What Are Approach Shoes?
And do I even need them? If you're not sure, you're in the right place. There are so many kinds of footwear out there, from hiking shoes to trail runners, lightweight approach shoes to burly hybrids. Approach shoes are highly specialized, but finding the perfect tool for the job just might be the ticket to unlocking your biggest objectives. If you already know that this is the right category for you but aren't sure which model suits you best, hop on over to our detailed review of eight of the best models for women and let us help you pick the perfect pair.
Approach shoes are, basically, a blend of a technical rock climbing shoe and a hiking shoe designed to help climbers access their routes. Often involving steep sections of third- and fourth-class scrambling, climbers recognized that they needed a comfortable, supportive shoe that also had the sticky rubber precision of the shoes they'd be wearing on the route.
Before these specialized shoes, a climber's options were to either rope up early to make these exposed sections safer or to change into their climbing shoes. Both of those options are time consuming and inefficient. Shoes specifically made for approaching are generally meant to be comfortable and supportive while hiking but also give extra friction, sensitivity, and durability for the parts of an approach when you are scrambling over boulder fields, low angle slabs, and 3rd, 4th, or easy 5th class sections of rock.
Some climbers may even choose to climb whole routes in their approach shoes. While in some ways this footwear is a specialty item for climbers, it can also have multiple uses and be a great footwear option even if you aren't a rock climber or planning to be on technical terrain. In this article, we go over the various functions shoes of this type can serve, as well as discuss all the things you will need to know and consider if you're in the market to buy a pair for yourself.
What Make These Shoes Different?
One way an approach shoe is different from a basic hiking boot or shoe is the sticky rubber on the tread and rand (which is the rubber part that extends partway up the top of the shoes). This sticky rubber is the climbing shoe part of the hybrid. It is a big part of why approach shoes are safer and more beneficial when you have to cross boulder or talus fields on the approach hike, or when part of the approach requires you to climb over easy rock sections that require extra traction and precision than what a typical hiking shoe would deliver. This sticky rubber extends upward from the outsole tread and wraps around the toe box and sometimes up and around the heels.
Different Types of Footwear for an Approach
Approaching a climbing route is usually just hiking. To hike, there are many types of shoes you could wear, and sometimes a different style may work better. Some climbers prefer to use regular hiking shoes or boots, trail running shoes, or mountaineering boots for their hike into the climb instead.
If you will be traveling over mostly snow or ice, especially if you think it might cold enough to stay frozen solid, then you might want or need crampons. In that case, mountaineering boots would be preferred over any other footwear. Some of these approach shoes are capable of accepting a strap-on, lightweight crampon, but if the snow or ice is steep enough to force you onto the front points of your crampons, this is not your best or safest option.
If your approach is very short or if the majority of it is on a well-maintained trail and the approach does not require travel over rocky slabs, talus and scree fields, or 4th class rock, then regular hiking or trail running shoes could also be viable, comfortable, and more cushioned options. The situations when an approach shoe is ideal are when your hike is long enough that you need the comfort and support that a hiking shoe would provide, but you also need some of the dexterity and traction that a climbing shoe offers due to more difficult terrain on at least some sections of the approach or actual climbing route.
The primary use of any approach shoe is to get to the base of the climb. This type of shoe combines the best features of both a hiking shoe and a climbing shoe but can be either more climbing oriented or more hiking oriented. For example, maybe you have a heavy pack to carry for a remote peak but will also be traveling over large sections of boulder and scree fields to get to the base of your chosen route. The ideal shoe for this scenario would be more hiking oriented and focus more on having good support for a long hike with a heavy pack, but also have strategically placed sticky rubber.
Easy Alpine Climbing and Scrambling
Another category of use is for climbing easy alpine routes without changing your footwear. This could be described as hiking several miles to the base of the climb in your shoes and then simply continuing the rest of the route without switching to climbing shoes. In this scenario, it is particularly important for the shoe to be well rounded and have both good foot support for the hike but also good climbing ability. When the route is long and moderate, wearing approach shoes for the climb itself can save your feet from pain, keeping you happy and confident all day.
But you don't have to be in the alpine to enjoy a nice scramble. Our testers loved romping around our favorite moderate routes without having to put tight, not-so-comfortable technical climbing shoes on. We were impressed with how well some of the slimmer models performed on moderate fifth-class rock.
Big Wall Climbing
Big walls are their own beast, and one not many climbers delve into, but it's worth noting that such objectives would require a different type of shoe. For aid climbing, a super-stiff sole is key for foot comfort, while weight is less important. Depending on your objective, you may just want something cozy to be in all day, or for multiple days in a row, or you may need something that performs well on the rock as well.
The third category of use is shoes that are used only for the descent portion of a climb. Some climbing areas are located where it is easy to drive very close to the base and essentially start by wearing climbing shoes to climb up the route, or you could walk to the base in any type of hiking shoe. However, when you finish the route you then have a walk-off descent to get back down to your backpack and your car. For these scenarios, an ideal shoe would be one that has some support but is extremely lightweight and compressible so that they take up the least amount of room possible, either hanging from your harness or stuffed inside your backpack. They should also provide a balance of suitable traction on the descent. While you would want some support for your feet, it is not a very important factor in this situation.