Choosing the Right Rock Climbing Shoe

The most important piece of equipment for any rock climber is their shoes. Not just any shoes mind you, modern climbing shoes are able to stick to tiny ledges and grip on steep, smooth surfaces. That comes with the caveat of discomfort, a reason why almost every beginner climber has a love/hate relationship with their footwear. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By choosing the right rock climbing shoe for your ability and climbing style, you can get the most out of this exhilarating sport with as little pain as possible.

Choosing the Right Rock Climbing Shoe
From left to right, examples of neutral, moderate and aggressive climbing shoes.

What Type of Climber Are You?

Climbing shoes come in three distinct types; neutral, moderate and aggressive.

Neutral shoes off the most relaxed fit when all-day comfort is paramount. For this reason it’s the perfect shoe for beginners, but advanced climbers will often have a pair of neutral shoes in the gear closet for when they attempt all-day multi-pitch routes. The shape of the allows the toes to lie flat inside the shoe and the sole is generally thicker for increased stiffness and durability.

Moderate shoes are generally the next purchase after new climbers wear out their first pair of neutral shoes. The toe is turned down slightly (also known as camber), providing more power from the foot when pushing off tiny ledges and holds. Moderate shoes generally have thinner soles for a better grip and a more natural feel, but will also wear out quicker. That said, moderates can handle almost every type of technical climbing such as slabs, cracks and longer multi-pitch climbs

Aggressive shoes have a high amount of camber, scrunching the front of the foot towards the big toe. This makes for most powerful foot position for tougher slab climbs and overhangs, but also means the shoes can be uncomfortable when worn for long periods. Advanced climbers generally reserve their aggressive shoes for tough bouldering problems and single pitch sport climbs, where it’s easy to rip off their shoes in between sessions. Aggressive shoes are also unsuitable for longer crack climbs, as the sole flexes too much when torqued inside a crack.

Choosing the Right Rock Climbing Shoe
A softer, stickier rubber performs better when smearing. Screenshot from Climbing Techniques with Joe Kinder

Gaining Closure

The next step to choosing the right rock climbing shoe is selecting the ideal closure system.. The most common is lace-up, which is also the most versatile. Tightening certain spots allows the climber to makes the shoes perform for certain sections of wall and loosening helps when feet get hot and start to swell. Velcro strap closures are great for shoes that need to come and off your feet quickly like at a climbing gym or when bouldering. Slip-on shoes have elastic closures and are typically low-profile, meaning they are easiest to squeeze into cracks. They also have a flexible mid sole that feel the most natural.

Other considerations

Material – the upper of climbing shoes are generally made from leather, synthetics, or a combination of both. More leather content means your shoes will stretch up to a full size, synthetics have more breathable fabrics and will stretch little.
Outsole – Plenty of manufacturers tout their sole material as the “stickiest rubber ever,” but that’s not always the desired quality. Sticky rubbers perform better when smearing (traction when putting weight directly onto the sole of the shoe) but wear more quickly. Stiffer soles will provide a a more solid platform when edging (standing on small ledges with the edge of the shoe) and will have longer life. The thickness of the sole also comes into play; the thinner the sole the more natural feel but with reduced durability and vice versa.

Choosing the Right Rock Climbing Shoe
Durability can be a deciding purchase factor, but old shoes can be re-soled for a second lease of life. Photo by Nomad Ventures

Fitting Tips for Choosing the Right Rock Climbing Shoe

Shop later in the day and if possible, after activity. Your feet can swell and you want to fit your climbing shoes appropriately.
Try everything. Don’t be shy about putting on a range of brands and models at your local climbing shop to see which shoes best fit your feet and the way they bend
Remember that shoes perform better when toes are bent at the knuckles, but this will come at the cost of comfort

Choosing the right rock climbing shoe isn’t rocket science, just be ready to subject your feet to more discomfort than your regular shoes.

Ready to take your climbing to the next level? Check out our rock climbing courses.

Share this post