Should you wear socks with climbing shoes?
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 then do most climbers, especially the more experienced ones, not wear socks whilst climbing?
QUICK NOTE: Full disclosure, I have been climbing for almost two decades and I often still wear a thin ankle sock while climbing. Shocking I know. I’ll share with you why (and where) I chose to 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 provide the skin-tight fit modern climbing shoes deliver. The biggest crushers of that time (including John Bachar, Peter Croft and John Long) all wore socks whilst topping out their early legendary ascents.
It wasn’t until the late 80s and early 90s that people started going sockless, largely due to the evolution of superior fitting shoes.
The Best Climbing Socks
If you are looking for the best climbing socks, here are a few of our 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 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.
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 super 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 socks, have a great fit and are made with a good quality material micro wool material.
They don’t have those especially placed seams like a climbing-specific sock would, but they do have a heel tab.
The Pros & Cons of Climbing Socks
Like everything in life, there are both positives and negatives to socks with climbing shoes.
- Socks are good at filling out a big shoe. No dead spaces or lose movement inside your shoe is what to avoid like the plague. If your shoes are too big, this can cause your foot to slip or cause 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 over thousands people who have worn the hire shoes had a dermatological condition or a fungal infection, there certainly a chance 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. Socks will help absorb some of that sweet, sweet foot juice and save your climbing shoes from bearing the brunt of your sweaty dogs.
- Walking in the gym or crag is better with socks 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 will add a layer of protection.
- Socks can reduce sensitivity and your ability to ‘feel’ the rock. This is the most commonly cited reason why most 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, climbing abilities.
- Your heel is more prone to slipping, especially on big 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?
The large majority of avid climbers nowadays do not use rock climbing socks. This is especially true 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 toes 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 may have just moved on from rentals or sneakers might continue to wear socks into 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.
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 these 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-widthing can be messy business leaving you with some nasty battle scars on your ankles. That 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 rock a pair of full-length sport socks like climbing legend John Bachar, then rock those bad boys!
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 extensively 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?