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How to choose climbing shoes

Climbing shoes are the most important tool in climbing. Their development and improvement over the years goes hand in hand with the increase in the level of difficulty that climbers are able to overcome today.

What are climbing shoes for?

Climbing shoes work in unison with our feet to

  • Support and anchor us to the rock.
  • Tell us what to lean on and how to make the next move.
  • Protect us from the rock.

Support, sensitivity and protection: these are the three functions that a climbing shoe must fulfil.

Choosing shoes that fit your feet perfectly is a difficult and time-consuming process. An experienced climber has developed his preferences over the years, has identified the shoes he feels best in and is able to choose shoes according to the type of climbing he wants to do.

A beginning climber, in addition to figuring out which climb he likes best, will also need to figure out his shoe preferences.

Construction of climbing shoes

Generally speaking, there are straight, asymmetric and very asymmetric shoes.

A straight shoe is generally comfortable but less precise. As the asymmetry of the shoe increases, more and more tension is concentrated on the toe, on the big toe of the foot, and so the thrust is greater, but so is the pain.

The components of the shoe

The shoe is essentially made up of four elements:

  • Upper
  • Closure system
  • Rubber, bars, heel
  • Midsole and outsole

The upper is the “glove”, made of leather or synthetic material, which is then fitted to the shoe last. All the side rubbers, tie rods, heel and toe, which determine the elastic structure of the shoe, are then glued – ‘fitted’ – onto the upper. Finally, the sole is fitted.

The upper

The upper should be a glove that wraps around the foot with no gaps. Gaps in the upper are places where you cannot push, i.e. you have no support because the shoe gives way. But at the same time, these voids do not allow you to “feel” what is underfoot. If I feel a lot of support, I can loosen the grip of my hands and save valuable energy, but if the perceived support is small, my foot is telling my hand to “squeeze”.

The bootie closure system

Given the great innovations in uppers, the division between ballet flats, laces and Velcro is now reductive.

In fact, we are increasingly seeing a hybrid construction. The upper encloses the foot with an integrated elastic sock, like a ballet flat. Velcro is then applied to reinforce the closure and tighten the arch of the foot. This is the concept behind the revolutionary Solution.

La Sportiva Solution, hybrid construction shoe

The benefits of this construction are a slipper’s sensitivity, combined with the increased tension on the arch of the foot, which allows for greater thrusts at the toe and strong pulls at the heel. Situation in which slippers are in danger of being undermined. Very often we find only a Velcro at the top. This leaves the entire upper part of the toe free to place the soft rubber needed for toe-hooks.

Shoe with wide rubber at the top

If we go and look at the catalogs of all the shoe brands, we will find that the high-performance models for bouldering and crags have hybrid construction with Velcro: La Sportiva Solution, FiveTen Hiangle, Unparallel TN pro, Scarpa Drago, Tenaya Mastia.

Hybrid construction has virtually wiped out slippers. We now find a few models on the market, including the stainless Cobra or the innovative Mantra.

Then we have the open uppers with Velcro closure or laces .

The lace system has the advantage that the climbing shoe can generally be adjusted and tensioned more precisely, binding the foot better.

On the other hand, the Velcro closure allows for significantly faster donning (and doffing), which can be an advantage when wearing particularly tight shoes.

Sole and midsole

The sole and midsole determine the stiffness of the climbing shoe.

A soft shoe gives you a good feel underfoot and allows your foot to ‘spread out’ on loose footholds. However, a soft shoe has to be tight to support us on small supports. This is because its structure cannot support us on its own, but needs to be properly tensioned to provide support. This tension makes your feet very tired in the long run, not to mention the fact that the big toe flexor has to work hard. Also remember that a soft shoe that is bought too tight can lose its sensitivity.

A stiff shoe, on the other hand, is able to provide support on small supports without having to be too tight. This is the best choice for multi-pitch or mountaineering routes. A loose-fitting shoe with good support will take a lot of pressure off your feet and allow you to climb all day. Of course, this is at the expense of shoveling ability.

