Gyms might be where many of us go to get our climbing kicks, but as any old-school climber will tell you, it’s outside the gym walls where the real adventures lie. And if you plan on becoming a regular at your local crag, you might need to add a few new shoes to your collection – besides a pair of reliable outdoor rock shoes that will help you conquer those three-star lines, that is.
Approach shoes are probably an obvious choice for any weekend warrior to throw in their kit bag. The hybrid nature of a hiking boot-turned-sneaker is a handy option, especially if your local rock isn’t exactly a roadside crag. Another shoe, that gets a lot less love, is the humble crag shoe.
Now, if you have spent your climbing career cooped up in a sweaty gym, then you might not have heard of this unsung hero yet. Allow me to enlighten you on what we are talking about here, as well as some of the best crag shoe options available to you just now.
First Up: What Is A Crag Shoe?
A crag shoe is a type of footwear that allows you to comfortably move around the crag or boulder field. Unlike your average trip to the gym, a trip to the crag is an all-day event, so a comfortable shoe that you can quickly slip into is pretty handy.
When should you slip these bad boys on? Perhaps when you are walking between the routes or boulders. Why not during a quick rest between burns of your project, or simply just want to give your toes a break from those tight (but not too tight) climbing shoes? That’s the beauty of it: crag shoes offer a well-deserved escape whenever your feet need it.
Yes, cramming yet another pair of shoes into your bag is a bit of a luxury but it’s certainly worth it. A good crag shoe will keep your feet happy whilst you concentrate on crushing hard.
Of course, many climbers will just use their approach shoes. This can be a good option, provided you haven’t just climbed a gnarly approach in your ankle-high hiking boots. There are still plenty of approach shoes out there that can be a bit of a pain to slip on and off multiple times throughout the day too.
Other climbers like navigating around the crag barefoot, which is fine too, but don’t be surprised when you take a wicked toe-stubbing of the rock. Don’t forget the risk of severing a toe on a bit of smashed glass inevitably left by the local teenagers either.
If you don’t want to spend your day at the crag playing with your laces or risk a spontaneous trip to the E.R. with a piece of glass hanging out your foot, then your best is to grab yourself a trusty pair of crag shoes.
So what are your options? Here are a few of my personal favorites.
What Are The Best Crag Shoes? Here Are My Top Three Picks
Plenty of footwear options have been tried and tested by climbers around the crags over the years, some of which make for better alternatives than others. If you are looking for some inspiration on your next pair of crag shoes, here are a few of my favorites.
The shoe that legions of climbers are wearing right now (myself included) it’s a little old thing called Crocs. Everyone knows what Crocs are, you either wore them as a kid or laughed at kids who wore them. And while Crocs might be one of those love ’em or hate ’em kinda things, they make for some of the best crag shoes ever created.
To all the Croc haters scoffing in unison, all I can say is don’t knock it until you try it. I spent years mocking these ridiculous shoes… until I actually bought a pair.
And if that isn’t enough to convince you, from what I can decipher from the latest fashion trends, it seems Crocs have made a massive comeback in recent years. You might not care for the style statements made by Gen Z’s but Crocs have some helpful characteristics for us climbers too.
Here are a few benefits I have found from using Crocs as my crag shoe.
- They are comfortable, with easy on/off access. One of the main criteria I look for in a crag shoe is the ease with which I can slip them on and off. This is pretty important: you really don’t want to spend the majority of your day lacing and unlacing shoes. The slipper design of Crocs makes getting into them a breeze.
- They are light. The average pair of classic Crocs weigh between 300 and 450 grams (size dependent, of course) which put them in the same weight range as the average climbing shoe. Thanks to its foam construction you will barely notice the additional weight of these clipped to your pack (the heel straps also conveniently clip onto a carabiner with is a huge bonus).
- They are indestructible. Apparently, Crocs make all their shoes with unique patent-protected foam. It is this special formula that makes their shoes virtually indestructible, unless you melt them on the campfire like my partner, that is. This closed-cell resin paired with the chunky design keeps your feet safe from the rocks and sticks lurking around the crag. Blowing a heel strap or tearing through your shoes shouldn’t ever be a concern either.
- They are Breathable. The breathability of these shoes is also a massive benefit. The chances are your feet are going to get pretty damn hot and sweaty working on your proj. This is part of the reason why climbers’ feet are so susceptible to fungal infections, so taking your feet out of your climbing shoes whenever possible is always a good idea. Get those funky feet out of your climbing shoes and get the fresh air flowing through those bad boys.
- They offer closed-toe protection. Take it from someone who stubs a toe every time I leave the house, having a little toe protection as you fumble from one route to the other is a lifesaver.
- You can make a shoe sandwich. If you just want to move over to the boulder beside you, or simply want one last dunk in the chalk bucket before pulling on, then it can be pretty annoying to take off your climbing shoes only to put them back in 30 seconds later. I love that I can just keep my climbing shoes on, half-slip into my Crocs, and waddle over to the next boulder with minimal faffing.
- Perfect for dirt bagging. Using your Crocs to lounge around the crag or move between the boulders undoubtedly comes in handy, but these shoes are capable of so much more. If you know that the approach to your climbing spot is a gentle stroll, then why not just use your Crocs as your approach shoe? Just engage sport mode (loop the heel strap around the back of your foot) and you’re good to go. How about those rest days when you are just lounging around your camp, or cleaning in the cesspool campground showers? Your Crocs have you covered on all accounts. Don’t forget they are ridiculously easy to clean too.
- They are dirt cheap. If money is your bottom line, then it’s hard to argue with the price of these shoes. If you do a bit of hunting, you can pick up a pair of Crocs for under $40. For how much these shoes can do, I think that’s an absolute bargain.
As you can probably tell, I think these brightly-colored beauties are some of the best footwear you can find for lurking around the crag. But if I have failed to make a Croc convert out of you (yet), then here are a few more traditional options that you might prefer.
Before Crocs reigned supreme as the king of the crag shoe, flip flops (or thongs to our Aussie friends) were the go-to footwear for many.
It’s not hard to see why flip-flops are a popular crag shoe, after all, they share plenty of the underlying characteristics of Crocs. They are, breathable, lightweight, and easy to slip on – also very cheap and widely available.
Flip flops aren’t bad but do have some pretty big drawbacks. Perhaps most importantly, they don’t give you that essential under-foot support you get with Crocs. If you have ever tried scrambling across boulders in flip-flops, you will know what I mean.
They aren’t exactly durable either, flip flops tend to be badly designed and poorly made with cheap rubber. Plus, who actually likes that rubber strap tearing the skin off between your big toe? No thanks.
In my opinion, a pair of Jesus sandals would be the upgraded alternative to flip-flops. They aren’t the quickest shoe to slip on but will be a lot more secure hopping across the boulder field.
The North Face Thermoball Traction V Mules
If you really want to go for that veteran alpinist vibe, then there is only one shoe for you: The North Face ThermoBall Traction V Mules. These are a killer option for those winter crag days when we have to suffer some cold conditions in order to get that serious-sending friction.
I have heard these shoes being described as “puffer jackets for your feet”, which is a pretty fitting comparison. These outdoor slippers are the perfect retreat when your feet want a break from your climbing shoes. They have a fleece-lined interior and a water-resistant exterior, keeping your feet happy from both the inside and outside, while the elasticated and collapsible heel allows for hassle-free wearing.
Of course, there is an endless list of shoes that you could use as a Crag shoe. Other options include Moccasyms, Sneakers, and even Ugg boots. While all these options are great, I know exactly which shoes I will be clipped to my pack.