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The Best Soft Climbing Shoes

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Soft climbing shoes have one objective; adapt to different angles. Whether you’re dangling off wicked overhangs or smearing up friction slabs, soft shoes have got your back. They will morph to the challenge, can you?

vsr

My Top Pick

Scarpa Instinct VSR

One of the most versatile sport and bouldering shoes I have ever tested.

La Sportiva Theory Thumbnail

For Gym

La Sportiva Theory

Born to help elite boulders crush hard, the Theory is king of the comp boulders.

Veloce Thumb

For Beginners

Scarpa Veloce

Extremely soft and sensitive, The Veloce has re-written the book on beginner shoes.

Scarpa Drago

For Everything

Scarpa Drago

From comp walls to steep outdoor sport lines, the Drago can do it all.

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If you think about it, climbing shoes are a bit like golf clubs, minus the pensioners swinging them around. A putter is a perfectly good club, but it’s not going to get you very far if you’re about to tee off. From my very limited knowledge of golf, I know that selecting the right club allows a player to perform as effectively and efficiently as possible. The exact same rule applies to climbing shoes. Different shoes will offer you that extra edge in different situations.

An important characteristic that you should take into consideration when choosing climbing shoes is how soft or stiff it is. In the last two decades, climbing has become infinitely steeper, more dynamic, and three-dimensional. In an effort to keep up with this new style of climbing, shoe brand have had to adapt. Soft shoes are a relatively new concept in the climbing world, first popularized by the Five Ten Team in the early 2000s.

Nowadays, sensitive climbing shoes are one of the most popular styles of shoes. So what are soft shoes, exactly? And why, and where, should you use them? Here’s the complete rundown on soft climbing shoes.

What are soft climbing shoes?

How to size bouldering shoes guide
The Veloce is one of the softest shoes currently available

The rigidity of any climbing shoe is determined by the thickness and material used in the midsole and outsole. The midsole is a thin plastic sheet, usually between 1-2mm, that is hidden beneath the footbed and outsole. The outsole is that sticky rubber on the bottom of your shoe, usually between 3-5mm, that comes into contact with the wall or rockface. 

Manufacturers vary the materials and thickness of both the midsole and the outsole to determine how soft or stiff your shoe will be. This is why soft shoes are more sensitive than stiff climbing shoes, as they have fewer layers of construction between you and the rock.

Why and Where Should Use Soft Climbing Shoes?

Bouldering in soft shoes

Different styles of climbing require different shoes. Soft shoes have the ability to adapt and mold to different shapes of holds. As you apply pressure against as wall with your foot, soft climbing shoes will exert force in all different angles. Stiff shoes, on the other hand, create downforce on vertical routes by weighting your toes and creating a focal point that generates uplift from small holds. 

When wearing softer alternatives, force is not only directed downwards but pushes in many different directions, depending on the angle of foothold you are standing on. This is why soft climbing shoes are most suited to smearing, large-volume friction moves, as well as some types of slab climbing. This applies to overhung climbing too, another style of climbing that soft shoes excel at. The softer construction will enable you to hook and pull at pockets significantly easier than their stiffer counterparts.

For this reason, avid gym climbers often opt for a softer climbing shoe, as large volumes and monster overhangs are found in abundance within modern bouldering gyms.

The Best Soft Climbing Shoes

To take the guesswork out of things, I’ve tested the following shoes extensively in gyms, slabs, and overhanging boulder problems.

My Top Pick

Scarpa Instinct Vsr

Scarpa Instinct VSR Review
Overall
8.8
(5 reviews)
  • Edging - 8/10
    8/10
  • Smearing - 9/10
    9/10
  • Steep Terrain - 9/10
    9/10
  • Comfort - 8.5/10
    8.5/10
  • Sensitivity - 9.5/10
    9.5/10
  • Value For Money - 8.5/10
    8.5/10

Pros

  • Awesome for indoor and outdoor sport/bouldering
  • Velcro/slipper hybrid closure keeps the shoe nice and secure, with easy on/off access
  • 6-panel uppers allow for custom molding without excessive stretch
  • Sensitive and flexible, but can still stick an edge

Cons

  • Not ideal for super narrow feet
  • Velcro strap is a bit long
  • The single strap  doesn’t allow for any fit adjustment
  • Wide heel can be awkward

The VSR is definitely not the softest climbing shoe on my list, but it’s up there as one of my favorite shoes ever made. If I only have space in my backpack for one shoe, whether it is a trip to the gym or a pumpy outdoor line, the VSR is the shoe I turn to.

The Instinct VSR is the more supple version of the hugely popular Instinct VS, which is achieved through the use of the softer Vibram XS Grip 2 outsole, as opposed to the XS Edge favored by the Instinct VS.

Instinct VSR Soft Climbing Shoe

This softer rubber allows for better flexibility in the forefoot but the edging of the VSR is still remarkably impressive. Scarpa’s clever Bi-Tension rand forces the edge to remain rigid when you apply weight to your toes, allowing you to stand on some impressively small edges for such a soft shoe.

It’s not just us that like this shoe either, plenty of pro climbers have put down serious ascents with the VSR, including Jorge Díaz-Rullo (who just sent Bibliography, 9b+ in a pair of VSR) and Matty Hong (Flex Luthor 9b).

Best for Bouldering

La Sportiva Theory

La Sportiva Theory Climbing Shoe

The Theory of the newest shoes on my list, but has quickly become recognized as one of the best soft shoes in the game.

