Last updated on April 7th, 2023 at 04:54 am
Regardless of your preferred climbing style – trad, sport, bouldering, even top roping – there are few things better than working your way up a beautiful rock face. Whether it is a trip to the local crag, or you are wandering further afield in pursuit of a bigger adventure, a day on the rocks always feels like an achievement compared to a low-effort, low-reward trip to the gym.
You probably already know that outdoor shoes are a whole different ball game from indoor climbing shoes. Sure, some shoes can hold their own both indoors and outdoor, but if we want optimal performance, we have different requirements that we look for in outdoor climbing shoes.
THE TOP THREE
The Best Outdoor Climbing Shoes
Although no shoe will be the master of every type of terrain or style of climbing, there is a huge selection of great outdoor climbing shoes that cater to every requirement you could ever need. Here are a few of my favorites.
MY TOP PICK
Scarpa Instinct VS
If you are looking for a shoe that has the capability to help you crush hard on a diverse range of rock, then the Instinct VS is certainly worth consideration.
For starters, the moderate downturn and split sole offer the best of both worlds when working on vertical or overhung terrain. This shape allows the shoe to pull at pockets on the steep stuff but also provides the flexibility needed for smearing or climbing on less than vertical (slab) terrain.
The VS also uses Vibram’s XS Edge, their stiffest rubber compound, which helps the shoe stay precise and provides support when standing on small edges and practicing delicate footwork.
All these features make the Instinct VS to be a very adaptable outdoor climbing shoe, but they are more than capable of handling their own in the gym too. They come with all the bells and whistles modern gym climbers require, like a large toe patch and a really secure heel design.
The Instinct VS will naturally fit wide-footed climbers (there is also a low volume version available) and is pretty damn comfortable for a performance shoe. I am also a big fan of the bi-tensioned rand, which channels power into the front of the shoe without the toe-crushing sensation.
Lighter climbers, or those climbing on more polished rock surfaces, might be better suited to the VS-R.
La Sportiva TC Pro
The La Sportiva TC is the undisputed king of big wall climbing. I guarantee you won’t see a pair of these bad boys at your local gym. Where you will find this shoe in abundance though is Yosemite, and that’s because the TC Pro is built to excel on the endless Granite walls of the Valley.
When it comes to climbing granite faces and cracks, they don’t come much better than the Tommy Caldwell signature shoe. The shoe has everything you need to tackle granite and other hard types of rock. A stiff profile (created by a 1.1mm midsole, 4mm of XS Edge and La Sportiva P3 technology) that provides plenty of support when balancing on small quartz flakes or traversing along the smallest of edges.
They have no problem working their way up a crack either, thanks to the abundance of rubber rands, the low-volume toes, and high top ankle protection.
Five Ten NIAD Lace
An oldie but a goodie, the Five Ten NIAD Lace is the next generation upgrade of the massively popular Anasazi Lace, affectionately dubbed the “Pinks”. It was one of three Anasazi shoes to get the makeover treatment (the others being the VCS and Moccasym), all of which are designed for varying styles and demands.
The NIAD Lace is the stiffest of the three, although perhaps not as stiff as its predecessor. Because of this, the lace edges extremely well and supports your feet nicely on the most delicate of footwork. It does this through the use of not one, but two midsoles. The 1.5 mm full-length midsole is paired with a 0.5mm TPU sheet in the forefoot, which creates that rigid profile the Pinks are renowned for, providing essential support for long days or multi-pitches.
I also like the addition of the redesigned heel and small toe patch, it’s ideal for sport climbing, where monster toe hooks are a rarity. That said, if you are hitting the boulders, you will most likely want something a bit bigger.
Like every Five Ten shoe, the new NIAD model uses Five Ten’s legendary Stealth rubber, which I really like. It has good friction on every surface I have tested it on and it’s pretty durable too.
LA Sportiva Miura VS
La Sportiva Miura VS has been another hot favorite with sport climbers and boulderers for over 20 years. You’d be hard-pressed to walk through a crowded crag during the weekend and not spot several pairs of these.
