How Tight Should Climbing Shoes Be?
What you need to know about climbing shoe fit.
Last updated on April 9th, 2023 at 04:49 am
I bet you have heard that age-old myth that if you want to climb hard, you need to ridiculously downsize your climbing shoes if you want to crush. This misconception runs rampant in the climbing world, walk into your local bouldering gym on any given day and I guarantee there’s going to be a couple of gym bros cramming their feet into some ludicrously small shoes.
Before you go off and buy shoes that are four sizes too small, I am here to tell you that you don’t need to be in toe-crushing pain to have a perfect-fitting pair of climbing shoes.
So how tight should climbing shoes be then, I hear you ask?
In truth, there are a few different factors that dictate how tight rock climbing shoes should be. Depending on the shoe construction, the terrain, and the climbing intensity, the best fit for your climbing shoes will vary drastically.
Today, I want to share with you some of the most important factors that affect how tight climbing shoes should be so that you can make your own informed decision when buying a new pair of climbing kicks.
How should climbing shoes fit?
First thing first, let’s establish how climbing shoes are supposed to fit.
Your climbing shoes should fit like a second skin, with no dead space or hotspots within the shoe. If it feels like your shoes are putting excessive pressure on your toe knuckles, or crushing the sides of your feet, this will have a significant impact on how much force you can transfer to your toes, as well as how long you can wear your shoes for.
Similarly, if your shoes are too big and there’s dead space at the tip, your ability to stand on small edges will be significantly impaired. Or, if there is baggy space under your heel, then you won’t get that suction fit that will allow you to stick those gnarly heel hooks.
Two of the biggest factors that will dictate how to fit your climbing shoes, which we will discuss more in-depth shortly, are how downturned and soft your shoes are. However, regardless if you are wearing a flat-lasted shoe or an aggressively downturned monstrosity, your toes should always be curled in climbing shoes.
Let me say that again: Your toes should never lie completely flat in climbing shoes.
The reason for this is that curling your toes, even just slightly, allows you to hold significantly more weight on small edges. The degree to which your toes are curled, and by extension how tight your climbing shoe will feel, vary depending on the criteria I am about to share.
Factors that affect how tight climbing shoes should be
The biggest influence on how tight your climbing shoes should come down to the construction of each individual shoe. The three main things you are going to want to think about here are the shoe’s rigidity, camber, and upper material.
Let’s have a quick look at each of those factors individually.
Soft or stiff?
A shoe’s rigidity, which is closely related to its downturned shape, is one of the most important factors that control how to fit climbing shoes.
Stiffer climbing goes hand-in-hand with neutral and moderate shapes. As you just saw, your toes won’t be tightly curled in these types of climbing shoes, as they would be in aggressive shoes.
For this reason, shoe manufacturers opt to use a stiffer midsole and outsole to provide extra support for your toes. This stiff platform allows you to weigh your toes without having them in that powerful curled position, allowing you to wear these shoes a little more relaxed.
Soft shoes, on the other hand, are a different beast altogether. Soft shoes are almost always built on a moderate or aggressively downturned last shape. The reason for this is that they depend on a tight fit to create rigidity.
Let me rephrase that. These shoes rely on the opposing force of your foot against the shoe’s tensioned rand systems to keep it rigid. Just like an elastic band when you stretch it, this clever design creates resistance, which ultimately keeps the shoe gripped around your foot and provides support when you stand on small footholds.
To achieve this tension, it is absolutely essential you have a tight-fitting shoes.
Allow me to share an example of this. Below are two pictures of me wearing the Scarpa Instinct VSR. The right foot fits perfectly, whereas the left foot does not. Notice any difference?
If you look closely at the photos above, the left shoe creates significantly less tension, which means the forefoot was unable to become rigid. You can see that my entire forefoot lies flat on the floor. Because of this, my ability to edge with this foot will be significantly impaired. The right foot, on the other hand, fits much better and because of the tighter fit, the forefoot doesn’t lie flat, offering far superior support on small holds.
The camber, also known as the downturn of a shoe, will play a big role in how tight climbing shoes should be. As you saw above, shoes that have a downturned shape are intended to curl your toes and hold your foot in a powerful foot position, which allows you to hold your weight on the smallest of holds. If your foot is loose within an aggressive climbing shoe, then it simply won’t be able to hold your toes in this curled position.
