A short guide to Climbing Shoes and the history and jargon behind them.
A Brief History
The pioneering climbers at the beginning of the last century wore large, leather mountaineering boots and would hammer hobnails and metal studs into the soles to give them better purchase on the rock. In the 1930s, an Italian, Vitale Bramani invented what is thought to be the first “rubber lug sole” for shoes; it was called a Vibram Sole, and he used these to replace the normal mountaineering boot’s leather sole.
By the late 1940s a new generation of rock climbers were really pushing the boundaries and climbing increasingly difficult routes. Climbers like Joe Brown, started to wear rubber plimsolls, and would sometimes put woollen socks over them to improve their grip. During the 1950s, French climber, Pierre Allain, went a step further, and introduced hard composite, rubber soled canvas boots that became known as “PA” boots, and were used by climbers all over the world.
During the 1960s and 1970s an explosion in hard, technical rock climbing, led to another Frenchman, Eduard Bourdineau, introducing his “EB” boots, and these had much softer rubber soles, and became massively popular.
Then in 1975, Jesus Garcia Lopez founded the company Boreal, and along with Miguel Angel Garcia Gallego, began to experiment with the first “sticky rubber” rock shoes. Their very first climbing shoe was named “El Capitan”. They continued testing and creating prototypes, throughout the 1970s, and then, in 1980, Jesus (not the son of God) created the prototype of a boot that he named “Fire”. After testing it in Spain, on the route “Mallo Fire”, the Gallego brothers took it to Yosemite and climbed the first non-American route up El Capitan, “Mediterraneo”.
With Jesus’ “Fire”, Boreal had essentially invented the first “sticky rubbered” Rock Boot.
Modern Climbing Shoes
A visit to any good climbing shop will show that we now have a vast array of very specialised Climbing Shoes that cover all disciplines of climbing, from “all day” comfortable to super “down turned” technical shoes. As with everything modern, it can be very confusing to stand and listen to a sales assistant, waxing lyrical, about the various advantages of this midsole over that one, and how amazingly the rand meets the outsole, and on and on. It’s only a matter of minutes before your eyes glaze over and you start to think about what you’re having for dinner later.
However, a little understanding of all this technical jargon can actually help you make sense of why a shoe is good, and also what type of shoe you want, for the kind of climbing you do. After all, a good pair of climbing shoes are one of the very few pieces of equipment that will actually improve your climbing, almost everything else is designed to save your life and keep you safe.
Climbing shoes are built around a three-dimensional form, known as a last, and it’s this that largely determines the fit. Traditionally lasts are modelled on the shape of a relaxed foot, but increasingly, lasts take the shape of an active, pointed foot.
Rock Boots are either “Slip Lasted” or “Board Lasted”.
Board lasting uses a stiff and supportive insole as a platform (the “board”) and plants the last on top of that. The upper is then formed around the “board” and the last. This technique creates a boot that is generally more supportive and comfortable.
Board lasting is rarely used these days, as it is time consuming and very expensive. There are still a handful of climbing shoes made in this way, such as the classic, Boreal Ace, but for the most part other ways have been found to stiffen up shoes.
Slip lasting, takes the shoe’s upper and constructs it in a rough, sock-like shape and then slips it over the last to create its form, and only then is the midsole and rubber added. This technique delivers greater sensitivity and flexibility to the shoe.
Slip lasting is how almost all climbing shoes* are now made, and differences in stiffness are mostly achieved in the construction of the midsole.
Some lasts are flat, while others are downturned or cambered. Buy forcing your toes to point downwards, a downturned last focuses the shoes power onto your toes. A cambered last creates a shape that curves up from your heel, up through your arch and then back down through your toe. This causes a spring-loaded effect, giving you even more power in the toe box.
The last of a shoe also dictates how asymmetrical your shoe is, or not. An asymmetrical last shape, will follow the true anatomical perimeter of your foot, where as a more symmetrical last shape, can force your toes towards the middle of the toe box. Typically, downturned and cambered lasts are more asymmetrical than a flatter last, and can also take a lot more getting used to.
This is situated between the sticky rubber sole and the inner sole. There is a massive variation in how these are made. Some midsoles are hardened leather sheets that run the entire length of the shoe, and some are lens-shaped composites, less than a millimetre thick, that only reinforce the toe box of the shoe.
A stiff midsole can create a slip lasted shoe that is as stiff as a traditional board lasted shoe. Many more technical shoes utilise a cupped or curved midsole under the toe area to focus more power on the toes, and reinforce the toe box.
Once the shoe has been slip lasted the midsole is what, increasingly, creates the true character of a shoe.
