Last updated on April 12th, 2023 at 05:21 am
Bouldering is one of the purest forms of climbing out there. All you’ll need is a trusty pair of shoes, a chalk bag, a crash pad (or two) and you are good to go.
While sport climbers will spend half their trip uncoiling ropes, tinkering with quickdraws, and adjusting harnesses (don’t even get us started on all the faffing involved with trad) pebble wrestlers are lucky enough to enjoy their favorite sport without the hassle of lugging a 40-pound pack on the approach.
As a complete beginner, you might be able to get away with rentals, sneakers, or even climbing barefoot if you are messing around outside. However, as you progress (and you will), you are going to need a decent pair of shoes to help you reach your full climbing potential.
While Charles Albert climbs a V15 barefoot and the Vietnamese Vu Nguyen astonishes crowds by sending challenging deep water solos with no shoes, the rest of us mortals will most likely be lost without our trusty pair of climbing kicks.
Are Rental Climbing Shoes Bad?
As a sweeping generalization, rental shoes suck. Almost every gym offers rentals, shoes designed to be cheap for gyms to buy in large quantities and durable enough to be worn by thousands of sweaty climbers every year.
Before I tell you why I hate rentals, it’s only fair that I mention that these shoes were a really important element in the climbing shoe landscape. They are the gateway for new climbers entering into the world of climbing after all. If you are completely new to the sport, they are perfectly fine for your first few trips to the gym.
That said, if you really want to improve your climbing, you really need to invest in a decent pair of climbing kicks. When my friends catch the climbing bug and are still using rentals after a few months, I make it my personal mission to get them to ditch the rentals.
My constant nagging eventually prevails and they buy their own climbing shoes, mainly so they can shut me up. I’m not just being an asshole though, they usually thank me for it once they realize what they were missing out on.
So, why do I have a vendetta against rental shoes? Here are a few of my biggest bugbears against rental climbing shoes.
Durability First, Performance Second
Rental shoes are made to be cheap so gyms can buy them in large quantities. Some gyms need hundreds of pairs every year. This is why every rental climbing shoe is built with a bare-bones, no-frills construction, no fancy tension systems or toe patches insight.
As a result, they lack the tools you need to really step up your climbing game. Rental shoes use very thick outsole rubber, which improves their durability and makes them last longer. This is great for the gym, but not so great for your climb progression. You undoubtedly lose a lot of sensitivity and underfoot feeling with shoes like this, making it impossible to get feedback from your feet that will help you discover the best foot positions.
Also, forget about sticking toe or heel hooks (both of with are essential techniques in modern bouldering) rental shoes simply don’t have the features you need to deliver this kind of performance.
The chances of you being the first person to slip your grubby feet into those shoes are also slim to none. I am willing to bet those shoes have seen their fair share of beginners scraping them across the gym walls long before you slipped them on. Often, this means that the outsole rubber has lost most of its grip, and the uppers have probably stretched out and have compromised the shoe’s ability to edge on the smaller holds.
They Aren’t Shaped To Your Feet
One of the biggest advantages of getting your own pair of climbing shoes is that they will conform to the shape of your feet. After the break-in process, you will be left with a one-of-a-kind shape that is perfectly fitted to your foot.
Having a custom fit is essential for climbing shoes. It reduces any dead space or movement within the shoe, which ensures the shoe stays secure when standing on edges, smearing, or performing any move you can think of.
With rentals, you will never get that one-of-a-kind fit that is made for you.
They Are A Waste Of Money
More often than not, gyms will charge you to rent their equipment, including their shoes. This price might not seem like much at first, but if you continue to shell out for rental shoes over the course of a few months, you have probably spent a small fortune for the privilege of wearing their crappy shoes.
Let’s do a quick bit of math. If you go bouldering twice a week at any popular bouldering gym, and it takes you about two months to eventually commit to getting your own pair of shoes, you could end up spending $80 on rental shoes alone!
I admit, the price of climbing shoes might be a bit more cash than you are willing to part with, but wouldn’t you far prefer to put that $80 towards your own pair of precious shoes?
Beginner Bouldering Shoe Advice
We have shared some of our favorite beginner bouldering shoes and top buying tips before, but let’s just cover the basics again, just to be safe.