Choosing climbing shoes by terrain

Shoes for bouldering

Soft shoes are used, because the boulders generally have rounder shapes and also need a good ability to push in grip, on loose and not sharp holds.  On boulders you hold the shoes lightly on your feet, so they can be gripped tightly.  The heel must be perfect and the shoe must wrap around the foot optimally for maximum sensitivity. The shoe must also have good hooking capabilities at the toe.

A shoe designed for bouldering

Shoes for sport climbing

In general, you need a shoe that is more supportive and allows you to push well on holds, especially if you prefer slabs to overhangs. You need a shoe that is a little more comfortable so that you don’t suffer when resting, and in some cases can be less demanding on the heel if you generally heel a little.

A shoe with laces for sport climbing

Shoes for multipitch routes

Here you need a shoe that is very supportive, a little more comfortable and possibly Velcro fastened so you can take it off when you are resting. However, there are also shoes that close with laces but are so comfortable that you never take them off, such as La Sportiva’s TC pro.

A lace-up shoe designed for multipitch routes

As well as the terrain, we also need to consider the needs of our feet.

Choosing climbing shoes based on the foot

Climbing shoes for women

Many brands offer LV (low volume) versions of their styles. These versions are narrower, specifically designed to fit the thinner female foot.

Other brands, such as La Sportiva, offer women’s versions of their top models. The shape is the same, but the midsole is slightly less rigid to compensate for the lower weight of female climbers.

But these versions also give men the option of having narrower shoes in the LV versions or softer shoes in the women’s versions.

Foot shape and length

Thanks to the LV versions, there is a greater variety of shapes to suit our feet. In any case, two pieces of advice:

  • Make sure that the Velcro closes well, especially if you have a very high instep.
  • Our bodies are asymmetrical: you will definitely have one foot longer than the other. For bouldering and crags, use the smaller foot; for multipitch, use the bigger one.

What size climbing shoes?

Figuring out what size climbing shoe to buy is a tricky subject. It used to be that shoes had so much “slack” because they were made with natural leather uppers. So you were forced to buy them very tight to compensate for this slack. Now, with synthetic uppers that are more dimensionally stable, you can go for fairer sizes.

Of course, it depends on your taste: narrow climbing shoes offer more thrust and precision on small holds, but they may be less good for grip.

Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

Be aware that a shoe that is too tight may not fill the heel well; surprisingly, a half size up may fill it better. When you are in the shop, take the time to try on all the sizes available.

Finally, this choice is also related to your reasons for climbing. If I am climbing to have a nice day outdoors, I prefer a more comfortable shoe. On the other hand, if climbing has become my nuisance, I am more willing to suffer for more precision and thrust.

Sole and resole of climbing shoes

Generally speaking, there are two types of rubber on the market: soft for maximum grip and stiff for maximum support. The former wears a little more than the latter. The average thickness is 3 mm.

Important: we check the possibility of resoiling in authorised centres. If climbing shoes are resoled in these centres, they can be as good as new. This is because they use the original soles, which are then fitted with the factory lasts. On the other hand, if the shoe is resoled in unauthorised centres, original lasts are not used.

If the shoe is resoled directly at the factory, it is possible to have the side straps and tie rods replaced.

A new shoe will last for about 20 climbs before it needs to be resoled.

Final tips for choosing your first pair of climbing shoes

If you are just starting to climb, it is best to choose shoes that are versatile and comfortable.  Get them in your size or slightly smaller, the important thing is that you can feel your big toe well at the toe, without gaps.

Look for shoes with a straight geometry that are not overpriced. This will allow you to get your foot used to a more enveloping FIT than in everyday shoes, you will be able to keep the shoes on for longer, but you will still start to gain sensitivity to the supports.

As you gain more experience, you will begin to understand what you want on your feet and you will be able to move on to higher performance climbing shoes.

Socks with climbing shoes, yes or no?

Well, yes: shoes are designed to be worn without socks. This maximises sensitivity and feedback from the rock to the receptors in your feet. This is especially true for the top hybrid models mentioned above. Rest assured, however, that there is no downside to wearing socks in lower performance shoes.

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