Buying your first pair of rock climbing shoes can be a daunting task. A quick google search will show you that there is a whole world of information available online which can be both overwhelming and inaccurate. Plus, everyone you’ve ever climbed with will want to offer you some advice based on their personal experience.
Don't buy your first pair of shoes on on the internet. Go to a decent shop, with knowledgeable staff and take your time. When you're just starting out, a good neutral to moderate, middle of the range shoe is what you should be looking for.
While all of this insight is appreciated and valued, what a new climber really needs is a thorough how-to guide to buying their first pair of climbing shoes. If that description fits you, then you’re in luck because that’s what we’re here for.
To help you find your way through the daunting trials and tribulations of buying your first pair of climbing shoes, we’ve created this detailed and informative guide. We’ll start first with some information on the different shapes of climbing shoes that are available. Then, we’ll discuss some of the different features you might look for in your climbing shoes.
Finally, we’ll take a look at how to try on climbing shoes to ensure that you get the right fit the first time around. Ultimately, our goal is to make sure that you know what to look for when searching for your first pair of shoes. Quite simply, there is no one perfect shoe for everyone - the trick is to find the pair that is right for you. That’s what we’re here for. Let’s get to it!
Climbing Shoe Shapes
Modern climbing shoes are generally classified into three categories: neutral, moderate, and aggressive. These categories refer to the shape of the shoe, which can have a drastic effect on your climbing precision and your all-day comfort. What’s the difference between the three categories, you ask? Let’s take a look:
Neutral shoes tend to be the most comfortable because they let your toes lie flat without being scrunched or pointed. These shoes are excellent for newer climbers because they allow you to get a good, solid fit without any unnecessary discomfort.
That being said, they’re also great for more experienced climbers. Particularly for those climbers who enjoy inching their way up cracks, a neutral shoe’s flat profile makes it great for foot jams.
Plus, they generally have medium-to-stiff midsoles and thick rubber which makes them ideal for even the most experienced of climbers on long multi-pitch routes. All that extra rubber also means that the shoes will last a bit longer before they need to be re-soled.
Unfortunately, their relaxed fit isn’t ideal for difficult overhanging routes. Also, that thick rubber sole, while good for the shoe’s longevity and the climber’s comfort means that they’re a bit less sensitive to the rock underfoot than a thinner sole.
Aggressive climbing shoes exist on the opposite end of the spectrum of their neutral counterparts. Instead of being nice and comfortable, aggressive shoes are designed with a big downturned shape (called camber) which pulls the toes down and places lots of tension on the heel.
This downturned shape puts the foot in a strong, powerful position for tackling difficult overhangs and steep sport routes. Most of these shoes focus power on the big toe to help climbers make precise foot placements.
Plus, these shoes tend to have stickier, higher quality rubber and thinner soles than neutral shoes, which gives you a better grip and sense of the rock underneath your feet. However, this rubber needs to be re-soled more frequently.
While the downturned shape is great for power and performance, as you might imagine, it’s not terribly comfortable for all-day wear. Thus, these shoes are best for single-pitch routes at the crag or the gym rather than on multi-pitch climbs.
Moderate shoes combine the best of neutral and aggressive shoes into a middle-of-the spectrum hybrid. Instead of being flat and cosy like a neutral shoe or snug and downturned like an aggressive shoe, moderates have just a slight amount of camber.
This slight downturn makes moderate shoes great for daily technical climbing on slabs, cracks, long multi-pitch and mildly overhung sport routes. On the spectrum of comfort and rubber stickiness, moderate shoes fall right between their neutral and aggressive counterparts, as you might expect.
Moderate shoes are great all-purpose boots for your daily climbing needs. They’re great for climbers looking for one shoe that can perform decently in a variety of settings. If you’re on a budget or simply don’t want to own 5 different pairs of shoes, a pair of moderates might be a safe bet.
Climbing Shoe Features
Now that you know about the different climbing shoe shapes, let’s discuss some of the other features you might find in your first pair of climbing shoes.
Climbing shoes tend to have one of three different closure systems - either lace-up, velcro, or slip-on - each of which has its own pros and cons.
Lace-up shoes offer the maximum amount of versatility when it comes to getting the perfect fit. They let you tighten the laces at the toes for a difficult pitch or loosen the laces up for a bit of respite at a belay stance. But, they take more time to put on and take off, which can be annoying for trading belays at the gym or crag.
Velcro shoes also allow for some measure of versatility but are limited in their ability to get the perfect fit. However, that easy on-off system means they’re great for bouldering and gym climbing where you just want to take them off in between climbs.
