Climbing Shoes are normally the first major purchase you will make when you’re starting out, and it can be overwhelming when you see the vast range available. So here’s a little help on what to look for, and what to be wary of. If this is your very first look into the world of climbing shoes we would advise that you read our other article on rock boots first, Climbing Shoes – A Guide, as this will give you a great overview of what makes a climbing shoe a climbing shoe.
The best piece of advice for anyone about to buy their first pair of climbing shoes is to do it in a specialist climbing shop. An experienced shop assistant will know their range of boots very well, and be able to help you find the best fitting boots for your feet. Great fitting climbing shoes will make you a better climber, and badly fitting shoes will most definitely do the opposite. Working in the shop, one of the most common things I see are people coming in to buy their second pair of shoes, because they bought their first pair online and they didn’t fit. Generally things cost less online, but not if you have to buy them twice!
We have provided as much information as we can to help you buy our boot range from our web shop, but we would still recommend that you come in and see us if you can, and if not, at least give us a call and we can help you over the phone.
Leather or Synthetic?
Unless you’re a vegan, it’s really a matter of personal preference, and the best advice would be to try both types and see which feels better on your foot. The main difference between the two materials is that a leather boot will often stretch a fair bit once worn in, and as a rule synthetic boots tend to stretch less.
Many shoes these days are made from a mix of both materials, often using leather lining, and synthetic uppers. Again this is really not something you need to worry about at this stage, as long as it fits.
Lace or Velcro?
Typically lace boots can be adjusted to give a more specific fit than velcro shoes. Again this will come down to a matter of personal preference, however many people prefer velcro for the ease of taking them on and off quickly, but realistically it doesn’t take that long to do up your laces, and if a lace-up fits better than a velcro, then that should be your decision made.
It’s important to make sure that whichever closure you go for, it has room to adjust. If it’s done up as tight as it can go in the shop, then it’s likely, that once the boot has stretched a little, it will be too loose.
Climbing Shoes Stretch
Most shoes, no matter what the material, will stretch at least a little, and this is generally a good thing, as it will give you a more custom fit for your foot. As already mentioned synthetic boots stretch less than leather, and also lined boots tend to stretch less than unlined. This is where the knowledge of your salesperson will really help, as all boots are as individual as your feet.
A well fitting shoe will have as little “dead” space as possible, meaning your foot has light contact with the entire, or as much of the shoe as possible. It is important to have a good fit in the heel, with no heel lift when trying the boot on some climbing holds. It’s also important to make sure that the shoe doesn’t put too much pressure on your Achilles tendon as this will become quite painful very quickly, but if there is mild pressure this will probably diminish as the shoes wear in.
Many people still have the misconceived idea that you should buy your shoes two sizes smaller than your street shoe size. This is totally untrue and will result in you probably having to buy another pair of shoes when they become so uncomfortable that you no longer even want to go climbing.
People with very slim feet, should try a low volume shoe, often described as a women’s shoe, but this should not put men off. If the shoe fits, then that’s the most important thing, and thankfully most low volume boots are not pink with flowers on!
Your toes should be touching the end of the shoe, and very slightly curled, but not overly crunched up. A well fitting pair of shoes will not necessarily be described as comfortable, but they should not be overly uncomfortable. Any pressure points or particularly painful areas, usually mean the shoe is not for you.
Wearing rock shoes for the first time, you should expect some discomfort, and it really is very difficult for a novice to know whether the discomfort they are feeling is acceptable or not. A good rule of thumb here, is to ask yourself, before the shoes are worn in, if you would be able to wear them for 30-45 minutes without feeling the need to take them off. All shoes take between three and five sessions to properly wear in.
Most shoes are hand made in small batches and this means that there can sometimes be anomalies in sizing. If you were sure that a size 44 shoe that you’d tried before fitted the first time but doesn’t now, ask if you can try another pair in the same size, they may work for you. The sizing between different manufacturers is vast, and so the actual size of a shoe may often have very little relation to your normal shoe size.
Stiff vs Soft
Some boots are significantly stiffer than others, and yet again this will come down to your personal preference. A stiffer shoe will give you more support when edging and placing your feet on small holds. A softer shoe will work better when smearing and placing your feet on sloping holds.
When you’re just starting out, your feet won’t be as strong as they will become, and so it’s often a good idea to veer towards a stiffer shoe, that will give you a little more support.
Try before you buy
This cannot be stressed enough. Your shoes are the one piece of equipment you will buy as a climber that will have the biggest impact on your climbing, and a good fitting pair of shoes will help you become a better climber and make for a more enjoyable experience.
If you buy your boots at our Cold Mountain Kit store, we will let you take your shoes home and, as long as they look the same as they did when they left with you, you can bring them back and change them for another size or pair, and do this as many times as you like. This gives you the chance to sit around at home for a decent period of time and make sure they work for you. Any good specialist climbing shop will normally let you do the same.
Our shoes are available to buy in our online shop, but we would always recommend you come into the store. If you do buy them from us online, please make sure you read our terms and conditions for online returns very carefully before committing to buy. And please do not use your local climbing shop as an online fitting service.
Often your first pair of rock shoes won’t last as long as they should, and this is because it will take a while to refine your technique when you first start out. Try to consciously avoid dragging your foot up and down the wall to find a hold, as this will wear the rubber down quickly and you will end up with holes in the toe.
Make sure you try on as many different models as you can and remember, if it feels good on your foot, then it probably means that’s the shoe for you.
About the Author
Alex Palmer is the co-owner and founder of Cold Mountain Kit and started climbing back in 1989. He's climbed extensively throughout the UK, French Alps and has been as far afield as Yosemite, Northern Patagonia and South Africa. A total trad climbing snob.