The Best Shoes for Rock Climbing

“Jumping from boulder to boulder and never falling, with a heavy pack, is easier than it sounds; you just can’t fall when you get into the rhythm of the dance.” ― Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums.

So you want to climb for sport or fun? If you are an expert, you already know how vital great climbing shoes are. If just starting out, you’d better make sure you have the right climbing shoes, or you’ll surely be out of rhythm with the dance and the rocks alike, and the pithy words of Kerouac are not going to make that landing any softer.

If a beginner, an overview of the various kinds of athletic climbing is helpful because that, in turn, helps determine the best type of climbing shoe to buy. There are many kinds of athletic climbing; traditional, sport climbing (and trad climbing), roped climbing (top and lead), and unroped climbing, including bouldering.

Although finding the best and most appropriate shoes, both in shape and size, is the focus of this article, it is useful to know a bit about the different approaches to climbing.

There are two common kinds of free climbing; lead and top rope. Lead climbing is a style of rock climbing in which two climbers help each other, one in the lead to catch and stop the rope when the climber below wants to halt or falls. The lower climber is called the belayer, and is the one who gives out the rope. Top roping is safer, using an anchor system at the top of the climb, while the climber is securely attached to a rope. The rope is affixed to an anchor system at the top of the climb, and down to the belayer at the foot of the climb.

Sport climbing is about the physical challenge, while trad climbing challenges oneself mentally. Sport is all about prowess, strength, endurance, and can be dangerous. Trad shoes are for the more safety-minded, taking a slow, methodical approach. Both are roped, but the traditional (trad) way involves using camming devices and chocks rather than bolts placed in the rock in advance.  

Bouldering doesn’t use a rope, and there is less gear involved, as you don’t need a harness or climbing rope to climb safely. Those who go bouldering don’t climb very high compared to top-roping. Usually, the climbing route when bouldering is 15 feet tall or less, but bouldering does require using a pad for falls, since there is no rope. Generally, starting with bouldering will help you become better with sport climbing.

If you are a Beginner climber, starting out trying to climb every day is not recommended; you will wear yourself out. Three times a week is better, spreading out the days so as not to exhaust your body. You will need time to heal your muscles. But, getting back to the main topic, without the right shoes, or unless you happen to be Spider-Man, you may as well stay home.

Check out this link for a more in-depth look at rock climbing basics. 

What climbing shoes to buy?

When trying to decide on the right climbing shoe, you will want a few key features. The shoes must be snug, offering the perfect fit, with a good mix of synthetic and leather in the upper material, ideally with excellent breathability. Of course, you want a comfortably shaped shoe, one of high-quality craftsmanship, and utilizing a superb closure system (whether laces or Velcro). 

Some review sites refer to a good shoe as “aggressive,” meaning the shoe is more downturned with an arch in the middle. These shoes are generally better at helping you stick to the rocks, especially when climbing limestone, overhangs, or any tufa-like, coarse-grained, sedimentary rock. The downturn means that when you put weight on your foot, the shoe will straighten, allowing you a good grip on the rock. That is, naturally, a good thing, but is not always recommended for beginners. A flat shoe will curve up when you press weight on your foot, making you more likely to slip, but aggressive shoes take some time to fit comfortably and are usually not needed until you are climbing more difficult routes. Because they can be tricky to break in and are more expensive, it may be better to wait until you have more experience climbing (and are less likely to wreck them with poor technique and footwork) to dish out the money. However, if you find yourself with aggressive shoes as a beginner climber and enjoy climbing in them, absolutely continue using them. 

Some shoes are constructed with great precision and sensitivity for toe and heel hooks, which is good when encountering small pockets and toeing in on crimps, and if you are climbing an overhang. In addition to quality heel and toe hooks, a well-anchored tongue is necessary, ideally with a design that prevents laces from getting frayed or damaged by cracks during the climb. You want shoes that work well when overcoming difficult finger cracks as well as steep sport climbs. A rubber-shrouded heel and toe are the kind of shoes especially recommended on steep rock. Some shoes are also known to be excellent for both outdoor and indoor sport climbing.

Many climbing shoe reviews use terms like edging, smearing, and jamming, terms which pertain to both men’s climbing shoes and women’s alike. Smearing is only using friction to propel yourself up the surface of the rock, which most report as terrifying when using an improper shoe. Jamming means you are wedging your grasping fingers and toes into cracks in the surface. Edging means placing the edge of your shoe on the edges of rock jutting out, allowing you a foothold, usually with the inside front of the shoe, just beneath your big toe.