In my opinion, it sits nicely in the midway point between soft and stiff shoes, making it one of the most versatile outdoor climbing shoes around. Whether you’re looking to cruise up some easy routes or crush your latest project, these shoes can take you wherever you need to go.
The aggressive profile and asymmetry make them ideal for overhanging, steep routes while the stiff Vibram XS Edge (or Grip 2 for the women’s) outsole and full-length sole provide the support needed to execute laser-precise footwork on technical face climbs. These shoes are available in both lace and velcro variations, with the velcro being slightly better suited to higher-volume feet.
Scarpa Instinct VS-R
Most of the shoes we have mentioned up until now use a pretty stiff construction. This makes them great for standing on small edges and practicing delicate footwork on rough surfaces like granite. But what about something with less friction like a slippy, polished limestone crag?
For polished limestone, the rock formations will most likely be larger and more rounded than granite walls with less surface friction. For crags like this, you should look for a softer shoe that will conform to these rounded features and have created surface contact with their sticky rubber outsole.
The Instinct VSR is a perfect example of a shoe that follows this style of construction. Although it’s more frequently touted as a bouldering shoe, it is more than capable of handling itself on limestone sport routes too, as Sean Bailey demonstrated with the third ascent of Bibliographie (9b+). After logging the top 1000 hardest sport and boulder ascents, we found the VS-R to be one of the used models.
At the start of this list, we already mentioned another shoe in the instinct line, the VS. So you might be wondering how the VSR and VS differ from one another. The simple difference is that the VS-R uses Vibram’s XS Grip 2 compound, which is softer, and sticker, than the XS Edge. This allows the shoe to conform better to friction moves and perform even better on polished rock and rounded formations.
What Makes A Good Outdoor Climbing Shoe?
So what do we look for in a good pair of outdoor climbing shoes?
As it always is with climbing, the right shoe for the job will ultimately come down to what you are standing on. For outdoor climbing, if you really want to find that perfect shoe, you will want to consider the type of rock and how steep the climbing is.
It’s worth remembering that different types of rock offer varying levels of friction and formation shapes, demanding different qualities from your shoes. At the most basic level, rock can be grouped into three different categories, Igneous (formed by lava/magma cooling), Sedimentary (small particles that have bonded over time), and Metamorphic (rocks that have been transformed by heat or pressure). Within these groups, there are thousands of different types of rock, ranging from soft and crumbly to hard and sharp.
If you are working a vertical route on hard Igneous rock (granite) or a sharp Metamorphic (like slate) you are going to want a stiff shoe that will allow you to laser in on the small and sharp features and apply pressure on a small surface area to propel yourself up.
If you are climbing on a smooth sedimentary rock, like an overhung seawall with rounded limestone pockets, or a crumbly sandstone slab, then you will want a softer shoe that conforms to these shapes and offers greater surface area friction to help stick to the wall.
As you are probably starting to realize, finding an outdoor climbing shoe that performs perfectly in every scenario, is a pretty tall order.
Indoor vs Outdoor Climbing Shoes
One of the key differences between indoor and outdoor climbing is that the holds are typically a lot larger, and more rounded in the gym.
Because of this, indoor climbing shoes typically are softer and more sensitive. I am yet to see a plastic hold as small and sharp as a flake of granite, so save those ridiculously stiff shoes for the outdoors, you won’t need that level of support in a gym.
Use shoes with soft, sticky rubber and a flexible midsole instead. The XS Grip rubber is a moderately soft favorite with indoor specialists. While the footholds in gyms are relatively uniform, you’ll still need a shoe that can smear on volumes, push off on edges, and pull on some holds.
While there’s a wonderful shoe that can do it all, some models are suited for both outdoor and indoor climbing. These shoes typically have:
- Moderately stiff construction for more support on smaller outdoor holds, yet soft enough for friction moves
- A moderate downturn allows the shoe to adapt to all angles
- Excellent durability to hold up under the constant switching between indoor and outdoor holds