Climbing Shoe Buying Guide 2016

Climbing Shoes

Getting the right climbing shoe is essential. They are your first and most important point of contact with the rock, laying the foundations for every technique you perform and every climb you complete. Next time you go bouldering, take 15 minutes to climb barefoot or in street shoes and analyse how your climbing changes to fully appreciate just how good modern rock shoes are at edging, smearing and hooking to support your weight on holds that barely seem present.

Rock shoe design is differentiated in two main ways:

  • Shoes that are made for with a particular foot shape in mind, and
  • Shoes that are designed for a specific type of climbing

As a result, there are hundreds of different rock shoes available, and at least one of them will be perfect for you. Having comfortable, well-fitting shoes is the first step towards having fun at the crag.

Before you start looking, ask yourself:

  • What shape are my feet? and
  • What am I going to spend most of my time climbing?

Your Feet

Your feet contain one quarter of the bones in your body, and each foot is made up of 3 arches, 20 muscles, 24 ligaments, 26 bones, 33 joints and 7,800 nerves. With so many variables, they come in a great variety of shapes and structures and are highly individual.

I swear by the 5.10 Anasazi range, as the asymmetrical last suits my long big toe, but one of my climbing partners hates them. His longer middle toes mean the toe box is crushingly painful and he prefers to sport a pair of Boreal Jokers.

Deciding which climbing shoe will fit your foot is virtually impossible without actually trying a few pairs on, so unless you are 100% confident, Outside recommend coming into the shop and making sure the shoes you buy are right for your feet.

Your Climbing

That having been said, the type of climbing you will be doing is important, too. Not only your preferred style of climbing, but the rock type and the length of route you’ll be doing (and therefore the time you’ll spend in your shoes) are important considerations in your choice.

Steep Sport and Bouldering

Typically, boots aimed at this market are extremely precise and technical at the expense of comfort. Despite the advances in last design, you’ll want to use ‘em and lose ‘em: tie in before you put your boots on, climb your route and get them off again. Climbers with a very pronounced long middle toe will probably find shoes in this category excruciatingly painful.

Shoe design has been optimised for steep ground and climbing using small edges and pockets, and heel and toe hooks. Most feature an asymmetrical last that promotes edging and precision with your big toe, and a down turned toe to help performance on overhanging rock and in generating power for dynamic movement. They are often also soft to increase sensitivity, mould around tiny features and improve the climber’s ability to pull in with their feet.

Outside Bestsellers

Scarpa Instinct VS-R5.10 HiangleBoreal MutantLa Sportiva Solution

Trad Climbing and Mid-Grade Sport/Bouldering

This is a broad church, so opinions may vary immensely on the best characteristics for these boots. However, assume that they will have to perform on a wide variety of terrain and features and remain comfortable for a reasonable period of time.

Rock shoes in this category are available with both standard and asymmetrical lasts, meaning they will fit a wide range of foot sizes and, for those with ‘average’ feet that can fit both shoe types, enable a choice between comfort and performance. A range of shoes with moderate to stiff soles are available, from the softer 5.10 Anasazi VCS, which lend themselves to smearing, through to the stiffer, edging focus of the La Sportiva Miura. A slight downturn in the toe can improve performance without having too much impact on comfort.

Outside Bestsellers

La Sportiva Katana Lace5.10 Anasazi VCSLa Sportiva Miura VS5.10 Anasazi Pink

Long Multi-Pitch and Beginners (and climbing walls?)

In this category, comfort is king and technical features and performance are lost, although the contrast with your street shoes is still extraordinary. Make no mistake, some very impressive routes have been climbed using shoes in this category, and some climbers’ foot shape will make these shoes their only practical option.

Typically, shoes will have a rounded toe profile and a flat or slightly rounded convex sole. Most will have medium to stiff soles to better support and protect the foot, like the Boreal Joker, although some relatively comfortable shoes are designed with super soft soles like the La Sportiva Finale.

