Should you wear socks with climbing shoes?
Socks or no socks? The age old question.
When it comes to footwear, socks are usually a necessity. Could you imagine wearing your running shoes, hiking boots, or ski boots without socks? You would have more blisters than toes in a matter of hours.
So why do most climbers, especially the more experienced ones, choose not to wear socks whilst climbing? Good question!
Here, we will share our thoughts on the age old question ‘should you wear socks with climbing shoes’ and shine a light on how the sockless phenomenon came about.
Full disclosure, I have been climbing for almost two decades and I sometimes wear a thin ankle sock while climbing. Shocking I know. I’ll share with you why (and where) I choose to wear socks with climbing shoes.
THE SUPER-QUICK ANSWER: In a hurry? Here’s my quick answer to this question. Providing you have a proper fitting shoe, the reality is that vast majority of us aren’t climbing at a high enough level where socks will have any real impact on our performance.
Want to know more? Read on, my friend.
THE BREAK DOWN
- 1 The Climbing Sock Timeline
- 2 The Pros & Cons of Climbing Socks
- 3 When should you wear socks with climbing shoes?
- 4 The Best Climbing Socks
- 5 Do you wear socks with climbing shoes?
The Climbing Sock Timeline
It wasn’t until the last couple of decades that climbers started going sockless. Throughout the early 20th-century, climbers would scale their projects in hiking boots – which were later substituted for tennis shoes – using a thick pair of socks to help get a tighter fit in their poor fitting boots.
This trend carried on after the emergence of specialized climbing shoes in the ’70s and ’80s. Although models like the Boreal Fire and the La Sportiva Mariacher marked a big step forward in the climbing shoe evolution, these shoes still didn’t have the skin-tight fit modern climbing shoes have. The biggest crushers of the day (John Bachar, Peter Croft and John Long) all wore socks whilst topping out their early legendary ascents.
It wasn’t until the ’80s and early ’90s that people started going sockless, largely due to the evolution of superior fitting shoes.
Nowadays, a lot of climbing shoes are designed with the assumption that you will be going sockless. Many shoes have footbeds and interiors are lined with non-slip, softer, materials to help your barefoot foot stay secure and comfortable.
So, why wear socks with climbing shoes, I hear you ask? Here’s a couple of compelling reasons.
The Pros & Cons of Climbing Socks
Like everything in life, there are both positives and negatives to wearing socks with climbing shoes.
- Socks are great for filling out a big shoe. You should avoid dead space or excessive movement inside your shoe like the plague. If your shoes are too big, it can cause your foot to slip or encourage uncomfortable rubbing. If smaller shoes aren’t an option, then a good pair of socks might just help fill out some of that empty space.
- It’s more hygienic, especially if you are using rental shoes. Our feet are warm, sweaty breeding grounds for microbes and fungus. If one of the other thousand people who have worn the hire shoes you are using, and they had a dermatological condition or a fungal infection, there is certainly a possibility that it could be passed on, if the shoes haven’t been cleaned properly between uses.
- They will stop your shoes from smelling and can help if your feet are prone to over sweating. Boot Bananas and proper shoe storage are good remedies for smelly shoes, but a pair of socks will help absorb some of that stinky foot juice to begin with and save your climbing shoes from bearing the brunt of your sweaty dogs.
- Walking around the gym or crag feels slightly less gross with socks on, unless you enjoy a spot of barefoot climbing.
- Socks can help reduce chafing. If your shoes are causing you pain in some high-rubbing areas, a thin pair of socks can help reduce friction and will add a layer of protection.
- A pair of socks can help break in, and stretch, a pair of climbing shoes.
- Socks can reduce sensitivity and your ability to ‘feel’ the rock. This is the most commonly cited reason why gym rats ditch the socks. The logic makes sense; the more layers you wear, the harder it is to feel what’s underneath you. But if you are using a lightweight sock, like we recommend, then socks will have little to no effect on you, or your shoes, abilities.
