by Jonathan Doyle
You’ve decided to buy a new pair of climbing shoes, maybe you’re looking for your very first pair to stick to the walls like never before, or perhaps you’ve given your old pair a warrior’s death, wearing them until your toes poke out of the end. Whichever scenario you face, buying new climbing shoes is an exciting prospect, but with so many pairs on the market, it can sometimes be a confusing experience. Have no fear, we have put together this handy buyers guide to help you find your perfect shoe.
First things first, don’t be afraid to try a number of different shoes (makes and models), future-you will appreciate the effort. In my experience, a key factor leading to many hours of happy climbing is wearing a close-fitting pair of rock shoes which do not cause any unnecessary pain. If your shoes hurt your feet as soon as you step onto a hold, it’s likely you will be put off using them and you could well regret buying that model in the first place. Another important point to remember when it comes to sizing your shoes is that sizes are inconsistent across brands. For example, a size 41 Scarpa rock shoe is unlikely to be the same actual size as 41 from La Sportiva.
In addition, it is a good idea to try climbing shoes on later in the day, as when your feet warm up they can swell to as much as a full shoe size. To make things a little easier, we have a useful Rock Shoe Sizing Guide to measure your feet and help you find the ideal sized shoe depending on brand, your ability and climbing style. There are a wide variety of climbing shoe designs, often possessing specific properties depending on the style of climbing they are designed for. In general, however, they tend to fall into three categories; Entry-Level, All-Round, and Advanced:
Unsurprisingly, Entry-Level shoes are aimed at climbers new to the sport and they are primarily designed for comfort and durability. The soles are usually pretty flat with your toes not overly curled and the last shape is either symmetrical or very slightly asymmetrical. The heel tends to be shallower, meaning they do not bite into you achilles or ankle too hard and the heel retains a look similar to that of a plimsoll shoe. Whilst these shoes do not boast the technical refinement of more advanced models, at this stage in your climbing journey, the best way for you to improve is to simply climb more. Reflecting this notion, these shoes are designed to help you climb in comfort, for longer with more confidence on less technical terrain.
Popular Examples: Boreal Alpha Velcro, La Sportiva Tarantula, Boreal Joker.
These shoes have a more technical design and precise fit to that of entry-level models. These shoes are designed for a climber who may focus on a specific area of climbing, and who will benefit from increased support/edging, sensitivity, precision and/or toe power. For example, if you primarily boulder, you may want to invest in a climbing shoe which is a tighter fit, Velcro closure and a deeper heel-cup and down-cambered sole to help improve heel-hooks and power through the toe box. If you are interested in longer multi-pitch trad or sport climbs, you’d be better off with a stiffer shoe with a supportive fit allowing for a positive balance between comfort and performance.
Popular Examples: La Sportiva Otaki, La Sportiva Miura, Scarpa Vapour V, Tenaya Iati.
Advanced climbing shoes are aimed at the highest performing climbers with very specific requirements. Some designs are very downturned for maximum prehensile sensitivity on steeply overhung routes. Others have aggressively angled heels to securely lock your foot in place, pushing your toes tightly into the toe box which acts to curl your toes into a tight ‘crimp’. Others are designed to be much stiffer and arrow-like, so they are able to edge on the smallest of foot holds and pockets while maintaining rigidity for minimal energy exertion.
Popular Examples: La Sportiva Solution, Scarpa Instinct VS, Evolv Shaman.
There are several construction features which should be considered when finding your perfect rock shoe: closure, rubber and material.
There are three closure mechanisms to choose from: laces, hoop-and-loop (i.e. Velcro) or slip-on. Laces provide maximum control, meaning the most comfortable and precise fit can easily be achieved. They also help you to accommodate for stretch over the lifespan of the shoe. Hook-and-loop closures provide fast and efficient opening and closure, perfect for climbers who like to rest in relative comfort between routes. Slip-on climbing shoes employ elastic gussets and are the quickest shoes to get on and off. It must be noted with slip-ons that the fit must be pretty much perfect form maximum performance, they can also have their limitations on heel hooks due to the lack of locked closure.
In general, the choice of rubber used in the construction of climbing shoes boils down to a trade-off between friction, durability and sensitivity. Beginner shoes tend to be made with thicker harder rubber in order the increase the lifespan of the shoe, as well as providing excellent support as they retain their shape well under pressure. More technical climbing shoes will use thinner stickier rubbers in order to improve both sensitivity when edging on tiny holds and friction when smearing. This softer rubber has the downside of wearing much more quickly, particularly around the toes. All that being said, all the shoes we sell come with rubber compounds which are extremely sticky when compared to standard shoe sole rubbers.
The upper is the section of shoe which runs along the top and sides of your foot and is usually made using leather or synthetic materials. Unlined leather shoes tend to soften up with use and can, dependent on the model, stretch up to one full size over time. This stretching means that the shoe will conform to the shape of your foot providing a bespoke fit, however beware of overstretch as they may begin to feel overly loose with time. We take this into account on our Rock Shoe Sizing Guide. As a rule, the tighter you wear your shoes the more they will stretch. Some manufacturers combat the stretch by lining the leather with cotton or a synthetic material. This method of construction works well and reduces stretch but does mean the shoes are a little less breathable. Finally, synthetic uppers stretch the least but still a small amount over time. In addition, many (not all) synthetic climbing shoes are vegetarian and vegan friendly. Whilst a minor consideration, if you are prone to sweaty feet, synthetic shoes do tend smell more, particularly in warmer climes.
If you are still uncertain what type of climbing shoe would be best for you, give us a call and ask us any questions you may have. Another useful mechanism for getting the right fit is to buy multiple pairs (sizes/model) and return the unsuitable shoes for a refund (as long as the shoes are unused and the packaging is as received, though you will still need to cover the return postage).