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The Dirtbag Guide To Approach Shoes (2024 Edition)

Updated By Sam on 19th Feb 2024

In this straight-up, no-fluff guide, I’m going to share absolutely everything you might possibly want to know about approach shoes.

Those who are familiar with outside climbing already know that the actual climb is just the cherry on top of a wild adventure sundae. It’s all about the journey – the epic drives, the grueling hikes, lugging your body weight in gear… and before you know it, the sun is disappearing faster than the bacon at a buffet breakfast and you’ve barely slipped into your climbing shoes.

While your trusty climbing shoes are your ticket to conquering the crag, they’re not your all-day allies. I can’t imagine too many people are stoked on the idea of hiking an approach in a pair of La Sportiva Solutions. 

Enter the unsung hero: the approach shoe. In this straight-up, no-fluff guide, I’m going to share absolutely everything you might possibly want to know about approach shoes. Here you will learn;

  • What are approach shoes are where you can use them
  • The rad story of the dirtbag who dreamed them up
  • Tips for nailing the perfect fit for our first pair of shoes

First things first, what is an approach shoe?

Approach shoes are awesome for hiking to the crag, belaying an general chilling.

Approach shoes are designed to tackle the tricky terrain on the way to the crag; they conquer the challenges that lie beyond the beaten path. The point where well-trodden trails give way to real adventure – I’m talking scrambles (that often borderline solos), boulder hopping, and navigating scree fields – This is the natural home of the approach shoe.

Think of approach shoes as the adventurous lovechild of hiking boots, sneakers, and climbing shoes. They don’t offer the support of a hiking boot, but outperform sneakers with superior stability and durability in rugged terrain. These shoes are the ultimate hybrid, equally at home on forest trails, leaping across boulders, or tackling low-grade scrambles.

But don’t let their resemblance to regular old mountain boots fool you. Approach shoes pack some clever features that make them uniquely suited for the world of scrambling and 4th class climbing. 

Here are a few clever features a good approach shoe should have:

The Climbing Zone

The “climbing zone” is one of the key features of any approach shoe.

At the heart of every approach shoe is the “Climbing Zone” – a unique feature that sets them apart from your average hiking boot. This a flattened area that sits at the toe tip and inside edge of the shoe and is noticeably different from the lugged sole (those deep rubber in cuts). The climbing zone is designed for those moments when you need a little edging precision, most noticeably helpful when negotiating delicate slabs, smaller edges, and wide cracks.

A Toe and Heel Rand

The toe rand is like the shield of your approach shoe, wrapping itself around the front of the toe box. It’s a layer of durable rubber that defends both the shoe and your toes from the harsh rock. This not only prolongs the life of your shoes but also aids in toe jams and edging, crucial for those unexpected technical moves on your approach. Heel rands do a similar job but at the opposite end of the shoe.

Breathable and lightweight

These shoes are engineered to tackle the notorious ‘hot and sweaty foot saga’ climbers inevitably face after a long day of sending hard. Many are crafted with mesh microfiber or cleverly utilize leather’s natural breathability to kick moisture buildup to the curb. But less breathable materials and minimal layers also help keep the shoe light –ideal for when you’re hauling them up a multi-pitch.

Specialized Rubber and Strategic Midsoles 

Specially designed tread allows for maximum control and stability on loose terrain.

Approach shoes, much like their climbing shoe counterparts, use a specialized rubber compound, ensuring maximum traction on both dry and wet surfaces. And although the rubber shapes on the bottom might look pretty random the lugged pattern is arranged to offer specific control at various parts of your foot including improved propulsion, stability, and braking.

Again, like climbing shoes, approach footwear has a midsole inserted strategically between the footbed to offer support to different parts of your foot. This can alter the amount of extra edging support under the toes, the shoe’s ability to smear, and the arch support for standing on slings and aid ladders.

Types of approach shoes 

Because the demands of rock climbing and its sub-disciplines can vary drastically, approach shoes come in different styles to fulfill specific needs. Broadly, we can categorize them into two main types: Technical and Casual shoes. Let’s take a quick look at both types.

Technical

Best For: Aid climbing, hauling, long technical expeditions 

La Sportiva Technical Approach Shoe

La Sportiva

TX4

Scarpa Technical approach Shoe

SCARPA

Mescalito Mid GTX

Technical approach shoes are the juiced-up cousins in the approach shoe family, designed for the serious challenges a climber may face. These shoes often have a stiffer profile, robust platform soles – and sometimes even ankle support – ideal for long technical approaches, hauling gear, and aid climbing big walls.  

But all that ruggedness doesn’t come without some extra weight. Technical approach shoes are generally heavy and bulky and often come at a higher price tag.

Casual 

Best For: easy approaches, gym sessions, free climbing multi-pitch

Scarpa Gecko Approach Shoe

SCARPA

Gecko

La Sportiva TX4

La Sportiva

TX2 Evo

While technical climbing shoes have historically been the most popular style of approach shoe, the rise of the weekend warriors has propelled the popularity of the casual approach shoe. 

Often with a bigger focus on style over technical performance, these shoes aren’t built to deal with the demanding terrain of its technical counterpart, but more instead more the challenges a casual climber may face. Short hikes to your local crag, belaying your buddies in the gym, and hopping between the boulder fields are where these shoes are going to serve you best.

How did approach shoes become a thing?

The story begins in 1985, with a dude by the name of Charles Cole. Cole was a 30-year-old dirtbag, who had spent his youth bouncing around Yosemite and Joshua Tree, claiming FA’s and repeats of some of the hardest lines of the day.  

