The title of this article is a bit deceiving; those who have been climbing for a long time know that the idea of the perfect pair of climbing shoes is laughable. Most folks who climb a lot tend to acquire a quiver of different shoes each with their own subtle strengths. Some shoes rock at heel hooking. Others are the go-to for cracks. Still, others are edging machines - stiff enough to keep you on your feet for long days out. Fit is another factor that makes finding the perfect pair of shoes hard to nail down. Each brand has its own unique sizing, and often times your normal size in one brand will not fit at all in another. This article is meant to guide you through the various styles of shoes out there and the type of climbing they are designed for.
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
High-end shoes for sport climbing or bouldering are specialized tools, and usually, have a price tag to reflect this. These aggressively down-turned, asymmetrical models are best worn for a single pitch and then removed immediately after; they will not be comfortable to wear while belaying or on an all-day route. Shoes of this style are usually down-sized and worn tight for the most sensitivity, but they shouldn't be excruciating when wearing.
Shoes for Trad Climbing and Cracks
Shoes that will be comfortable all-day and jammed into cracks will have a flatter toe and a more symmetrical design, but a slight downturn can still be comfortable and help with precision on technical climbs. Shoes in this style can be sized down for a performance fit or sized up for more comfort.
All-Around Shoes for Versatile Climbing Use
Though many models of shoes are designed with specific applications in mind, some shoes are designed to do anything. These are the models that are best for someone who will only own one pair of shoes but may like to dabble in any style of climbing. We think that even if you own multiple pairs of climbing shoes, you probably need a good all-around pair in your collection. In general, these shoes will have a slight downturn and a sensitive fit. They can be sized up or down for better performance or more comfort. (You may even want different sizes in the same model!) Loosely fitted all-around models can also make excellent shoes to wear all-day on long routes.
Shoes for Beginners
When you first start out climbing, if you are like the average person, you will have terrible footwork, and this will wear your shoes out quickly. We like to recommend cheap shoes as a first pair so that you can wear them out rapidly as you learn proper technique, and then you can invest in a more expensive pair once you learn how to place your feet delicately. Also, shoes that work best for beginners have a flatter, more comfortable design. (You can work up to the tight, painful shoes.) Inexpensive shoes also make for good beater pairs to wear to the gym, allowing you to save your aggressive pair for sending projects. However, if you like to push your limits indoors, you will want to wear your performance pair there as well.
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.
The La Sportiva Miura is a lined leather shoe and that does not stretch much at all, but does 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.