The best shoes heel well on small edges. You may want to check out No-Edge model shoes, which wrap around and follow the natural contours of your toes. The No-Edge shoe shape gets rid of the sharp angle or “edge” present on other climbing shoes. This helps those with even the least practiced footwork stick to the surface of their climb but admittedly is not best for vertical climbing where you want something more substantial to stand on. It is essential to know what kind of climb you plan on making. You may need several different pairs of shoes, depending on how diverse your activities in rock climbing become.

Some shoes also feature a bump at the ball of the foot, meant to fill in space beneath the toes, the idea being that it is more comfortable for a downturned foot. Always try on new shoes before buying when possible, because certain shapes designed for comfort will either work well for you or not at all. The thickness of the rubber is also an important consideration. If you’re embarking on some steep climbing, you’ll want to have some idea of the ideal thickness of sticky rubber at the toe.

With any climbing shoe, you will want some durable rubber. As should be clear now, not all shoes are ideal for all kinds of climbing. Avoid substandard support on the underfoot of a shoe, especially if you plan on spending long days rock climbing. You do not want anything that does not inspire a feeling of confidence on vertical edges. If buying a Velcro closure system, make sure the straps are not too long, so they don’t catch on the carpet at the gym. Also, you’ll want to try shoes on because how the toe box fits you is crucial; you don’t want the toe box putting pressure on your big toe! Some have a beveled edge in the toe box, while others are more rounded, which might help your shoe perform better on a larger surface area than one with edges. A softer shoe can result in less stability when traversing edges.

Picking the Right Kind of Climbing Shoe

Most climbing shoes are designed with features and specifications suitable for different types of climbs and terrains. There are shoes for sport climbing, bouldering, crack climbing, smearing, technical face, slab climbing, gym climbing, you name it. Choosing the right climbing shoes for your needs is essential for ensuring safety and comfort during the climb. Not all shoes are created equal, and the type and fit of the shoes you wear on a climbing trip can either improve your performance or prevent you from doing your best. Shoes aren’t necessarily unisex, and there are many choices beyond just that of men’s shoes. There are also product lines supporting women’s climbing shoes, such as the Scarpa Helix, best for beginners, or the La Sportiva Kataki, which is rated the best all-around women’s shoe. 

How much are climbing shoes?

Rock climbing shoes range from about $40, for the cheapest beginner shoes, to $200 or more for professional shoes. You can usually find high quality intermediate to advanced shoes for about $120-$180, with a slightly lower range for beginners only shoes. Always be on the lookout for sales, where you can get 20% to 60% off. Sometimes your local climbing gym may also have an event where you can try on and climb in various shoes from several different brands and likely get a nice percentage off, too. If you can attend one of those events, you are much more likely to find the perfect shoe for you at a much lower price. You can also rent shoes for about $5-$10 if visiting an indoor climbing gym.

Where to buy climbing shoes?

Here is a list of places you can find good climbing shoes, in order of the stores typically recommended by enthusiasts:

  1. Backcountry.
  2. Amazon. 
  3. REI
  4. Local Gym. Your local gym is an excellent place to start looking for shoes, although climber’s shoes are not ordinary gym shoes.
  5. Sierra Trading Post.

If you want to try on the shoes first, you may try out some shoes at the climbing gym, assuming one is within a reasonable distance, or find an REI store. REI stores even have jibs on a wall allowing you to test them out. If trying to find the most affordable options, you could check out several other options:

Craigslist, GearTrade, Local Climbing Groups, Thrift & Consignment Stores. Online & Retail Sales like EBay. Or for a broader search, check out this link. 

What size climbing shoes should I get?

You will want your climbing shoes to be snug but also not too tight, as with many sports and activities. Many beginners make the mistake of choosing shoes that are sized too small for climbing. This could affect blood circulation to the feet and toes, especially when performing complicated maneuvers. Choosing shoes of the correct size will ensure proper blood circulation to the feet during a climb. This, in turn, will improve your performance and increase your endurance. 

 If you are a beginner, you should probably wear your shoe about a half size to one full size smaller than the shoe size you usually wear. This is true of sizing, regardless of your climbing discipline. You will want to account for stretching over time, especially if buying any shoes with a leather upper. Some sellers offer lined-shoes and partially synthetic materials for those concerned about stretching. 

When choosing climbing shoes, make sure that your toes touch the front of the shoe without being scrunched up against the interior. Make sure that there isn’t any space at the back of your feet. A bit of tightness at the sides is perfectly fine–this will help ensure that the shoe stays securely in place while you are climbing.The right shoe gives your toes room to curl gently without pain, although your toes should be flat if acquiring crack-climbing shoes. They should also make it easy for you to move around and not cause you any pain whatsoever. However, when climbing, you should probably feel the need to take them off in between every route or so (every 2-3 routes if bouldering).