The upper has traditionally always been made from leather, but many manufacturers are now using synthetic materials for greater consistency and less stretch. However many would argue that, the stretch you get from a leather upper is what really gives you a custom fit, and once worn in a leather shoe should feel like its been tailor made for you.
Many modern rock shoes also now use more rubber on their uppers, to reduce stretch and help reinforce the shoe in certain areas. Manufacturers will often use a mix of synthetic and leather to try and gain the benefits from both materials.
Some boots are lined and others are not. Typically a lined shoe will stretch far less than an unlined shoe. Lining can also help to retain the structure and shape of technical shoes, preventing downturned and cambered boots from collapsing.
Unlined shoes can stretch up to a whole size, and this can be great if you’re looking for that custom fit. An unlined boot will also have greater sensitivity, allowing you to feel the rock you’re climbing.
The material used to line shoes varies greatly, from natural products to synthetic or canvas materials. Anyone who has owned a pair of climbing shoes will know how badly they can smell and this is caused by bacteria building up inside the shoe. Synthetic shoes tend to smell worse than leather, but increasingly manufacturers are looking to use anti-microbial-treated fabrics to help to prevent this.
Laces, Velcro and Slipper Closures
Laces have traditionally been the most popular closure system, but more recently Velcro fastenings are starting to become the norm. A lace-up shoe will give you the best fine-tune fit possible, and is really the best option for those starting out, as they can tighten up the shoe as they get more used to wearing climbing shoes.
Velcro boots are getting better and better, and many now use three or even four fastenings, sometimes opposing them, to give a more secure fit. The big advantages of these shoes is that you can take them on and off very quickly, and many people find this convenient.
Slippers use various different types of stretch fabrics, that allow you to slip in and out of them without laces or velcro. They are often much softer and more sensitive than lace or velcro shoes, but usually require a very strong foot to make them work well.
The Toe Box and Heel Box
The toe box of a shoe is generally the most important part of your climbing shoe, and the most used. As we’ve already mentioned their characteristics are usually determined by the stiffness and shape of the midsole. Some manufacturers create a space on the top of the shoe to allow for your toe knuckles to be seriously bent, such as the “Love Bump” on an Evolv Shaman, meaning a less uncomfortable fit in very technical shoes.
The heel box of a climbing shoe is also very important. For those who like to heel hook, some shoes have a very aggressive heel, which will often have extra, grooved rubber in order to aid grip. It is very important that there is tension between the heel and toe box of a shoe, as this helps to focus the power of your whole foot towards the toe box.
In the early days of high friction rubber on climbing shoes, it was definitely the case that some kinds of rubber were better than others. These days, however, there really is very little difference between rubbers, and what will give the boot its real power will be the rest of its construction.
The thickness of the sole will vary slightly between models, it’s often around 4mm thick, but can be one or two mm thicker or thinner, depending on the type and size of the shoe.
The sizing of climbing shoes, varies greatly between brand, model and even two pairs of the same size and model. Most climbing shoes are still hand made in very small batches, and as such are subject to anomalies in size. The size is really just there as a guide for you to know where to start, when trying new shoes on.
How To Buy
Having read through all of that technical information, you will need to try all the different styles and types mentioned to actually understand how they feel on your feet.
There are really no hard and fast rules about what type of boot you should or shouldn’t buy, but remember, Chris Sharma may well be able to climb extraordinary problems in a pair of Evolv Shaman, but if they aren’t right for your foot shape, then they really won’t help you.
Many people still believe that unless you’re wearing a very expensive, technical shoe, you will be unable to attain those upper grades that all climbers aspire to. This is just not true, and the best shoes for you will be the ones that fit the best.
Another myth is that you need to be wearing shoes that are two sizes to small, and if they don’t cause dramatic pain then you’re not a real climber. Rubbish! The only thing a pair of ridiculously uncomfortable shoes will do is make you not want to climb. So if that shop assistant is insisting that you need to do this, go somewhere else.
Your boot should hug your foot, with as little “dead space” or pockets of air as possible. They should feel tight, but not overly painful. As already mentioned, most climbing shoes will stretch a little, and some up to a whole size. Your specialist climbing shop will be able to advise you on the characteristics of the shoe in question. Most good climbing shops will allow you to take the shoes home and wear them around the house for a bit, to see if they feel right, and then change them for a different size or model, should there be an issue. Lastly, make sure you try on as many different climbing boots as possible, to allow for plenty of comparison between styles, lining, material etc .
We’ve written a detailed article: Beginner – Buying Your First Pair of Climbing Shoes, specifically aimed at people buying their first pair of climbing shoes. This will have additional and more specific information about how to tell whether a climbing shoe fits your foot or not. If you’re in any doubt, please contact us, we’re always here to help you with this stuff.
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.