Types of Climbing Shoes
And everything else you need to know about climbing shoes.
To the untrained eye, climbing shoes might all look pretty similar. After all, they are just rubber, leather, and glue, right? I’m afraid not.
Not only are climbing shoes hugely complex, but they are undoubtedly one of the most important pieces of equipment in your arsenal. Because your shoes are the only thing that separates you from the rock, having utmost confidence in your shoes ability to execute precise footwork can be the difference between a sweet send or a terrifying whipper.
There are virtually endless types of climbing shoes available, and with over 500 different shoes currently on the market, it can be a pretty daunting experience trying to decide on your next pair of climbing shoes.
Climbing Shoe Anatomy
Let’s take a minute to appreciate the anatomy of a climbing shoe. Whether it’s a beginner-friendly model or a performance one, every climbing shoe will almost always have the elements mentioned below.
Outsole – This is the rubber you can see on the bottom of your shoe. While every shoe will have a sole, the rubber compound and the thickness of the outsole rubber will impact the characteristics and performance of the shoe. The outsole, combined with the midsole, controls the sensitivity and rigidity of the shoe. Most climbing shoe rubber will be between 3mm and 5mm.
Midsole – The midsole is built into the shoe between the outsole and the footbed. Some shoes, like the softest bouldering shoes, don’t use a midsole which creates an sensitive profile. Others use solid plastic inserts that create a rigid profile for the shoe.
Footbed – This is the material interior that you stand on. Some are designed for comfort, others to prevent slipping and some even designed to stop your shoes from smelling.
Rand – The rand is the rubber around the sides, heel and front section of the shoe. The rand helps create tension through the shoe and also acts as a protective barrier for the high-wear areas of the material upper. Most modern climbing shoes have an extended toe rand (also known as a toe patch) that allows you to utilize the top of the shoe for toe hooking and scumming.
Upper – The upper is the top material section of a climbing shoe. There are three main types of uppers; leather, synthetic or lined shoes, a combination of both leather and synthetic materials.
Closure – The closure system of a climbing shoe generally comes in three styles: lace, velcro or slipper. There are different benefits to each style, which we discuss in here.
Tongue – These vary from shoe to shoe. Some synthetic and leather tongues are padded for added comfort. It’s also common for shoes to have a split tongue, which enhances breathability and allows for easy access to the shoe.
The Different Types of Climbing Shoes
Although there are no black and white rules, different types of climbing shoes are generally categorized by the characteristics of their construction. Here are a few different ways we can classify climbing shoes.
1) The Last Shape
Almost every characteristic of a climbing shoe is impacted by the last it was built on. A climbing shoe last is simply the 3D foot mold that a shoe was built around. Every shoe you own, whether that’s sneakers or your fancy work shoes, would have been built around a shoe last.
The last will ultimately dictate the shape, width, asymmetry and volume of the shoe.
Have you noticed your feet feel more comfortable in some shoes than others, even if they are the exact same size? The chances are the shape of the last they used matches the width and volume of your foot better than other shoes do.
Here are the main characteristics a shoe last will have an impact on.
The Shoe Profile
The profile, or camber, of a climbing shoe, changes how your foot sits within the shoe. Putting your feet into different positions has various benefits depending on your experience level and the type of climbing you will be doing. Shoe profiles are commonly grouped into three categories;
Neutral Climbing Shoes – Neutral shoes allow your toes to lie in a flat, almost a natural, resting position. This style of shoes lend themselves well to situations where comfort takes priority over performance. For this reason, beginners tend to favour neutral climbing shoes.
Because your toes are in a flatter position than they would be in a performance-oriented shoe, neutral shoes often use a stiffer midsole and thicker rubber to help your toes support your weight.
Pros: The less strenuous position provides more comfort allowing you to climb for longer, good for beginners, crack and multi-pitch climbing.
Cons: Limited power can be transferred into your toes, not suitable for overhangs, and usually less sensitive than their counterparts.
Moderate Climbing Shoes – Moderate climbing shoes are designed to curl your toes more than a neutral shoe. Curling your toes forces your foot into a powerful position, where your weight and power is directed over your toes. This gives you more precision on edges and steep styles of climbing, without sacrificing the benefits of a neutral shoe.
Pros: Provides a good balance between performance and comfort, can perform well on a variety of climbing styles and offers the best of both ‘extremes’.
