How To Choose Climbing Shoes

Three important things to think about before buying your next pair.

How to choose climbing shoes

Buying anything that relies on a personal fit is never an easy task. While a pair of poor-fitting jeans will do little more than ruin your street cred, the same can’t be said about an ill-fitting pair of climbing shoes. 

For you to be able to climb at your best, it is essential that you find a shoe that not only fits your foot properly but is right for the type of climbing you intend to use them for. Sloppy footwork and frustration from underperforming are both inevitabilities when you are wearing the wrong size – and style – of climbing shoes.  

I’m sure you already know about the benefits of climbing shoes. Unless you have mastered the technique of climbing barefoot, the use of specialized climbing shoes will offer unrivaled grip and stability on a variety of surfaces. This allows you to develop your climbing style and ultimately increases your enjoyment and confidence whilst climbing.

In the most simple form, the perfect shoe for you will be determined by:

1)  Your foot shape and size
2) The climbing terrain
3) Your climbing style

If you remember these three factors whilst you search for your next pair of climbing shoes, I guarantee you stand a much better chance at finding a shoe that is perfect for you.

To help you on your hunt, I want to talk about each of these points individually, as well as briefly discuss a few other factors you will want to consider during the purchase of new shoes.

How to Choose Climbing Shoes

Regardless of whether you are a beginner gym rat or a rugged alpinist that has spent the last decade in a Patagonian snow cave, our advice for picking climbing shoes remains the same.

Here are the three most important factors you should take into consideration when choosing your next pair of climbing shoes.

Factor 1: Consider your foot shape and size

climbing shoe guide

This is the first and foremost thing you should think about when choosing climbing shoes. I am sure you have heard this before but it’s worth repeating: In the world of climbing shoes, fit is king, not comfort.

Your shoe should fit on your foot like a second layer of skin as if they were an extension of your body. This means there should be no dead space or painful hot spots within the shoe. The main features of a shoe’s shape I recommend you think about are the width, instep volume, and toe box shape.

Why does this matter? A proper fit guarantees optimal performance and can significantly impact the effectiveness of a climbing shoe. Our shoes rely on a tight fit (not a painful one) because this allows the active rands to create tension throughout the shoe. This means the shoe becomes rigid, stays suctioned to your foot, and generates uplift as you press down on a foothold. This is especially true when it comes to softer models.

A well-fitting shoe will have an impact on the many basic functions of your shoes, including:

– Sensitivity: Wearing the right size shoe will ensure the information you receive from the ‘feeling’ through your foot passes to the foot’s receptors.

– Lift: The right size shoe ensures your foot is in a powerful resting potion, allowing you to apply pressure and weight to your toes, which in turn enables you to propel yourself upwards. This relies on the tension created from a tight fit working in partnership with the active rand systems.

– Precision:  If you have under or over–sized your shoes then you simply won’t be able to exercise accurate food placement. If you have gone too big, the edges of your shoes will roll upwards when you weight them. This means edging and technical foot sequences will become near-impossible

Although there will be certain shoes that suit the shape of your foot better than others, no climbing shoes will be the exact shape of your foot, nor are they meant to. Well-made shoes are designed to adapt to the shape of your foot. When you place your foot inside a properly fitted climbing shoe, both your shoes and feet are going to make a compromise in shape. The position of your foot within the shoe will ultimately dictate how much power you can generate for edging, the level of comfort you have, and your ability to smear or hook pockets.

A sure sign that your shoes are too big is if the upper material becomes loose and baggy as you press down on the toes. I see climbers wearing baggy shoes every time I go to the climbing gym. Likewise, if a shoe is too small, and your toes are too aggressively curled, it’s going to be detrimental to your ability to apply pressure on edges and the sensitivity you receive will be hindered.

Factor 2: Type of Climbing & Terrain

how to buy rock climbing shoes

Even if you have found a shoe that gives you that fairy tale fit, you will still want to consider if that shoe offers you all the features and functions you need for your preferred style of climbing and terrain.

Why does this matter? The characteristics a manufacturer gives a shoe are designed with specific types of climbing, and terrain, in mind. For example, both the La Sportiva Miura VS and Futura are built on the same last shape (PD75) and will offer a very similar fit, although both are designed for very different types of footholds. The Futura is very soft, making it ideal for indoor climbing or friction-dependent moves, whereas the Miura VS is considerably stiffer, making them better suited to smaller holds and intricate foot sequences.

Changing a few characteristics of a shoe, like its midsole or downturned camber, enable a climbing shoe to become better suited to varying terrain and types of rock.

Stiff shoes have the primary function of supporting your weight on small footholds whilst applying pressure on small surface areas. These types of shoes produce downforce parallel to the wall. Thanks to this additional support climbing will be less strenuous on your feet, which is why they are popular for longer styles of climbing, as well as with beginners who are yet to develop sufficient strength in their toes.

Soft shoes have the ability to adapt their shape to a myriad of angles and hold styles. Unlike stiff shoes, force is not only applied downwards but in all different directions, depending on the angle of the wall. Soft shoes are popular for indoor climbing, where friction moves are in abundance, as well as athletic overhung terrain and friction-dependent slabs.

The degree of chamber (the downturned shape) as well as its asymmetry profile make shoes better suited to certain types of terrain. An aggressive shoe with a high asymmetric profile places the power over your big toe allowing you to hook and claw at pockets. A neutral or moderate shoe will smear better than a highly aggressive shoe, thanks to its flatter shape, although it will lack performance when it comes to steeper terrain.

