Selecting a pair of climbing shoes for the first time can be confusing. Especially if you are new to climbing. To make an informed decision when buying rock climbing shoes, you’ll need to know what are the different types of climbing shoes and the pros and cons of each design.
Choosing the right size
What is the right climbing shoe size to choose? This question can have a different answer for different climbers. First of all climbing shoes need to be tight and “uncomfortable” if you compare them with your daily trainers. As there are different shoe size units of measurement UK/US/EU/CM. This article will stick with EU measurement which is often on most if not all climbing shoe brands to prevent any confusion. You can refer to the chart below to do the size conversion between the 4 different units of measurement.
Choosing the “right size” means a size that helps you perform on the wall. The right size does not mean comfort. Climbing requires you to stand on edges as small as a couple of mm using the area around your toes. To enable you to do that your toes need to be forced together to remove any movement or wiggle room. If your toes are not kept together you will not be able to stand on tiny edges. So the right size to choose is smaller than your normal day-to-day shoe size.
How small should I go?
This is another great question but the answer will be different for everyone and also in different situations. If you are new to climbing squeezing into a shoe that is 2 or more EU size smaller may sound insane. However, this is all about you getting used to the squeeze. The recommendation is at least 1 to 2 EU sizes smaller than your daily trainers. Each brand and model may be slightly different when it comes to fit even though the sizing is the same. Always try out the shoe yourself especially if you have never tried the brand or model before. Your feet will expand and contract depending on the temperature.
To be sure the size you choose does not end up too small, always try out climbing shoes after you have warmed up your feet. You can do that by walking, stretching, or better yet after climbing. This will make sure your feet are already expanded when you try on the climbing shoes that you wish to buy. You don’t want to choose a shoe size that is tight when your feet are cold. This prevents the shoe from becoming extremely tight after your feet have warmed up and expanded after climbing for a couple of hours.
Types of climbing shoes
Neutral or flat
Climbing shoes with a neutral or flat design have a comfortable fit. As the shape of the sole is straight and flat hence your feet and toes will sit flat and straight inside the shoes. Allowing the climber to wear the shoes for a longer duration without feeling much discomfort.
Neutral climbing shoes are suitable for beginner climbers not used to tight and down-turned climbing shoes used by experienced climbers. However, there is a wrong conception that flat-neutral climbing shoes are mainly for beginner climbers. Experienced climbers use neutral shoes as well, especially when climbing on routes that are slabby and require smearing. Climbers also prefer flats for long multi-pitch climbs.
1 – Comfortable which enables climbers to keep the shoes on for a long duration with minimum discomfort
2 – Good on smears and suitable for slab routes and crack climbs
1 – Neutral shoes are not designed for steep overhanging climbs.
2 – Not suitable for edging on small tiny footholds
Moderate climbing shoes have a slightly down-turned profile. It is suitable for technical climbs that involve edging, crack climbing, and gradual overhanging routes. The slight down-turned design helps to taper your toes into a slightly downward position giving you more control, precision, and sensitivity on the rock face.
1 – Moderate climbing shoes have a slight down-turned design which places your toes in a better position to climb on small edges and overhanging routes
2 – More versatile as it gives climbers a mid-range model between neutral and aggressive design
1 – Not designed for very steep overhanging routes
2 – The slight down-turned design makes the shoes less comfortable compared to neutral climbing shoes
Aggressive climbing shoes have a very down-turned design. The design forces your toes and feet to bend and toes pointing downwards and taper towards the big toe. The design can be very uncomfortable but it puts the feet in a very strong position, especially on very small edges and very steep overhanging routes. Aggressive climbing shoes are not suitable for long multi-pitch climbs as it is very uncomfortable. It is most suitable for single-pitch routes or boulder problems.
1 – The extreme down-turned design keeps the climber’s feet in a strong downward position which enables climbers to climb steep overhanging routes and routes with tiny edges
2 – Suitable for hard boulder routes
1 – Aggressive climbing shoes are very uncomfortable, especially for long or multi-pitch routes
2 – Not suitable for smearing on slab routes and the down-turned design makes it uncomfortable for crack climbing
Types of closure
Slip-on climbing shoes are as the name suggests. There is no lace or Velcro. The closure system is mainly an elastic band on the top, which you can stretch open to slip your foot into the shoe. It is less secure as your feet may shift slightly in the shoe while climbing. However, it is good for training and long easy multi-pitch climbs.
Velcro strap closure climbing shoes allow climbers to control the level of tightness with the advantage of easy slip-on and off. Velcro strap closure climbing shoes are versatile and it is suitable for bouldering, sport, and multi-pitch climbing
Lace-up climbing shoes enable climbers to have more precise control when adjusting the shoes’ tightness compared to Velcro. For steep technical climbs where climbers want their shoes to be extremely tight, lace shoes are the best option as they allow climbers to crank up on the tightness to achieve a very snug fit. However, the downside of lace shoes is it’s not as easy to put on and take off.
Types of outsoles
The stiffness of the rubber plays an important role in the type of climbs you do. Shoes with stiff rubber are suitable for routes with sharp edges. Stiff rubber materials will be more resistant to wear and abrasion from the rocks hence more durable. However, for routes that require smearing or overhanging climbs softer rubbers will be more suitable as softer rubbers are “stickier” which provides a better grip.
Different brands use different rubber materials of different stiffness on their shoes. You can find out more about the rubber material used, by reading the product descriptions on the manufacturers’ website.
Shoes with thick outsole rubber have a thickness between 4 to 5 mm. Whereas thin outsole rubber is between 3 to 4 mm. Thick outsoles are suitable for edging and routes with sharp rocks. However, thick outsoles provide less sensitivity which is necessary for smears and balancey moves. Thin outsoles give climbers more sensitivity on the rock face which is important for smearing. It is also preferred for overhanging routes where climbers need to dig the tip of their toes to grab onto holds which require shoes to be more flexible.
Choosing climbing shoes is very much depending on your climbing experience and the type of climbs you do. If you just started get a neutral climbing shoe that is cheap. Get used to wearing climbing shoes and clock some mileage on easy climbs both indoor and outdoor. As you improve and progress you’ll better understand the type of shoes you’ll need. Most seasoned climbers will have a few different pairs of climbing shoes which have different outsole thicknesses, closure systems, and rubber stiffness. Always read the product specification and try out the shoes yourself especially if you have never tried the brand or model before.