Charles Cole, the founder of Five Ten, working his way up El Cap

But after his father suffered a stroke and heart attack, he was unable to work, and Charles knew he had to step up and support his family. In the mid-80s, climbing rubber was severely lacking friction, and knew Cole this better than most. Putting his engineering background to work, he created a new rubber compound, created specifically for climbing, and STEALTH rubber was born. 

Armed with his sticky rubber compound, Cole set his sights on creating a climbing shoe – loosely based on a tennis shoe that was popular amongst climbers – but instead of poor-quality rubber, they would be lined with his sticky new compound. The concept was simple: A comfortable shoe with rock climbing pedigree.

Five Tennie - First Approach shoe
A rare sighting of the original Five Tennies from 1986.

In 1986, Cole began distributing 1,000 pairs of his new “approach shoes” from Taiwan, which would be dubbed the Five Tennie. While the build quality was questionable – most fell apart – the sticky rubber and approach shoe concept was a hit. Over the next few years, Cole would refine his rubber formula, and apply it not just to approach shoes, but also to free climbing footwear. Five Ten – and the very first approach shoe – was born.

What are approach shoes used for?

Approach shoes are pretty versatile beasts, besides the walk to the crag, there’s an amazing variety of other situations where approach shoes will come in handy. 

Scrambling and Easy Climbing

Scrambling where approach shoes shine!

Planning a day of boulder hopping, or a class 4 (scrambling) ascent? Approach shoes will eat up this style of terrain. Sticky rubber, specialized soles, and all the other features we discussed above will help navigate this terrain with these. 

Aid Climbing

Unlike free climbing – where climbers use their hands and feet to ascend the wall – Aid relies on hanging from gear. And if you’re standing on aid ladders all day, then a pair of free climbing shoes isn’t going to be much help. The supportive comfort of a rigid technical approach shoe is what you need.

Belaying and Spotting

Climbers who are wearing their performance shoes most likely want to spend as little time as possible standing around in their tight-fitting performance shoes. While slipping into a pair of crag shoes certainly has its benefits, if you don’t have pack space for yet another pair of shoes, then a comfy pair of approach shoes will do the trick nicely. 

When it comes to belaying and spotting your buddies on the boulders, having a sturdy pair of shoes is essential… if you actually care about them, that is.

Everyday wear

They might be made for the backcountry, but with many approach shoes shaking off the old-school mountaineer vibes, it’s not uncommon for climbers to wear approach shoes in place of traditional sneakers. Just as cool, but a hell of a lot more functional!

Are approach shoes good for hiking?

As I mentioned earlier, there are some pretty subtle differences in the classic approach shoes vs hiking shoe debate. Can you use each shoe interchangeably? Absolutely. Are they going to notice different pros and cons to each shoe? You bet.

If you’re planning a whole day, or multi-day hike on unsealed trails, then the high-top ankle support of your hiking boot is going to offer far superior support over your casual approach shoes. They’re also most likely more waterproof and resistant to the elements, something many causal approach shoes lack.

Likewise, if you use hiking boots as approach shoes, you’re also going to run into some other first-world problems. Hiking boots are often heavier and bulkier than approach shoes, so slipping them on and off between climbs, and hauling them up a multi-pitch will get old very fast. The clunky feel of a hiking boot is not going to offer you the same performance on scrambling and rocky terrain as an approach shoe would.

How should they fit?

The good news is that fitting approach shoes isn’t the same process as performance climbing shoes. Sure, there may be a little variation in how tight or loose the shoe should be depending on your intended use, but for most of us, a normal sneak fit is what we are looking for. 

If you’re planning on doing a lot of aid climbing, then a slightly looser fit will provide the all day comfort. If you’re prominently using them for scrambling, then a little tighter fit will offer you better precision and control on this type of terrain.  

Here are a few general pointers on how approach shoes should fit.

Snug, but not crushing: Approach shoes should be snug enough to prevent your foot from sliding, but be warned; you might be in these shoes for hours, so they shouldn’t be so tight that they crush your toes or cause discomfort.

A little wiggle room: Speaking of toes, you should have a bit of wiggle room at the front. This space is vital for downhill sections to prevent your toes from jamming into the front of the shoe.

A secure heel: Heel slippage can be terrifying on uneven terrain. Your heel should feel securely locked in place, with minimal lift as you walk. This secure fit helps prevent blisters and maintains stability.

Lacing matters: Pay attention to the lacing system. Approach shoes often have laces extending closer to the toe than regular shoes, allowing for a more adjustable and precise fit. This feature lets you customize the tightness for different parts of your foot.

Consider socks and swelling: Always try on shoes with the socks you would use on the approach. Also, keep in mind that feet can swell during long days on the trail, so what feels just right in the store might be too tight on the mountain.

Break-In Period: While approach shoes generally don’t require as extensive a break-in period as climbing shoes, give them some time to mold to your feet. A few short hikes or walks can help soften them up before you take them on a serious climb.

Do You need them?

Do you need approach shoes? Well, if you’ve been managing just fine without them so far, chances are you probably don’t need them. But here’s the kicker: approach shoes make life so much easier

They bridge the gap between the trailhead and the crag, offering stability, grip, and comfort that regular sneakers or bulky hiking boots can’t match. If your climbing adventures often involve rugged terrains, long approaches, or technical scrambles, these shoes will transform your experience. They’re not just about getting to the climb; they’re about getting there more efficiently and comfortably, without rolling an ankle and scraping your shin off every boulder along the way. 

Approach shoes might not be an absolute necessity, but they’re a worthy addition to your shoe collection.

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