We have tested 41 different models over the past 10 years. In our most recent side-by-side testing, we purchased 12 of the best approach shoes. These top competitors must be versatile enough for all your climbing journeys, near and far. From the Sierra Nevada alpine backcountry to the metamorphic desert sport crags of California, we used the shoes to monkey up fixed lines, hike with heavy packs, and traverse knife-edge ridges. All the while, our experienced testers took careful notes and compared performance. We scored and ranked the varying qualities of each model against our tried-and-true metrics to help you pick the right shoe with the qualities you need.
The Best Climbing Approach Shoes
Best Overall Approach Shoes
La Sportiva TX2
The La Sportiva TX2 is our favorite approach shoe. It's very similar to the burlier TX4, and after some hands-on testing, we discovered that this shoe is much more than just a lighter version of the TX4. These shoes weigh a mere 20 ounces per pair, plus they have a special elastic cord system to secure the shoes together into a compact package when clipped to a climbing harness. The breathable knit uppers kept our feet cool on long hikes, and the precise lacing system allows us to crank down the laces all the way to the end of the toe for a snug and secure fit when the going gets technical. The toe has a low profile, and we were even able to use them in red camalot-sized cracks.
These shoes aren't as supportive as the TX4s, so you'll want a more supportive model for multi-day expedition-sized trips. Our testers also observed the elastic band that holds the shoes together while clipped to your harness coming undone in while climbing a chimney feature and lost a shoe. Lesson? Clip both shoes individually to your harness when climbing chimneys and offwidths so that you don't lose the most well-rounded approach shoes on the market.
Best Bang for the Buck
La Sportiva Boulder X
Our Best Buy Award goes to the product that lets you play the longest and go the hardest for the least amount of cash. The La Sportiva Boulder X delivers for yet another season. This affordable shoe climbs well, offers support for miles hiking and scrambling, and features durable leather uppers that will stay with you for the long haul. Additionally, the Boulder X has a lacing system similar to the La Sportiva Mythos climbing shoe. The lace extends around the ankle collar, ensuring slip-free operation for miles of hiking, or pitch after pitch of jugging.
However, this shoe is heavy and bulky, so it's not our first choice for climbing with a pair clipped to our harness. But beyond that, this approach shoe has wide appeal at a lower price point, which makes us big fans!
Read review: La Sportiva Boulder X
Best for Climbing
Five Ten Guide Tennie
Sensitive for smearing, stiff enough for edges, and a great performer in hand cracks, the Five Ten Guide Tennie takes our Top Pick for Climbing. If the terrain warrants some easy slab climbing, and mellow splitters, but not full-on, foot binding climbing shoes, the Guide Tennie reigns supreme, edging out all competitors, and edging on granite holds pretty well too.
For frontcountry fun the Guide Tennie is plenty supportive, but for longer slogs, the La Sportiva TX4 is a better option. There are also a few lighter models we'd choose if we're climbing a multi-pitch with a pair of approach shoes clipped to our harness. The Stealth C4 rubber is still the stickiest rubber in the game. This shoe is ideal for easy scrambles in Joshua Tree or the Buttermilks or climbing easy warm-ups.
Read review: Five Ten Guide Tennie
Best for Heavy Loads and Big Walls
La Sportiva TX4
The La Sportiva TX4 was our top scorer before we got our hands on the TX2s, but they're still an awesome choice for big wall climbing or when you need to carry big loads. The leather uppers are up to the task of scraping up thousands of feet of granite. The stiff and supportive midsoles can take you to your dream wall, whether it be roadside or deep in the backcountry.
These shoes have a good balance of hiking and climbing ability. The TX4 is the shoe we want on our feet while humping loads to the base of El Cap, standing in aiders, busting free moves, and carrying the whole kit back down to the meadow. Are long approaches to remote backcountry objectives in your future? The TX4 has the support and comfort to take you there, heavy pack and all.
