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How to Pick Rock Climbing Shoes: Choosing the Right Pair For You

Updated on May 18, 2013

Rock climbing shoes aren’t cheap, and choosing the right shoe out of the multitudes of styles, brands, and models can be daunting. But don’t fret; there are several simple ways to narrow down your search dramatically.

Find a Rock Climbing Shoe that Fits Your Style

No, I’m not suggesting that you look for a leopard or camouflage print shoe that matches the rest of your wardrobe. The shape of the shoe should compliment your style and ability level.

Climbers who are new to the sport and don’t yet have a specific climbing goal should begin with a comfortable, versatile shoe. These shoes are also appropriate for trad climbers who require a shoe which can be worn for extended periods of time climbing multiple pitches. As climbers move into higher and harder grades in more specific disciplines, a more specialized shoe and a tighter fit is required.

Fitting a Versatile, All Around Climbing Shoe

Look for a shoe with a

  • flat toe (as opposed to a down turned toe for aggressive bouldering and overhangs),
  • a relaxed heel,
  • and a thick rubber sole.

These should fit the foot snugly; there should be no pain, but absolutely no room for the foot to move within the shoe. The toes, the biggest toe especially, should be touching the front of the shoe, or even slightly curled. The shoe should cup the heel snugly as well, and not allow any movement up or down.

Fitting Aggressive Sport Climbing and Bouldering Shoes

More aggressive shoes should fit even more snugly, and the toes should be curled (but not completely rolled over) to provide more strength and drive off of a smaller area of the shoe. Many sport climbing shoes, and especially bouldering shoes, have a

  • deeper heel cup to allow for more solid heel hooks
  • and a cambered, or down turned, pointed toe to pull in on overhanging routes and place precisely into pockets.

Because these shoes are uncomfortable to wear while standing on flat ground, climbers usually take them off between climbs.

Find a Shoe that Fits the Shape of Your Foot

I have a particularly hard foot to fit into a rock climbing shoe because I have Morton’s Toe (my second toe is longer than my big toe), and my left foot is half a size to a full size (depending on who is measuring) smaller than my right. The only company I know of that will split sizes is Evolve, and they charge extra for the service.

Asymmetrical, Semi-Symmetrical, and Symmetrical Toe Boxes

Many aggressive sport and bouldering shoes have an asymmetrical toe box shape (with the point over the big toe) because it places the weight of the climber’s body onto the strongest toe. However, this is impractical for people like me because I either have too much room in the point of the shoe or my smaller toes are curled completely over, which is very painful. For this reason there are semi-symmetrical and symmetrical toe boxes.

Women’s Vs. Men’s Shoes

There are men’s, women’s, unisex, and children’s shoes, but don’t limit yourself to a men’s or unisex shoe if you are a man, or vice versa. Buy the shoes that provide you with the best possible fit. Many men with low volume or narrow feet use women’s shoes because a women’s shoe is generally narrower with a smaller tow box and skinnier heel. Though I am a woman, I tend to fit better in men’s shoes, which have a larger toe box.

Laces Vs. Velcro

Personally I prefer velcro shoes because I can make the shoe tighter, and take them off faster. However, some people prefer laces because you can control how tight the shoe is in certain areas of the foot.


Find the Right Material

Climbing shoes can be leather or synthetic, which is a significant factor in fitting a climbing shoe. An unlined leather shoe can stretch up to a full size, and a lined leather shoe can still stretch up to a half size larger. A shoe made from synthetic material will become more comfortable as it is broken in, but will not usually stretch significantly in size. However, if you have smelly feet like me, leather is a better option because it doesn’t absorb as much sweat, but be aware that the dye (usually the color red) in an unlined leather shoe will dye your feet!

Each brand of shoe has a slightly different formula for the rubber, and some are better than others. A nice sticky, solid rubber is the best, but chances are you won’t notice much of a difference unless you climb at a pretty high level.

Always Try on Your Shoes

It may be tempting to buy your shoes online, but unless you already know the exact size and model you want, resist the urge. Take the time to go to an actual store and try on multiple styles and sizes of shoes. It’s also worth the time to travel to a store with a climbing wall so that you can really try your shoes out and see how they fit when force is applied to them. If you find a perfect size and model then it might be worth it to shop around online, but unless you are buying second hand or have a special online deal, the prices seem to be comparable.

*Some of the higher end aggressive sport shoes aren't available in most stores because there isn't a wide enough market for them. In this case, you might just have to make sure that you can return the product and make an educated guess.

Good luck finding the perfect shoe!


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    • sgiguere profile image

      Stephanie Giguere 5 years ago from Marlborough MA

      Thanks for the positive comments everyone!

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Great detail! I have a pair of women's Katanas and I love them, but I've used several other shoes in the past. Voted up and useful.

    • ESPeck1919 profile image

      ESPeck1919 5 years ago from Minneapolis, MN

      Very interesting hub! I had no idea that there were so many kinds of rock climbing shoes. If hubby and I ever decide to encorporate rock climbing into our hiking trips, I'll refer back to this hub!

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      Very informative and well-researched. I also have Morton's Toe, and have found sports shoes by New Balance to be the best.

    • sgiguere profile image

      Stephanie Giguere 5 years ago from Marlborough MA


    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 5 years ago

      Who knew! This is a great informative hub which tells me everything I have to know about rock climbing shoes.