- Your foot is more prone to slipping, especially on powerful heel hooks. From personal experience, this is the biggest gripe I have with socks. If you are working a boulder problem that requires a gnarly heel hook, I find that the heel is more likely to slip inside the shoe than it is without socks.
When should you wear socks with climbing shoes?
It is true that the vast majority of climbers do not use rock climbing socks, especially in the world of sport climbing or bouldering. Nevertheless, there are still a few scenarios when we think you might want to to keep them on.
1) If you are using hire shoes
I have already touched on this one, so I’ll be quick. If there is a break in your skin or nail, there is a possibility that fungal infections could be transmitted if the rental shoes haven’t been properly disinfected. The most common of which is Athlete’s foot.
On a similar note, beginners who have just moved on from rentals might continue to wear socks for their first pair of climbing shoes, as they ease their way into the world of rock climbing. Most entry-level shoes have a thick rubber sole that does not provide much sensitivity to start with anyway, so you won’t be missing out on much on the way of performance if you wear socks with stiff climbing shoes.
2) If you have exceptionally sweaty feet
Socks will help absorb some of your funky odour so your shoes don’t have to. Similarly in warmer weather, thin socks will help keep moisture at bay as your feet start to sweat. Assuming you won’t be toeing on small technical edges, socks may be a sensible choice in most cases.
3) Big wall & crack climbing
Sport, bouldering and gym climbing aside, when peak performance isn’t the main concern, other factors start to take priority. In a multi-pitch situation where the temperatures might get a little chilly, a layer of thermal socks paired with an appropriately sized-up climbing shoe can make for a much more enjoyable climb and less time complaining about your frozen feet.
Crack climbers also use socks to protect them from abrasion. Foot jamming and off-widths can be messy business, leaving you with some nasty battle scars on your ankles. The extra protection that socks provide may be a welcomed break from the rocks scraping your skin off.
4) Because you want to!
Just because everyone else has ditched the socks it doesn’t mean you have to. If you want to wear a pair of full-length white sport socks like climbing legend John Bachar, then you rock those bad boys!
The Best Climbing Socks
If you are looking for the best climbing socks, here are a few of our tried and tested favorites.
Just like their shoes, this Italian climbing brand has set the benchmark for climbing socks. Sure, the La Sportiva socks look like something from a cheap Walmart multipack, but don’t be fooled. There’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.
For starters, the sock is made from an elasticated synthetic fibre, which gives you a comfortable and secure fit. These socks are also considerably thinner than any other sock I have tried and almost feel like a second skin on your foot.
The mesh-like upper keeps them breathable, while the strategically positioned seams discourage the sock from bunching up, interfering with your climbing ability or causing chaffing.
The raised heel tab is also an amazing addition that stops rubbing against a high heel rand.
There‘s plenty of good multi-purpose sport socks out there if you don’t want to try the La Sportiva climbing socks. Whichever socks you use, the most important thing is that they aren’t really thick.
Lightweight athletic socks are a good alternative, with our personal favourite being the Icebreaker Multisport Ultralight. They are pretty similar to the La Sportiva climbing socks, have a great fit, and are made with a quality micro wool material.
They don’t have those especially placed seams like rock climbing socks would, but they do have a heel tab which is an added bonus.
Do you wear socks with climbing shoes?
Unless I am working a hard boulder or a tricky single-pitch route, I often choose to wear a thin ankle sock.
I have tested climbing in socks with various different shoes and I haven’t noticed much change in my performance with, or without, socks.
Sure, the odd heel hook might slip but that can happen when I’m not wearing socks too. So long as your shoes are correctly fitted, your foot shouldn’t completely slip out of your shoe regardless if you go sockless or not.
I also like that my shoes don’t smell like sewage after a sweaty session in the gym.
What do you think about climbing socks? Do you wear socks with climbing shoes?