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How To Break In Climbing Shoes

Updated By Sam on 10th Nov 2023

Breaking in climbing shoes isn’t exactly rocket science. A pair of properly fitting climbing shoes shouldn’t need anything more than just a couple of trips to the gym (or crag) before starting to shape your feet. That said, if you feel your shoes need some extra encouragement to form that fairy-tale fit, here’s some of my top tips.

There are few things I enjoy more than getting a new pair of climbing shoes. As soon as my new shoes arrive, I am like a child on Christmas Day. I can hardly contain myself, as I rip open the box, cram my grubby toes into the fresh footbed, and edge away on absolutely anything that can hold my weight.

But the excitement quickly wears off as the dreaded break-in period begins and my feet start that familiar throbbing feeling. Every climbing shoe, regardless of how well they fit or what material they are made from, will need to go through a break-in period. When climbers refer to breaking in climbing shoes, we are talking about the time it takes for a shoe to conform to the shape of our feet. As you use your new shoes, and forces are applied naturally through climbing, your shoes will begin to stretch and mold to your feet, creating a one-of-a-kind custom fit, made for you.

How To Break In Climbing Shoes

How to break in climbing shoes

Breaking in climbing shoes isn’t exactly rocket science. A pair of properly fitting climbing shoes shouldn’t need anything more than just a couple of trips to the gym (or crag) before starting to shape your feet. There are a lot of misconceptions about how to break in climbing shoes floating around, so we put together this complete guide on breaking in climbing shoes. Here you can find everything you need to know about the break-in process – and for extreme cases – how to stretch climbing shoes.

Step 1: Get The Right Size

Breaking in climbing shoes will always be a slightly uncomfortable process. After all, your feet are being used as a climbing shoe stretcher, so expect there to be some level of discomfort. That said, this should never be an excruciatingly painful process. If your feet are really in pain, then this is an indicator that you probably have the wrong size shoe.

So the first stage of breaking in shoes begins with ensuring you have the right size shoe, and knowing how to properly put them on. Here is a quick, one-minute video from the shoe master, Heinz Mariacher, about correctly fitting climbing shoes.

Did you notice how he put his forefoot into the shoe first in order to eliminate any dead space in the toe box? We also have a great guide about how tight climbing shoes should be, so make sure to check that out if you need some help nailing down the right size shoe. 

When buying climbing shoes online, I almost always buy a few different sizes. This allows me to make a more educated choice on sizing, as you can compare the fit to one another. It’s amazing how much more of an informed choice you can make when you have something to compare to!

Step 2: Plastic Bags And The Pre-break In

When climbing shoes are brand new, they can be pretty damn difficult to even get on your feet, especially if you have sized them for a performance fit. Fortunately for us, there is a trick to overcome this, and all you need is a plastic bag. This unsuspecting climbing shoe stretcher is about to become your new best friend.

The plastic helps reduce the friction between our sticky foot and the dry shoe, which allows you to easily slip your foot into even the tightest of shoes. This can be done by either putting your whole foot in a plastic bag or better yet, just tearing a small piece off and placing it around your heel, which helps ‘shoe horn’ your foot into the shoe.

Breaking in climbing shoes

I promise you will be amazed at how much easier your foot slips into the shoe. Before putting my new climbing shoes (and my feet) through a full gym session, I like to get a head start on the break-in period by wearing them at home. Depending on how tight the shoe is, I sit down and put them on for no more than five minutes at a time, manipulating the heel cup and uppers to ensure there are no dead spots inside the shoe. 

Wearing your shoes inside is common practice for breaking in new hiking boots or sneakers although, unlike sneakers, I don’t recommend walking around too much in your climbing shoes. Climbing shoes aren’t built for walking in, and excessive walking can ruin that beautiful downturned camber. 

I highly recommend this ‘pre-break in’ ritual because it’s a great opportunity to ensure you are happy with the size and shape of the shoe before passing the point of no return (I mean that literally, Jeff Bezos won’t give you a refund if you send back a pair of climbing shoes that have been dragged around the gym.)

Step 3: Get Climbing!

Five Ten NIAD Moccasym Smear

The best way to break in climbing shoes is by climbing in them. Period. There’s no secret sauce here. When you are ready to start climbing in your new kicks, start off by jumping on some easy routes with a few big jugs, pockets, and smears to start manipulating those shoes. These big holds flex the forefoot considerably more than small edges and crimps, where the shoe is designed to stay more rigid. 

Your shoes will probably feel slightly uncomfortable for the first few sessions, so make sure to take them off regularly between climbs. You might also find it more comfortable to wear socks, at least for the first couple of sessions.

Step 4: Rinse And Repeat

Rinse and repeat step three for 3 – 5 climbing sessions and you will soon have a pair of perfectly fitting climbing shoes. After the first session, you will be able to start moving away from the big holds and onto the small edges. You will be topping out those pesky projects in your new kicks in no time.

How Long Does It Take To Break In Climbing Shoes?

The time it takes a shoe to stretch ultimately depends on, the size you choose, how long you wear them for, and the materials they are made from. On average, we find that most climbing shoes start to feel considerably more comfortable after 3-5 climbing sessions.

If you are breaking in synthetic climbing shoes, you might find it takes a little longer than it does with its leather counterparts. This is because synthetic climbing shoes don’t have the amazing properties that allow leather shoes to quickly conform and change shape, whilst remaining extremely durable.

Do Climbing Shoes Stretch?

Most types of climbing shoes fall into three distinct categories when it comes to the material of their upper: synthetic, leather, or a hybrid of both. This is important to understand in the purchase stage and the break-in process as it will determine the extent to which your shoe will stretch.