Slip-on shoes, however, have the least amount of adjustability. They just slip on and off (like slippers) and are great for gym climbing and bouldering. Slippers are incredibly comfortable and the soft sole means that your feet will get stronger over time. However, slippers are not the best for performance and precision as they don’t wrap very tightly around your feet.
Climbing shoes are made with either leather or synthetic uppers. While it may seem like a small detail, the upper material on a shoe can make a big difference.
Leather uppers tend to stretch naturally with use, up to a full size. They are durable and easy to clean and care for. However, the stretch factor can make it difficult to size these shoes. We’ll discuss this more a bit later in this post.
Leather shoes can also be lined with some sort of synthetic, which can reduce stretch to just a half of a size. Some shoe companies only line the toe area, however, so the shoe could stretch in unexpected places.
On the other hand, shoes made of synthetic materials tend to be vegetarian and vegan-friendly. Plus, they don’t stretch very much and feel softer and more comfortable with use. Some synthetic shoes have even been designed to breathe and wick for maximum performance.
All climbing shoes use some sort of rubber in the outsole, which allows you to get maximum purchase on the rock. Since the rubber is the part of the shoe that touches the rock, you can imagine that it’s quite an important part of your climbing shoe.
Many climbing shoes use a variety of different Vibram rubbers, which are known for their durability and precision. Other companies use their own proprietary rubber, which reduces costs and saves you money in the long-run.
Five Ten is one shoe company that makes its own rubber, which is known to be some of the best in the world. The Five Ten Stealth rubber, in particular, provides some of the best friction around. However, this stickiness tends to wear out quickly, so you’ll need to re-sole your shoes more frequently.
How to Try on and Select Climbing Shoes
Once you’ve learned the ins- and outs- of climbing shoes and narrowed your search down to a handful of pairs, it’s time to try them on. The number one best way to try on a pair of shoes is to go to a reputable speciality shop, like your local climbing gear store.
However, while we hope that the employees at these stores are experts in their fields, the advice from a high-end boulderer who can do pinky pull-ups in their sleep might not be helpful for a new climber looking for their first pair of shoes.
Instead, you want to know what to look for before you go into the shop so you can decide if a pair actually fits you well. At the end of the day, you are the one trying the shoes on and you are the only one who can tell if they fit just right.
don’t trust people who suggest that you significantly undersize your first pair of shoes.
So, what do you look for? For starters, prioritize comfort. While tighter climbing shoes can increase performance, this doesn’t really matter until you hit the higher grades. Plus, if your shoes are so uncomfortable that you don’t want to wear them, you’re less likely to get excited about going climbing, which is counterproductive to say the least.
Therefore, don’t trust people who suggest that you significantly undersize your first pair of shoes. These people are offering decent advice for advanced climbers, but this advice isn’t very helpful for someone looking for their first pair of shoes. Snug is good, but shoes that are so tight that they’re painful just simply aren’t. But, keep in mind that some shoes, particularly leather shoes will stretch - up to a full size. So, if you do get leather shoes consider sizing just a wee bit down.
That being said, the one thing that’s nearly ubiquitous amongst new climbers is that they almost always size their first pair of climbing shoes to be much too big. This is because newer climbers look for a fit as if they were street shoes, not climbing shoes.
With climbing shoes, you want a fit that is comfortable enough to wear on a 20-30 minute climb. You don’t want to be crying by the end of the route, but you certainly shouldn’t expect to wear your shoes all day without taking them off - these aren’t walking shoes, they’re performance climbing footwear.
Basically, you want shoes that have no dead space between the toes and the end of the shoe. You also want a snug fit around the heel and no painful bunching of your toes. Although everyone’s feet bend slightly differently, if a shoe is incredibly difficult to get on your foot, it’s probably too small.
It’s best to try on shoes at the end of the day, as your feet will naturally swell a bit from standing and walking. Then, when you’re trying your shoes on and you think you’ve found the perfect pair, keep them on for about 20 minutes.
If the shop has a small climbing wall or a board with some foot chips, test out the shoes, how they edge and smear, and how balanced you feel. Do your feet scream for you to take them off? Or does it feel like your feet have just met their new best friends?
Also, it’s worth asking about the store’s climbing shoe return policy, however, most places will not accept returns on used shoes. Thus, it’s important to get this right the first time around.
One more piece of advice, though - don’t drop lots of money on your first pair of shoes. You’ll likely wear through the sole, rand or the upper very quickly as you work on developing your technique. As a new climber, you won’t really benefit from the technology in powerful, aggressive, and expensive shoes.
Rather, prioritize comfort and the proper fit over everything else. A solid pair of neutral or moderate shoes that fit well can help you develop the footwork you need to take advantage of the designs of a more aggressive or technologically advanced shoe.