Don’t mistake this as advice to cram your foot into the smallest shoe possible. There are also associated issues with wearing aggressive shoes too tight. Asides from the excruciating pain and detrimental effects it will have on your general foot health if your toes are overly curled within the shoe, it will impede the sensitivity you can feel from the sole of your foot and your ability to stand on your toes.
The material of a shoe’s upper is more of a factor when it comes to sizing climbing shoes, although it’s certainly worth a quick mention here. When it comes to uppers, they are usually classified as leather, synthetic, or a combination of both.
The important thing to remember here is that leather stretches significantly more than synthetic shoes, especially if they are unlined shoes. In fact, unlined leather can stretch up to a whole shoe size, so if you have your eye on a pair of leather climbing shoes, you will want to buy them a bit tighter to counter the stretch that will inevitably follow the break-in period.
Style of climbing
Although this is closely related to shoe construction and each individual model’s intended use, let’s quickly talk about the most popular styles of climbing and how they affect how to fit climbing shoes.
Bouldering and Sport Climbing
If your primary discipline is bouldering or you enjoy pushing yourself on steep sports routes, then you will most likely be in the market for a moderate or aggressive shoe. As you just learned, these shoes inherently require a tighter fit to allow the tension rands to work their magic.
As you are only on the wall for relatively short periods of time when bouldering or sport climbing, many climbers look to prioritize performance over comfort. While your shoes should never leave you in pain, a bit of discomfort is OK as you’ll most likely be taking them off after every couple of burns.
Multi-pitch and all-day use
While a tight-fitting downturned shoe might deliver optimal performance on steep terrain, it’s often not necessary to use these shoes when you are just looking to cruise some easy pitches well below your technical limit.
A climber that is looking for an all-day shoe will most likely be best suited to a moderate or flat shoe so a tight fit, with slightly curled toes, will be the best shoe for these situations.
To ensure your toes aren’t crying in pain, for all-day use I recommend a more comfortable and supportive shoe. You’re still looking to have your toes lightly curled; however, they shouldn’t be curled up as aggressively. When trying them on initially they should feel snug, but not present any potential pain points.
If you’ll be bringing the shoes out to the alpine, you might even consider sizing them big enough so that you can wear socks.
Trad and cracks climbing
If you’re a crack climbing fiend, consider the unique pressure points jamming can create. An aggressively fitted, downturned shoe will not only cause extreme pain when jamming, but it also simply won’t be effective for jamming into the crack.
Similar to the all-around shoe, a trad shoe should provide a flatter, supportive platform to stand on, and have a bit of room to move around when torquing the foot. This means toes should be touching the end of the shoe, but they shouldn’t be overly curled.
The last factor I want to quickly talk about is intensity. Regardless of which style of climbing you plan on pursuing, the intensity with which you do it will play a role in how tight your shoes should be.
When I am just running training laps in the bouldering gym or having a more relaxed climbing day, I wear shoes that offer a more relaxed fit and a less aggressive downturn as for these situations I prioritize comfort over performance.
If I am working on my boulder project, I will slip on my tighter shoes which offer a performance fit and allow me to squeeze every drop of performance out of them.
Similarly, if you plan on working a tricky trad route that will test your technical ability, then performance will supersede comfort and a tighter shoe will be required.
So, how tight should climbing shoes be? At the end, as you have just seen, fitting climbing shoes comes down to personal preference and the design of each individual shoe.
While most boulderers will opt for the performance fit, you can still spot the odd climber sporting socks while crushing your local V7 classic.
So even though you might not nail the sizing the first time around, that’s Ok. As long as they feel right for you at the time, they’ll probably do just fine. If you are at the beginner stage, once you’ve outgrown your current shoes, you’ll have a pair to fall back on as your comfy trainers or all-day multi-pitchers.
If possible, the best option is always to try them on in person. Don’t be afraid to ask for a single shoe in three different sizes and give them a test run on the store wall. If there are no brick-and-mortar stores in your area, find an online retailer with a good return policy so that you may order different sizes and return the ones that don’t fit.
If you have any questions about how to fit climbing shoes, feel free to shoot us a message or leave a comment below!