It can be intimidating taking that first step out of the gym’s rental shoes and into a gear shop to pick up a pair of your very own climbing shoes. There are so many to choose from! Does the brand matter? Why are some of them curved? What’s the difference between synthetic and leather? Laces or velcro? Thankfully, we’re here to give you the answers you need to make an informed choice.
A flat shoe is a good starting point for a first pair of shoes for someone brand new to climbing, but they can also be a great option for advanced climbers looking for comfortable multi-pitch or crack climbing shoes. A flat shoe typically has a very stiff sole that offers a good amount of support, providing comfort for all levels of climbers, especially beginner climbers who have not yet had a chance to develop their foot strength. The stiff soles can also make them very good for jamming into crack systems.
These shoes are in a bit of a grey area where they aren’t aggressive enough to really perform on super hard overhung climbs but they are still capable of highly technical movement. They’re a good option for people doing harder multi-pitches who need a mixture of comfort and performance, or for slab climbing where sensitivity without extreme downturn is necessary. They’re also great as gym shoes that can be worn for extended periods without feeling like your shoes are limiting your ability to send.
Aggressive shoes are designed to be so downturned that you can almost hook onto holds and pull at them with your feet, perfect for keeping your whole body engaged on overhung routes. When you buy an aggressive shoe you’re consciously making a decision to sacrifice comfort for performance (exactly how much comfort should be sacrificed will be discussed later on). An aggressive shoe is normally quite soft, sensitive, and designed to funnel the majority of contact into the big toe area. This means that you will need a bit of foot strength but the design of the shoe is such that it makes the most out of whatever foot strength you do have. These are not shoes that can be worn for extended periods but, when you’re wearing them, you’ll feel like anything can be a good foot hold.
Lace-up shoes are good for people whose feet are “non-traditionally shaped” as they allow you to tighten and loosen the shoe with a bit more precision than a velcro or slipper system. They’re also a good option for crack climbing, as the lace is less likely to come undone when being jammed into a crack than a velcro strap might be. Their downsides are that they take longer to get on and off and the laces could potentially get in the way during a climb.
Most aggressive shoes come with a velcro strap, partly because it reduces the amount of time it takes to get the shoe off. They’re also great for climbers who get sick of tying knots all the time.
Another good option for crack climbing, slipper style shoes have a very low profile that makes them perfect for jamming into cracks. They’re often quite sensitive and soft, providing a high performance potential.
Leather shoes should be sized quite tight as they typically stretch up to a full size. If you are climbing multiple times per week you can expect your shoes to be fully stretched after about a month. Leather shoes can be either fully leather or lined leather, with lined leather having a slightly smaller stretch factor.
Synthetic shoes barely stretch at all, so you should size them with that in mind. They will break in a bit and become more comfortable as they adapt to the shape of your foot, but the tightness will remain about the same.
This is probably the area where there is the greatest disagreement between climbers. Some climbers don’t want any discomfort at all, while others are happy to have a five minute battle every time they attempt to squeeze their blister-covered-feet into their shoes. In terms of performance, a tighter shoe is going to have greater sensitivity on the rock but it’s also going to be more uncomfortable. The line where that discomfort becomes unacceptable pain is different for everyone and it’s up to you how much you’re willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of sendage. It’s important to recognise that too much pain can completely nullify the perceived advantage of a small shoe. It’s also important to recognise that there could be long-term consequences to wearing shoes that are way too small for your feet.
By far the most important thing to consider when buying a new pair of shoes is the fit. No matter how well a shoe has been reviewed, if it doesn’t fit your foot correctly, you aren’t going to enjoy wearing it and you won’t get the most out of it. An aggressive, technical shoe with a big air bubble around your heel is going to be useless for heel hooking, and a stiff, flat shoe that rubs against the knuckle of your little toe is going to be very uncomfortable. Fit is the number one thing to think about when buying a new pair of climbing shoes and that’s why it’s so important to try a shoe on before buying it.
Alongside the fit, colour and style are other factors that you will have to decide on. Do you want sleek, monochrome, sendage machines? Or do you want vibrant shoes that refuse to be ignored? At the end of the day, you need to be happy wearing the shoes that you've bought!