Outside Bestsellers

5.10 Stonelands LaceLa Sportiva Techno X5.10 Anasazi GuideBoreal Silex Velcro

Other Factors to Consider

Female Specific Shoes

There are now many climbing shoes made specifically for the female form, and while these vary in all the ways discussed above, they typically differ from the norm in a number of ways:

  • a narrower last both in the toe box and heel
  • a higher arch
  • a lower instep
  • a longer toe box
  • lovely pastel colours

However, don’t be persuaded wholly on the ‘gender’ of a shoe. Unisex shoes can fit a woman’s foot better, and sometimes a women’s shoe can be the best fit for a male foot.

Fastening Systems

Laces, Velcro or slip-ons… well, laces generally provide the best overall fit, but at the cost of time spent putting them on/taking them off, while Velcro closures allow you to get them off your feet quickly and easily at a slight cost to the tailored fit. And slip-ons… generally don’t slip on or off, but require arms length wrestling of a type last seen in a B-movie called "Attack of the Vampire Bunny". However, in a soft shoe with unlined leather uppers they can offer sock like sensitivity and conformity to your foot shape.

Overall, the fastening system can be important if you anticipate frequent footwear changes during a bouldering session, or on the hanging belays of a long multi-pitch route where Velcro can be a real boon, but it’s largely down to your preferences. Many popular boots now come in a couple of variants, so you can have the best of both worlds.

Climbing Shoes for Walls, Slabs and Cracks

Stiff climbing shoe for bridging cracks

Crack technique for Indian Creek

Most climbers, moving across varied terrain and a range of different rock types will choose a medium stiff sole for all round performance, but for certain applications a stiffer or softer shoe might be preferable.

If you have a penchant for steep wall climbs with the focus on edging performance, then a stiffer shoe is the best choice. A stiff sole also helps support your foot better, demanding less strength in the foot and transferring weight onto the edge. Similarly, crack climbing can be a happier experience with a stiff mid-sole to help bridge the crack without crushing your feet.

If slabs are your bag, or thin cracks, then a softer shoe might suit you better. The pliable soles conform more closely to the rock, and the softness enables the climber to "feel" the friction better. Increasingly, soft shoes are being used on steep sport and bouldering (see above).

Materials and Linings

The material used in the upper, and whether lining is used can also have an effect on your buying choices. This is partly personal choice, but mostly concerns how much the shoes will stretch when you start using them.

A synthetic upper, such as the ‘Cowdura’ used by 5.10 will stretch very little in use, and shoes should be bought to be snug but with no pressure points. They should climb well straight out of the box. They will become slightly more comfortable as the material and the soles begin to work with your feet. The development of effective synthetic fabrics has also opened up good options for vegan climbing shoes.

At the other end of the spectrum, an unlined leather shoe may stretch up to a size. Typically, these are soft soled shoes, sometimes with a slipper design, and while they will be uncomfortable at first, but once you have worn them in, the leather will have moulded to your feet and the soft last and sole design make climbing feel natural, with good sensitivity for small rock features and friction moves. By the end of a long season, they may become baggy and lose precision on small edges.

A lined leather shoe will sit somewhere in the middle of this range, stretching to a degree, but also maintaining good shape over a long time, perhaps giving a quarter to a half size.

Contact Us

We hope this article gives you a flavour of the climbing shoes available on the market, and their main characteristics. If you need to know more we have a whole team of knowledgeable outdoor enthusiasts who will be happy to help with your questions. You can contact us by phone or email by using the details here or use the Zendesk Chat on this page.

Thanks, and happy climbing.

Further Reading




Just to show that climbers aren’t the only ones obsessing about foot shapes and balancing pain with gain, here’s some advice for ballet dancers.



Visa, MasterCard and PayPal Accepted 5 Star Reviews from Trust Pilot

Outside.co.uk uses cookies and some may have already been set. Please click the button to agree and remove this message.

If you continue to use the site we'll assume you're happy to accept the cookies. Find out more .