Read review: La Sportiva TX2
Why You Should Trust Us
Matt Bento brings you this fine review of approach shoes. As a seasoned dirtbag traveling around the country in his van, he's spent way too many hours hiking to the base of many crags. Over the last 10 years, he's dedicated his life to climbing and living in many world-class climbing areas. Spending most of his time on the granite faces between Tuolumne Meadows and Bishop, California, he knows what's required in a shoe that will stick to numerous surfaces from slabs to steeps.
From the mountains of the High Sierra to the perfect cracks of the Utah desert, we've worn these shoes everywhere. After researching the best products, we choose the best the discern important differences with an unbiased motive. In this pilgrimage, we've determined which products work, and which simply aren't as good.
Related: How We Tested Approach Shoes
Analysis and Test Results
As always, we compare and contrast each model to the most similar products to help you make an informed decision. Our climbing ability metric takes into consideration how well each shoe edges, smears, and crack climbs. You'll find detailed descriptions of our evaluation metrics and the top scorers in each.
Related: Buying Advice for Approach Shoes
Climbing approach shoes are a specialty product. Rock climbers place unique demands on the footwear we use to get to and from the boulders, cliffs, and mountains where we practice our art. Two attributes define this category of footwear:Durable Upper Materials
Approach shoes usually feature a stick rubber toe rand that comes up high on the front of the shoe to protect them while you edge, smear, or ascend a fixed line. We often "improve" the uppers with a healthy smattering of seam seal or shoe goo, especially if the upper isn't fully leather.Sticky Rubber Soles
All products included in this review utilize a rubber sole that prioritizes 'stickiness' on the rock. The rubber compounds used are softer than the ones used for hiking boots and shoes, generating more friction on rock. These sticky rubber soles give us confidence that our feet will stay put on steep rock slabs, the tradeoff being they wear down faster than harder formulations.
As with any purchase, choosing one approach shoe over its competition usually means accepting certain trade-offs in features, such as climbing ability for hiking comfort. We've compiled all of the metrics that we believe are most important in a well-rounded approach shoe. In terms of value, the Best Buy Award-winning La Sportiva Boulder X takes the cake. Though the Boulder X doesn't knock it out of the park in any particular metric, it is a durable and versatile shoe.
We tested each shoe in three sub-metrics here: Edging — the ability to stand on small rock ledges ranging from a matchbook's width up to an inch. Smearing — the ability to stick to steep rock that is devoid of any features. And crack climbing — the ability to stick your toe into vertical fissures in the rock and twist your foot to lock it in place. These are all important attributes for exposed scrambling, but consider which is most applicable to where you climb. Be safe, it's up to you to take into account your own abilities and make good choices based on sound risk assessment. Climbing ability contributes 35% of each model's overall score.
The Five Ten Guide Tennie earned the highest score for climbing ability. We found it the best shoe for smearing, and it received a high edging rating as well. The La Sportiva TX2 comes in very close behind, losing a point because they aren't as stiff as the Guide Tennie. The La Sportiva Boulder X and Evolv Cruzer Psyche also fair well in overall climbing ability. The Scarpa Crux features the same Vibram Mega-Grip rubber as the TX2, and climbs at a very similar level.
The Vasque Grand Traverse and Five Ten Access are very comfortable shoes, but our testers where a little gripped while climbing in these insensitive, clunky feeling models. The Salewa Wildfire and the Vasque Grand Traverse excelled as hikers, but didn't climb anywhere near as well as the Guide Tennies or the La Sportiva TX series.
How well an approach shoe hikes may be more important than climbing ability to many of you. For those who need sticky rubber to cross the occasional talus field, but primarily stay on the trail, we would recommend prioritizing comfort and support - our two metrics that focus on how each model handles trail miles. Our rating for comfort focuses on features and comfort when carrying minimal loads, and contributes 25% to each product's overall score.
Comfort is determined in large part by how well your shoes fit your foot, and we recommend trying on several models you judge appropriate for your needs to see which matches your foot best. There is also a compromise when you choose your size. Size down a half or full size from your street shoe, and you'll get better climbing performance, but this can become uncomfortable on long approaches.
