While gym climbing might be how the majority of modern-day climbers are pursuing their thirst for crushing hard, there are still plenty who look to the great outdoors for their next vertical adventure.
As Heinz Mariacher once said, “Sport climbing is a sport; mountain climbing is an adventure” and in a time when bouldering gyms can be found on almost every street corner, never has this quote seemed to ring as true as it does today.
If you are one of those climbers who enjoy the feeling of real rock under your fingers, then I’m sure you already know the importance of having the right equipment for your climbing adventures. Perhaps one of the most important tools in your duffle bag is a reliable pair of shoes to help you get to, and climb, your outdoor projects.
When you boil it down, there are two main types of shoes that are specifically designed for climbers: approach shoes and climbing shoes (although let’s not forget about the humble crag shoe either).
If you are new to climbing or just looking to dip your toes into the world of outdoor climbing, you might be wondering what’s the difference between these two types of shoes. Which one should you choose for your next outdoor adventure?
What Are Climbing Shoes?
Let’s begin with talking about the most common type of footwear all climbers wear – climbing shoes.
At the risk of sounding patronizing, climbing shoes are specialized shoes that are designed specifically for rock climbing. Modern climbing shoes have been evolving since the early 1980s, with models like the Boreal Fire and La Sportiva Mariacher paving the way for the shoes we know and love today. Since the 80s, our shoes have drastically advanced to offer a superior fit, better grip, and new features that allow climbers to crush harder than ever before.
These shoes are typically made from leather or synthetic uppers, paired with a climbing-specific rubber compound. They have a pointed-toe box and are designed to wrap securely around your feet, like a sticky second skin, providing precision and grip when climbing. There are many different types of climbing shoes that come in a variety of widths and shapes in order to find a shoe that offers you that Cinderella-like fit.
What Are Approach Shoes?
Approach shoes, on the other hand, do exactly what they say on the tin. As many of the best climbing spots aren’t exactly roadside crags, approach shoes are designed to be worn on the hike to your climbing destination.
Don’t think these shoes are a one-trick pony though, many climbing and mountaineers will use their approach shoes for a variety of activities such as hiking, light scrambling, and low-level alpine climbing. I’ve seen Alex Honnold send boulder problems and sports routes that most of us can only dream of in approach shoes. I wouldn’t recommend throwing your climbing shoes away just yet, there’s a fairly limited amount of on-wall performance you will get from approach shoes.
It might seem a bit strange to create a shoe specifically designed for walking to your climbing project, but these shoes offer some undeniable benefits over the alternatives. Approach shoes offer greater stability and durability than running shoes, for example, and are made to handle a variety of terrains, from flat trails to steep scree slopes. They are less busky and offer a lower cut than hiking boots too, allowing for better foot dexterity, which pays dividends when navigating tricky terrain.
Approach shoes have a lugged rubber sole, which offers great grip and traction on a variety of surfaces. Approach shoes are typically made from synthetic materials and feature a rubber rand, which protects the shoe from abrasion.
Approach Shoes Vs Climbing Shoes: What’s The Difference?
Now that we know what approach and climbing shoes are, let’s take a look at how they differ.
As I have already mentioned, climbing shoes and approach shoes have been designed with different intended uses in mind. As approach shoes are built primarily for walking and making an approach to a far-way crag, whereas climbing shoes are specially designed for ascending vertical walls.
The Sole, Upper Materials, And Design
This is perhaps the most obvious physical difference in the approach shoe vs climbing shoe debate. An approach shoe uses a lugged sole, which is designed for grip and traction on a variety of surfaces, whereas a climbing shoe uses a sticky rubber sole that offers precision and friction on climbing surfaces.
The uppers are another big difference between approach shoes and climbing shoes. Climbing shoes use a thin upper material, usually made from leather or synthetic materials, to allow the foot to wrap around the shoe and provide a precision fit with minimal layers of construction. Approach shoes, on the other hand, use a burlier upper material that is more resistant to abrasion and offers greater stability when hiking or scrambling.
The materials used in approach shoes differ from those used in traditional climbing shoes because they need to be tough enough to withstand the rigors of walking over rough terrain but still flexible enough to climb in. Approach shoes typically use a combination of leather, rubber, and synthetic fabrics to create footwear that can handle both approaches walking and climbing on rough terrain.
All this has a knock-on impact on the weight of each shoe too. Climbing shoes are typically much lighter than approach shoes, which can be a real bonus on long approaches or when carrying them in your pack.
A good pair of approach shoes need to be comfortable, given that you will likely wear them for long periods of time. Because of this, approach shoes have a roomier fit than climbing shoes, which rely on curling your toes within the shoe. Approach shoes are designed with comfort in mind so you can walk all day without getting sore feet or blisters. This is why these shoes have features like a padded collar.
Climbing shoes, on the other hand, are built for performance, so comfort is not as much of a primary consideration as it is with approach shoes. Their snug fit and minimal layers of construction allow you to feel your footholds and make precise foot placements when climbing hard routes or bouldering problems.
Approach Or Climbing Shoes? What Do You Need?
As you can see, approach and climbing shoes are two totally different beasts. While approach shoes offer more comfort for long hikes to the crag or approach walks on difficult terrain, they don’t have the same precision or grip as a climbing shoe which is designed with performance in mind.
If you’re looking for an approach shoe that can also handle some basic climbing and scrambling, I recommend you check out the La Sportiva TX line of approach shoes, which offers great grip and precision when scrambling. If you’re looking for a dedicated climbing shoe, be sure to check out the huge range of shoes that offer different levels of performance to suit your needs.