Things to consider: 

– Indoor or outdoor: Gym holds for bouldering and sport climbing are more dimensional, bigger, round, and usually have more surface friction than rock footholds. As a general rule of thumb, softer shoes are going to perform better on artificial walls, and stiffer shoes will be better suited to rock.

– Length of climb: Climbs that require longer periods of time on the wall will benefit from stiffer shoes, as they reduce the strain on your calves and ligaments in your feet, allowing you to climb comfortably for a longer period of time.

– Type of rock/route characteristics: The type of rock you are climbing on is going to have a big impact on the right shoe for the job.

Factor 3: Think about your climbing style 

While this might not be the single most important factor to consider, it’s certainly worthy of mention. Besides how well a shoe fits, and how well it matches the type of terrain, you should reflect on your natural climbing style as this will inevitably impact how well a climbing shoe will suit you. 

Every climber has their own signature style. If you watch multiple climbers attempt the same route or boulder problem, you will quickly see they all have their own approach to the route, even if they use the same beta. 

Some climbers are highly strategic with their movement, using their agility and millimeter-perfect foot placements to take a slow, methodical approach to a climb. For these types of climbers, a stiffer shoe is most suited to their natural style of climbing.

On the other hand, for those climbers who are less accurate with their movements and instead rely on speed, power, and fluidity to flow through a climb, then a soft shoe will be the type of shoe that suits your style best.

Your go-to climbing shoe should be one that compliments your natural style. However, having a selection of both soft and hard shoes, will allow you to become a well-rounded climber, as well as have an arsenal of shoes that can take on anything.

After all, you can never have enough pairs of climbing shoes!

 How to fit climbing shoes

The short answer to this question is that the right fit depends on the type of shoe you are wearing.

One thing that is important to remember is that your toes should never be completely flat. Just as crimping with your fingers offers one of the strongest and most secure grips, having your toes curled allows you to hold more weight on your toes.

If you are wearing a neutral or moderate shoe and plan on practicing longer styles of climbing, then look for a shoe that lightly curls your toes. This will still allow you for precise footwork without the total sacrifice of comfort.

For bouldering or sport climbing, a style of climbing where you frequently see more downturned shoes,  climbers usually opt for a slightly more curled toe position, which allows you to apply maximum pressure through your toes.

Regardless if you opt for a performance or comfortable fit, your toes should be unable to fully flatten. If they can, then this is a clear sign that your shoes are too big for you. This creates an excess of space within the shoe, that will cause the shoe to roll, and you won’t be able to generate the power in your toes needed to stand on small edges.

Don’t mistake this for ridiculously downsizing though. In the age of modern shoe technology and with such a wide range of shoe shapes and sizes available, this advice of toe-crushing downsizing is outdated, not to mention detrimental to your general foot health.

Things to consider:

– Last shape: Every shoe is built around a mold, called a ‘last’, which ultimately dictates the shape and size of a shoe. If you are new to climbing, you are going to want to try as many different shoes as possible and discover which last shape guarantees the best fit for your foot shape.
– Materials: The material your shoe’s upper is made from will impact the size of the shoe you buy. Leather shoes will stretch significantly more than synthetic shoes, often up to an entire size. Climbing shoes, with synthetic uppers are unlikely to stretch much, if at all.

Tips for choosing climbing shoes

Now you know the key factors you should be thinking about when choosing climbing shoes, it’s time to start searching. Here are a few top tips that will help you on your hunt.

1) Make sure you are putting the shoe on correctly – Okay, I know that sounds a little bit silly, but putting on a climbing shoe isn’t exactly like slipping your feet into a pair of sneakers. Here’s a 2-minute video showing you what you need to know.

2) Try as many different shoes as possible – If you are new to climbing, then it’s a good idea to try on as many different shoes as you can get your hands on. This will help you get a good understanding of which brands, lasts shapes, and sizes work best for your feet. Even if you know what shoe you want and are planning on buying them online, I strongly suggest getting a couple of pairs in different sizes. This gives you a basis of comparison and helps you find the perfect fitting shoe.

3) Try them in the evening – Our feet swell throughout the day, sometimes up to a whole size. Ensure to try your climbing shoes on later in the day to ensure you get a climbing shoe that’s going to offer you the best fit.

4) No shoe can do it all – Sure, there are plenty of good all round climbing shoes out there, but despite what manufacturers might tell you, there isn’t one shoe that will be able to perform perfectly at every style of climbing, it’s simply not possible. How can a shoe be stiff enough to edge on a dime and also be soft enough to smear perfectly up a steep volume? Make sure to think about what and where you will be climbing most and look for a shoe that is best suited for this terrain.

Ready to start searching? 

Now that you know everything there is to know on how to choose climbing shoes, it’s time for the fun to begin!

Start hunting around online and in retail stores and start discovering the amazing range of climbing shoes that are available. There are literally hundreds of shoes available, so not only you are bound to find a model that offers you the perfect fit, but it is designed to crush hard at your preferred style and climbing terrain.

Remember, if you want a helping hand in your search for the perfect shoe, make sure to check out our climbing shoe quiz.

Happy hunting!

Written By

Sam Laird

A lifelong climber and shoe geek. His first shoe was the OG Scarpa Helix, although his shoe collection has grown to unhealthy levels in the last 20 years. When he’s not getting shut down on V2 gym slabs, Sam is backpacking around the world in pursuit of his next big adventure.

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