Advanced and intermediate bouldering shoes are usually aggressively downturned shoes with an asymmetrical shape and soft construction. This is because difficult boulder problems tend to be on overhung walls, and these shoes are great for hooking and pulling pockets on steeper terrain. These shoes also curl your toes more, and focus power over the big toe, creating a really powerful foot position for balancing and pushing off small edges.
For less experienced climbers, however, it is usually recommended you start with a less downturned shoe. Why? For one, you probably aren’t climbing roofs or severely overhung problems. The chances are you are working on slabby, vertical, and perhaps ever so slightly overhung terrain. A neutral or moderate shoe will have better all-around performance for these types of problems.
You will probably want a slightly stiffer climbing shoe, especially if you are fairly new to the sport or if you’re carrying a little extra weight. Stiffer shoes will make it easier for you to stand on smaller holds and get used to holding your body weight on your toes.
Many experienced climbers have spent years strengthening the muscles and tendons in their legs and toes, which is why they can balance their body weight on ridiculously small holds.
Here are a few beginner-friendly shoes we suggest you take a look at.
The Scarpa Arpia offers a really nice compromise between comfort and performance and is a great first shoe for beginners moving away from rentals.
The shoe is moderately downturned, which helps it perform well on the steeper stuff, although the split sole also allows it to stay flexible for smearing on slabs and volumes.
The 1.4mm midsole is paired with Vibram XS Grip 2 rubber, which gives the shoe solid edging ability too. This, of course, has its benefits in the bouldering gym but also makes them ideal for climbing technical faces and for dipping your toes into the world of sport climbing.
I also want to give the SCARPA Veloce an honorary mention here too. It’s a step up from the Arpia, offering a slightly more aggressive downturn, a softer construction, and a more performance-oriented toe patch.
Five Ten NIAD VCS
The Five Ten NIAD VCS is the next-generation upgrade of the hugely popular Anasazi line. This flat-lasted shoe offers solid edging, decent sensitivity, and good flexibility smearing on large volumes. All this combines into a really solid choice for beginners.
This shoe isn’t strictly just for beginners though. I have been using the VCS for a few months now and it has become a regular gym shoe for me, it has all the tools I need to send a tricky boulder or two without toe crushing pair of its aggressive counterparts.
An updated heel cup and a new toe patch are two of the standout additions here. Five Ten’s legendary Stealth rubber will also have you sticking to the gym wall while the soft, microfiber upper and breathable split tongue offer excellent comfort.
They are surprisingly narrow, and the centralized toe box is perfect for climbers with Greek feet. That said, I have fairly wide Egyptian-shaped feet and I still find the NIAD VCS really comfortable.
La Sportiva Finale
La Sportiva Finale is a really popular beginner shoe. It’s not the cheapest beginner model in the La Sportiva line-up, but it offers better performance than its budget-friendly counterparts. The leather upper will mold to your feet exceptionally well, creating that custom fit with just a few trips to the gym.
The Finale is considerably stiffer than the others mentioned on the list and uses a 1.1mm midsole paired with 5mm of Vibram XS Edge. Because of this, I would class it as more of an all-around performer, ideal for elementary bouldering, basic sport climbing, and great for multi-pitch routes outside.
You won’t be climbing overhangs and roofs in these, but they will make a solid entry-level shoe that will help you find your feet and can be added to your shoe collection for those longer crag climbing days.
Ready To Get Your New Shoes?
Before going out and splurging on an expensive pair of aggressive shoes, make sure to think about which type of shoe suits your foot shape, style of climbing, and of course, your budget.
In honesty, beginners should avoid spending too much on the first pair of climbing shoes. They tend to have sloppy footwork and scuff the wall a lot, wearing their shoes out quicker and needing replacements or resoling more frequently.
The three shoes I mentioned above are really solid choices for newbies, but for the budget-conscious, there are also shoes below $100 that are fine for your first pair of climbing shoes. Although, don’t be surprised if they don’t offer much of an improvement over the gym rentals!
Next time someone asks you do you need climbing shoes for bouldering, I hope you can hit them with some of the knowledge bombs you have learned here.
Have fun out there and happy climbing!