With so many options, brands, styles, features, and price ranges (not to mention the anatomy of your foot), it can be quite a task selecting a climbing shoe, especially if you are just getting into climbing. There many variables when purchasing a shoe, but, for the purposes of this write-up, we will be concentrating on the type of fit to consider when making a purchase. In subsequent write-ups, we will delve into other variables in more detail.
You may have heard the following about climbing shoes: They are supposed to be painful; The tighter the shoe the better; The more aggressive the shoe, the better you will climb. At AntiGravity Equipment, it’s our opinion that none of those statements is 100% true.
While there are scenarios in which a tighter shoe will be what you require and, there may come a time in your climbing career where an aggressive pair of shoes is what will work better for a particular route, generally, a solid technique will help you progress in just about any pair of climbing shoes. If you’ve ever seen seasoned climbers get on a route in sneakers, what keeps them on the wall is technique.
If technique is so important, what should you consider when buying a pair of climbing shoes?
Climbing Shoes Are Like Tools
It’s helpful to think of climbing shoes as tools. You need certain tools for certain jobs. Most dedicated climbers will often have two or more pairs of shoes in their arsenal and will wear them according to what they’re going to be climbing, such as a bouldery, technical route versus a slab multi-pitch. The shape of the shoe is a factor in what to choose when, but so is the fit.
When it comes to fit, we can break it down into 3 categories, comfortable, performance, and competition style. Each fit has its intended purpose and can sometimes cross over into other applications, but the shoe will generally work best when used for what it was fitted for.
A comfortable fit is one where your toes are flat and touching the end of the shoe or just slightly curled back (if you can handle it). This type of fit will be useful if:
- the majority of the routes you are getting on tend to have big holds for your feet (i.e. you don’t need much precision or edging capabilities from your shoe);
- you are just starting to climb;
- crack climbing, where you’ll be wedging your feet into the rock and you won’t want the knuckles of your toes aggressively pressing into the sides of the crack;
- long climbing sessions or several easy vertical pitches in succession (multi-pitches), where you’ll be wearing the shoes for an extended period of time;
- less than vertical routes (slabs) that require maximum friction (where you want a large area of the shoe to be on the rock).
Performance Fit - Intermediate Climbing
A performance fit will be tighter and, depending on your climbing goals, you may be looking at a different style of shoe all together. If you are selecting the same style shoe for a performance fit, a half size down is a good place to start. If you’re looking at a different model and/or brand, don’t be surprised if there is a weird change in size. Each company’s sizing may differ from one another - even within different models of the same brand.
Generally a performance fit will have your toes curled back a good bit, which may cause some discomfort, but, if the shoe shape is right for your foot, it should be tolerable. The tightness in this type of fit, in combination with good technique, should give you more confidence when practicing precise footwork on smaller foot holds, particularly when using the edges (edging) and front of your shoes (front pointing). When using this type of fit, it’s not uncommon to have to take your shoes off every once in awhile. Keep in mind, the shoes should be removed even as you grow accustomed to the tightness to prevent over stretching (particularly in unlined leather shoes).
Competition Fit - Advanced Climbing
The last type of fit is competition style. Most people that use this type of fit already know how to select their shoe, but we’ll go over the details here to recognize if you're being fitted incorrectly.
This type of fit is one that is suitable for very hard, technical boulder problems and routes often seen on high caliber climbers during competitions or when working projects where they might encounter micro edges or tiny rock crystals on which to stand. A competition style fit is the tightest you can handle and still be able to climb. These tend to be quite uncomfortable and will most likely come off your feet as soon as your climbing attempt is completed.
The biggest error when selecting climbing shoes is to go too small too fast, especially when taking advice from friends and, sometimes even, professionals. The best thing you can do is to assess where you are in your climbing and what you want to get out of your shoes. This can help you formulate questions to ask online, over the phone, or at your local shop and decide if what they suggest is right for you. Your local shop employee should take the time to ask you a variety of questions regarding your climbing level and goals and offer you some appropriate choices. Be cautious if someone is trying to fit you into the tightest or most expensive model right off the bat without asking any questions.