Last updated on April 7th, 2023 at 06:55 am
One way we climbers like to classify our climbing shoes is by how rigid they are. When referring to the rigidity of a shoe, we can separate them into two different categories; stiff and soft climbing shoes.
The rigidity of any climbing shoe is ultimately impacted by the thickness of 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 generally more sensitive than stiff climbing shoes, as they’re fewer layers of construction between you and the rock.
For a serious climber, both types of shoes bring some great benefits to the table, so a mixture of soft and stiff shoes should have a place within your collection.
Nevertheless, in this article we will cover what is soft climbing, when should you use them, and share a few of the best soft shoes out there.
THE TOP THREE
Why Use Soft Climbing Shoes?
It’s simple really, different styles of climbing require different shoes. Soft shoes have the ability to adapt, and mold, to different shapes of holds. Stiff shoes, as the name suggests, are significantly more rigid. Stiffer shoes 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, we’ve tested the following shoes extensively in gyms, slabs, and overhanging boulder problems.
MY TOP PICK
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 BOULDERING
La Sportiva Theory
One of the newest shoes on our list. Built for extreme sensitivity, the Theory is a downturned shoe built for sticking to holds. This slipper-style shoe gives excellent smearing on large volumes in gyms or granite slabs.
The reduced volume in the heel, compared to the La Sportiva Solution, makes the Theory ideal for precise heel hooks, while the softer toe box is designed to offer greater grip in the outsole. 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 EVERYTHING
Scarpa Instinct VSR
The Instinct VSR is the more supple version of the hugely popular Instinct VS. The sole is designed to deliver a bi-tensioned system that prioritizes sensitivity, while the thin 1mm midsole gives plenty of flex.
Moderately downturned, we found this shoe great for bouldering and overhanging routes. It would suit climbers that want a flexible shoe that still delivers a powerful performance.
It’s not just us that like this shoe either, plenty of pro climbers have laid down serious ascents with the VSR, including Jorge Díaz-Rullo and Christof Rauch.
BEST FOR SPORT CLIMBING
La Sportiva Futura
With a wafer-thin sole, the Futura is one of the La Sportiva shoes that utilize the “No-Edge” design.
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.
A significant downside is these shoes cannot be resoled, due to this unique style of construction.
BEST FOR BEGINNERS
The Arpia is a semi-sensitive, soft shoe with a moderately flat profile. It is slightly more downturned than the Force V and has a thin, 1.4mm midsole. We found the Arpia perfect for moderate climbing or a beginner moving towards a more aggressive style of shoe.
The flexibility makes this pair an excellent shoe for slab climbing, while the toe box remains stiff enough to support delicate footwork. The Arpia is also comfortable enough for extended gym and crag sessions as well as on multi-pitch adventures.
How To Size Soft Shoes
Getting the perfect fit for your soft climbing shoes is critical if you want to squeeze every drop of performance out of them.
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. However, make sure not 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 soft 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 for that matter. The tendons and ligaments in your feet 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, or when climbing for long periods of time.
Do You Need Some Sensitive Climbing Shoes?
Soft climbing shoes aren’t for everyone, and certainly not are designed for every style of climbing.
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.
For new climbers, having a well-fitted shoe that is moderately comfortable would suit better than jamming baby-soft feet into tight, aggressive instruments of torture. Toe boxes and heel boxes should fit snugly without cutting circulation off.