You can also try this handy shoe size calculator.

Men’s shoes may be wider than women’s shoes. Apart from that, there is no significant difference between shoes for men and women. If you can’t seem to find shoes that fit right even after trying on a few sizes, consider trying on footwear designed for the opposite sex or even unisex shoes.

What are the best climbing shoes for bouldering?

A list of highly-rated shoes in each discipline

The Roundup 

  • Best Climbing Shoe, general purpose: La Sportiva Miura VS.
  • Best Bouldering Shoe: Five Ten’s Hiangle. 
  • Best Shoe for beginner climbing: Black Diamond Momentum.
  • Best Shoe for Crack Climbing: La Sportiva TC Pro.
  • Best Shoe for Face Climbing: Five Ten Anasazi Lace.

Bouldering Shoes

Five Ten’s Hiangle

This relatively uncomfortable leather shoe is excellent for sport climbing and bouldering, with aggressive rubber and is a good choice for steep, overhanging routes. The Hiangle is a sport and bouldering shoe. Its aggressive downturn is good for bouldering, but it is a bit stiff when it comes to maneuvers like toe-hooking and smearing. A stiff shoe can offer more support on edges and can minimize fatigue in your feet. It has good precision and sensitivity. The stiff midsole of this shoe helps with edging, and the edging support counterbalances the drawback of less toe-hooking flexibility. You do have to be precise when balancing on edges, and more flat-profiled shoes allow a greater area of the toe-box to position yourself on the edges of the rock. However, the sensitivity and solid construction still make this a great shoe for edging.

Black Diamond Momentum

Black Diamond’s Momentum is a good entry-level example of both outdoor and indoor climbing shoes. Although it is not a high precision shoe, it offers all-day support and comfort with breathability. The high-quality rubber ensures a long-lasting platform, so buyers can feel assured they are buying an all-day shoe. Although the shoes offer less-than-precise footwork, they are protective and durable. You will feel good about these shoes while top-roping, in the gym or outdoor climbing. The shoe has good sensitivity and traction on medium to significant footholds but is not recommended for steep terrain. It has a heat-injected 4.3mm NeoFuse rubber, which has an excellent grip and is very durable. As a beginner shoe, this is notable. It is not a shoe made for heel or toe hooking, because shoes made more with that in mind have a full rubber toe and heel. The Momentum features a somewhat flexible midsole and asymmetry in the toe box, which lend more to comfort than anything else. However, these are narrow shoes, so beware, those of you with wide feet. There are versions for both men and women, as well as the Velcro version.

Sport Climbing

La Sportiva Miura VS $185

The durable Miura VS is made for only a few specific functions, like edging and pockets, and does those things very well, perfect for tough climbs. Though it’s not a great shoe for cracks, it is an incredibly stiff shoe, which is particularly effective when climbing with the challenge of minimal edges. The pointy toe and edging power and pointy-toe make pockets of all sizes easier to use during your climb. You will find it easier to maneuver and increase your reach because of how it edges well on every side of the toe. Its down-turned toe helps get the climber’s toe into the rock, even when stretching out. If you’re looking for an excellent shoe for edging and pockets, this is a great choice, although once worn in some edging ability fades.

La Sportiva Skwama $170

The Sportiva Skwama allows its wearer to climb in many disciplines well without hurting the feet. They are comfortable, great for crack climbing with its wide-mid foot and slim profile, and very affordable. The Skwama is well constructed, with an easy-on and off single Velcro strap. The shoe fits like a glove, like a slipper, and a very soft midsole. The shoe will perform just as well on crack climbs as it will on difficult boulders or in sport climbing. Not only are they comfortable, but not at all prone to get as stinky as a synthetic shoe. Although they lack the edging capability of “no edge” shoes, they are still really great for feeling out small pockets and cracks on the surface. Using these shoes to climb on granite is a joy because it increases the wearer’s prowess with crack climbing and smearing. The single velcro closure does not cause discomfort because of how it is located high on the shoe’s leather upper (which is prone to a bit of stretching, unlike a synthetic upper). It is easy to tell when you are toed into a pocket. The Skwama places the big toe in a position encouraging power when you’re ready to push off from the surface, great for very steep and granite surfaces.

In all, this is a great performance shoe, great at making one feel adept with edging, smearing, and crack climbing.

Trad Climbing

Five Ten Anasazi Pink $150.