Leather, being a natural fiber, is prone to stretching anywhere from a half-size to two full sizes. Synthetic shoes, on the other hand, tend to be less compromising and usually don’t budge beyond a half size. You will also want to look at the interior construction of the shoe to check whether it is lined. If a leather shoe is lined, its stretch will be greatly limited to about a half size of stretch.

Keep in mind that your shoe will not stretch in length. The rubber sole on the bottom of your shoe will not stretch, instead, it’s the material uppers of the shoe that stretch in width and volume.

How To Stretch Climbing Shoes

In honesty, the forceful stretching of shoes is something you should try and avoid. Climbing shoes might look pretty simple, but in reality, they are very complex. They are designed to create tension that directs power throughout the shoe. By forcibly stretching them, you are in danger of interfering with the careful balance of the shoe’s construction.

That said, desperate times call for desperate measures. Whether it was an ill-informed buy, a steal of a deal only available in a half size down, or an online purchase you can’t return; whatever the reason, if the usual break-in process isn’t cutting the mustard, then don’t panic. We purposely got our hands on the new Five Ten NIAD Moccasym half a size too small, so we could test some of the popular methods of stretching climbing shoes for you.

I tested the three most common methods for stretching climbing shoes and evaluated the effectiveness of each. Here’s what you need to know.

Option 1: The Plastic Bag Method (the best choice)

Remember that plastic bag I mentioned earlier? In my humble opinion, this is still the best option for stretching climbing shoes. Unlike the other commonly cited methods, it doesn’t forcefully tamper with the construction of the shoe and allows the shoe to stretch the natural shape of your foot.

Although this is one of the most time-consuming – and painful – ways of stretching climbing shoes, it will guarantee you the best end result for your foot shape.

Option 2: The Freezer Method

The freezer method is one of the most popular methods for stretching climbing shoes. It’s pretty easy to do too.  All you need to do is get your hands on some zip lock bags, put them inside your shoes, and fill them up with water, ensuring they fill the shoe fully, but also leaving some space in the bag for the water to expand, and let your freezer work its magic. Leave them in overnight and as the water freezes, it expands, forcing the shoe to stretch.

After trying this method ourselves, a few things became abundantly clear. Firstly, it is very easy to split a zip lock bag, especially if you buy the cheapest possible ones like I did (oops). When those cheap bags inevitably split, the water caused the red uppers of the Five Ten Moccs to darken, and now my Moccasyms look like they aged 20 years overnight. 

Fortunately, after buying some better zip bags, I had more success with attempt number two. Here are some photos of the results of this freezer method.

Stretching Climbing Shoes - The Freezer

As you can see from the photo above, the upper has certainly stretched, and so did the heel. However, because the stretching method doesn’t use your foot, the shoe will stretch in every direction, so there is a good chance you could create some awkward dead spots in the process. This certainly isn’t ideal, although it did help stretch out the shoe.

Option 3: The Heat Method

I have heard a lot of people talking about using heat to stretch climbing shoes, which is counterintuitive to everything I know about climbing shoes. Yes the material of your shoes, either leather or synthetic, will have an easier time being manipulated when they are a bit warmer. But, excessive heat is the natural enemy of the climbing shoe. Heat can cause glue to melt and rubber to warp and deoxidize. This is why we always suggest proper shoe storage, and leaving your climbing shoes in the car or in direct sunlight for extended periods of time is a big no-no.

Nevertheless, The hairdryer is a common method of stretching climbing shoes, so if you are willing to risk damaging your shoes, here’s what to do.  

The traditional way of doing this is sticking your shoes near a heat source, usually a hairdryer (I have also heard of people putting their shoes in the oven, which sounds like a ridiculously easy way to destroy your shoes, so be very careful if you choose to this). Once warm, put them on your feet and allow them to cool down while being worn. 

I actually found that wearing the shoes whilst heating them up with the hairdryer worked significantly better than preheating the shoes. Just please, try not to burn your feet! We’re aiming for toasty here, not glue meltingly heat. 

Despite being skeptical of this method, I did find that using a hair dryer did stretch the shoe slightly, although not to the extent the freezer method did. However, even though I took extra care not to excessively heat the shoe, just as I suspected, the shoe didn’t seem to enjoy all that heat.

How to stretch climbing shoes - Heat

If you look closely at the pictures above, you can see areas of the shoe where the glue started to peel slightly. This was only evident on the shoe I used the heat method on.

Option 4: The Water Method

The final way to stretch climbing shoes is with hot water. Jump in the bathtub, or the shower, with your shoes on and give them a good soak for about 5 minutes. 

Once done, keep the shoes on for a short while and wear them around the house. Once they feel like they’ve started to dry slightly, take them off and stuff them with socks or paper. Keep the socks in the shoe until you go climbing in them. 

What Is The Best Way To Stretch Climbing Shoes?

In honesty, a shoe that is too small to begin with is pretty difficult to transform into a perfectly fitting shape. That said, if you have no other alternative and are desperately searching for how to stretch climbing shoes, then the methods we suggested above are your best bet.  

From my experience, the best way to stretch a climbing shoe is by using your foot, a plastic bag, and a bit of good old-fashioned brute force. This is certainly the best method for breaking in a properly fitted pair of shoes or ones that are just slightly too small.

If your shoes are just a little bit off, then try the hairdryer or hot water method. For shoes that need a big stretch, then the freezer method will be your best bet. Just remember, with the ice method, the areas that stretch might not be the ones you wanted, because the shoe isn’t being stretched around your foot.

I strongly recommend not getting overly adventurous with your stretching experiments, as there’s a good chance you will destroy those lovely shoes you have just spent your hard-earned cash on.

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