Cons: Not-specialized for any one aspect, so therefore, are ‘average’ at most styles of climbing.
Aggressive Climbing Shoes – Aggressive climbing shoes are built around a cambered last, which creates a natural downturned profile. This shape forces your foot into the most powerful foot position possible, with all power being focused on your toes. Downturned shoes excel at overhung climbing, where you use your feet to hook and pull at pockets.
Pros: Brilliant for overhangs and pulling holds with your feet, creates laser-precise toe box.
Cons: Can be uncomfortable for long climbing sessions, the downturn makes smearing and crack climbing tricky.
The Shoe Volume
Some manufacturers categorize different shoe volumes by gender, as women tend to have lower volume feet than men. To make a low volume shoe variation, manufacturers often reduce the amount of material on the upper (which decreases the shoe’s instep), redesign the heel for a narrower fit, as well as creating a narrower toe box.
Every foot is different, so don’t be afraid to try out some high and low volume variations to find out which one best suits the shape of your foot. It’s certainly not unusual for professional climbers to use the opposite gender’s shoe if it suits their feet better.
The asymmetric shape is another important aspect that the shoe last will impact. Asymmetry, the opposite of symmetry, refers to lack of proportional balance of a shoe.
Highly asymmetric climbing shoes go hand in hand with aggressive profiles and other styles of performance climbing shoes. This is because both the downturned profile and asymmetric shape have the same intention of forcing your power feet into power position, with your weight focused onto your big toe.
Most neutral climbing shoes and comfort-oriented models will have a low asymmetric profile.
2) The Outsole Rubber
There are other ways we can categorize climbing shoes besides the characteristics that have been inherited from the last they were built on. Outsole rubber, for example, is one such way.
There are dozens of rubber compounds used for climbing shoes, all with various levels of friction, rigidity and durability. Some climbers have a preference for the type of rubber they like on their shoes. Here are a few of the most popular.
Vibram Climbing Shoes – Vibram is a leading rubber manufacturer, specializing in creating the highest quality rubber for hiking and climbing shoes. They have created three compounds especially for climbing shoes; XS Grip, XS Grip 2 and XS Edge.
No Edge Climbing Shoes – No Edge technology was a revolutionary concept created by La Sportiva. The concept is pretty simple, they aim to reduce the amount of construction between your foot and the rock. While they have a wide application, they are particularly effective for gym climbing.
Stealth Rubber – Stealth Rubber, created by Five Ten’s founder Charles Cole in 1985 and catapulted the American company into the global spotlight as a leading shoe manufacturer.
You can find out more about the most popular types of climbing shoe rubber here.
3) The Rigidity
While the rigidity of a shoe will certainly be impacted by the outsole rubber, it is predominantly the midsole within the shoe that will determine how flexible the shoe will be. When it comes to a shoe’s flexibility, there are two different types of climbing shoes.
Stiff Climbing Shoes – Stiff climbing shoes are designed to push off small holds and edges in a vertical motion. These types of shoes create a platform for the climber to stand on, and by pressing down on the rigid edge, creates downforce that creates upward motion
4) The Uppers
Some climbers like to choose their shoes depending on the material the uppers are made from. Different materials provide different benefits.
Leather Climbing Shoes – Leather is one of the most breathable materials available and provides far superior moisture control compared to synthetic shoes. They are also extremely durable, which makes them well suited to crack climbing or other situations where shoes are likely to drag across the rock.
Synthetic Climbing Shoes – Synthetic climbing shoes are a vegan-friendly alternative to leather shoes. Besides being ‘animal friendly’ synthetic shoes have other benefits including minimal stretch, which helps maintain that performance fit.
5) The Closure Type
The final way that we can categorize climbing shoes is by their closure type. Here are the most popular styles of closure systems.
Velcro Climbing Shoes – Velcro shoes are fast becoming the new normal for many types of climbing shoes. The ease on which you can get them on and off isn’t lost on 21st-century climbers and is a popular style of climbing shoe amongst gym climbers.
Slip-on Climbing Shoes – Slip-on shoes are perfect for training days or when performance isn’t a priority. Slip-on shoes are often downsized more than their velcro or lace counterparts, as the closure often loses some of its elasticity after continuous use.
Lace Climbing Shoes – Lace shoes provide a higher level of control over the fit and allow for micro-adjustments across the shoe, making them a good choice for people who have unusually shaped feet.