Choosing your first pair of climbing shoes? Ready to upgrade? Brush up on profile shapes, asymmetric curvature, linings, and closure types to figure out which shoe is right for you.
Climbing shoe profiles range from a flat position to an aggressive claw-like downturn, with many models falling somewhere in between. These differences reflect the style of climbing for which they are intended. From bouldering in the gym to freeing every pitch of a Yosemite big wall, the right pair of shoes can really make a difference.
A flatter profile shape allows your foot to rest in a more natural position, providing a comfortable fit. When combined with a medium to stiff midsole, a flat profile will provide good edging ability and all-around climbing performance, which is ideal for those just getting into moderate face-climbing and multi-pitch routes. A shoe on the flatter side of things is also great for crack climbing because it keeps your foot in a flatter position allowing for easier and less painful toe-jams.
An aggressive downturn shape is easy to spot because of its claw-like profile. The aggressiveness of these shoes makes them ideal for steep and overhanging sport climbing and bouldering. When combined with good sensitivity, an aggressive downturn allows you to use your feet more like a second set of hands, grabbing and pulling on footholds instead of simply standing on them.
The asymmetric curvature of a climbing shoe can be observed when looking directly at the sole of the shoe. This curved shape ranges from a very moderate and more natural foot shape all the way to a very curved banana-like shape.
Left to Right: A small amount of asymmetric curvature, A large amount of asymmetric curvature.
Asymmetric curvature is designed to focus all of your body weight directly over the big toe, which allows you to stand on tiny footholds with confidence and precision. To a certain extent, a higher degree of curvature will result in greater performance. Keep in mind, though, that a high asymmetric curvature can cause foot discomfort, especially if you’re just getting into climbing.
If you’re looking for your first pair of shoes or need a more comfortable shoe for crack or long multi-pitch climbing, a low to moderate asymmetric curvature is the way to go. On shorter single-pitch sport routes and boulders featuring small crimps, a more aggressive asymmetric curvature will provide the best performance, but at the cost of some comfort.
Climbing shoe uppers will generally be lined or unlined. An unlined upper is typically made from leather or suede and will stretch up to a half or full size over time. When selecting the correct size in an unlined shoe, it’s important to consider the potential stretch and select a slightly smaller size. While you may experience some discomfort at first, the shoe will eventually stretch and provide a snug, custom fit. A shoe with a synthetic lining in the upper will stretch very little and maintain an out-of-the-box fit over time, which is also important to consider when selecting the correct size.
There are three basic closure types found on climbing shoes: lace-ups, hook-and-loop straps, and slippers. Lace-ups can be adjusted down the entire length of the shoe, providing the most secure and precise fit. Because of the laces, however, it takes slightly more time to take them on and off, which can be a hassle in the gym or at the boulders. While not as precise as a lace-up, hook-and-loop straps can be cinched down for a secure fit, and they make getting them on and off a quick, easy operation. Slippers have no closure system at all except for a stretchy elastic section in the upper. Slippers are generally sensitive, snug fitting, and easy to take on and off, making them an ideal choice for training and bouldering.
Left to Right: Lace-up closure, Hook-and-Loop closure, Slip-on
In general, lace-up shoes will be best on longer multi-pitch trad routes where you should already be in a flatter, less asymmetric and therefore comfortable shoe that can be kept on for long periods of time. Although most lace-up shoes feature flatter profiles and a less asymmetric curvature, there are multiple aggressive models like the La Sportiva Genius, which are designed for experienced climbers who will overlook the hassle of frequently tying and untying shoes in favor of an extremely precise fit.
For more casual climbers in the gym, at the boulders, or on a single-pitch sport route, hook-and-loop and slip-on shoes are a great option because they can quickly and easily be removed to prevent foot discomfort. Although slip-on climbing shoes are easiest to put on and take off, they shouldn’t be your first choice if you plan on climbing steep routes that may require heel hooks – a strong heel hook can peel the slipper right off your foot. Hook-and-loop shoes are great for these types of routes.
Above all else, the most important aspect of a climbing shoe is the way it fits your foot, and the way each model fits is going to vary greatly from climber to climber. Generally a well-fitted shoe will be snug, won’t have any painful pressure points or dead air space. When you find a shoe that fits your unique foot shape well and improves your climbing performance, stick with it.