The La Sportiva TX2, TX4, the Vasque Grand Traverse and the Salewa Wildfire are the most comfortable shoes for covering many miles, and also have excellent traction in the dirt, but the Access earned a low climbing ability score. The La Sportiva TX2 is the most comfortable shoe to hike in that climbs well, with the Five Ten Guide Tennie close behind. The TX2 has a synthetic knit upper that felt cool and breathable compared to heavier leather models like the TX4, the Scarpa Crux, and the Boulder X.
The lacing system on a pair of shoes can significantly affect their ability to hike (and climb, too). Many of these shoes have lacing that extends closer to the toe of the shoe than hiking and running shoes, allowing you to cinch down the toe of the shoe for climbing performance, or loosen it for increased hiking comfort.
Support is the second metric that focuses on hiking ability and contributes 20% of total scores. Foot support is most important when carrying heavy loads, but even a "rope, rack, and the shirt on your back" weigh a fair bit. While climbers tend to have solid feet, more support will mean less fatigue when the approaches get long and your pack gets heavy. Support also is important for a shoe's edging and crack climbing performance. All else being equal, a more supportive shoe will edge and crack climb better, especially when carrying a heavy pack. You don't want to be all wobbly-footed in the backcountry where a sprained ankle can be a real problem.
A shoe that fits well and keeps you moving over exposed terrain with confidence is more important than trying to save weight with a lighter pair of shoes like the Five Ten Access, the Evolv Cruzers, or the Evolv Rebels. As tempting as it is to go with a light and breathable shoe, remember how much of a pain it'll be hobbling out several miles after your backcountry objective.
The La Sportiva Boulder X is the stiffest, most supportive product we tested. It is an excellent shoe for carrying loads into the mountains. The La Sportiva TX2, TX4, Five Ten Guide Tennie, and Scarpa Gecko all offer similar foot support. The lightweight Arc'teryx Arakys and the even lighter Evolv Cruzer Psyche are the least supportive of the bunch.
Weight & Packability
Weight is always an important consideration for us here at OutdoorGearLab. If we are choosing between two products with similar performance qualities across other metrics, we favor the lighter of the two. Weight is a primary concern when you clip them to your harness or stow them in your climbing pack on multi-pitch routes. The lightest models we tested, the Evolv Cruzer Psyche, the Arc'teryx Arakys, and the La Sportiva TX2, are compact and very light in comparison to the other shoes we tested. The tradeoff here is obvious; these models do not support the foot and hike as well as heavier ones, although the TX2 offers decent support. The Arc'teryx Arakys has a low profile and carries well on the harness, but this is not the model we would choose for hiking with heavy loads. Weight and packability account for 20% of overall scores.
Our lead tester prefers to have each climber in a multi-pitch party carry their shoes, water, and extra clothes on a multi-pitch route. Other folks prefer to give the leader the luxury of climbing without a small pack, or their shoes clipped to their harness. In practice, this means the second climber is often carrying a "second's pack," with food, water, clothing, and TWO pairs of shoes.
The heaviest products we tested, the La Sportiva Boulder X and the Five Ten Guide Tennie, are comfortable and supportive for hiking. The Evolv Cruzer Psyche is on the other end of the spectrum, earning top scores in weight, but lower scores in support and hiking comfort. In the middle? You guessed it! The Editor's Choice Award-winning La Sportiva TX2.
These shoes are designed to wear approaching a rock climb. They are made with a sticky rubber sole and sturdy uppers for protection against corrosive terrain. They can take you places that your tennis shoes cannot go. There are plenty of crags out there that require the occasional exposed move or two to access, and a good pair of approach shoes will keep you safer and ultimately have more fun. We hope that this review has helped you to determine whether you are looking for a pair for comfortable hiking with better traction, or if you need a pair known for climbing ability and protection.
— Matt Bento