched and how long the rubber lasted. In the end, this will help choose the type of performance shoe you’ll need.
Feet come in various shapes and sizes. Your foot will look different to a friend’s foot, and between your own two feet? Well, don’t be surprised. It’s quite common if they’re slightly different sizes.
The point is: climbing shoes also vary between models and brands. Now, they may all look the same but changes in the shape can make all the difference when it comes to comfort. So, let’s break down the mystery behind fitting shoes.
If you asked someone about fitting shoes, they’re going to say something like: “uncomfortable”, “tight but not painful”, “snug” and “toes curled”. Let's try translate this:
“Uncomfortable” where all the toes are touching the front of the shoe, in a half curled position.
“Tight” with no pressure points causing immediate pain or too much discomfort.
“Snug” with no obvious air gaps under the arch or around the heel. A small amount of air under the heel is normal, as long as you are able to climb without the heel slipping because it can cause blisters.
Why do we have our toes curled?
Our toes naturally scrunch together when the muscles engage. This helps create a strong structure that allows us to support our body weight on a small surface area.
Climbing shoes stretch over time (more on this later). Your toes will be a bit more relaxed once the shoes stretch, but not too relaxed that they’re flat in the shoe. Our toes need to be curled so they don’t ‘pull back’ away from the front when they’re engaged. Shoes that are too big will feel like they “slip” off holds since your body weight is away from the front of the shoe.
When we help people in the store, we start with taking a good look at their feet. It’s important to find a shape that suits the arrangement of toes and the width of the foot.
The goal is to have all your toes evenly curled, with the big toe as an exception (read on). So, take a look at your toes right now. What shape does it match below?
All Rounder Toebox Shapes
Almost all-rounder climbing shoes have an asymmetric profile, where the curvature of the shoe skews to the big toe. We describe the toebox in two shapes:
Here’s a quick guideline for choosing climbing shoes based on your toe shape:
The width of a climbing shoe can affect performance and comfort. When you stand on your toes, the toes naturally want to spread out for balance. Climbing shoes are designed to keep the toes together to create a strong structure, but at the same time you don’t want your toes to dig into each other. Ouch!
This one is self-explanatory. If you have a wide foot, look for ‘high volume’ or wider models. If you’ve got a narrow foot, look for ‘low volume’ or shoes with laces to get a tighter fit.
Still in the dark? Here's a summary of the shoe shapes:
Once upon a time, climbers sized down their climbing shoes about one to two sizes to compensate for the amount of stretch in an unlined leather shoe. However, this is no longer necessary with modern manufacturing and design changes. Even leather shoes do not stretch as much as their predecessors.
While modern climbing shoes don’t experience as much stretch as they did a few generations ago, there will be some give and stretch over time. An uncomfortable shoe out of the box will become more comfortable as you break it in. But how comfortable? Well that’s the million-dollar question!
Climbing shoes go through two phases of stretch:
The “powerband” wraps around the back of the shoe and holds your heel in place. As the shoe breaks in, this band will soften, and your heel will sit into the shoe and fill any small air pockets.
Materials affect how much a shoe will stretch. Generally:
Some climbing shoes feature an inner lining for comfort and stretch control. E.g. Butora Endeavour is lined in the heel and body with hemp, a fibre that restricts stretch and has natural antibacterial and hypo-allergenic properties. While, the toes are unlined for stretch.
Now, the hardest part – sizing. I have left this to the end because it’s not a simple answer. Size varies between models of the same brand and even more so between different brands.
Start with a point of reference.
You can use your street shoe size as a starting point for size, but don't be surprised if you find you need to go up or down from your street shoe size. Another way you can figure out your size is to try on shoes at your local climbing gym. From the tag inside the shoe, you can take note of the brand, model, and size.
We are also happy to give you some recommendations. Email us at email@example.com with:
Remember, don’t stress if the size isn’t right. We offer a free shoe return service.
If the size is too small, you will immediately feel pain across the toes or at the back of the heel. A size can also be too small if there is too much discomfort to your liking. It’s ok to err on the side of comfort for two reasons:
Lastly, the “scrunch test” can help you decide if the size is too big. Go ahead, see if you can scrunch your toes inside the shoes. If your toes move away from the front of the shoes and there’s a significant gap, then the size is too big. If the shoe moves with your toes, then you’re all set to go.
Shoes need care! Check out our guide on looking after your shoes.
Here's a few tips to get you started:
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.