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Buying Climbing Shoes -Part 2: Assessing Your Climbing Shoe Needs


Submitted by fiend on 2001-08-30 | Last Modified on 2006-11-13

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Last time we discussed the different features available on climbing shoes today. Now we're going to take a look at which of those features we need for our particular style of climbing. Rock shoes have become highly specialized for the last few years and you may be in for some trouble if you end up with a high performance sport shoe when what you needed was an all day crack shoe.

When purchasing new shoes it is important to ask yourself a few questions in order to find the shoe that is perfect for your needs. The first question is one of the most important:

What type of climbing will I mainly be doing?

Using the information below, you should be able to get a good idea of which features you want to look for when purchasing a pair of shoes.

Bouldering

Slipper or velcro closure Due to the short nature of most boulder problems you will more than likely want to remove your shoes in between problems
Unlined Sensitivity and flexibility are often very important on the powerful and technical problems encountered when bouldering
Slip-lasted Sensitivity and flexibility, better for heel hooking and steep climbing
Tapered, low profile toe box Allows you to toe in to smaller pockets and seams
Cambered last Stiffness essential for secure edging without need for stiff insoles

The Cobra by La Sportiva, is a good example of a sensitive, unlined slipper, great for short technical boulder problems.
Check out this shoe at MGear's Online Catalogue

Sport

Lace up closure Velcro or slippers also work well for sport but the lace up closure allows you to tweak your shoes performance by tightening from the toe box all the way to the top of the shoe
Unlined Sensitivity and flexibility are very useful for the gymnastic nature of most sport routes
Slip-lasted Sensitivity and flexibility, better for heel hooking and steep climbing
Tapered, low profile toe box Allows you to toe in to smaller pockets and seams
Cambered last Stiffness essential for secure edging without need for stiff insoles

The Diamond by Five.Ten has all the features needed in a sport shoe with the added advantage of being specialized for women. The narrower heel, higher arch, and lower-volume instep faithfully fit a woman's foot and of course men with narrow feet. (I have several male friends who wear this shoe)
Check out this shoe at MGear's Online Catalogue

Traditional

Lace up closure Stays secure on long routes, through many pitches
Lined Prevents stretching of the shoe material after extended use
Board lasted Stiff midsoles provide extra support and protection generally needed for the contortions necessary to jam your feet into a crack. Board-lasted shoes also perform well on vertical, or less than vertical, climbs where the footholds may be very small
Larger toe box Much more comfortable, and generally allow more effective smearing.
Semi-flexed/traditional last Provides the most comfort

The Hueco by Five.Ten is a great example of a comfortable shoe that performs well in cracks, face climbing and on slabs. Add to that a molded PU heel cushion and treaded heel and you have the added benefit of a shoe that is comfortable to walk around in.
Check out this shoe at MGear's Online Catalogue

Indoors

Basically, when climbing indoors it comes down to your preferences. Personally I like a slipper or velcro closure because I spend most of my gym time bouldering or belaying. The actual time spent on the wall is much less than outdoors and my feet need relief between climbs. The rest is a matter of preference. Stiff vs sensitive, lined vs unlined, you have to decide what feels most comfortable when pulling plastic. [page]

Size

"Trust me you want them super tight, you shouldn't even be able to stand in them"
"Make sure they're comfortable."
"What are you doing? No one wears socks in their climbing shoes!"
"You'll grow into them, get them a size up from your street shoe."

Heard any of these before? Every one has their own opinion as to how tight their shoes should be, just like every one has their own opinion as to whether pain equals pleasure or not. Personally, I'm not one for unecessary pain. When buying your first pair of shoes it is most important that they are comfortable. That's right. Comfortable, just one more opinion if you want but I have reasons, so hear me out.

You want to climb like a pro right? Like that guy at the gym who runs laps on the hardest route at your gym? Ever noticed how he winces when he puts his shoes on? It has been called the 'Cinderella Complex'; the harder a person climbs, the tighter their shoes get.
So I should get my shoes tight then? What happened to comfortable?
Hold up a sec, I'm getting to that. Here are some pros and cons for tight shoes.

Pros Cons
Heightened sensitivity on micro edges Your feet will cramp and feel like every individual bone in your foot is breaking after 30 seconds of having your shoes on
Greater performance on advanced moves such as heel hooks or bicycles
Allows you to better toe into pockets and edges on horizontal terrain

Three pros, one con. That's a pretty big con though.


This is aproximately what your foot looks like in a climbing shoe. This X-ray is actually of a woman's foot in a women's shoe but it illustrates perfectly what your foot looks like in a 'comfortable' climbing shoe. Imagine what happens when you start sizing down.

Here's what you should be asking yourself right now:
Am I going to be climbing on anything where the footholds look like toothpicks glued to the wall? Do I even know what a bicycle(when climbing) is? Can I climb upside down?
Probably not. Here's another one:
As a beginner, will I be spending a lot of time on the wall working out moves and learning new techniques?
More than likely, yes. And it's incredibly hard to focus on the climbing when your feet are screaming at you to get your shoes off. Start slow. Start comfortable. As your climbing progresses, so too will your ability to recognize that you want, and will benefit from, a tighter shoe.

Foot Shape

Everybody has a different foot shape. I personally have rather wide feet and prefer an unlined shoe which will stretch to fit my foot. I also find that certain brand names fit my foot shape better than others.
Some common foot shapes that may cause problems when fitting shoes:
  • wide feet
  • narrow feet
  • high arches
  • small heels
When trying on the shoe check for pain in either the sides of your feet or on the area directly under the laces. If there is some pain but the shoe is unlined then you should be able a half size, or more, stretch out of the shoes once they are broken in. Also check for loose spaces in the heel cup or around the arch. If your foot is sliding around at all then you may need to look at a different design such as the Five.Ten Diamond illustrated on the previous page. The key to fitting climbing shoes is not looking at what everyone else wears or matching your shoes to your chalk bag (you laugh but I witnessed a woman trying to buy shoes for her boyfriend and the only thing she was looking at was whether they matched his chalk bag or not!) The key is comfort and customized fit. With the specialization of climbing shoes currently available there is definitely a shoe out there that is perfect for your foot and climbing needs.
You just need to get out there and find it now, and hopefully I've sent you into battle a little more prepared than you were before reading this.
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