When it comes to footwear in general, in most scenarios socks are a necessity. Could you imagine wearing your running shoes, hiking boots, or ski boots without socks? Ew. So why then do most climbers not wear socks whilst climbing then?
It wasn’t until the last couple of decades that climbers started going sockless in their climbing shoes. When thinking back to the evolution of the climbing shoe, this makes sense: initially climbers would go out in boots, and later on, in tennis shoes. This carried over into the emergence of specialized climbing shoes in the 70’s and 80’s. However, it wasn’t until the 90’s that people started going sockless, largely due to the evolution and advancement in shoe design.
We’ll cover the reasons why you should consider going sockless in your climbing shoes, as well as the exceptions to these rules. There are various aspects we will cover in this article including hygiene, comfort, climbing terrain and application.
Full disclosure, I have been climbing for over a decade (bouldering V7+) and I choose to wear thin ankle socks while climbing. Shocking I know. I’ll tell you why I chose to wear these later in the article.
So why shouldn’t you wear socks climbing?
The large majority of climbers nowadays do not use socks while climbing. This is especially true in the world of sport climbing or bouldering. In the same way you wouldn’t wear gloves when climbing, socks add an extra layer of bulk to what should be a skin tight shoe. Modern day climbing shoes are meant to be fitted tightly to ensure no dead space or movement. Wearing socks decreases friction can cause your foot to move inside your shoe.
Another issue that can arise from wearing socks climbing is that it can decrease the sensitivity of your shoe. Picture this: your toeing in on a razor small edge on a slightly overhanging wall. In order to ensure accuracy, you’ll want to be able to feel out that edge and the optimal position for your foot as you weight it. The best climbing shoe brands design their shoes with sensitivity in mind, because it’s important to be able to feel the rock under your foot. Through the soft sticky rubber, you should be able to feel variations in holds and all of the dimples and divots. Of course, you won’t be getting the same effect with a pair of thick cotton socks on.
As holds get smaller and more insecure, reducing movement within the shoe is crucial. You’ll have a hard time trusting your feet if you’re sliding around inside your shoes. A good pair of climbing shoes that have been well-fitted should inspire confidence on even the smallest of holds.
You’ll also want to consider the effects sock wearing will have on heel hooks -a move that is frequently used when bouldering or sport climbing. An crucial heel hook will be made infinitely worse if there is any wiggle room in the shoe. This can cause the shoe to slip off altogether when pulling down on a heel.
Should you wear socks with climbing shoes?
While most climbers elect to go without socks, there are still a few reasons why you may choose to keep them on. This can depend on a variety of factors, from the type of climbing you might be doing to the type of shoes you are wearing, and ultimately personal preference.
Sport, bouldering and gym climbing aside, when peak performance isn’t the main concern, other factors start to take priority. In a multipitch 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.
Similarly, in warmer weather, thin socks may help to wick away moisture 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.
Trad climbers will sometimes use socks to protect from abrasion. Foot jamming, off-widthing and general adventuring can be messy business leaving you with some nasty scrapes on your ankles. The additional cushioning that socks provide may also be welcomed as cracks and foot jams become increasing more uncomfortable. Same might be said for longer pitches in general.
I don’t do much trad or multi, but I still can’t let go of the socks…
Beyond multipitching and trad climbing, a select few climbers (like me) continue to wear socks. Personal preference may be influenced by hygienic reasons, comfort or just force of habit.
Particularly, 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 thick rubber that do not provide much sensitivity to start with anyway, so you won’t be missing out on much on the way of performance.
Maybe, you have extra sweaty, funky feet or you have a hard time finding a shoe that fits properly when worn barefooted. Whatever the reason maybe, for the boulderer or rope climber who can’t give up the socks, we would recommend something thin and low profile.
As I admitted at the start of this article, more often than not I choose to wear a thin ankle sock. While I am usually the odd one out at the bouldering gym, I honestly don’t notice a change in my performance with, or without, socks. Sure, the odd heal hook or two might slip, but that can happen when I’m not wearing socks too. So long as your shoes are correcntly 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 absolutely stick after a hard climbing sesh in a sweaty gym and enjoy that little additional comfort that I get from wearing a thin sock.
Assuming your shoes are appropriately sized, the chances are you probably won’t notice a difference between wear (thin) socks or not.
Although it may feel strange at first, for most climbers we would recommend giving sockless climbing a try. Or if like me, and you aren’t ready to go commando, make sure you wear thin socks that won’t decrease the sensitivity of your shoe. If you are still wearing thick cotton socks, I strongly suggest you ditch them as soon as possible. This will help you learn to be more intuned and mindful of your footwork, while also increasing the effectiveness of heel hooks.
If you do enjoy the occasional multipitch or are an avid trad climber, you may consider keeping more than one pair of shoes in your arsenal. That way, when the temperatures do drop, or you need increased protection or comfort you’ll be equipped with a pair of shoes sized up to accommodate a pair of socks.
Ultimately you’ll want to consider the type of climbing you’ll be doing and if you do elect to wear sock, the type you’ll be using. Keep in mind the trade offs and you’ll be set for all occasions.
I hope we have helped you decide if you should you wear socks with climbing shoes or not. Happy climbing!