Custom Climbing Shoes: Is this the future of footwear?
Save the planet, and your feet, with 3D-printed shoes.
If you have visited our website before, you’ve probably read the “fit matters” mantra on just about every page. It’s like the unending chorus to our climbing shoe anthem. But there’s a good reason why we keep talking about it: after all, it is literally the single most important factor when choosing climbing shoes. It doesn’t matter how gnarly the camber is, how sticky the rubber is, or how innovative those active rands are; they’re all pointless if you have failed to find a shoe that keeps your foot securely inside.
And here lies the biggest issue with climbing shoes. Most climbers nod along, saying, “Yup, shoe size matters,” but truth be told, finding the perfect fit can sometimes feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. And if you’re buying online, without the chance to do a test run in your nearest outdoor store, the difficulty level just cranked up from “Moderate” to “Extreme”.
Sizing shoes is clearly a big issue. Get a load of this: nearly half of all online climbing shoe purchases do a U-turn and head right back from whence they came. Yep, you read it right – a staggering 50% return rate, with most of them blamed on those pesky wrong sizes.
Pretty mind-blowing, isn’t it?
What if we told you there’s a reality where buying new climbing shoes doesn’t have to feel like a gamble? Imagine a world where each new pair of shoes fits like a dream, where the nuisance of heel air pockets and toe-cramming are just faded nightmares. Sounds like a climber’s fairy tale, right? Well, buckle up, because that fantasy is about to get real. Get ready to swing into the exhilarating world of custom climbing shoes.
Custom shoes are no new kid on the block; Manufacturers have been wrestling with this puzzle for about a decade. Yet, in spite of their awe-inspiring potential, they haven’t quite scaled the heights of popularity. So, why haven’t custom climbing shoes had their moment in the spotlight?
I have done a deep dive into the cracks and crevices of the custom climbing shoe conundrum and pulled together everything you need to know.
First up, What are custom climbing shoes?
When you’re creating your own unique pair of climbing shoes, there are several aspects you can tailor to your liking.
Every climbing shoe starts with a last – a mold that shoemakers use as the foundation to combine fabrics and rubber, eventually sculpting your climbing shoes. The challenge is, everyone’s feet are unique, and not even your own are identical. Here’s a fun fact for you, this study suggests that only 1% of the global population have feet that are identical in length. That’s not even taking into consideration foot width, volume, or toe shapes!
Custom climbing shoes turn the game on its head. Instead of using a standard last shape, manufacturers create a mold of your feet and use this as the blueprint for your shoes. This approach offers a whole new level of personalization and promises a better fit than ever before.
Materials and Specs
The characteristics of a climbing shoe are inherited by the materials used in the manufacturing process. Want a stiffer profile? Use a thicker midsole. Looking for a vegan-friendly option? Opt for microfibre uppers instead of leather. To prevent the shoe from stretching, strategically line high-pressure areas. The choices are nearly endless and cater to the diverse needs of climbers.
What better way to express your personality than with your footwear? If the glaring yellow of La Sportiva isn’t your vibe, pick your own color palette. Some manufacturers even let you choose the color of the heel rand!
Custom Shoe Manufactuers
A few brave souls have tried to break into the custom shoe game, but few have managed to make significant strides. Let’s take a look at some of the standouts who are making waves in the world of custom footwear.
Acopa Climbing Shoes
Availability: Acopa website
Acopa, the Mexican shoe manufacturer currently offers the best climbing shoe customization you can actually get your hands on right now. Amazingly, they accommodate personalization for all 12 models in their climbing shoe line, handing over control of the size, athletics, and some design specs of your climbing shoes.
So, how does it work? It’s simple, all you need to do is take a gander over to their website and start designing your shoes!
The level of customization Acopa offer is pretty damn impressive. You can customize the colors of the upper material, pull tabs, laces, and even the heel rand color. Amazingly, you can also choose what fabric you want to be used for the uppers (leather/synthetic) and can even opt for making your shoes lined or unlined. While there’s no personal customization on the shoe shape, you can choose a different shoe size for both the left and right foot in half-size increments.
This is a really impressive level of customization Acopra offers and is far superior to anything else commercially available for climbing shoe fans.
Athos Climbing Shoes
Availability: Pre-order Only
Athos is definitely the most exciting company working on custom shoes right now. This Barcelona-based climbing company is attempting to create flexible 3D-printed climbing shoes using HP Multi-Jet Fusion Technology.