The Anasazi Pink is an all-around great shoe, especially for technical face rock climbing. It is also perfect for vertical granite, Its moderately downturned shoe is slightly asymmetric for sturdy edging. The Anasazi works well, whether smearing, jamming, or, with its medium-stiff build, technical footwork. It’s sole has suitably sticky rubber, and is suitable for steep climbs. The shoes are perfect for climbing the range between the un-featured rock that’s less than vertical, and the genuinely steep. Still, they are not the best shoes for extremes or overhanging terrain. The toe book allows the toes to lay flat, is firm and supportive, offering stability while edging, and is known to work well enough for smearing maneuvers when broken in. The shoe is comfortable with a good deal of breathability. Five Ten’s Stealth C4 Rubber is a favorite, sticky kind. The one con commonly heard is that the tensioned heel cup can cause some pain when navigating wide cracks in the climb.

La Sportiva Otaki $185

The La Sportiva Otakis are very soft shoes, and among the most sensitive, allowing for secure foot placement for beginners and pros alike. If you mostly engage in sport, trad, or gym climbing, occasionally bouldering, these shoes will suit you. If looking for getting only one pair of shoes for a good number of climbing activities, these could be your perfect choice, featuring great edging with a secure Velcro closure system. The Otaki’s jam, edge, and smear with precision, and are lovely for crack climbing, allowing one to toe-in narrow cracks, shallow pockets, and supporting precise edging.

The Evolv Line of Shoes

Also of honorable mention is the Evolv Line of shoes, considered a hybrid between climbing and hiking shoes, also called approach shoes. If you need to climb up some rocky areas while hiking, these are perfect to own. The Evolv line of shoes, including the opt-praised Evolv Shaman, are great for walking along the forest as well as preventing a hiker from slipping taking a nose dive off a slippery crag. Better yet, the Evolvs are not known to stretch too much. 

Honorable Mentions

Furia Air

The lightest climbing shoe, weighing only 5.3 ounces, Scarpa Origin’s Furia Air, shoes are soft, almost like socks, designed to aid with maneuvering through climbing holds, but edging along steep terrain is still possible because of the aggressively downturned toe. 

Sportiva Mythos

These are not the most aggressive climbing shoes, with a midsole 1.1 thick, but it is made in a classic, durable climbing shoe style. They are lightweight, featuring a natural fit not difficult to walk in and great for edging and bouldering. The Mythos is soft as to allow smearing, with a medium to narrow fit. It is considered ideal for bouldering, both indoors and outdoors. They are very comfortable, with a lined tongue, and moisture resistant with its Dri-Best material. 

Climbing Shoe maintenance

How to clean climbing shoes

Never wash your climbing shoes in a washing machine! The rubber outsole, and even the leather upper and laces, may not survive the damage you may cause with laundry detergent. All you need to do is fill a tub with water, add some mild soap, and scrub the inside and outside, then rinse and dry them. If that is not good enough, you may want to consider wearing some socks with your shoes, if you can tolerate the heat. If you decide to go this route, make sure to resize your shoes accordingly.

How long do climbing shoes last

Climbing shoes endure much abuse, so it is helpful to know what to look for in wear and tear. Proper climbing shoes should last a few years, assuming you are going outdoors or to a climbing gym once a week or so. But if you’re a die-hard, going out several times a week in the vast wilderness, you better be prepared to go through a few pairs a year. Check out the front edges and toe of the sole. You will typically find it is the toe rubber that wears down first since that is the most used in rock climbing. Whether or not the rubber sole is wearing down should be relatively easy to see. Then, above the sole, look at the rubber strip around the shoe, the piece called the rand.

Where to resole climbing shoes

You can only resole a climbing shoe a few times, but with the cost upwards of $200 for a new pair of shoes, it may be worth plucking down $50 to resole them, depending on just how worn they are. If you are particularly enterprising, you can learn how to resole them yourself. However, If you wait too long, you might end up with holes down to the leather, and that is not good at all. As a rule of thumb, if the rubber looks worn down to about 80%, get a new pair of shoes.

How to break in and stretch out climbing shoes

If you don’t want to break in your climbing shoes, you can fill two zip-lock bags with water until they approximate the size of your foot, then place them into your shoes and lace them up around the bags (not too tight!). Toss them in the freezer and leave them there overnight, ignoring the puzzled comments of your family. You’ll find they feel more broken in after they thaw.

If your shoes are too tight, it can make the experience a painful one. Rock climbing shoes can stretch, especially the leather ones, and often are sized small for reasons of gripping the rock face. If you want to stretch your shoes dramatically, try throwing them on in a hot shower.