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Three pairs of climbing shoes on a rock. Text overlay reads: Trust the rubber. climbing shoe Guide.

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Climbing Shoe Guide

Climbing Shoe Guide

Meet 2024’s best toe rubber.

Some say modern climbing shoes are cheating. We, on the other hand, call that precise combination of a perfect fit, refined shoe technology, and excellent footwork synergy. When you’re exploring new boundaries on your climbing journey, you need a shoe that can do the most with you. This guide breaks down what we look for in climbing shoes, which ones rock the hardest in different terrain, and our footwear faves for all the moments we’re off the wall.

How We Choose Climbing Shoes

Finding that just-right climbing shoe is a journey. Even seasoned climbers who have a favorite still experiment with new pairs, always on the hunt for a shoe that’s more precise, powerful, and comfortable. Here are the factors we consider when choosing a climbing shoe.

1. Size

  • Shoe Lasts: Climbing shoe sizing isn’t an exact science. This is because each brand uses proprietary lasts to develop their shoes (a last is essentially a 3D model of a foot). As a result, shoes from different brands will fit your foot differently, even if they are the same numerical size. A positive of this system is that if you find a climbing shoe that fits you well, other shoes from the same brand will likely fit similarly. The downside is that finding the right fit first try with a new brand is tricky.

  • EU Vs. U.S. Sizing: Some brands use European sizing, while others use U.S. size ranges. A benefit of EU sizing is that it can potentially offer a more precise fit for folks who are between U.S. sizes, as 30 EU sizes cover the same range as 24 U.S. ones. Check the size chart for the shoe you’re interested in to compare your U.S. size with the recommended EU size.

  • Performance Fit: In sport climbing and bouldering, a performance fit (aka down sizing) involves the toes slightly curled and touching the ends of the toe box as well as a snug fit around the heel. This fit encourages technical footwork, enhanced sensitivity, and better power transfer, but it is not the most comfortable initially. To get a performance fit, we generally recommend sizing down from your street shoe size. How much you size down will vary from brand to brand, but a half or whole size is a good place to start.

  • Comfort Fit: In some applications like crack climbing and multi-pitch climbing, a comfortable fit benefits us more than a performance oriented one. A shoe closer to our street size allows our toes more room to wiggle and splay while placing less pressure on our heels. Even though the number may be the same as your sneakers, your climbing shoe should feel more snug—to maximize both comfort and performance, your toes should touch the ends of the shoe without curling or scrunching, and the heel should feel secure.

  • Trying On: Testing a shoe in person is the best way to find the right fit. Ask your gym if they have any shoe demos planned. These events let you test out different shoes on the wall in plenty of sizes without needing to worry about returns. You can also visit your local climbing shop or Backcountry store to try on different options in person.

  • Sizing Online: Purchasing climbing shoes online opens up a whole world of opportunities, as some specialty climbing shoes, extended sizes, and smaller brands aren’t available at brick and mortar locations. Check size charts to see how the shoe in question compares to your street size or shoes you already own. You can also review comments from other purchasers as well as the product descriptions to see if the shoe runs large, small, or true to size.

  • Talk To A Gearhead: Our Gearhead® Experts love talking gear (one of them wrote this guide!), and they’re constantly testing the latest and greatest. If you’re not sure what size to buy (or even what shoe to start with), a climbing Gearhead is here to help narrow it down. Chatting with a Gearhead is a quick way to find your fit. Just click the chat icon to start the convo.

2. High Volume Vs. Low Volume

  • Shoe volume refers to it’s width and height in relation to length. If you have high arches, large heels, or wide feet, a high volume shoe may be for you. Low volume shoes generally fit narrower feet.

  • Some shoe brands offer a full range of sizes for men’s and women’s versions of the same shoe. If you wear men’s sizes but have narrow feet, you may benefit from the women’s shoe, and vice versa. We like to think of men’s and women’s as referring to the shoe’s volume.

3. Shoe Shape

  • Profile: Some climbing shoes are perfectly flat, while others have a curved shape, mimicking a pointed foot. These profiles are broken into three categories: neutral, moderate, and aggressive. Neutral shoes are best for beginning climbers and experienced crack climbers, while aggressive shoes are ideal for sport climbers and boulderers looking for enhanced precision on tricky footholds. With a fit that prioritizes both performance and comfort, moderate shoes offer many climbers a bit of both worlds, and they’re our choice for intermediate climbers looking to progress.