Built with sensitivity and dynamic bouldering in mind, the Theory is a downturned shoe built for adapting to a diverse range of angles. It’s excellent at smearing on gym volumes and friction slabs as well as steep pockets

The reduced volume in the heel, compared to the La Sportiva Solution, makes the Theory ideal for cranking heel hooks, while the softer toe box is designed for greater spreadability to allow for as much surface contact as possible.

The soft profile of these guys makes them less than ideal for all-day use but great for short-bouldering problems and steep climbs.

Best for Beginners

Scarpa Veloce

Scarpa Veloce Review
Overall
8.4
(2 reviews)
  • Edging - 6/10
    6/10
  • Smearing - 9.5/10
    9.5/10
  • Steep Terrain - 7.5/10
    7.5/10
  • Comfort - 10/10
    10/10
  • Sensitivity - 9.5/10
    9.5/10
  • Value For Money - 8.5/10
    8.5/10

Pros

  • Amazing sensitivity
  • Ridiculously comfortable
  • Extremely breathable and lightweight
  • Vegan-friendly

Cons

  • Not great for heel hooking
  • The velcro strap is unnecessarily long
  • The rounded-toe box isn’t great for smaller pockets
  • Rubber disappears fast

The Veloce is without a doubt the softest beginner shoe you can get your hands on and has single-handedly rewritten the rules on beginner footwear.

While a soft climbing shoe for newbies is a little unorthodox, it does have some undeniable benefits. The Veloce provides new climbers with some amazing underfoot feedback, that offers the information you need to understand how good or bad each placement is.

Testing Scarpa Veloce

Unsurprisingly extreme sensitivity makes the veloce excellent for slab climbing, and the super-sticky S-72 rubber provides bucket loads of friction. There are some downsides though. My biggest gripe with the Veloce is that edging is pretty challenging, even for the strongest toes.

For Everything

Scarpa Drago

Scarpa Drago Review
Overall
8.6
(4 reviews)
  • Edging - 7/10
    7/10
  • Smearing - 9/10
    9/10
  • Steep Terrain - 8.5/10
    8.5/10
  • Comfort - 8.5/10
    8.5/10
  • Sensitivity - 9/10
    9/10
  • Value For Money - 8.5/10
    8.5/10

Pros

  • Amazing sensitivity
  • Great for toe hooks
  • Comfortable for a performance shoe
  • Fast break in period

Cons

  • Rubber can wear fast
  • Basic heel

With one of the softest constructions in the Scarpa line-up, the Drago is designed to be highly sensitive and supple. With a thicker outsole, the Drago is suited for steep boulders and powerful overhanging routes. 

Because of their super-soft construction, the Drago isn’t great for edging and isn’t the best technical vertical climbs. Long slab climbs might also require more support than this extremely thin shoe. Where the Drago really excels is short, powerful routes or overhanging limestone climbing, which is why we think it is one of the best bouldering shoes currently available.

If lace-up shoes are more your thing, Scarpa Chimera shares some very similar features to the Drago.

Best for Sport Climbing

La Sportiva Futura

La Sportiva Futura review
Overall
8.4
(3 reviews)
  • Edging - 6.5/10
    6.5/10
  • Smearing - 9/10
    9/10
  • Steep Terrain - 8.5/10
    8.5/10
  • Comfort - 8/10
    8/10
  • Sensitivity - 10/10
    10/10
  • Value For Money - 7/10
    7/10

Pros

  • Incredible sensitivity
  • Great at edging thanks to No-Edge technology
  • The fast-lacing system

Cons

  • The price tag
  • Wears fast

With a wafer-thin sole, the Futura is one of the La Sportiva shoes that began the “No-Edge” revolution. 

These No-Edge shoes follow the profile of your foot and don’t have a defined edge in the front and sides. In its place, a thin rubber layer is wrapped over the front. This distributes the pressure more evenly around the outsole area, giving increased sensitivity and allowing for more surface contact. 

How to Size Soft Shoes

So you know some of my favorite soft shoes, but there’s another important subject we need to cover: How should you size soft shoes?

Unlike stiff shoes, soft shoes rely on our feet being in a ‘performance position’ (curled toes) to make the shoe rigid and create resistance against the foothold. The more your foot is constricted, the more rigid the shoes will feel. Getting the perfect fit for your soft climbing shoes is critical if you want to squeeze every drop of performance out of them.

However, make sure not to excessively downsize your shoes, as this inevitably decreases sensitivity and your ability to practice precise footwork. Here’s a great video from La Sportiva that explains the importance of a properly fitting shoe.

Because sensitive climbing shoes put more emphasis on a powerful foot position, soft shoes aren’t usually recommended for beginners, or for prolonged styles of climbing. The tendons and ligaments in your feet will need to work significantly harder in a softer shoe, which can quickly lead to discomfort and fatigue in legs that haven’t had the chance to adapt to the demands of rock climbing.

Do You Need Some Sensitive Climbing Shoes?

sensitive climbing shoes

Soft climbing shoes aren’t for everyone, and certainly not designed for every style of climbing. For new climbers, having a well-fitted shoe that is moderately comfortable would suit them better than jamming baby-soft feet into tight, aggressive instruments of torture.

As your technique, muscles, and ligaments develop in tangent with your climbing performance, your preferences will change and evolve throughout the years. The lack of support in sensitive climbing shoes will matter less as you develop more power in your calf and ankles. 

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