There are endless nuances when it comes to the fit and performance of a good pair of climbing shoes. It can be a challenge to narrow in on what is most important when seeking out your next purchase. Much of this decision comes down to the style of climbing you plan to do. Shoes made to perform on overhanging terrain will look and feel a lot different than a classic, stiff-soled slab climbing shoe. The proper fit of a pair of climbing shoes is something that can take years to decipher. Our intention with this article is to lead you through the various styles of shoes and types of terrain they are designed for. Hopefully, it will help expedite the process of settling on the proper pair for your next adventure!
Style of Climbing Shoes
There is a wide range of available shoes for climbing, and many climbers feel they need a quiver for different styles of climbing rather than just one shoe for everything. The women's market is bigger than ever, but don't we do have a few unisex models included in our men's review. In some cases, a unisex model may fit the best, making it the perfect tool for the job. The main advantage of women's specific models is that they are narrower and lower volume to accommodate smaller feet. We have divided the products in this review into four categories based on the primary use to help you decipher which models will best suit your needs.
Aggressive Shoes for Sport Climbing and Bouldering
The models we tested that fit this description are:
- La Sportiva Solution
- La Sportiva Futura
- Mad Rock Lotus
- Butora Acro
Shoes for Trad Climbing and Cracks
Models included are the:
- La Sportiva Miura
- Five Ten Anasazi LV
All-Around Shoes for Versatile Climbing Use
We tested several pairs that excel at just about any style of climbing:
- La Sportiva Muira
- La Sportiva Kataki
- Scarpa Vapor V
- La Sportiva Miura VS
Shoes for Beginners
The shoes we tested that are best for beginners are:
- Evolv Kira
- La Sportiva Finale
- Black Diamond Momentum
Related to the styles of climbing listed above, the degree of the downturn makes a shoe more specialized for different styles of climbing. Keep in mind that the more downturned a shoe, the more volume is left for your toes to bunch in the front. If you buy a downturned shoe that's too big and you end up with extra space on your toes, this will likely bunch up uncomfortably while you are climbing. The more aggressive the shoe, the better it is to go for a snug fit — not painful but snug.
There are two schools of thought with climbing shoes: that your shoes should be extremely tight to the point of pain, or that your shoes should be bigger and more comfortable. Tight shoes are great for sport climbing and bouldering where sensitivity on edges, tiny foot chips, and smears can be the difference between sending and whipping. On sport climbs, you tend only to wear your shoes for the length of one pitch so the tightness and curled toes can be bearable, and you're able to remove them off after you take a go. Don't size your shoes so small that the discomfort is excruciating and makes you not want to use your feet.
On multi-pitch climbs, shoes are worn for extended periods, and tight-fitting shoes can make you uncomfortable, which in turn, may lead to you climbing worse, as you're less likely to want to put any pressure on your aching toes. For long routes, we recommend bigger shoes. For crack climbing, when you jam your feet into the crack and tweak them around, we prefer shoes that aren't insanely tight, leaving you with a little wiggle room.
When shopping for shoes, decide beforehand what you plan on climbing with each pair of shoes and size them accordingly. In general, we find that snug, yet not uncomfortable shoes usually equate to better performance.
Now that you have decided how tight your shoes should be, factor in how much the shoes will stretch after you buy them. Most shoes don't keep the same fit that they have when you purchase them. Leather shoes stretch a decent amount, so prepare yourself when buying them. The exception: leather shoes that are lined. For example, Mythos are unlined leather shoes and stretch quite a bit after a lot of use; this means they can become sloppy over time.
The Miuras are lined leather shoes and do not stretch much at all, but they do mold to your feet. Synthetic shoes, like the Five Ten Anasazi and most Evolv shoes, do not stretch much so you can buy those true to size. Pay attention to what kind of shoes you are buying (and the design and materials), so you know what to expect once they break in.
Brand and Sizing
Don't expect to wear the same size shoe across the board, but learn how each brand fits your uniquely shaped foot. As a rule of thumb, Five Ten and Evolv shoes fit much smaller than European brands such as La Sportiva. Five Ten's goal is for you to buy your typical street shoe size (without downsizing) and achieve the proper fit. La Sportiva has extremely consistent sizing, and our testers can buy the same size in any model of shoe and find the right fit, but that does not translate to other brands. Comparing La Sportiva to Scarpa in the same size, the Scarpa model had a smaller fit.
Laces, Velcro or Slipper
There are three main types of fastening systems: Velcro strap(s), lace-up, and slipper (usually with elastic). Lace-up shoes give the most precise, snug, and secure fit but require more effort to take off and put on. Velcro shoes go on and off quickly, and many newer Velcro shoes tighten almost as precisely as lace-ups. Our testers find that slippers are the most comfortable and sensitive shoes. They are usually unlined, which means they stretch and become even more comfortable but less precise over time.
Rubber, more than any other factor in climbing shoes, is all about personal preference. People have debated about the best rubber for what feels like forever. There is one general rule: when looking at the stickiness of a shoe, it can be measured in a continuum, where one end measures stickiness and the other measures durability. The closer you get to sticky, the less durable the rubber and vice-versa. Rubber that is soft and sticky is likely to wear out faster. Most of the women's specific models in this review use Vibram XS Grip2 rubber; this rubber is a bit softer than XS Edge, making it stickier, but less durable than the rubber used on many of the men's equivalents.
A harder rubber is more durable and will hold an edge longer, but also will not stick to the rock as well if you lightly paste your foot on a hold; as you can see, there are trade-offs. In general, we like our high-performance shoes as soft and sticky as possible. For entry level shoes or all-day trad shoes, a harder and more durable rubber is usually preferred.
Hopefully, this information can help guide you in the right direction as you dig deeper into the world of climbing shoes. The different categories of climbing styles are broad categories, so don't be afraid to switch it up if a particular pair of shoes works well for you. We've also found that getting to know a brand helps the process, especially once you learn the fit. This can eliminate problems with fit, especially when shopping online. Now that you've read through this article, head over to our Women's Climbing Shoe Review to check out the latest models we tested.