There is something like, a billion different climbing shoes on the market right now, according to the extensive research I may, or may not have actually done. But there are certainly a lot, and we carry a pretty great array of them here at our gyms. It's hard to decide which shoes to buy, though! There's too many options, fits, and styles. Climbing shoe shopping is not like trying on shoes at Dillard's — you're not just looking for which kicks look the coolest. There are a whole host of different things climbers need from their shoes, (including looking like supah fly), so we came up with this handy guide so you can narrow down what you need from a climbing shoe, and how to know when you find it! It's like Cinderella and the glass slipper, except we'll let you stay a princess, even after midnight. Because we're cool like that.
Last shape: flat vs. aggressive: The last, or what makes up the shape of the shoe, generally determines the purpose of the shoe.
Flat: A shoe with a flatter last will be more comfortable, and better suited for climbing on vertical.
Aggressive fits —
Downturn: Just the tip of the shoe is angled downwards to create a hook, allowing you to better pull into the wall with your feet. This allows you to be more able to keep your hips into the wall, taking weight off your hands.
Camber: The overall curve of the shoe. A curved shape is stronger than a flat shape — therefore, when pushing off a hold, the camber of the shoe will help keep your feet from bending and allow for better power.
When buying a more aggressive shoe, make sure the shoe is fitted properly — or you will lose the benefits of any downturn or camber.
Symmetry profile: All climbing shoes are made with varying degrees of symmetry. Symmetrical shoes keep your feet straight, and do not pull them into any direction. This is a more comfortable style, but can be more imprecise. An asymmetrical shoe has more precision, because it pulls your toes over to help get as much of your weight over your big toe as possible, which is where you get more of your power from.
Shoe materials: What a shoe is made out of can actually affect the fit of the shoe quite a bit. A shoe made entirely out of leather will stretch quite a bit more than a shoe made of a synthetic material, which typically will not stretch that much at all. A lined leather shoe will still stretch, but not as much as an unlined leather shoe. Since they don't stretch as much, synthetic shoes are a good route to go if you want to have a more immediate idea of how the shoe will fit — but be forewarned: synthetic shoes tend to hold on to their funk much more than leather shoes, if you know what I mean. Also keep in mind that sweaty feet can also affect the stretch of a shoe — the more you sweat, the more the shoe will stretch.
What to look for in a proper fit:
How tight is too tight? There is definitely such a thing as too tight! Many rock climbers buy shoes with the idea that "smaller is better," believing that the tighter a shoe fits, the more it will perform. While there's definitely a benefit to having your shoes more snug, at a certain point, you'll stop seeing a return in performance from your downsizing. So basically — if your street shoe size is a 9, then buying a size 3 Solution will not ever make you a v13 climber. Feel free to try though, sorry bout it to your feet. While you don't want your feet screaming in pain every time you strap your shoes on, don't expect your shoes to be ultra-comfortable — many climbers will not be able to keep their shoes on in between climbs without becoming rather unhappy. You want your toes to either be slightly curled within the shoe, or pretty knuckled up if you want a more aggressive fit. Keep in mind, if you're a newer climber, you will not be able to downsize as much as someone who has been climbing for a couple years. Start off slow, then work your way up ... or down, technically. Plus, everyone has a different threshold for pain — what might work for you might be brutally painful for someone else, so it really is up to personal preference.
If your shoes are too big, your toes will lay flat within them and bend when you weight them, which leads to you improperly weighting your toes. It'll be uncomfortable, and your footwork is gonna suck. With a tighter fit, your toes will be better aligned, and you'll be able to center more of your weight over your big toe, where it's supposed to be, and your footwork will be much improved and give you much better edging power. A proper fit is very snug, with no extra space — remember, your climbing shoes are basically an extension of your foot, so you want as little as possible between you, and them. So, no extra space or baggy fabric! You want your heel to sit very snugly in the heel cup, and there to be no sliding when you walk or climb in the shoe.
Stiff shoes vs. soft shoes: A shoe with a stiffer last typically is more ideal for edging, and climbing on more vertical faces. With stiff shoes you lose some sensitivity, and you won't be able to feel the holds as much, but your feet won't fatigue as much. With softer-lasted shoes, you will be able to feel holds more, and they conform to your foot much better. Typically, soft-lasted shoes are more ideal for climbing overhanging faces.
Shoe closure systems: What shoe closure system that works best for you may depend on the volume of your foot — wide feet can usually fit more of a range of shoes and closure systems. If your feet are quite narrow, for example, you'll have a harder type making a slipper-style shoe work, because of the shoe's limited cinching abilities. With narrower feet you'll need more adjustability from your shoe, like a velcro or lace-up style. Many shoe styles nowadays are also available in a women's fit as well, which have a narrower feet, and usually a lower volume heel cup.
So we analyzed our current shoe inventory at all three of our locations, and we formulated this handy dandy shoe style guide, using science, analytics, and some magic. Take a look, see where your favorite shoe belongs, and maybe see what type of shoe is missing from your arsenal!