At a glance, climbing shoes seem to be nothing more than a fancy pair of ballet shoes (as one of my friends just told me.) While from the outside they may look like this, climbing shoes are possibly one of the most complex pieces of kit in your climbing arsenal.
Every style of shoe is designed with a specific purpose in mind, and choosing the right climbing shoe can be paramount to your climbing success.
Our guide to buying climbing shoes will look at some of the common elements all shoes have, as well as the features that differ depending on what the shoe is made for. We will also share our top tips for buying your new pair. It’s worth knowing this stuff because it will help you when reading our reviews, as well as helping understand what shoe is most suited to your climbing style.
Climbing Shoe Anatomy
Before we dive into the dividing elements, let’s take a look at the anatomy of a climbing shoe. Almost every shoe will have common features outlined below. Understanding a few of these concepts will also help to understand our reviews a lot better.
The sole is the black rubber you can see on the bottom of the shoe. While every shoe will have a sole, the thickness can vary pretty drastically. Normal shoes vary between 3mm to 5mm. The thicker the rubber of a sole the stiffer the shoe will be.
The features and material of a footbed vary from shoe to shoe. Some are designed for comfort, other to prevent slipping – and some even stop your shoes from smelling.
Any rubber on the side or the front of the shoe that isn’t part of the sole. Historically rands were designed to provide durability and help the shoe keep its shape, however, modern climbing now demands rands that can deal with technical footwork.
The upper is the material on the side of the shoe. There are three main materials that uppers can be made of; leather, synthetic or a hybrid of both. Leather uppers will mold to your feet whereas synthetics won’t stretch and change shape as much.
The closure system of a climbing shoe generally come in three styles lace, velcro or slipper. There are different benefits to each style, which we discuss in this article.
These vary from shoe to shoe. Some synthetic tongues are padded for added comfort, whereas most leathers are not. It’s also not unusual for velcro shoes to have a slit tongue.
The last is mold that a shoe is built around. This is an important element as it dictates the shape and downturned nature of a shoe. To appreciate how lasts vary from it’s best to look at them from a side profile.
Last shapes can be typically be categorized into 3 categories; neutral, moderate and aggressive lasts. The images below how the shape of each last varies, which can be best seen from a side profile.
A flat last is often used for shoes suited to beginners or a shoe that is designed for comfort. Whereas a down-turned last, or an aggressive shoe, is more suited to steep or overhanging climbing.
Asymmetry refers to the lack of symmetry in something. In climbing shoe terms it refers to how in line the heel and toe are with one another.
Depending on how asymmetric your shoes are will directly impact the performance and comfort of your shoes. A show with low asymmetry will help distribute the weight from your toes through the rest of your foot, whereas a shoe with high asymmetry will keep your weight on the front of your foot, which is beneficial for more technical and challenging routes.
Last, but certainly not least, the last dividing factor is the rubber on the sole of a shoe. The rubber is arguably the most important feature of a climbing shoe because without it we would slip off the easiest of climbs.
Top Tips for Buying the perfect shoe
1) Read the reviews
Bit of an obvious one, but before you decide on any shoe, it’s definitely worth doing some due diligence. As I have already mentioned, each style of climbing shoe is designed with a specific purpose in mind, so to make sure you make the most of your shoes, ensure to find the right pair for the job.
2) Size, size, size
You will hear a lot of people saying that it’s impossible to find the right size shoe. However, in my opinion, these people are talking rubbish. It is rare that your climbing shoe size will differ massively from your street shoe size. If you need more help sizing your shoes up, take a look here.
3) Mind the stretch
Remember, some shoes will stretch after breaking them in, so it’s important to bear this in mind. Leather shoes are particularly guilty of this, whereas synthetic shoes won’t stretch anywhere as near as their leather counterparts.
4) If you can, try before you buy
Like any shoes, it’s always better to try before you buy. Trying them on will give you a guide to buying climbing shoes that best suit you as it will give you a feel for the fit.
5) Bargain hunting
I’m all for supporting the local high street, but the majority of the climbing shops don’t stock a full range of shoes, making it harder to find your perfect shoe.
You will almost always find the shoe you are looking for on the internet for a cheaper price. Countless times I have bought a pair of shoes in the shop only to find I could have bought them online for 30% cheaper.
I actually prefer to buy all my shoes from Amazon now. Not only are they usually the cheapest place to find them, they offer ridiculously fast delivery and free returns – perfect if you order the wrong size.