Athos originally started as a Masters project between four students at the Elisava School of Design and Engineering, but has since turned into a start-up business, backed by tech giants HP and 3D-printing service Sculpteo.
There are a lot of compelling reasons we want to see Athos climbing shoes become widely available. Besides the fact their shoes are made from vegan-friendly and recycled materials, their made-to-order shoes are thought to reduce manufacturing waste by up to 70%, which would allow for a huge reduction of the environmental impact of climbing shoes.
While it is still really early days for this project, there are a few question marks around Athos. While we have heard talk of using a 3D scanning app, pre-orders are required to complete an in-person scan in Barcelona. There’s also not been much information shared on the supplier of the outsole rubber, or how much customization we will receive over features such as the stiffness or shoe camber.
SFT Climbing Shoes
SFT climbing shoes was a grassroots project started in 2013 by a Calafonian-based Laura Shumaker (yes, that really is her name). This was an early version of customization, in the pre-3D era, so the last shape was created from pictures and measurements send to the manufacturer. You could then choose from an aggressive or neutral profile and the closure type of your preference.
Although they are no longer in business, Laura was one of the first to start creating custom climbing shoes, all hand-crafted from her workshop. You could also choose your preference between Vibram or Stealth rubber for your shoes, which was pretty cool.
Kn Climbing Shoes
KN climbing shoes was one of the earliest companies to start dabbling with the idea of custom climbing shoes. The small manufacturer was based out n Fort Collins, Colorado, and first began to play around with designs in 2012.
They came up with some pretty cool stuff too, even in their early designs you could choose the color of the suede uppers, closure type, and even the stitching color. The rands and outsole were also made from Vibram XS Grip and Edge, so you knew they were making some good shoes. Although their project seemed to have stalled around 2019 – when they were in business – a custom pair of Kn climbing shoes would have set you back $350.
Mad Rock Rentals
Availability: Available (MOQ required)
I’m not sure if these actually count as custom climbing shoes, but I’ll let you be the judge of that. Mad Rock’s rental climbing shoe, the Badger, is available for climbing gyms that want to add a kick to their climbing shoes by adding their logo and favorite colors.
While they sound – and look – pretty cool, unless you are planning on buying enough climbing shoes to meet their minimum order quantity, then I don’t think this is a realistic option for most of us.
Why aren’t they more popular?
As I mentioned at the start of this article, custom climbing shoes aren’t exactly a new revelation. Companies like Kn began commercially offering these types of shoes over a decade, which means they have been around for a seriously long time.
So why aren’t we all wearing 3D-printed climbing shoes then?
As great as they sound in practice, in reality, there are a few roadblocks that mean in reality mean that the climbing masses will probably be waiting a while to bag their very own pair of custom shoes.
- You need to get them sized properly – Arguably the biggest issue with custom climbing shoes. While some technology has been tested for 3D scanning your own feet via mobile apps, for just now, it seems that most
- They are expensive to make – One-way manufacturers keep costs down is by batch-creating their shoes. They will buy a roll of fabric and rubber and cut out and create several pairs of shoes at the same time. While 3D printers and technological advancements might help reduce costs eventually, the best climbing shoes have historically been created by hand by skilled craftsmen who have been honing their skills over decades. One-of-a-kind, handmade, custom shoes will always be infinitely more expensive than batch production. This is probably the reason why Kn climbing shoes are no longer in business.
- Global Distribution would be very difficult – Mass producing custom climbing shoes on a global scale sounds like a tough egg to crack. I highly doubt you will ever be able to buy a pair of 3D climbing shoes as easily as you can walk into an REI store a pick up a new pair of La Sportiva Solutions. Titians of the shoe industry, like La Sportiva, Five Ten, or Scarpa, have all built a global distribution network. That means that getting your hands on their shoes is relatively easy, regardless of where you are in the world. How does an independent custom shoemaker ever compete on a global scale with a product that inherently can never be mass-produced (and they’re not mass distributed)
Custom footwear would undoubtedly be a savior when trying to size climbing shoes, but I think their potential extends far for that sizing convenience. The reduction in waste, energy consumption, and manufacturing process would be huge. And while I’m sure we all can’t wait to get our hands on our very own custom shoes, the reality feels like we still have a while to wait before the custom shoes of our dreams are going to become a reality.