  • Curvature: A symmetrical climbing shoe has a relatively straight shape from heel to toe when viewed from above. As a shoe becomes more downturned in profile, it often becomes more asymmetrical, with the big toe curving inward from the center line. In theory, this asymmetry drives power into the big toe, which can improve footwork on complex terrain. However, an extremely asymmetrical shoe is not ideal for all-day wear or some trad applications, as the resulting foot position is unnatural to maintain for long periods of time and is less conducive to foot jamming.

4. Closure Type

  • Velcro: You’ll find Velcro straps on many modern climbing shoes. Some shoes have two or three straps across the forefoot for a more customizable fit. Meanwhile, single-strap shoes typically have better rubber coverage on top of the foot for toe hooking. If you need more adjustability, you may prefer additional straps, but the closer they get to the toe of the shoe the more susceptible they are to wear and tear from the wall. We prefer this quick-adjust closure type for gym climbing, sport, and bouldering, where we put on and take off our shoes often.

  • Lace: This low-profile closure type allows you to get the most precise, custom fit. Because feet tend to swell throughout the day, shoes designed for multi-pitch and all-day wear often use laces instead of Velcro. Trad-specific shoes often have laces as well to reduce potential pressure points while jamming. And unlike Velcro, laces are easy to replace when torn, making a lace shoe one that can be resoled many times.

  • Slip-On: Some shoes have no closure at all. Moccasins can fit like a glove thanks to plenty of elastic around the top of your foot. However, elastic loses recovery over time, so that perfect fit tends to become less perfect the older the shoe gets. This type of shoe has long been favored among crack climbers, and newer, more aggressive slipper models tailor to the boulderer and sport grade-pusher.

5. Materials

  • Leather stretches and molds to your feet over time, giving you that just-right fit after you break them in. It also tends to stink less than synthetic materials. If you choose a primarily leather shoe, you’ll want them to feel small out of the box—they can stretch a half or whole size during break in.

  • Shoes made with synthetic materials will less stretch less than leather ones, making them faster to break in and easier to fit right out of the box. While they’re more likely to hold onto foot odor, there’s no loss in performance when compared to leather. This material is a top choice if you want a consistent fit right out of the box, plan to deep water solo, or prefer not to use animal products.

  • Many shoes designed for bouldering and sport climbing feature rubber on the uppers, not just on the soles. This thin layer of sticky, malleable rubber makes toe hooking easier and more comfortable. If your shoe’s toe box is mostly rubber, it won’t stretch as much, even if it’s leather.

6. Rubber

  • Soft rubber bends more when force is applied to it, allowing your foot to have more control over the shoe’s shape while you climb. These flexible, sensitive shoes can aid smears and smedges but require more energy for standing on tiny footholds than stiffer shoes.

  • Stiffer rubber supports more force without changing shape, which helps you to generate more power in the toe with less energy. These shoes are ideal for standing on tiny edges or jamming in cracks.

  • While some rubbers are labeled soft or stiff on paper, climber weight impacts how soft or stiff a shoe feels. A person that weighs 125 pounds will find a “soft” shoe stiffer than a 175-pound person wearing the same shoe. Some climbing shoe brands choose stiffer rubber for their high-volume shoes than the same low-volume shoe, so switching your shoe volume may impact how stiff the shoe feels.

7. Sole Style

  • Single sole shoes have one continuous band of rubber from heel to toe. These shoes are generally on the stiffer side, and they offer an excellent platform for your foot to find rest when edging and crack climbing. Single sole shoes are our pick for all-day adventures to prevent tired feet from holding us back.

  • On the other foot, split soles have separate sections of rubber for the toe box and heel cup, increasing the shoe’s flexibility. Split sole shoes require more active footwork than single soles, so they are preferred for short bursts of trying hard where foot fatigue won’t become a factor.

Neutral Climbing Shoes

Flat-profile climbing shoes aren’t just for first timers—though they are definitely your best bet when you’re shopping for your first pair. Flat shoes let your toes rest comfortably without scrunching, which is great for drilling beginner technique in the gym or twisting toes in foot jams.

