Here’s a question for you: Are climbing shoes unisex? And if they aren’t, does gender really play a role in climbing shoes? In a world where we are moving away from binary gender constructs, it seems odd that many of the most popular climbing kicks are differentiated by gender.
The short answer is yes, gender does play a role when choosing climbing shoes.
The long answer? This isn’t exactly a hard and fast rule because, as with most things, it ultimately depends on the individual and their preferences. Over the next few minutes, I will attempt to give a proper explanation of the differences between men’s and women’s climbing shoes. To fully understand why gender matters, however, we first need to talk about the evolution of modern climbing footwear. We will then discuss the difference between men’s and women’s feet and then top it off by looking at how this has impacted the design of climbing shoes.
Fit Is King – The evolution of gender shoes
When modern climbing shoes first started to develop in the 1980s, well-fitting shoes or choosing models for each gender wasn’t an option. Climbers would shoehorn their feet into downsized shoes in a bid to squeeze as much performance out of their poor-fitting shoes as possible.
As climbing shoes began to evolve throughout the 90s and 2000s and the importance of a well-fitting shoe became clear, manufacturers began creating shoes in a wider range of shapes and sizes so they could cater to varying foot widths and shapes.
In an attempt to provide their customers with the best-fitting shoes, some shoe brands began creating female-specific climbing shoes. Five Ten was one of the first companies to do this, with the release of the Five Ten Diamond in 1997. This shoe was hailed in a new era of climbing shoe construction, and over the next decade, other leading shoe manufacturers would go on to develop their own range of female-specific climbing shoes. Today almost every climbing shoe comes in a high and low volume variation.
Are Men’s And Women’s Feet Different?
Did you know that men and women have very different foot shapes? Women’s feet aren’t simply just smaller, scaled-down versions of men’s feet. Various studies have proven that the shape of men’s and women’s feet differ considerably in shape. This study, conducted in 2001, found that at least 93% of the time male and female foot characteristics differ considerably, especially when it comes to the toes, instep volume, and ball of the foot. Some of the most obvious differences include:
- The arch of a woman’s foot is usually higher and more pronounced than a man’s.
- The first toe (or big toe) is shorter and wider in women.
- The ball of a woman’s foot is often wider (relative to the rest of the foot) than that of a man.
- The arch of a woman’s foot tends to be higher than that of a man
- The inside of the foot arches considerably more
How Does This Impact Climbing Shoes?
We all know that a properly fitting climbing shoe is essential to performance and as we just learned – in the vast majority of cases – both men and women have completely different foot anatomy. Based on this, it’s only logical that climbing shoe manufacturers develop climbing shoes for both genders.
So how do these differences affect your climbing shoes exactly? Well, it impacts our shoes in a couple of different ways.
The Shape And Size
In order to offer both guys and gals the best possible fit, climbing shoe brands have created shoe lasts specifically for each gender. The last on which your shoe is built will ultimately dictate many of the shape and size characteristics of your shoes.
For women’s climbing shoes, it’s common to see alterations in the following areas:
- In-step volume: Many manufacturers offer ‘low volume’ alternatives. This is usually done by reducing the amount of material from the shoe’s uppers.
- Heel: A narrower heel cup is a common addition to women’s shoes
- Toe box: Most shoes built on a woman’s specific last tend to be narrower and have shorter toe boxes. This caters to the overall slimmer shape of a female’s foot, as well as the more contoured shape of women and the shorter metatarsal relative to a man’s foot
- The size range: Perhaps the most obvious difference is the size range available in both male and female shoes. Generally, women’s climbing shoes range between 33 – 42 EU whereas men’s range from 34 – 46 EU, although this varies between manufacturers and shoe models.
The Outsole And Midsole
We have spoken a lot about the varying foot sizes, but another important factor that shoe manufacturers take into consideration for male and female models is weight. According to the Washington Post, in 2010 the average American woman weighed 166 lbs, whereas the average man weighed 195 lbs. Of course, this is another generalization and there are always exceptions to the rule, but that makes the average woman about 15% lighter than the average man.
This weight difference has a significant impact on our climbing shoes. Think about it: Because of this weight difference, a woman’s shoe will have less force exerted on it, which would require a softer rubber, or a thinner midsole, to enable the climber to achieve the same level of friction, flexibility, and sensitivity as their heavier male would.
If you look at any of your favorite climbing shoes you will see that they alter the midsole or outsole to counter this weight difference. Take the La Sportiva Solution, for example. The male version uses a 1.1mm midsole, whereas the Women’s version uses a 0.9mm midsole. That might not sound like much, but I guarantee you would feel the difference.
Or if you look at the Scarpa Instinct VS, the male version uses the stiffer Vibram XS Edge compound, while the female variation uses the slightly softer Vibram XS Grip 2. Of course, personal preference plays a role here too. Adam Ondra frequently wears the Women’s Solution comp, most likely because he prefers the slightly softer sole profile.
Which Shoe Is Best For You?
As you can see, it’s pretty logical that most climbing shoe manufacturers offer climbing shoes that cater to both genders. This isn’t about being sexist, or excluding those who identify as non-binary, but an effort to create shoes that work best for all of us.
That said, even within each gender, there are many, many different foot shapes. As climbers are a subset of the population that are more likely to have unique foot characteristics than others, it is important to note that even when shoes are marketed as female or male-specific, this does not mean they are exclusively for men or women. They are merely created to order to cater to a larger range of foot shapes. Plenty of professional and amateur climbers alike are frequently seen wearing opposite-gender shoes.
Besides, who can resist the allure of the hot pink La Sportiva Solutions?