Alright, picture this: you walk into a climbing shop, and there they are, rows upon rows of climbing shoes. They’re like a rainbow on the wall, but instead of pots of gold at the end, there’s rubber, lots of it. To a newbie, it’s just a wall of oddly shaped shoes, but you? You know there’s more to this story. It’s not just about the colors or how cool they look on your feet. No, sir, it’s a saga of leather, rubber, and magic (okay, maybe not magic, but some of these shoes make you wonder).
Here’s the deal: the type of climbing shoes you choose are like the secret sauce to your success. They’re the unsung heroes that can turn a sketchy sequence into a glorious victory dance at the top. But, man, with over 500 different types strutting their stuff out there, picking your partner in climb is like a high-stakes game of “eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”
Now, you have probably have heard shoes being thrown into generic categories like “beginner,” “all-around,” or “performance.” But let’s be real, those labels are as clear as mud. Take La Sportiva’s “Advanced” lineup — you’ve got the Mantra, a gym rat’s dream, cozying up next to the TC Pro, the stiff-legged cowboy of the crack climbing world. It’s like mixing up your protein shake with your morning coffee — both essential, but for totally different reasons.
So, how do we crack the code? Here at Climbing Shoe Review, we like to categorize climbing shoe based on some of their main design characteristics. Here’s the four main categories we will discuss today:
- The Last Shape: Is it a straight shooter or more of a down-curved daredevil?
- Stiffness/Sensitivity: Do you need the finesse of a ballet dancer or the brute force of a bulldozer?
- Upper Materials: Are we going old-school with leather or space-age with synthetic?
- Closure Type: Are you a quick-and-easy Velcro fan or a lace-up-for-the-long-haul kind of climber?
By breaking it down, we can match these climbing Cinderellas with their perfect foot dance. And that, dear climbers, is how you find ‘The One’ — not the soulmate (though it feels close), but the shoe that’ll stick with you, quite literally, through thick and thin, rock and resin.
Climbing Shoes Explained: The Climbing Shoe Anatomy
Before we jump into the main ways we classify climbing shoes, first let’s take a minute to appreciate the anatomy of a climbing shoe. Whether it’s a beginner-friendly model or a performance shoe, 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, rand, and upper, controls the sensitivity and rigidity of the shoe. Most outsoles will be between 3mm and 5mm thick. Generally speaking, the thinner the rubber, the more sensitive the shoe, while thicker rubber offers better durability.
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 at all, which helps these shoes become extremely flexible and sensitive. Other models use solid plastic inserts that create a more rigid profile and offer more under-foot support.
Footbed – This is the interior part of the shoe that you stand on. Some footbeds are designed for comfort, others to prevent slipping, and some are 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, and hybrids, shoes that use a combination of both leather and synthetic materials. Intricate stitching and multi-pannel construction help to reduce stretch and keep the shoe from becoming sloppy.
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 our velco vs lace comparison.
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.
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-shaped mold that a shoe is built on. Every shoe you own, whether that’s sneakers or your fancy work shoes, will 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 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 shoes allow your toes to lie in a flat, almost natural, resting position. This style of shoes lends itself well to situations where comfort takes priority over performance. For this reason, beginners tend to favor 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.
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 are directed over your toes. This gives you more precision on edges and steep styles of climbing, without sacrificing the benefits of a neutral shoe.
Aggressive climbing shoes are built around a cambered last, which creates a naturally 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.
The volume of any object refers to the 3-dimensional space it occupies. When it comes to climbing shoes, most models now come in two-volume variations, high-volume, and low-volume climbing shoes.
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 the lack of proportional balance in 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 a powerful position, with your weight focused on your big toe.
Most neutral climbing shoes and comfort-oriented models will have a low asymmetric profile.
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, was 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.
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
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.
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.