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Should You Wear Socks With Climbing Shoes?

Updated By Sam on 7th Dec 2023

Rock climbing biggest debate; should you wear socks whilst climbing? Below where I shed light on the climbing sock phenomenon and help you decide if it’s time to ditch the socks.

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 then do most climbers, especially the more experienced ones, choose not to wear socks whilst climbing?

Besides the fact that it makes you look like you’re about to throw down a gnarly send, there are a few pretty compelling reasons why many climbers forgo their socks. Allow me to share my 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 two decades, and on occasion, I have worn a thin ankle sock while climbing. That’s a shocking revelation, I know. I’ll share with you why (and where) I choose to wear socks with climbing shoes.

The Super Quick, No-bS Answer

do you wear socks with climbing shoes

Climbing manufacturers design their shoes to be worn without socks. However, providing you have a properly fitting shoe, the reality is that the majority of us aren’t climbing at a high enough level for socks to have any real impact on our performance. 

If you feel more comfortable climbing in socks, then who is to say that isn’t right? Rock those socks!

The Climbing Sock Timeline

It wasn’t until the last few decades that climbers started going sockless. In 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. 

John Bachar and Peter Croft socks while climbing
Bachar and Croft after their epic El Cap and Half Dome Link in 1986, wearing socks – Photo by Phil Bard

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? Besides personal preference, there are a couple of compelling situations when you may opt for some strategic sock use. 

When Should You Wear Socks With Climbing Shoes?

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 keep them on.

If You Are Using Hire Shoes

How many people do you think have worn those gym rental shoes before you? Even with the best odor spray in the world, a well-used rental shoe is a cesspool of bacteria. If I was a gambling man, my money would be on Athlete’s foot as being the most likely fungal infection to occur, but I am sure there is plenty more that could be in the running too. So when you are using the gym rentals, it’s best to keep your socks on.

Beginners who have just bought their first pair of climbing shoes may continue to wear socks for their, 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 anyway, so you won’t be missing out on much in the way of performance if you continue to wear socks with climbing shoes. 

If You Have Ridiculously Sweaty Feet 

Socks will help absorb some of your funky odor 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.

Big Wall And 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 trip and less time listening to your climbing partner complain about their frozen feet. 

Crack climbers also use socks to protect them from abrasion. Foot jamming and off-widths can be a 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.

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 sports socks like climbing legend John Bachar, then you should rock the sh*t out of them. I recently noticed Mishka Ishi, the Japanese climbing Protégé wears socks for all her outside ascents, training sessions, and comp appearances.

Image by mishka.tamakko/IG

If Mishka can climb V15 while wearing socks, I think you’ll be fine on your V4 gym project.

The Pros And Cons Of Climbing Socks

Still not sure if you’re ready to go sockless yet? Like everything in life, there are both positives and negatives to wearing socks with climbing shoes. Here are a few of the main reasons for and against sockless climbing.

The Pros

  • 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 fungi. If one – or one of the other million people who have worn the hire shoes you are using – have a dermatological condition or a fungal infection, then there is certainly a possibility that it could be passed on. Sharing is caring, but when it comes to foot fungus, I think you’re better off keeping that to yourself.
  • 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 the majority of that stinky foot juice and save your climbing shoes from bearing the brunt of your sweaty trotters.
  • 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. 

The Cons

  • Socks can reduce sensitivity and your ability to ‘feel’ the rock. This is the most commonly cited reason why gym rats ditch socks. The logic checks out; the more layers of material around your foot, the harder it is to feel what’s underneath you. That said if you are using a lightweight sock, as I recommend, then socks will have little to no effect on shoe sensitivity.
  • 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 on 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.
  • It will stretch your shoes. If you break in a pair of shoes wearing socks, then you will definitely notice that your shoe will be a little looser if you decide to forego the socks.

The Best Climbing Socks

Your choice of climbing-specific socks is pretty limited. In fact, as far as I’m aware, there are only three people making socks specifically for climbing right now; La Sportiva, Butora, and YY Vertical. That said, a “climbing sock”, or at least one suitable for bouldering and sport climbing, is really just a thin ankle sock, so really, you have a lot more options than the three brands mentioned above.

La Sportiva

Climbing Socks

La Sportiva Climbing Socks

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 fiber, 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.

Ice Breaker

Multi-Sport Ultra Light

Icebreaker Climbing Socks

There are plenty of good multi-purpose sports 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 favorite 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?

For many years, I chose to wear thin ankle socks, although now I tend to go sockless most of the time. That extra security in the fit gives me a little more confidence when working with small footholds. That said, 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 when I wear socks. 

What is your opinion on climbing socks?

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