Top Neutral Shoe

A trad climber wearing Aspect Pros edges with one foot while smearing with the other.

Black Diamond Aspect Pro

Calling Black Diamond’s latest trad shoe offering our favorite neutral climbing boot might be cheating—let us explain. The Aspect Pro has an ankle-protecting cuff, perfect for scumming for friction when things get wide. It has a stiff full-length sole that’s just as comfy smearing as it is balancing on tiny granite crystals. Fit-wise, the leather upper and lace-up combo ensure we have a perfect fit after break in. (And BTW, this shoe has full adult size range. All ye tiny footed crack climbers, rejoice!) Now for the cheating part: this shoe has a smidge of a moderate downturn. But despite a little point, it jams comfortably with the best flat slipper.

Get The Aspect Pro

Gearhead® Approved Gear

Flat profile climbing shoes for all-day wear.

Moderate Climbing Shoes

Moderate shoes are slightly downturned, giving more power and performance than flat shoes while feeling comfier than extremely aggressive shoes. Because they’re a happy medium, these workhorse climbing shoes excel in most applications, from slab smears and face edges to toeing down on moderate steeps.

Best Moderate Shoe

A boulderer climbs a pocketed overhang wearing So Ill ROAM shoes.

So Ill ROAM Soft

Easy on and easy off, this malleable yet powerful closureless slipper gets us easily up any project. Vibram XS Grip rubber wraps this unisex shoe’s unlined microsuede upper, hugging your feet in all the right places. Designed and built on a hand-shaped last, the ROAM Soft features a moderate downturn, which, combined with a split outsole encourages precision footwork on the smallest of far-away holds. (The ROAM also has a stiffer sister—look for the pink color way if you want an edging queen.) What’s especially impressive about this shoe is its snug fit, sans laces or Velcro, thanks to the three-way-stretch elastic entry stitched directly to the upper. Go ahead and throw a heel hook—this shoe holds on like the best of them.

Get The ROAM Soft

Gearhead® Approved Gear

More moderate shoes for all-around performance.

Aggressive Climbing Shoes

Aggressive shoes have extreme curvature along the sole, directing power to your forefoot. The extra downturn gives its biggest boost on overhung terrain, where the claw-like shape lets you cling to tiny far-off edges. These shoes should fit snuggly, with toes slightly curled and the heel secure.

Best Aggressive Shoe

A sport climber in Solution Comps flags hard while reaching for a crimp.

La Sportiva Solution Comp

The OG Solution was a hands down favorite, and the rebooted Comp edition made improvements where we didn’t think possible. Aggressively asymmetrical and downturned, dipped in exceptionally sticky Vibram XS Grip2, this shoe keeps our footwork both powerful and precise. A redesigned heel cup offers a better fit for most feet than the original Solution, and the Fast Lacing System lets you lock in fit with a single adjustment. The Comp offers the perfect blend of a soft, sensitive gym shoe with a stiff, powerful edging machine. For grade-pushing boulderers and sport climbers, this shoe is ready to strive for greatness with you.

Get The Women's Solution CompGet The Men's Solution Comp

Gearhead® Approved Gear

More top-tier aggressive climbing shoes.

Approach Shoes

For that rocky trek between the car and the crag, there’s approach shoes. While adventure sandals work well on short summer hikes, we put on these stiff and sticky hiking shoes when temps are chilly or there’s scrambling to be had. Our ideal approach shoe has a snug fit, with toes just approaching the end of the toe box.

Men’s Approach Shoes

More great ways to stay in touch with the terrain.

Women’s Approach Shoes

More great ways to stay in touch with the terrain.

Comfy Crag Shoes

Between a down-sized aggressive climbing shoe and stiff-as-nails approach shoe, you don’t get a lot of blissful foot comfort unless you’re going barefoot. We always appreciate some easy-on, easy-off footwear to protect soles from the rocky, gravelly ground while navigating the crag and belaying. When there’s room in our pack (or our approach offers zero technical challenges), we elect to bring a comfy option along for the day to rest our feet at the same time as our fingers.

Best Comfy Crag Shoes

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