How to Buy Your First Climbing Shoe

Buying a climbing shoe for the first time can be a confusing process. If you’ve never worn climbing shoes before, or if your only experience is with rental shoes, you’re going to be a little overwhelmed by the options available. Many climbing shoes can be expensive, and if you get the wrong shoe you may just end up hating to wear them, and if you hate wearing them you might hate climbing. And that’s just not gonna fly with me, because climbing is awesome and you should do it all the time.

Where should I buy my shoes?
Now, first let’s start out with something really, really basic. Get thee hence to an actual, physical retail store that specializes in climbing equipment. What you want is lots of options, because the more shoes you try on, the better the chance is that one will fit. There is nothing better than having a real shoe expert help you try on lots of different shoes at once. “But I live in the midwest and there are no stores near me for a mabillion miles and the closest one only carries three shoes!”, you whine, because if you’re here reading this article you’re probably an online shopper. Ok, that’s fine. Maybe your local gym has a climbing shoe demo, or a sales rep might have samples for you to try out. Do whatever you can to put the shoes on your feet. If you absolutely have to buy the shoes sight unseen, please realize you are completely, 100%, at best making an educated guess. ‘Cause here’s the thing:  at no point in the history of the manufacturing of climbing shoes did all the manufacturers sit down with each other and say “hey, let’s make this easy for our customers and make our sizing consistent”. You can NOT take the size you wear in one brand and wear the same size in another, nor will you fit every shoe that a certain company makes.

So if you’re going to buy them online, do this: call up the online retailer or the manufacturer and ask them what they recommend if you wear a certain street shoe size.  If you know your Brannock-Device-measured foot size, that’s the best info to have.  Then, order that size, a half size up, and a half size down. Return the ones that don’t fit. If your budget won’t allow you to buy all three at once, buy a half size smaller, and return it if you need something bigger. The odds of you getting it 100% right the first time are pretty good for a beginner shoe, but if you are looking for really technical advanced shoes, this method may take a while, even if you have overnight shipping.   I can probably fit 90% of the beginner shoes on the market just fine, but once it gets into really radically downturned and aggressive shoes I fit like 3 models out of  dozens available, and despite what former girlfriends have said my feet aren’t THAT weird.

What shoes should you buy?
Ok, now that we’ve established that, it’s time to start narrowing down your choices. Please resist any temptation to buy a shoe because your friend uses the same model, because your favorite half-naked climbing idol uses that brand, or god-forbid because you think the shoe looks cool or cute. I can’t count the number of times I’ve fit shoes to some 19 year old airhead sorority girl being dragged into climbing by her neckless boyfriend who bought uncomfortable shoes because they were the cutest. Don’t be that person. And if you are that person, sorry I just called you an airhead. Technically you were the one who made that connection, so maybe you should share some of the blame here, because you also thought your boyfriend may not actually have a neck. I digress.

You may have the temptation to go out and buy the BEST climbing shoe you can afford, and while I love your enthusiasm, let me help try to re-define what is actually the best. When you first start out climbing, your footwork is going to be pretty sloppy, and you are going to be harder on your shoes, especially on the sides of the shoe call the rand. Durability is your friend. Your feet have never done this sort of thing before, so your feet aren’t going to be very strong, so having some support from the shoe in the form of a stiffer midsole is not a bad idea. Unless you’ve previously engaged in foot-binding, en-pointe ballet, or some other forms of foot torture, you’re concept of what’s comfortable in a rock shoe is probably not the same as someone who climbs very hard climbs. Comfort is your friend. Now, that $170 pair that’s named after an Italian supercar may have the potential right now to go out and climb 5.14, but you don’t, and you won’t for a while, and honestly, you’ll be fine with a shoe made for beginners. If you really get into climbing and start climbing harder climbs that demand a more advanced shoe, you can get one then, and on days where you’re not climbing particularly hard routes you’ll have a comfy pair to wear.  The BEST climbing shoe you can afford, right now, is what fits you best, what feels the most comfortable, and that will allow you to wear them for an hour at a time without discomfort.  Or buy the expensive shoe anyway because we’re in a recession, dammit, and we need people out there spending!

Does it matter if you’re climbing outdoors or indoors?
Yes, and no.  If you’re going to be doing a lot of bouldering outdoors, then I’ll put you in the same category as someone buying shoes for climbing indoors.  If you’re starting on top-ropes outdoor climbs, most of the stuff that is in the 5.5-5.9 range of routes outdoors are usually slabby to vertical.  For this sort of thing, a basic lace-up shoe like the Mad Rock Phoenix/BansheeEvolv Defy Lace, or Five Ten Coyote Lace are great options.  Lace-up shoes allow for a wide range of fit, and are usually my recommendation for people that prefer the control of a lacing system, or who are climbing mostly toprope problems, either indoors or outdoors.

If you’re bouldering, or climbing steep routes indoors, I tend to push people towards hook-and-loop closure systems.   Because they don’t lace all the way down to the toe, it’s more important that you fit these types of shoes tightly, and they tend to be a bit softer, both of which are an advantage on steeper climbs.  Bouldering forces you into using more aggressive footwork and even the easiest boulder problems tend to be harder than many beginner full-size routes.  Shoes like the Mad Rock Drifter, Evolv Defy, LaSportiva Tarantula, orFive Ten Coyote VCS are great in this category.  If you want a little bit more performance you can go up to shoes like the Mad Rock Flash 2.0, LaSportiva Katana, or Evolv Bandit, but I wouldn’t get anything much more aggressive than those for a first shoe.

I avoid recommending slippers for beginners.

Do I need a women’s specific shoe if I’m a woman?
I’m going to buck the trend here and say not necessarily.  Women tend to have higher arches, narrower feet, lower-volume feet, and tend to prefer smaller heels.  However, the good Lord saw fit to make many women with flat feet, wide feet, high volume feet, and big heels.   And the platypus.  Likewise many men have narrow, low volume feet ,  high arches and tiny heels.  Feel free to ignore the gender of your shoe.  Literally nobody cares.  It’s almost 2013, people, cross-dressing is totally acceptable.  At least in the blue states.

How should the shoe fit?
For advanced climbers, they may only be able to stand the tightness of their shoes for 20 minutes at a time, and for advanced climbers I suggest fitting shoes so tight that you can no longer curl your toes away from the front of the shoe.  For beginners, I simply say, try on successively smaller sizes until you don’t want to go down any more in size.  Your own comfort level can dictate how small you want to go.  If you’re blacking out from the pain they’re too tight, or they’re just a bad fit.  If there’s wiggle room in the toes it’s not tight enough, oryou should look at other models.

Your toes should be at the front of the shoe, slightly curled but not pinched, and there should be no loose or excessively wrinkled or baggy material anywhere in the shoe.  If you want to keep these shoes as your comfy shoes later on, and you are thinking of resoling them when they wear out, you’re going to have to factor in the stretch of the shoe.  Synthetic fabrics will not stretch much or at all.  Lined leather tends to stretch a half a size, and unlined leather stretches about a size, but can continue stretching beyond that.  If you can stand to wear the smaller size, in a few dozen days of climbing in them they’ll have stretched out to the comfier fit.  If you want to accelerate this period, put on your rock shoes, get them wet (maybe in the shower, or run in a puddle or something) and wear them until they are dry.  Watch a good movie, preferably one that doesn’t make you think about feet all the time.  Avoid Tarantino.  He has a thing for feet.  (Don’t do this unless you’ve downsized properly, or you’ll end up with shoes that are too loose.)

Good luck and go forth with knowledge!

By Hans Schneider